Social Activism Reflection
Social Studies 10-1, Mrs. Shepherd
By Jennifer Taylor
The Democratic Republic of the Congo is home to over 71 million people, and is found in Central Africa. Its area totals to over 2.345 million square kilometres, with 77% being forests and woodlands. Although French is the official language, there are estimated to be over 242 languages spoken in the country. Fifty-five percent of women and seventy-six percent of men are literate, leaving approximately 35% of the population without sufficient education. Health care in the Congo is very poor, and some of the major infectious diseases include Hepatitis A, typhoid fever, and malaria. Due to such diseases as well as large amounts of violence, the life expectancy rate is only 51 years. The Congo is considered to be very rich in exports, as they export approximately $7.5 billion worth of products, including diamonds, gold, cobalt, copper, coffee, petroleum, and wood.
King Leopold II is to some remembered as the founder and sole owner of the Congo Free State, a project in which he undertook on his own behalf. To others, he is simply known as the mercenary man who used brutal force for his own personal gain. Leopold strongly believed that overseas colonies were the key to a country’s greatness, and worked to acquire colonial territory for Belgium. However, due to the lack of interest from the Belgian government, he chose to undertake the act of privately colonializing for his own benefit. In 1884, he set off to the Berlin Conference, which was held amongst the powerful European leaders in order to superimpose their domains over African land. During this conference, fourteen countries divided Africa into fifty irregular colonies. Leopold did not want to miss the chance of getting a good slice of what he called the “magnifique gâteau africain”. Although Leopold was considered a neutral ambassador, he acclaimed a part of the Congo Basin, an area 76 times larger than Belgium, which became his personal kingdom.
Leopold began to civilize the Congo. He first sent missionaries and explorers, like he promised the European community he would. But, as Wesseling pointed out in his research book Divide and Rule: The Partition of Africa 1880-1914, Leopold’s original idea of the Congo was a “national philanthropic association”. Unfortunately for the Congolese, these ideals soon changed to “private commercial enterprise”, which then became a political reality. It was at this point in history in which the innocence of the Congo was lost. Endless atrocities were committed as King Leopold attempted to colonize within the heart of Africa. Whilst many Europeans looked upon Leopold as a benevolent man, building schools and hospitals and arranging countless missions within the Congo, the truth was anything but. During the twenty-four years Leopold was in control, it is estimated that the Congo lost between five and eight million native people. Although he himself never stepped foot in the Congo, he gained enormous amounts of wealth from exporting Congolese resources. During this time the Congo became the leader in exporting ivory and rubber. Forcefully abused by Leopold’s personal army, each village was expected to achieve a set quota of locally collected these resources, which would then be sold for Belgian’s benefit. If this quota was not met, or if the villagers showed signs of rebelling, the results were brutal and inhumane. Workers were chained together, whipped, kidnapped, and held hostage. The women were raped again and again, and the death count was high. Whenever a bullet was fired, a soldier
was required to in
return show a Congolese hand in proof of the death. The currency of the severed
hand was developed when soldiers would instead use these bullets to hunt
wildlife, and brutally take the hands of innocent Congolese villagers to prove
they were causing the fear and violence in the people that Leopold knew would
lead to greater exports. These are just a few examples of the cruelties that
the Congo has endured throughout history.
As our social class was being informed of these brutalities, I could not help but wonder how social activism could relate to something that happened such a long time ago. To my dismay, I soon learned of the legacies of King Leopold; along with ongoing conflicts over things such as resources continue to affect Congolese people. Poor media coverage has kept the issue unnoticed by developed countries, and little help is being provided. Over the course of project week, we gathered knowledge of the gender-based violence, youth in conflict, and conflict minerals in order to prepare for our video conferencing session with Kambale Musavuli, a human rights activist and member of the Friends of the Congo organization. One of the things he said that stood out in my mind was, “I want to touch your heart”. Once the act of inspiring begins, it causes change. Even if it is only a single thought that crosses someone’s mind for a half-second, or an idea that occupies their mind for an entire day. This is evidence of change.
