"Africa is, indeed, coming into fashion." - Horace Walpole (1774)


death in the congo

Yesterday the IRC released its latest mortality survey for the Democratic Republic of Congo. They do a survey every 2-3 years; the methodology is as sound as it can be given the circumstances, and these surveys are widely acknowledged as the best estimate of how many people have died as a result of Congo's wars.

I read the survey on the way home last night. I'm used to this stuff - it's what I do every day - but even I couldn't take the new finding that 5.4 million people have died as a result of the country's ongoing conflicts since 1998. Deaths continue at a rate of 45,000 per month. The mortality rate is 2.6 out of every 1,000 - 85% higher than the norm for sub-Saharan Africa.

5.4 million people is the population of Colorado. It's also the population of Denmark. Imagine what it would be like if every single resident of those places died within ten years.

The old number we worked off of was 3-4 million. That was bad enough.

The sad part is that these deaths are categorized as "excess deaths" - deaths that wouldn't have happened if it weren't for the wars and the ongoing insecurity. But here's the thing: the baseline for determining what an "excess death" is is not what it would be in Austin, Texas or Washington, DC or Nashville. Instead, they use the standard accepted mortality rate for sub-Saharan Africa, because this takes into account the fact that lots more people die when you live in a place that has inadequate health care, nutrition, sanitation, and clean water. So the 5.4 million who have died from this conflict is ON TOP of who knows how many millions who wouldn't have died if they'd been born in a luckier place on the other side of the world.

What makes it even sadder is something we already knew: most of these deaths (about 90%) are not the result of violence. The hundreds of thousands of women who are violently raped, those shot or hacked to death by the militias - they're a small percentage of the total number. Instead they're caused by things like diarrhea, malaria, and malnutrition that were exacerbated by the insecurity. When your already substandard health care system completely falls apart or rebels ransack your local clinic, suddenly your children die for no good reason at all. If your hometown is too insecure to ensure that your anti-retroviral drug treatment can be monitored, the donors won't fund a program to treat your HIV/AIDS.

I can't process death on this scale. It's like talking about the Holocaust, only there is no Hitler. The causes are so complex and so many are to blame that it's virtually impossible to fix. My heart hurts to know that so many innocent people have suffered so much for such low stakes.

And the stakes are low. Some people will tell you that the Congo wars are about power, or about minerals, or about what happens when nobody governs. All of these things are true. There's no question in my mind that my desire for a nice laptop and a good cell phone and a flat screen tv is highly likely to help fuel the Congo conflict - that coltan has to come from somewhere.

Sam has an essay today about intentional poverty, choosing to live simply so that you can help others with the money you would have spent on yourself. It is, I think, the only right response to the massive inequalities that plague our world. Jesus said a lot about how we treat the poor. He didn't say anything about us needing the latest and best of everything.

I don't think my comfort is worth 5.4 million lives.


Blogger euphrony said...

Read this story, and felt the same way about how so many of these deaths are from disease, etc. and not violence. And I, too, cannot process the numbers.

Sara Groves, on her newest album, has a song called "Abstraction". It is based on a story from Mark Helprin's book, A Solider of the Great War, about a man named Alessandro who fought in Italy during World War I. Talking about the loss of just one life Alessandro says, "We're too weak to feel the full import of such a loss . . . It would take more than anyone could give to understand the life of one other person . . . you cannot know anything but the smallest part of the love, regret, excitement, and melancholy of one (life) ... And Two? And Three? At two you have entered the realm of abstraction . . ." Very true.

In other news, I see that Americans United for Change are planning on spending $8.5 million this year to make sure people don't like Bush. Uh, the man is leaving office in less than a year and history will not record him as one of the great presidents no matter what comes this year. How far could $8.5 million go in Africa? Dig 8000 clean water wells. Provide who knows how much medicine. Or how far could it go here in the U.S.? How people will act in spite amazes me.

Thursday, January 24, 2008 10:54:00 AM


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