Beans & Rice for the Soul

teaching, learning and living around the world

5 tips for muzungus writing about Congo

A Beans & Rice reader recently asked me for tips on how to write about DRC. She and her husband recently moved from North Carolina to North Kivu.  She writes,

I was wondering if you had any tips or thoughts you’ve come to as you write… I am trying to think about good ways to write about our experiences that do not further reify negative or misplaced stereotypes about Africa, Congo, poverty, etc especially for the audience reading our blog–donors, supporters, family, interested friends.

I’ve been marinating on this question for a while now and finally came up with 5 tips for muzungus who want to write about Congo.

1. Don’t host a poverty pity party.

Pity is dangerous. When you pity someone else… those eyes, that look… you begin the process of slowly chipping away at their dignity.  Poverty sucks enough already without you standing there feeling all sorry about it.

I have so many great memories from working at a school inside a hospital in Goma.  Everyday on my way to the school I’d walk through rooms full of hospitalized women who no doubt had experienced plenty of things that I felt sorry about.  But what good would it do to have a visitor passing through twice a day everyday just to be all sad about it?

Speaking Swahili meant I got an immediate smile and a laugh just from saying hello, how are you? I’d listen and talk to them about teaching, how their kids were doing, a random story from my weekend.

Mother & Son!

That’s it.  A little friendly cheer and chitchat.  That’s certainly not the only way to prevent a pity party, but it was my way.

Don’t let pity catch you off guard and pressure you into hosting.  Find a way to politely decline.

2. Ask yourself, if these were people from my hometown in America… would I ask this question? would I take this photo? would I post this on the internet?

I was quite shocked when a prayer group leader visiting from the States for a week mentioned casually at dinner that she had done a prayer circle with one of my students.  “What did you pray for?” I asked.  The woman launched into a story about how she asked my student (a twelve year old) if she had been raped and if that was why she was at the hospital.  The story went on and involved lots of crying.

I tell this story not because there’s something wrong with grieving together. I tell this story because I thought she’d asked my student an INCREDIBLY personal question and I think it was totally out of line.

Always take the home town test.

Screen shot 2013-05-19 at 1.56.18 PM

If you were in a hospital in your own home town, would you walk up to a healing twelve year old who you don’t know at all and ask that question?

Ab
so
lute
ly
not.

Would you walk the streets of the poorest neighborhood in your home town and take pictures of strangers on the streets? No. You wouldn’t.  So don’t do it in Congo either!

Don’t seek out sorrow. Don’t ask strangers personal questions. Don’t take pity photos.
Seek joy. Seek friendship. Seek beauty.

Tunacheka

Every time you’re tempted to ask a question, take a photo or write a blog post… make sure you pass the would I do this in my home town test.

3.  Everything is the same everywhere. Seek out the sameness. 

Nobody needs to read another sensational story about Congo.  Seek out the sameness because the core of every civilization across time and space is the same. Things only seem sensational when we don’t understand the why and how.

Congo will feel sensational at times, that’s what makes it hard to NOT write another sensational story! You’ll want your readers to also feel how wildly surprised/floored/shocked you were about XYZ.

But before you start writing, look deeper and figure out why that sensational thing is the way it is.  When you are shocked that people show up hours late to events, think about transportation.  It’s easy to arrive on time when you have a car or busses and trains that arrive on time everywhere.  Harder to arrive on time when you rely on taxis.  Harder to arrive on time when rain makes certain roads impassable.

Road around the Ituri Forest

There is almost always an explanation, so consider it your duty as a visitor to figure it out. And if you can’t, the least you can do is… seek out examples of that same sensational thing from your own home town or in America’s history.  Trust me, it’s there.

Don’t compare the recent war in Congo to America’s domestic peace today.  Compare Congo’s civil war to America’s civil war. Don’t compare poverty in Congo to an average American’s life today. Compare poverty to poverty, average to average. Don’t compare injustice in Congo to justice in America.  Compare injustice to injustice.

If you look hard enough, you’ll always find the sameness.

4. If you start to feel overwhelmed by your context, don’t write about that.  Drink a beer, think carefully about what you have the power to change, lower your expectations and keep on keeping on.

You can’t fix everything. That’s true in Congo, in America… everywhere. Let’s take the home town test.

If you saw that laundry list of challenges in your own home town (the place where you DO speak the language and understand the culture fluently) even THEN it would be impossible for you to fix it all.  So don’t flatter yourself by trying to carry the billion burdens of the world on your back.  Poverty and problems might be in your face a lot more than you’re used to, but that doesn’t mean you’re being asked to solve it all.

H&L

Whatever it is that inspired you to move there in the first place, whatever the good is that you’re trying to do… put some horse blinders on and stay focused on that. Then lower your expectations (especially about how fast you think you’re going to get it all done) and just keep moving!

5. Read. Listen. And be wary of the muzungu perspective.

Right after I accepted a job teaching in Kinshasa and was finishing my last semester of college… my mom mailed me a big box for Valentine’s Day. Inside was every single book she could find about Congo.  I read them all.  I also dug up books I’d read previously… Heart of Darkness, The Poisonwood Bible. I started reading the news.  Bemba and Kabila were sparring, Virunga gorillas were being assassinated… All of these muzungu voices made me wonder, what the heck am I getting myself into?!

Books about Congo

I also remember sitting on a lawn chair in the small alleyway outside my apartment on Wertland Street in Charlottesville… listening to Congolese music.  A professor had recommended that I write my final paper about a Congolese musician, Kanda Bongo Man, which led to the tunes of Papa Wemba, Koffi Olomide, Tabu Ley…

I remember thinking, wowwww. It’s so HAPPY.  For all that crazy sensational stuff I’ve been reading… this music, these Congolese voices ooooze with joy and celebration.

Read, read, read.
Listen, listen, listen.
AND BE WARY OF THE MUZUNGU PERSPECTIVE.

Including mine and yours.

In fact, you’re probably better off starting your writing journey by reading this gem…
Screen Shot 2015-06-06 at 12.06.53 PM

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2 comments on “5 tips for muzungus writing about Congo

  1. bevwalls
    June 6, 2015

    Sarah, you always impress me with your insight and wisdom. I sent this post to my friends who are currently in Tanzania, installing rain catchment systems with our local nonprofit Save the Rain. Kelly Coleman, the founder and director, has been instrumental in putting systems on the roofs of schools in 40 villages over the last 10 years. I admire you all for your tenacity, compassion, and initiative to make a difference without pity, personal invasion, and voyeurism. You just reach out to real people, embracing their culture and seeing their needs. Blessings.

    • Sara Rich
      June 9, 2015

      Thanks so much Bev. It sounds like Save the Rain is doing really important and interesting work. Thanks for sharing!

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This entry was posted on June 6, 2015 by in books, humanities, inspiration, life, teaching, travel.
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