“Once social change begins, it cannot be reversed. You cannot uneducate the person who has learned to read. You cannot oppress the people who are not afraid anymore. We have seen the future, and the future is ours.” –Cesar Chavez
The seeds of activism were planted in our minds more than four months ago. Not only have they rooted and thrived within our own souls, but have branched out into the hearts of others because of the action we have taken. The first step was to divide into groups, and developed goals amongst ourselves.
Students for the Congo
I am a part of a group called “Students for the Congo”. Made up of five high school aged students, we set off to raise awareness of the tragedies occurring in the Congo nowadays. As Kambale suggested, we wanted to choose ways of spreading the word that relate to our lives here in Canada. Rosanne and I are interested in blogging, her specifically the writing of posts and me connecting the web address to other social media sites and search engines. Alex wanted to attract attention by putting up posters, and Amy and Elly looked to establish a Korean blog, as well as set up donation boxes in local stores. Beginning in March, we created a blog address (http://www.studentsforthecongo.blogspot.com), as well as placed our boxes in stores such as Stop n Go, Esso, Dairy Queen, and Grandview Store. In less than two months, we acquired more than $720 in donations. As par to my responsibilities, I “spammed” our blog, entering the web address into various search engine and “pinging” sites. This helped to boost our views, and we began seeing traffic from all over the world, including countries such as United Kingdom, Morocco, Ukraine, and Italy. Inspired by the success of the blog, I continued to brainstorm for ways to spread the word. On a spur of the moment idea, I presented the intent of setting up music at the local Art Walk, and busk for donations to the group. We gathered up some of our musical friends, and handed out informational brochures on Main Street for the afternoon while playing artists such as Adele and Green Day. Many people were drawn to the music, and we used this to our advantage. Our theme was “Music to Empower”, just as Kambale and Congolese youth are using to share their stories. Playing off of each member of the groups’ individual strengths is what I believe is what led this project to be so successful.
Like every activism group, we had our struggles. Four months is a long time to stay motivated, especially when we can’t see the results while we are working towards them. We have no way of seeing the joy on a child’s face as he sees artificial light for the first time because our money provided his village with a generator. Some days, it’s hard to find the will to write a blog post that might not even get any views. But what I have realized, is even just the knowledge that someone cares can bring comfort to the Congolese people. Another struggle that we faced was not everything we had planned was able to be a success. For example, Amy and Elly spent more time making and maintaining donations boxes than they did on the Korean blog. Rosanne and I were not able to make an informational page and rather left the blog unorganized through various postings. Learning to set realistic goals is a valuable lesson to havve, and also to realize that not everything we brainstorm we have to attain. “Success is sweet: the sweeter if long delayed and attained through manifold struggles and defeats” –A. Branson Alcott
Although some of my group members may disagree, I feel the distribution of work was very efficient. We unintentionally chose our own parts of the project to work on independently, therefore eliminating the need for continuous group work. Due to the fact that we all possess strong leadership qualities we were able to concentrate on our own segment of the project, occasionally checking up on the group progress. Unfortunately, our lack of regular group meetings left some members out of the loop, and therefore they were not able to contribute as much as they could have. If we were to do this project again, a valuable tip would be to make sure everyone knew what they were expected to do, rather than leaving it up to the individual to choose something to do. This would have ensured full participation from all members, and a better sense of collaboration. A risk of allowing less individual work would be that things such as the blog might not have been as well developed if we attempted to involve all group members in the process. It is easier to find an hour within your day without have to make sure that hour coincides with theirs as well.
As the world becomes increasingly globalized, the role of social media grows in importance. To possess the power to spread your opinion with society by simple typing it online is a major advancement in civilization. Like many other social activism groups, we used this to our advantage. Having already been established in the blogging community, this gave us access to influence regular Blogger readers. Simply having a Facebook account also allows the immediate attention of hundreds of friends. Now, instead of repeating yourself in countless conversations to have your opinion heard, you can effortlessly tweet about it. People, who may never have bothered to listen to a social studies lecture, will now have “accidently” read a short Facebook status, which could cause another seed to be sown. A Youtube video that appears in the related videos column, even if never watched, may be a piece of information that hides in the back of someone’s mind until brought forth in conscious conversation. Consequently, a news article about the conflict in the Congo might remind an individual of a tweet/status/video seen months ago, even if they had simply glanced at it. This is the power of social media, harnessed by the ordinary people of first world countries.
