When did you last think about Congo? For those of a certain generation it probably reminds you of Um Bongo, the super-sweet fruit drink with the catchy jingle. Or as the setting for Conrad’s ‘Heart of Darkness’, a controversial book which paints a picture of a savage country. Or maybe it conjures up images of river and rainforest, those endless tracts of unspoilt wilderness brought to us by nature documentaries.
This week is Congo Week, celebrating its huge potential. And it is also commemorating all who have died in repeated episodes of conflict and exploitation, from colonial times until the present day. Congo is the source of some of the world’s most in-demand natural resources from the coltan in our phones to the diamonds on so many fingers.
At this point it is worth noting that there are two Congos. The Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) is the size of Western Europe, stretching two thirds of the way across Africa from the Atlantic to the borders of Rwanda, Burundi, Uganda and Tanzania. The Republic of Congo is a much smaller country, its capital, Brazzaville, facing its neighbours´, Kinshasa, across the Congo, the world’s second-largest river.
There is so much to say about the repeated exploitation of DRC’s people and resources and the lack of interest from the international community. Since the Rwanda genocide, recriminations have flown at a snail’s pace, with high estimates suggesting that a million people died. This conflict spilled over into DRC, where by 2008 more than five times this number had been killed, and the fighting has not yet ended. When did you last read about this in the news?
The complexities of DRC, arguably the world’s poorest country, have led to a huge lack of properly trained medical personnel. DRC has some of the world’s highest rates of maternal and infant mortality, with 1 in 7 Congolese children dying before they reach their fifth birthday. This is why Wonder Foundation decided to work with a nursing school in Kinshasa, which is not in conflict, but where many displaced Congolese have moved.
Florence Nightingale, who laid the foundations of professional nursing, came to prominence in a conflict, Crimea, where recent events were deemed newsworthy. Nightingale wrote:
“Live your life while you have it. Life is a splendid gift. There is nothing small in it.”
And this is the other side of training a nurse: you are giving a young woman the chance to develop her talents not only for the service of others, but for her own personal growth. A good education is never simply about imparting knowledge and techniques, but about giving the student the opportunity to learn how to think critically, to make decisions and to be a leader. A good education allows a woman to live her life, because it provides opportunities. Education brings light – it is the opposite of the ‘Heart of Darkness’. Opportunity brings hope. Life is a splendid gift.
This Congo Week I do not expect all of DRC’s problems to be overcome: the political situation, the end of exploitation in mines, or the end of violence, although I share those dreams with the heroic Congolese who are campaigning for these. I cannot hope that, overnight, the roads will be fixed or that no one will be hungry or that every child will reach their fifth birthday. What I do hope is that we recognise that there is nothing small in a Congolese life, that the life of a child in Congo is seen as being as precious as that of a newborn in Britain or Belgium. I hope that women in Congo who are affected by physical and sexual violence can see the same solidarity as every woman writing #metoo. Indeed, in this area perhaps we can learn from Congolese women – Liberian Nobel Prize winner, Leymah Gbowee, said that in DRC, “there’s a serious and strong solidarity among the women”. And I hope that international solidarity translates into real action, from governments and individuals, leading to change and investment in schools, job creation and healthcare. A trained nurse in DRC can save 600 lives each year and we can show solidarity through supporting her.