Monthly Archives: April 2010

Congo: the World Capital of Rape

A new report shows that the number of civilian rapes in eastern Congo has increase 17-fold over the past few years. Meanwhile, U.N. peacekeeping troops are preparing to leave this area.

Part of me is appalled that the U.N. would even consider withdrawing its forces considering the brutality which occurs here every day. Another part of me questions the value of their presence, considering the reports which indicate increased violence.

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A Fresh Approach to Beauty

“That which is striking and beautiful is not always good, but that which is good is always beautiful.” -Ninon de L’Enclos

International Women's Day 2010

Recently, I’ve been studying (with Beth Moore) the biblical character, Esther. This young and naive woman was chosen to become queen through a beauty contest. A beauty contest to determine a political office! And so my mind has been musing the concept of beauty. Simply put, I’m on a relentless quest to find the true meaning, fusing time periods and cultures to determine my personal philosophy of beauty.

From my initial analysis, I’ve concluded that the perception of beauty is culturally dependent. The United States spends $29 billion annually on the beauty industry. We have bought into the unsettling notion that we are only as valuable as we are beautiful. In the West, beauty = youthfulness, thinness, makeup, breasts. But beauty is in the eye of the beholder. In Congo, as you’ll see below, the understanding of beauty is nearly opposite.

photo credit: Chelsie Frank

Earlier today, I sat down with three Congolese men (students at UCBC) to discuss the concept of beauty. We engaged in a rather heated discussion regarding the qualities of a woman which these men find attractive. By and large, the most important physical aspect of a woman is her child-bearing hips…but allow me to paint the picture in a bit more detail.

The modern-day, Congolese version of Esther (beauty queen) has fair skin. Milk chocolate as opposed to dark chocolate. Not quite like a muzungu (white person), but certainly more fair than a jet-black, ebony tone. She stands at about 5′-3″, just a few inches shy of the average Congolese man. In a beauty pageant, this woman shines in every area of competition:

Evening Wear

She knows how to accent her shapely figure with a stylish and modern version of the typical African dress, ensuring that her kikwembe (skirt) covers her legs. Her small breasts contrast with her large birthing hips, but still, her curvaceous figure is perfection. She wears no makeup or jewelry, but rather adorns herself with the glimmer in her eye when she smiles.


This category will be conducted in private, as women wouldn’t dare to bare their knees or thighs in public. However, extra points are awarded for women with outstanding features like hair on their chin, chest, and legs.


All women are expected to know how to cook, sew, and sing, therefore, the talent competition in this beauty pageant is a demonstration of endurance, perseverance, and industriousness. She will be judged in the talent portion as she cultivates her field, carries water, and sells products as the market.

cultivating at the women's center


Her personality and poise shine through during the interview portion. She is polite and charming, inviting you to take tea in her home while gladly receiving you in utmost hospitality. She extends a warm welcome and can make anyone feel at ease.


The basis of her mission is not diabetes awareness, promoting world peace, or preventing infant mortality. Rather, her platform is women’s education. She, herself, a survivor of rape and gender inequality, knows that providing women with knowledge and wisdom will prevent this tragedy from continuing to occur. She speaks eloquently and is well-informed about the issues of her country, pleading with business and civic leaders to advocate for change in the educational system.

Overall this Congolese beauty queen transcends the western idea of beauty. I hope you find it refreshing to know that beauty is not universal. I certainly do. Yet to be perfectly honest, I’m still trying to embrace the fact that in Congo, when someone greets me with “You’re fat!” they are giving me a sincere complement.

My opportunity and yours…

“All of us are living stories, and those stories teach other people to live stories. And what our stories are about matters, not just for us but for the world.” A Million Miles in a Thousand Days, Donald Miller

Today I write to you wearing my heart on my sleeve. There is so much I want to tell you about, so much I long to share. I wish I could adequately describe to you what I see everyday. How can I begin to describe the complexities of life here in a country whose leadership sets the standard for absolute corruption?*

photo credit Anne Medley

Lately, I have felt discouraged by the depravity which surrounds me. The recent killings in Beni were committed by soldiers…government officials who should have been protecting local citizens. What will it take to change a culture so deeply rooted in corruption? Am I even making a difference? Can I trust that my work here is purposeful and beneficial even if I cannot see immediate results?

Though I find myself doubting, I have resolved to remain joyful. Many Congolese are bubbling with joy and hopeful beyond hope. Still, I find myself struggling. The brutality of this place threatens to rob me of joy. Destroy my hope. It is intense. What plagues me most is knowing what could be… Comparing life outside of Congo with the realization that this nation is unlikely to ever pull itself from the pit of poverty is disheartening, to say the least. How do I reconcile such extremes?

a recent glimpse of hope: women marching for peace photo credit Anne Medley

So as this reality tries to strangle my dream, I remind myself of why I am here. I cannot look left or right without recognizing that this place needs transformation. I recall why I am doing what I am doing. This vision carries me through the highs and lows. I am here to equip nationals to transform their communities. I am here to restore hope, training women with practical skills, producing products which can be sold to earn a fair wage. I am here to redefine the Congolese perception of Americans. I am here to serve. I am doing something small, but I’m a part of something big. To know that today my life has been used to impact and improve the life of another. God has given me an opportunity to make a difference.

