Fighting the Forgotten War: Students' Activism for the Congo
Kambale Musavuli isn't your average student.
For one, he's not attached to his cell phone. In the first few days of trying to reach him for this article, the only response I received was the following recorded message: "Did you know that Congo has anywhere from 64-80% of the world's reserve of Coltan, a natural resource that is central to the operation of our cell phones?"
This is pretty typical for Kambale. He never misses an opportunity to inform, to educate, and to Break the Silence. For those convinced Generation Y is marked by apathy and a lack of political awareness,this engineering student at North Carolina A&T State University stands as a shining example to the contrary. Kambale is currently the Student Coordinator and Spokesperson for Friends of the Congo, a DC-based advocacy organization. But what really sets this young man apart is an undying commitment to give a voice to the voiceless. Through his activism, he has helped draw attention to one of the most tragic and sadly, one of the most overlooked conflicts of our time.
The International Rescue Committee reports that the war in the Congo has claimed nearly 6 million lives and left millions of others displaced since 1998. Yet it has struggled to compete for space in newspaper headlines and in the public consciousness. For someone who has experienced firsthand the devastation wrought by the deadliest conflict of the past 50 years, this silence is unacceptable.
Kambale was born in the Democratic Republic of Congo, and came to the United States in 1998 as a refugee. He tells me, "I came to the U.S., August 10th 1998. The war began August 2nd." Rebel forces were right outside the capital city of Kinshasa when he and his family left, and they couldn't have left any sooner. Given these extraordinary circumstances, it would have been forgivable, perhaps even understandable, for a young man to try and forget. However, Kambale notes that even through his two years of high school in the United States, he was constantly active.
Ironically, his first experience with activism was not for the Congo but for the conflict in Sudan. Today, Kambale would be the first to remind you that the total reported death toll at the height of the Darfur conflict is equivalent to that in the Congo every six-and-a-half months. Kambale didn't engage in activism for the Congo even as president of the African Students Association, so as to avoid accusations of pursuing a personal cause. It wasn't until a chance meeting with Friends of the Congo that he found both access to much needed resources, and a platform to Break the Silence surrounding the tragedy in his home country.
He fondly recalls the moment when it all started. He was watching a student-made documentary on the Congo, and one of the women interviewed in the film made a simple yet profound statement: "We should boycott…put down the cell phones!" Just like that, an idea was born.
Musavuli and a few friends decided to survey the student population in Greensboro to find out if students, once educated, would be willing to turn off their phones for a day in support of the Congo. The answer was a resounding "yes," and on March 26th 2008, students at NC A&T orchestrated the first-ever "Cell Out for the Congo." Over 5,000 students on Facebook were invited to turn their phones off for the day and change their voicemails to a message, like the one above, explaining the reason and the cause.
Due to intense interest and the extensive outreach he and others conducted, Kambale is confident that at least 10,000 people worldwide took part in this event. Naturally, many participating students wondered, "What next?" With his contacts at Friends of the Congo, Kambale was encouraged to develop a week-long series of events to raise awareness on the Congo, which could be recognized on campuses in the nation, and this developed into the first Congo Week. Little did he know that his modest attempt to raise awareness on the plight of his home country would develop into the movement it is today. Last year, 150 schools in 35 countries participated in Congo Week.
The popularity of Congo Week, if nothing else, shows that activism amongst young people from all walks of life is far from dead. Fifth graders at Kipp DC: Will Academy, an elementary school in Washington, DC, raised $800 in donations for the Congo in a single day after viewing a presentation on the situation, while students at Osaka University in Japan hired a public relations firm to help advertise their Cell Out for the Congo. Young people around the world are remembering a conflict the rest of the world has largely forgotten. The popularity of Congo Week is also a revelation of how the conflict affects us all. Kambale notes that it's no surprise Congo Week found such massive support in Japan. As he explains, "The material for the nuclear weapons used in Hiroshima and Nagasaki came from the Congo yet students at Osaka University today participated in Congo Week by organizing a Congo photo exhibit."
Congo Week will take place this year from October 18th to October 24th, and Kambale encourages all of us to help him Break The Silence. In the meantime, he has been busy with the BTS speaking tour and the Broadway opening of the Lynn Nottage play Ruined, which is set in the Congo. Just last week, someone gave him the crazy idea that this year, he should try to get people to mail their cell phones to the White House, with an enclosed letter bringing attention to the plight of the Congo.
Surely today's youth wouldn't send off our valuable cell phones. Or would we?
© 2009 Foreign Policy In Focus