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



My research in the DRC is about social services, which means that when I'm here, I spend a lot of time in church offices. Religious groups run almost all of what's left of the DRC's education and health care systems, and they do a lot of work in democracy promotion, child protection, reintegration of former combatants, and other sectors. Every major religious organization has a bureau de coordination at which you can find various bishops, coordinators, counselors, secretaries, pastors, and assistants who are in charge of all these programs.

Friday, I found myself at the office of one church in Butembo. I met with the appropriate authorities, gathered statistics on the number of schools and hospitals and clinics they run, and got ready to leave. As I stood up to go, they said, "You need to greet our bishop." And so we went to greet the bishop, who not only speaks English, but who proceeded to tell me that the day prior, on a long drive through the mountains, he had prayed to ask, "Who will come and help us?" And he looked at me and said, "And now you have come. And you must be our voice. You must be our ambassador, to tell the world about our lives here." He used the word "sauti," Swahili for "voice."

And then the bishop blessed me and I left.

They didn't cover this in graduate school. How people will pin their hopes, their belief that one day things will get better on a foreigner simply because of the fact that you are there. How do you tell a brilliant and kind man that it is not your job to be the sauti for the Congolese, that he is a far better voice for this place and these people than I could ever be?

I can't be the sauti for the eastern Congo. But here is what I can tell you: there are churches in a medium-sized city in North Kivu. They run hospitals, clinics, and most of the schools. Life is very difficult in this city; most of the population are desperately poor, there are urban IDP's and former child soldiers everywhere, and the state is weak. But there are schools, and they open their doors day after day, year after year, so that children can be educated. There are health centers, where only basic medications are available, but there are nurses who care, doctors who make miracles happen without the right equipment, and specialists who nurse dying children back to health. And there is a bishop who wants you to know that this work exists.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Your very actions to aid and assist the people of the DRC and your efforts to educate students and ispire them to give a damn make you a powerful voice. Not only a voice for the DRC but a voice of compassion and understanding. If only more would go to Africa not just to observe, quantify and calculate but also to take up the challenge to voice what is in thier hearts the world would be a better place.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010 7:34:00 AM

Anonymous Rebecca said...

Beautifully said!

Tuesday, July 13, 2010 11:33:00 AM

Blogger Chris Waluk said...

I remember reading a post of yours years ago, something like tips for to traveling in Africa. There were many tips on things like dealing with diarrhea, but I don't recall anything like this post, which I think is far more important than any of those other tips. I'm assuming that it's inevitable for mzungu's to have a "sauti" experience in rural Africa, as it seemed to happen to me everywhere I went in Uganda. Because I'm a teacher, I had actually collected the notes children would hand to me so that I could post them back in my American classroom as some sort of symbol of how fortunate we are to get a free education. Sadly, the notes were destroyed by rain during my travels. The kids just hand you notes, but the adults will verbally express their great hope in you; especially the community leaders. That was years ago, but I still feel guilt from the way I handled those situations. I would smile and say thanks, and sometimes even pass along the notion that I would do my best to help them.

Ughh, the point being that I was not at all prepared for my "sauti" moments and in hindsight I hate the way I handled it. Thank you for this post. I think the next time I talk to somebody traveling to Africa for the first time, I will use this "sauti" story in hopes that they will be more prepared than I was.

But don't discount the Bishop's words entirely. You are a professor, popular blogger and future author. As much as you realize your limitations, you do have a platform that the Bishop does not. Perhaps it's not entirely fair, but you do have a voice, and it does hold value.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010 3:20:00 PM

Anonymous Marianne said...

Here's how I see it - the voice can't be transferred but I can help provide platforms for that voice, those voices.

I can never be spokesperson for my friends in rural Afghanistan, but I hope that in my book I can give them a platform for their voices.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010 3:42:00 PM

Anonymous wachumi said...

Sauti nzuri sana. As a dear friend likes to say,"you go as you know and you know as you go".Ubarikiwe!

Wednesday, July 14, 2010 4:40:00 AM


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