The Case for Female Political Empowerment, and Leadership in the Democratic Republic of the Congo
A brief discussion
By Gianmarco Piccolo Re
North and south Kivu, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), 2013
At 4 am in a dismal and dirty pit, seven thousand miles away from the golden lights, the glitz, the glitter, and the black tarred highways of the developed world a ten year old boy is digging dark red earth out of an open pit mine, a massive sore on the once green landscape of this beautiful country. He is hungry, thirsty, tired and terrified yet he keeps on digging out the valuable red earth and shovels it into the waiting wheelbarrows of the other adolescent miners waiting nearby. He knows that if he were to stop working, despite his bone deep exhaustion, the consequences for not only himself but his entire family would be dire. The hard eyes of the foreign soldiers guarding them, full of the promise of pain and degradation, these men who look like him and speak the same language as him and his fellow workers seem to possess a hatred of them which borders on insanity. So he keeps on digging out the valuable red earth, he keeps on digging not for the meager scraps of food that they are provided to keep them energized enough to continue working, nor out of any sense of work ethic or pride that this work inspires. No, he keeps on digging in the hope that as long as the hard eyes of these savage soldiers from a neighboring land are upon him and his fellow workers there is a chance that they will not stray to the village where their mothers, aunts and sisters are held hostage to their good behavior. But these foreign soldiers are like animals and despite all his hard work and all his best efforts he knows that tonight when he returns to his village he will once again have to comfort some female member of his family, who has become another victim of rape perpetrated by these soldiers and perhaps he will have to wipe the tears of someone else’s mother as she laments the abduction of her young son to swell the ranks of these barbaric conquerors. And as he shovels the valuable red earth into the wheelbarrow he cannot help but wonder what his people did to merit such torment? When his shift ends several hours after sunset and he is being escorted home through the forest by the foreign soldiers who salute the blue helmeted U.N. soldiers lounging in their white armored vehicles, he wonders where were the U.N. soldiers and the stalwart nations of the developed world when his nine year old sister was raped last week?
It seems incredulous that in this globally interconnected world, where information is free and easily accessible thanks to the Internet that such atrocities as this, so reminiscent of the rubber slavery of the colonial era still continue to occur every day in a nation that by virtue of its mineral unlimited mineral wealth should be one of the richest on this planet. Yet the developed nations who normally act as global law enforcers have chosen to turn a blind eye to the suffering of an entire nation the size of Western Europe. And these atrocities are not secret; they have been well-documented and exposed and are not hidden by a well-oiled and efficient state machinery such as the Nazi regime, which managed for almost two decades to hide their own hideous atrocities. The world at large is well aware of what is going in the DRC but simply chooses to do nothing about it. U.N. Peacekeepers have been deployed here in order to protect the population from the deprivations of these foreign soldiers yet at the same time they are given conflicting orders which instruct them to under no circumstances engage these soldiers in battle, despite their continued acts of violence against the population. The global hunger for the minerals of DRC and the technological growth that they feed continues unabated and as long as the raw materials for progress keep flowing, it seems that the technocrats of the developed world are willing to ignore the fact that since 1998 over five million civilians have died, most of them women and children, in a conflict that rages on in the name of unparalleled greed and moral turpitude. What difference does it make to them that every day in North and South Kivu over forty women are raped?
The history of the Democratic Republic of the Congo is one of darkness, despair, brutality, hope and determination. From its inception as a the personal territory of King Leopold of Belgium, a shocking real estate deal brokered by the famous explorer Henry Morton Stanley in which the entire contents of this territory became the personal property of the King of the Belgians, including the inhabitants. The king quickly demonstrated his belief in his divine right of ownership over the “savages” of this nation by instituting the now infamous rubber slavery policies, which entire villages were held hostage while their able bodied family members were forced to go into the forest and tap the milky sap from the wild rubber vines growing there. If they did not meet the quota assigned to their village, then villagers would be scourged, burned and the hands and feet of young children were cut off in an effort to “inspire” the villages to greater efforts. But just as now, technology drove these policies as the global need for rubber increased exponentially with the burgeoning automobile industry and it was not until many decades later that enough of an outcry was raised against Leopold’s policies for other developed nations to finally put a stop to it. So where are those outraged voices now in 2013?
At present, the government of the DRC is at best a travesty, a bait and switch operation designed to keep the population ignorant of the fact that this huge nation is in reality a proxy for the Rwandan leadership and all decisions regarding its government are being decided in Kigali and not in Kinshasa, the capital of the DRC and the seat of Congolese government. The Rwandan leadership in Kigali has implemented a deliberate policy to foment continued conflict in the region in order to bleed the natural resources of the DRC and funnel them toward the development of a Greater Rwandan Nation. The construction boom and robust economy of the tiny neighboring nation are fuel by the rape of the DRC and when one considers the fact Rwanda has no Coltan deposits, how is it that all Congolese Coltan must be transported to Kigali to be certified, the only way that this valuable mineral of which 80% of the world’s deposits reside in the DRC, a mineral which is needed for everything from transistors, chips, cell phones and missile system, can actually be sold? When one looks at the well-financed black-uniformed soldiers of the presidential guard (GSSP), the majority of which are imported Rwanda soldiers, and how they are given broad police and military powers beyond their mandate to protect the president, the fact that they have a carte blanche to do as they please while the Congolese national army remains ill-trained, ill-equipped, and seldom paid. It is a recipe for disaster that the leadership in Kigali and their allies are well aware of.