You have the same opportunity. No matter where you live or what the conditions are like, you have the ability to make someone’s life better. It doesn’t require any money. Bless someone today with a smile and a kind word. Visit a friend and turn off your cell phone so that you are fully present. Bring a meal to someone who is ill. The possibilities are endless…

*quoted from The Poisonwood Bible, Barbara Kingsolver

Lessons Learned from Disney

As an American youngster in the late 1980s, early 1990s, my childhood was well-fed by Walt Disney’s animated films. Lately I’m beginning to realize that the Disney movies of my youth served as more than simple entertainment. They provided essential lessons whose value I failed to recognize until I stepped foot in Africa.  Humor me as I reflect on the top 10 lessons I learned from that Magical World of Walt Disney:

10. French Language Skills

From Beauty and the Beast, a classic tale set in rural France, I gained a basic French vocabulary. Music from this film taught me a handful of words such as: Mademoiselle (Miss), ma cherie (dear one), lumiere (light), jour (day).

9. Hospitality

Beauty and the Beast also taught about hospitality in “Be Our Guest”… Why would this be significant in Africa? Well, Congolese practice the “drop-in”. If you haven’t seen a friend for several days, if you want to meet the new neighbors, or even if you just want to hear some gossip, drop-in and pay someone a visit, no advance notice is even necessary. Friends, acquaintances, even strangers are warmly welcomed into the house as guests of honor. Sit down to have tea together, or even a meal, and enjoy one another’s company.

8. Living with roommates

Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs prepared me for what I would experience living in a house with seven others. Although they certainly don’t resemble her dwarfs, my roommates each have very unique and distinctive personalities. I’ll refrain from any identification or correlation to Doc, Grumpy, Happy, Sleepy, Bashful, Sneezy, and Dopey.

7. A cheerful presence uplifts the home

Snow White did more than teach me tolerance. From this fairytale, I also learned a trick to maintaining a joyful spirit amidst the mundane. Snow White was responsible for cooking and keeping house for the seven dwarfs. This work proved less laborious when she whistled or sang…”when hearts are high the time will fly so whistle while you work.” Here in Congo, every Mama embraces this philosophy. In a place without modern conveniences, Mama spends all day cooking the meal, tidying the house, and hand-washing clothes. Whether to pass the time, set the pace, or stave off boredom, the Mama is always singing or humming some merry tune.

6. There’s no place like home

The Little Mermaid warned against developing a yen for a far away place. Ariel learned that its better to embrace life where you are than wish for someplace you are not. While living in America, I used to fantasize about a simpler, slower pace of life. Now living in Congo, I fantasize about life in America, wishing for its ease and convenience. This is when I must remind myself that the grass is not always greener on the other side of the fence.  So I guess I’m still learning the lesson: there’s no place like where you are now. Embrace it and be fully present.

5. Everything tastes better with a little sugar

Mary Poppins is a film which emphasizes good manners. The part from the film that I recall most vividly? A spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down in the most delightful way. Fortunately nowadays, most meds are in capsule or pill form. Thus, this lesson is best applied to foreign foods. Some of the Congolese food — goat meat, grasshoppers, fish brain, monkey, or even just the insects crawling on my food — has a strong potential to cause nausea. On such occasions, I am relived to have a soda (made from pure sugarcane) to wash down my food.

4. It’s a small world after all

Stemming not from a film, but rather an exhibit at Disneyland, this lesson sings of unity throughout the earth. Visitors to the “Small World” exposition ride in small boats along a lazy river in the spirit of Gulliver sailing round the world. Here in Africa, I’m realizing the truth of that exhibit. For example, I recognize the music of my favorite English hymns sung at church, and although the lyrics are in Swahili, the melody is the same. Also, I have a friend who frequently wears a Green Bay Packers sweater (from the 1960s), reminding me of the frozen tundra where I grew up. And in the marketplace, I’ve seen Milwaukee Brewers baseball caps (secondhand). But my favorite reminder of home lately has been the children and adults who love to sing Michael Jackson songs, although they haven’t a clue as to the meaning of the lyrics.

3. The bare necessities are all one truly needs to survive

The Jungle Book, set in a remote village in India, gives useful advice regarding life away from the big city. “Don’t spend your time lookin’ around for something you want that can’t be found. When you find out you can live without it and go along not thinkin’ about it, I’ll tell you something true: The bare necessities of life will come to you.” As you know by now, here in the isolated town of Beni, I’m learning to live without many luxuries that I previously viewed as necessities. I quickly learned to halt my futile search for things such as: a newspaper, high-speed internet, snack food, quality coffee, chocolate. And as it turns out, Baloo and Mowgli were right, I’m learning to survive on the bare necessities…which are not so bad, after all.

2. Swahili vocabulary

watercolor sketch of an african simba

What Beauty and the Beast did for my French language acquisition, The Lion King did for my Swahili. Vocab essentials found in the cast of characters: Simba (lion), Rafiki (friend), Pumbaa (careless one), Sarabi (mirage), Shenzi (savage). Furthermore, my respect for Disney greatly increased upon learning the accuracy of the animation which depicted Kenya’s landscape (Pride Rock and the Savannah). My Swahili instructor still cannot comprehend why I am able to remember the word for lion, but cannot seem to memorize the vocabulary for other animals.
1. No Worries

By far the most important lesson for my time in Africa comes from The Lion King, specifically the absentminded warthog, Pumbaa. His motto for life is “Hakuna Matata”. Sung throughout the film and accurately translated from Swahili, it means “no worries” or “no problems”. Since I first stepped foot on African soil, “hakuna matata” has been a resounding theme. Slowly but surely, I’m learning how to stop worrying and release my need for control. Type A personalities are countercultural. Plans frequently change by the hour and without flexibility, one could never survive.

So, I’d like to offer my sincere appreciation to the Magical World of Walt Disney which has prepared me far beyond what I could have ever imagined.