And then there are the not so ordinary people. Youth in the Congo, social activists, good Samaritans, who desperately want to be heard, but are second to talking dog videos and rants on the cost of gas. Why is the attention of educated people being given to fifteen year old Manga blog authors and that guy on Youtube that makes lame jokes, when social activism projects are struggling to reach enough views to make their efforts worthwhile?
“The internet is becoming the town square for the global village of tomorrow” –Bill Gates
Globalization has greatly affected people in the DRC. The demand for minerals has grown higher, and many of the materials need to make modern day devices such as laptops and cell phones are mined within the Congo. As large companies look for cheaper labour and raw materials, the Congo suffers the cost difference. But globalization has also affected the Congo from a positive perspective. Today, more people know more about the atrocities being committed than they did ten or fifteen years ago. The spread of information has multiplied in speed, as has the demand for knowledge. If someone from your local community died, you would want to know the why’s and how’s. In my opinion, this form of thought processing is being added to a larger scale. Some people are asking why people in the Congo are dying, and want to change that. “If everyone demanded peace instead of another television set, then there’d be peace.” –John Lennon. Unfortunately, as Joseph Stalin once said, “One death is a tragedy; one million is a statistic. Coincidently, he also said that death is the solution to all problems, if there is no man, there is no problem. But on the subject of social change, he mentioned that education is a weapon whose effects depend on who holds is in his hands and at whom it is aimed. A very wise man he was indeed.
We, as globalized citizens, hold the power to make a difference. It is our choice whether or not we want to. As I see it, you can work hard all of your life, and one of two things will happen. If you solely work for your own personal gain, you will end up living in a big house; never have to worry about your money running out, and a feeling of accomplishment. But, if you work solely for others, you may live your life not knowing where your next meal is coming from; have a roof with a leak, and a feeling of accomplishment. Most people live somewhere between these extremities. One of the decisions that haunts my future is where I am going to sit on the scale. I can’t help but worry that wherever I chose to fall, the grass on the other side will remain greener. I am constantly in fear of regrets. Living as a globalized citizen effects everyday choices as well. Should I use my weeks’ worth of hard earned money to help a child without shoes or to pay for my cell phone bill? If asked the question of which is more important, I would then question why I continue to spend money on my own wants. I feel that I cannot commit myself to both individual success and change within the world, because I do not see them as a common achievement. Whether this choice haunts others as much as it does me I have yet to understand.
Social activism is a key to being a globalized citizen. To bring about positive change within another’s life is what I feel to be a continuous life goal. Over the course of this project, I have accumulated some words of wisdom to share with future activists. Developing a network is priority if you wish to be heard. Whether this occurs in real life or through social media, many people are willing to lend an ear to a great cause. Also, a strong group of co-workers can energize and motivate, sharing common vibes and successes. Finally, always think about the outcomes. Constant reminders of why you are choosing to make a difference can assist when the moods and energies are low. Because in a world with so much pain and suffering, giving up is simply not an option.
Although our social studies class has come to a conclusion, our activism project has not. Why stop at $700 when we could raise another hundred by simply setting out one donation box? Even since our last write up of our project, we have accumulated another 500 views on the blog, totaling to almost 1500 since March. We cannot measure exactly how our group as well as our classmates made a difference in the DRC, but we know that it has happened. Various generators will allow communities access to electricity, and Congolese youth will be given devices they can use to share their story. It shocked me to find out that they could not use the fibre optic cable which would allow them access to the internet. Canadians take advantage of this, using Facebook accounts and blogs to share unimportant, annoying information, degrading the meaning and strength of their words. If we give this power to the people who desperately crave it, the possibilities are unimaginable. As a class, we have raised a total of $2458.65 and counting. There is no doubt in my mind that more people know about the Congo now than they did four months ago. We are making a difference. It may be a small step in bringing peace to the Congolese people, but that does not diminish its importance. Even if it was not the passion of my peers, I hope that they will be able to take the same lessons that I have, as well as use and apply them to bring forth future change within the world. From a teacher, to a class of high school aged students, to the world,
Change is happening.