When one strolls through the market places of the DRC or if one pays attention to the ratio between the sexes with regards to those trading in the market places which are the lifeblood of the DRC, it becomes evident that the majority of the people who are selling in the marketplace are actually women. They are not selling things for their husbands, or simply acting as shopkeepers for the men who bring in the products for sale, instead it is the women themselves who completely dominate the economics of everyday Congolese life through their strength, intelligence, skill, business acumen, and determination. Congolese families are fed, educated and nurtured through their remarkable work and despite the deplorable conditions that many families find themselves in, somehow Congolese women manage to keep them afloat. It is they who make sure the over-worked and under-paid soldiers of the national army are fed and it is they who pay for the sometimes outrageous school fees for their children and purchase medication for family members when they fall ill. Without the bedrock of their efforts the DRC would have long imploded. So why is it so difficult for the men in Congolese leadership to see the strength of Congolese women and harness it on the national level for the good of the entire nation? Traditionally speaking Congolese society is not paternalistic; that is a Western import a consequence of colonialization, and traditionally speaking Congolese women have been equally responsible as queens and chiefs for guiding and leading the many tribes which make up this nation. Such colonial ideas have no place in Africa and they have damaged the whole continent in ways that will be very difficult to overcome. In Yoruba cosmology the Goddess Nana Buukun introduces the concept of Thought into Ashe, the formless matter that existed before creation and it is this introduction which transforms Ashe into Oludumare, the Creator and One God. Judging from the mythology of the Yoruba people, clearly the feminine has as much potency as the male in African traditional culture.
There are of course no ready solutions for a problem that has become so ingrained through a century of brutal conquest by colonial powers and their cultural indoctrination of the African continent, but this does not mean there is no hope. There is a generation of Congolese who are crying for change and are reexamining their cultural roots in an effort to find a solution that is in harmony with their traditional culture, without sacrificing the benefits of technological advancement and integrating some of the more positive ideas of the developed world, including the idea that female politicians can and indeed have proven effective elsewhere in Africa and that they can and do make a positive and dramatic change. The first female president of an African nation, President Helen Sirleaf Johnson of Liberia has demonstrated this with great success. She inherited a war-torn nation in its death throes, racked by ethnic divisions, rape, child abductions and corruption all driven much like the DRC by a desire to control its mineral wealth and in her decade of power she has transformed it into a stable, peaceful, nation with a booming economy, a beacon of hope for all of Africa and a chastisement for those of the old guard who say women cannot lead in Africa. Similarly in Malawi President Joyce Banda is proving her leadership skills with great success and in the DRC despite what the leadership in Kinshasa would have the world believe, there is a dearth of talented women politicians in the DRC who not only have the talent, the skill and the drive to lead but have already paid their political dues. Female leaders such as Justine Mpoyo Kasavubu, the daughter of the first Congolese president who has negotiated the rough political seas of the DRC for many years, Catherine Nzuzi wa Mbombo, whose political party MPR posted excellent results at the last presidential elections, the politically savvy Madame Landu, and finally the formidable and indomitable Iyombe Botumbe Akerele, president of the Congres Lokole party which was created in 1992 to oppose Mobutu Seseseko in the 1996 elections before the civil war began and who is the granddaughter of the king of the Basengle people from the central of the Congo. And though none of these women hold political office in the DRC at present, they continue to use their considerable skills to aid the people of the nation. Justine Mpoyo Kasavubu provides free clothing for the many orphans and destitute caused by the war, while Catherine Nzuzi wa Mbombo provides free food for families which would otherwise starve. Madame Landu provides a free legal services for those who could not otherwise afford it and Iyombe Botumbe Akerele, by implementing the old adage “give a man a fish, and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime,” has used her own personal wealth to finance not only microloans to small local businesses all over the DRC but by also building industries that create sustainable employment using indigenous foods and materials, such as corn and cassava which are ground in locally run mills, fish farming and transportation. None of these women need to take the grave risks they undertake by challenging the status quo; they could live comfortable lives both overseas and in the DRC because of the considerable personal fortunes that they have amassed using their extraordinary business skills and intelligence, but instead have chosen to take those talents and place them at the service of their fellow Congolese in order to do their part in fulfilling a grand vision of what the DRC should be and not what it has unfortunately become. If both Houses of the Congolese Congress were even marginally representative of the power and potential of Congolese women then the DRC would now be an economically and fiscally sound nation and a regional powerhouse.
The cycle of kleptocracy, pillage and marginalization in the DRC will continue as long as the population continues to allow themselves to be ruled by tin can dictators and their greedy cabinets of old men who do not want the status quo to change, even if it means progress for all Congolese people. If the DRC is to move forward and take its rightful place as one of Africa’s leading nations, the women of the DRC must become empowered and much more politically involved if this nation will ever be able to pull itself out of this fifty year vortex of chaos. In African families, traditionally men women have distinct roles to play but that by no means is indicative of a sexist division of labor. Instead, it involves a deep commitment and understanding of the fact that each sex has a different approach to life’s many challenges and that sometimes the methods of one parent are more effective than the other with respect to these different challenges. It is the duty of the parents to acknowledge this and make the necessary adjustments so that there exists a peace and harmony within the household as all these challenges are met and overcome using the perspective of both parents. In the case of the DRC, which throughout its turbulent history has been ruled by a succession of paternalistic leaders calling themselves “the Fathers of the Nation,” this delicate balance has come apart with the disastrous effects that we continue to see every day there. It is time us males put aside our egos and the colonial mantle of paternalistic views and once again turn to our other parent for a solution, for despite what these foolish leaders would have the world believe it is the women of the DRC who for all these years have managed to keep the nation solvent.