Refugee Turned Student Activist Addresses Conflict in the Congo

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Congolese student activist Kambale Musavuli spoke at last week’s freshmen seminar, “A Season in the Congo,” an effort to break the silence surrounding the conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo, which has taken nearly six million lives since 1996. The talk was part of a Congo Week organized by the seminar to raise awareness on campus and also included a showing of the Congolese film “Life is Rosy” and a drum circle in Harney Plaza.

Violence and impunity have become the norm in the region as Western companies, Congolese rebels, and neighboring Rwandan and Ugandan militaries scramble across the Congo in search of mineral wealth and logging opportunities. At the top of their list is coltan, an ore necessary in the production of most modern electronics, from cell phones to laptops. Musavuli argues this El Dorado, like quest for riches, is fueling conflict in his country and its effects are radiating throughout Africa.

“Africa cannot develop with the Congo in a state of conflict,” Musavuli told the assembly. He stressed the African country’s intrinsic importance to the continent and the destabilizing effect the extraction of resources and the accompanying political oppression is having on the nation.

Musavuli came to the United States in 1998 as a refugee from the Congo and has since been engaged with stopping the conflict in his country, joining up with Friends of the Congo in the process. Musavuli is currently part of a campus tour as a spokesperson and student coordinator for the organization in addition to producing a weekly podcast on the situation in the Congo and bringing media attention to the conflict.

“I still don’t think the conflict is complex if you have the proper framework to understand it, if you know what to do to stop it. To stop the conflict, we must stop resource exploitation by finding out who is exporting what,” Musavuli said.

Paper trail after paper trail has led Congo activists to the United States, where a large portion of the profit being reaped from the violence in the Congo comes to roost. Kemet and HC Starck mine in the Congo, only to sell their product to American corporations like Apple and Bayer. As a result, conflict minerals—i.e. those which are obtained by force and do not financially benefit the DRC as a country—end up in Macbooks and aspirin bottles throughout the United States.

“The aspirations of the Congolese—all those things are taken away because people want to pick up rocks and put them in cell phones. And at the end of the day, there is no amount of humanitarian aid that will change the situation in the Congo. It’s the Congolese on the ground who will change the situation, but your help, active participation of people around the world, can accelerate it,” he said.

Students from “A Season in the Congo” are engaging in this process of acceleration by educating their peers on the sources and possible solutions for the conflict.

Nikki Riley, a student in the seminar and one of the organizers, is confident that learning about the conflict will move people to action. “Besides simply raising awareness, we also wanted to instill in the USF community a sense of hope for the Congo, and I think Kambale’s talk really achieved that,” Riley said. “We didn’t want to just feed the USF community all the harsh realities about what’s going on there, but we wanted them to gain a sense of hope that things can change with action.”

Lara Sidhu, another seminar participant, said “We hope that Kambale’s talk inspired people to keep learning about the Congo, and showed them that they can make a change.” Sidhu is also the organizer of what has been USF’s second Congo Week for 2009-2010, inspired by her involvement in the seminar and Musavuli’s talk.

“In class we have talked about creating a Friends Of The Congo branch here on campus to continue bringing awareness and hope to our fellow students and faculty. I would love to one day go with a group of classmates to the DRC to help out in any way possible and to see the beauty the country holds,” she said.

Activists and students in countries across the globe are answering the Congolese call to break the silence but there’s no doubt the task can prove difficult. Oliver Kearns, a third year International Relations student at the University of St Andrews in Scotland, is active in the struggle to shed light on the conflict in the Congo.

“I think there’s a widespread myth that after the Cold War Africa was abandoned by the rest of the world, that the major Western powers no longer had any use for them,” he said. For Kearns, the conflict is largely ignored as a result, making the task of exposing its magnitude all the more trying.

“This myth of an isolated Africa also means progressive activists just don’t consider the Congo relevant to their political struggles. The conflict’s seen only as an ‘African problem’ or a ‘humanitarian crisis’. This is how you end up with a conflict that’s been literally 1000 times more deadly than the Israel-Palestine conflict getting 1000th of the attention, even though the West is equally implicated in both,” Kearns said.

Musavuli echoed this sentiment, pointing out that the 5 permanent members of the UN security council, the organization many look to for a solution to the troubles in the Congo, are all players in the conflict themselves. As a result, only the symptoms of war are treated with efforts like MONUC, the UN Mission in the DRC, and do not address resource exploitation as a root cause of conflict.

But for the young student activist, having the odds stacked against him is no reason to waver in his hope for the Congo. Musavuli said, “I’ve been inviting everyone to visit the Congo on July 13, 2031. That’s my 50th birthday; I know the Congo will be free, I know there will be peace.”

For more on the conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo, as well as suggestions for what you can do please visit www.friendsofthecongo.org.

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