|Student activist focuses on Congo|
GREENSBORO -- The running joke about Kambale Musavuli is that he will talk to anybody about his native Congo. And the 27-year-old college student can link anything back to his homeland. Say Musavuli meets a guy who writes poetry. "You could write a poem about the Congo," Musavuli tells the poet. Or maybe he's with friends at a spiritual retreat in the middle of nowhere -- nothing but trees for miles around.
"See those trees," Musavuli might say randomly to a friend. "They were imported from the Congo."They weren't really. But that's how Musavuli's mind works -- always finding a way to talk about the Congo.
* * * * * *In the past decade, nearly 6 million people have died in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. That's more casualties than Iraq, Afghanistan and Darfur combined. It is the deadliest conflict since World War II. Close to half the casualties are children younger than 5 years old. The causes for such bloodshed could take an African history professor an entire semester to try to explain. But at the heart of it is the scramble for the country's vast mineral wealth: diamonds, gold, copper, tin and coltan, a metal used in cell phones, computers and pagers. The Congo produces 80 percent of the world's coltan. Congolese people are exploited -- even dying -- for these minerals.
It's Musavuli's mission to spread the word about the atrocities there. Because if he can get enough people to care, then maybe it will instigate change.
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What can one college student do to change a nation? Well, if that student is Kambale Musavuli, it's simple: Get the word out. By any means possible.
Musavuli, an intern for the advocacy agency Friends of the Congo, visits local and state politicians to talk to them about the Congo. He asks their support to create a Congo Caucus and fund more humanitarian aid efforts. Earlier this year, he attended Unity, an annual conference for Asian, black, Latino and American Indian journalists. He asked journalists there why the media doesn't cover the Congo as it does Darfur.
The U.N. estimates that about 500,000 have died in Darfur since the conflict began in 2003. The New York Times reported in January that about 45,000 people in the Congo die each month.
"Figuratively, Darfur happens in the Congo every five and a half months," Musavuli often says. At that rate, the population of Greensboro would be wiped out in less than six months.
In September, Musavuli attended a press conference in Washington to bring attention to the Congo conflicts. There, he met Danny Glover and Al Sharpton.
All of this leads to Break the Silence Congo Week Oct. 19-25.
Musavuli started working two years ago to get A&T students involved in raising awareness about the Congo. Earlier this year, Musavuli organized a successful cell-phone boycott to call attention to the exploitation and deaths of Congolese people for the coltan used in cell phones. It's an easy way to get people engaged because it involves simply turning your phone off. Organizers encourage participants to explain the reason for the boycott in their voice-mail greetings.
The concept for Congo Week grew out of the cell-phone boycott. Musavuli now heads an international team of college students organizing Congo Week events on their own campuses. Students from Brazil to Belgium, Australia to Thailand and throughout the U.S. are hosting panel discussions, film screenings and prayer vigils. Locally, Musavuli works with students at UNCG and N.C. A&T. The schedule includes film screenings at both campuses, interfaith prayer vigils at local churches and a six-hour cell-phone usage boycott.
Many Congo Week organizers are non-Africans, such as Nate Houghton. The 19-year-old Cornell University sophomore leads the group Cornellians for the Congo. Congo Week events there will include a film about revered Congolese Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba, and a charity basketball tournament.
Houghton learned about the Congo conflicts through his church Web site. After meeting Musavuli this summer, Houghton was most impressed by his passion for the Congo. "Beyond his really great knowledge of the issues, he seemed to really have a sense of the people there and what they have to go through, as opposed to people who (just) focus on the policy issues," Houghton says. Musavuli's love for the Congolese made the people there seem real, Houghton says.
Maurice Carney, executive director of the Friends of the Congo, says the biggest challenge is to get non-Congolese people engaged in the issues facing Congo. Student involvement also is critical, he says. "They bring so much to the table -- boundless energy, a tremendous amount of optimism and a keen spirit of can-do that what they're pursuing can be realized and can be done," Carney says. "Those qualities are priceless."
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The pride Musavuli feels for his country shows in the way his eyes light up when he speaks of the Congo River, the rich land and the beautiful rain forests. Before they left in 1998, his mother was building a house in an upscale neighborhood overlooking the Congo River in the capital city of Kinshasa. He was an altar boy at their Catholic Church. They had a cook, a personal security guard and a driver who took him and his siblings to school. His mother, Jacqueline Muhiwa, was a corporate financial director. His father came to the U.S. in 1990 to pursue a master's degree. Soldiers began to riot in Kinshasa the next year. Though they were protected by personal guards, Musavuli, his siblings and their mother slept on the floor to avoid being struck by gunfire.
