By Arthur Kaufman.
“Je n’ai jamais vu un peuple aussi courageux que les Congolais” said Bolewa Sabourin at the recent October ASPA event. Wearing a white t-shirt with a portrait of Patrice Lumumba, he addressed a crowd of students packed into a small classroom at Sciences Po for a discussion on the state of the Congos (Kinshasa and Brazzaville). Congolese history is ridden with conflict, but tonight the conversation focused on what the Congolese people have managed to sustain throughout centuries of suffering: hope and resilience.
Sabourin is a French-Congolese professional dancer and founder of LOBA, an association in Kinshasa that supports Congolese women who are victims of sexual violence by helping them find psychological healing through dance and self-expression. Previously, he has worked with Denis Mukwege, the Nobel Prize-winning doctor who works with women survivors of wartime sexual violence from his hospital in Bukavu.
Joining Sabourin was Célestine Bagniakana, founder of the associations “Halte SIDA” and “Coeur Céleste,” which support Congolese orphans and adults affected by HIV/AIDS. For over thirty years, she has pushed against rigid social boundaries to stand up for some of the most vulnerable populations in the DRC. Addressing the audience “vous, mes enfants,” she shared her professional story with a serious tone.
The two speakers described how systemic, generational violence has taken an enormous toll on the Congolese people. Sabourin explained that suffering is transmitted from generation to generation, and that perhaps that is why people pray to their ancestors. It affects everyone, even if they don’t know it. “On doit tous voir des psy,” he said, lightening the mood. But he returned to the point. “Comment est-ce qu’un peuple peut se construire de manière sensée quand on a jamais connu la paix?” How can a people construct itself in a sensible manner when it has never known peace?
That is precisely where expression becomes important. “Il faut s’exprimer… et raconter nos histoires afin de casser ce cycle négatif” he said We have to express ourselves… and tell our stories in order to break this negative cycle. Through dance, the Congolese women he works with find the space to express themselves and thereby reclaim their bodies. “[La danse] peut redonner sa puissance.” [Dance] can help one regain their power.
The topic of the discussion soon shifted from the work that both speakers conduct in Congo through their organizations to what it means to be a Congolese (or African) youth today, living between the continent and France, navigating social demands in different contexts, and engaging in the construction of Congo as a diaspora. How does one reconcile the privilege of studying at Sciences Po with the struggles of those in Kinshasa? How can one support their hope and resilience, or even go further to create sustainable change?
In terms of concrete measures of action, Bagniakana identified the importance of supporting education. “Il faut mettre l’éducation a priori,” she said. “On ne peut pas construire le monde sans l’education.” We cannot build the world without education. Sabourin agreed, affirming the necessity of building sustained education in Congo that begins in primary school and lasts all the way through university.
Sabourin then drew upon his own experience grappling with juxtapositions of identity, which revealed how difficult it can be to create change. Having grown up in Kinshasa, he was never fully accepted in Paris, where despite his work as a natural community organizer, he was seen as an exotic outsider. Then, after living in Paris for over a decade, he was never fully accepted back in Kinshasa, where he returned to found LOBA, and was told that his Lingala sounded strange. Even today, he said, the psychological healing of his work is not truly respected by his Congolese community without being presented jointly with a white doctor.
Successfully integrating and making a positive impact in our environment is a complicated task, but in the end, where one settles down may not be that important. Wherever we choose to live, Sabourin said, we have to accept the choice and remember that we can always remain connected to other communities. This is part of the “vision globale” that he encouraged the students to take on: “Habiter le monde. Mais pensez l’Afrique.” Inhabit the world. But think Africa.
Regardless of where and how we engage, in order to best support Congolese hope and resilience “il est important que vous preniez la parole.” It is important that you speak up.
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