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A Party to Raise Consciousness About the Congo's Suffering

You never know what breakfast will bring.

A chance conversation with a server at The Egg and I in Minneapolis ended up opening my eyes to a rarely discussed but horrific political and humanitarian disaster on the African continent—and reminding me of just how resourceful, passionate, and compassionate Twin Citians can be.

Server Kristin Howatt is well known to my wife and her friends, current and former graphic designers who’ve been getting together for years on Friday mornings at The Egg and I. A couple of Fridays ago I came along to what they’ve dubbed “Graphics Breakfast.” After Kristin brought us our eggs, she lingered at our table to chat for a few moments, and happened to mention that she and her husband would soon be hosting a fundraiser for a Washington, DC-based organization called Friends of the Congo.

I was intrigued. One of the areas The Line tries to cover is “social entrepreneurship” —a fancy term for innovative, usually smaller-scale, philanthropy. It’s thriving in our towns, and there’s particular energy around outreach to African countries, as we noted in an article in October of 2012. In that piece, writer Julie Kendrick looked at several local grassroots aid and educational projects that were started on a shoestring. Now here were Kristin and her husband, Clayton, a general contractor, opening their Saint Paul home for a potluck, hoping to raise a few thousand bucks for the Congo. I knew I wanted to attend and share the story with The Line readers.

What I didn’t know, and learned as soon as I showed up at the gathering, was just how awful the ongoing violence in the Democratic Republic of Congo is. Since 1996, warfare, land-grabbing, and murder sparked by multiple invasions has claimed, by many accounts, about six million lives--the Holocaust number. And apart from scattered headlines now and again, this carnage goes unreported and largely unresponded-to by what we are pleased to call the international community.

The Congo's Suffering

The party was well under way when I arrived at the Howatts’ house—it’s a boxy former corner store that the couple are turning, stage by stage, into an eco-dwelling. After sampling some delicious pulled pork and taco salad, I found Kristin amid the all-ages gathering, and she quickly introduced me to the evening’s guest of honor, Kambale Musavuli, a charismatic young Friends of the Congo spokesperson, in from DC. Kambale wasted no time in laying out for me the organization’s passionate view of the Congo’s current dilemma.

After about 80 years of brutal Belgian colonial rule, the Congo attained independence in 1960, but was immediately plunged into a maelstrom of global power politics. The country’s first prime minister, the left-leaning Patrice Lumumba, was assassinated in a plot in which the CIA was complicit. Decades of grotesque dictatorship under the megalomaniacal US cold-war ally Mobutu Sese Seko followed. Then, with the fall of the Soviet Union, Mobutu became unnecessary (and an embarrassment) to his big-power sponsors, and internal opposition drove him into exile.

In 1996 the current conflict began as a spillover from the Hutu-led anti-Tutsi genocide in Rwanda. Following that horrible episode, a Tutsi government took over and sent troops into Congo to pursue and kill Hutu refugees in an indiscriminate act of revenge. Since then, Rwandan and Ugandan troops, along with militias supported and armed by both governments, have made Congo a killing field. But more than bad blood is involved: the immense mineral wealth of the country—including cobalt, gold, diamonds, copper, and coltan, used to manufacture capacitors found in most cell phones and tablets--has led to savage land-grabs by these invaders and others. Six million deaths, nearly half of them children, and countless rapes have brutalized an entire nation for a generation.

Not Charity, Justice

“We always claim that the Congo doesn’t need charity; the Congo needs justice,” said Kambale. “Plenty of people are giving humanitarian support, but this has not ended the war. We say that the justice element is this—the United States has to change its policy toward the Congo.”

Why? Because, he said, the United States is supporting the countries who have de-stabilized the Congo—Rwanda and Uganda. “Many UN reports state that Rwanda and Uganda are arming and training the groups causing mayhem in the Congo. Why isn’t the US doing something? Because Rwanda and Uganda are US allies in the war on terror. There are Ugandan troops in Iraq and Afghanistan; Rwandan troops in Haiti and Darfur. Given that these countries are our allies around the world, we are not willing to hold them accountable for the massacres in the Congo.”

An Unimplemented Law

Friends of the Congo carries out social justice work in the Congo and informational work and lobbying outside the country. They are particularly keen to call attention to Public Law 109456, a measure sponsored by then-Senator Barack Obama and colleagues like Hillary Clinton and John Kerry and passed by the US Congress in 2006. “It says that the Secretary of State has the power to withhold aid to any nation destabilizing the Congo,” Kambale explained. “George Bush did not enforce it. Now Obama is president—and he wrote that law. We want to hold him accountable for enforcing it.”

Kambale praised the Howatts for their commitment. “I tell people in the Congo that there are people in Saint Paul, in the middle of America, who have created a yearly event raising support for you and engaging the community here,” he said. “When they hear that, what does that do? It gives them hope. It gives them the strength to say, if they are standing with us, then we can stand.” Friends of the Congo supports other events around the country and the world as well, including an annual, international Congo Week, October 20-26 this year.

"Just a Little Party"

I caught up with Kristin the day after the party to get a little background from her. Long interested in Africa (she took a trip to Senegal in 1995), and concerned about the lack of attention to the Congo in the media and elsewhere, she educated herself on the country’s dilemmas and she and Clayton committed themselves to contributing a yearly sum to Friends of the Congo, one of the best-run nonprofits she investigated—and one that was actually run by Congolese.

“But then we decided that we could raise more money by throwing a party and asking everybody to give 25 dollars,” said Kristin. “The first year, 2008, we had some friends over and raised about $1,500 at what was just a little party. We were so excited.”

The 2009 event was more of a challenge because the couple had a newborn daughter. “But we felt it was more important than ever because of what’s happening to girls in the Congo,” Kristin said. “And we just kept doing it after that. Last night was a smaller turnout than usual, but we’ve had checks coming in all day today, and I think we’re going to end up pretty close to five thousand dollars. Which is pretty awesome for—you saw it—a little house party.”

Yes, it is awesome, and people like the Howatts share in that awesomeness. Twin Citians with a conscience, determined to keep a window open on the sufferings of a faraway place that, thanks to them, suddenly seems a lot closer.

Jon Spayde is Managing Editor of The Line.
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