Muhiwa says she willed herself to be strong for her three young children. "I'm normally a weak person, but I'm strong if other people need me to be strong," she says. "I try not to make them depressed. ... We pray. I believe that pray(er) makes people strong."
The riots subsided for a few years, but the economy had disintegrated. Musavuli recalls his mother selling their belongings to pay their school tuition. His father was unable to return to the Congo because of his involvement with antigovernment groups.
By 1995, the Rwandan genocide spilled over into the Congo, and the situation there worsened. Muhiwa recalls a two-week stretch when they were without water and electricity. When they did have electricity, they watched the Belgian news channel for updates.
"Imagine you're in your country, you don't even know what's going on one mile from your house," Muhiwa says. "You can hear boom, boom, boom, but you have to watch CNN to see (fighting) a mile from your house." Musavuli and his siblings were finally able to sneak out of the Congo in 1998. Their mother joined them about four months later. She put aside the dress she wore the day she left. "I never washed it. I just keep it like it was, with the Congo smell in there," she says.
Musavuli went to Smith High School and worked part time at McDonald's. Since he graduated from Smith, Musavuli has had to attend college on alternating years because he can't afford to go full time. He goes to school one year, then works the next. This semester, he's taking classes at GTCC.
He wants to earn an engineering degree so that he can return to the Congo and help with rebuilding efforts. There is a need for infrastructure in the Congo, he says. There must be a vision for rebuilding a country that's been oppressed since its colonization. Work must begin with villagers at the ground level, Musavuli says, to create a sustainable economy in which people can feed themselves and children are able to go to school.
What impressed him most when he came to Greensboro was that school was free and a bus provided students transportation. "I always dream of building a Ben L. Smith back home," he says. "I have to go back (to the Congo). It has to happen."
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Muhiwa, now a nurse technician, always believed that her youngest son would be a leader. "For some reason, I think Kambale will do the big thing in life," she says. "He has a gift, I can tell you. He has a gift from God." Of her three children, Musavuli -- the youngest -- is the one who feels most connected to the Congo.
Mother and son often discuss the latest news from home. And these days, it's Musavuli who enlightens his mother with updates. Like her son, Muhiwa talks about the Congo to anyone willing to listen. It begins when her patients ask where she's from. She also distributes information packets about the Congo at the hospital.
Omer Omer, a local African leader and director of N.C. African Services Coalition, says it was a group of students that drew the world's attention to Darfur. The same could happen for the Congo.
"The people of the United States are very compassionate if they know, but most of the time, they don't have the information," Omer says.
Maria Palmer, Multicultural Student Center director at N.C. A&T, says Musavuli inspired her to learn more about the Congo's troubled history.
"Just maybe two sentences is maybe all I could have said about Democratic Republic of Congo. ... Now, I know a lot more," the native Peruvian says. Calling Musavuli a "born organizer," Palmer says the young man realizes that he doesn't have to go to Africa to make a difference.
"He sees young African immigrants and young African American students as having the opportunity to use their college education and skills to make a change in Africa," she says.
Musavuli's friends say that he inspires them with his passion, energy and relentless drive.
N.C. A&T students Carlyle Phillips and Paris Marion are helping him plan the Congo Week events in Greensboro. Most of their classmates haven't a clue about what's taking place in the Congo, they say.
"As college students, we tend to fall into a system where we don't think about what's going on outside of the college community," Phillips says. "We don't even know if it's going to rain tomorrow."
Marion's high school friend Karen Lumbu escaped the Congo with her family in the early 1990s. But Marion had no idea that her friend was troubled about her homeland until she met Musavuli.
Lumbu, who describes herself as shy and reserved, was hesitant to talk about the Congo. Her family frequently receives news of a friend or relative's death. And though it troubles her, Lumbu says she keeps it to herself.
"Most high school and college students, the last thing they want to talk about is war or genocide," Lumbu says. "They want to talk about parties or fashion. It's always hard to have these thoughts and to have a lot of things going on."
Lumbu says she felt closer to Marion, once they started talking about the Congo. And Marion's activism inspired Lumbu to be more vocal. She's leading Congo Week activities at her UNC-Charlotte campus.
Marion, who calls herself Musavuli's assistant, says he gets so caught up in his cause that he forgets to eat and puts off sleep.
"He loves his country," Marion says. "He loves his people. He goes days without sleep. He just goes and goes and goes."
Musavuli fuels himself on the belief that he must do all he can for those back home. Much of his family remains in east Congo, where the violence is greatest. Phone calls from them often are cut short by static, then silence.
"I see it as a calling, to help my people," he says.
Contact Tina Firesheets at 373-3498 or tina.firesheets @news-record.com
Source: The News and Record