Talking at St. Stephen's and St. Agnes School

Last week, I visited St. Stephen's and St. Agnes School in Alexandria, Virginia, to speak with 7th graders about "Congo's Children." Rebecca Cooper, the middle school religion teacher, had invited me to speak—as part of her unit on the Congo that focuses on social justice and putting faith into action.

The students were already familiar with our e-book and had many questions: “If you had to describe the Democratic Republic of Congo in one word what would you say?” (I answered “beautiful.” Maybe I should have said “breathtaking”—the river, the forest, the lake are all that and more.) “What amazed you the most?” (I said, “People like Kapeta Bende Benda, who is working with street children, showing them that he cares and offering them an alternative.)

I also wanted to talk about the many other Congolese who are working at the grassroots level—they are looking for ways to heal the body–and the soul. Here is a link to a write-up of my visit:

My comments are below:

We have all seen images of violence in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and we’ve heard the grim statistics:
• More than five million people’s lives lost as a result of civil war—in battle or from disease or hunger.
• Thousands of cases of rape reported every year and many more are never reported.
• More than 30,000 children recruited as child soldiers.

My husband Jon and I wanted to see the consequences of war while focusing on the lives of children. Our daughter Ida Sawyer, who lives in Congo and works for Human Rights Watch, made our reporting possible.

What we found was that while children are the most vulnerable segment of a broken society, they are also among the most resilient—and the most courageous.

When their parents were “disappeared,” children took shelter with an uncle, an aunt, or neighbor.

When the water pump ran dry they made long treks to the lake.

When a school had been destroyed they walked miles to seek another school.

We saw children’s lives transformed and we met numerous Congolese who were working at the grassroots level to heal the scars of conflict. And what we found most successful was a multi-pronged—holistic—approach.


It is not enough to send a child to school if he is hungry.

It is not enough to give a street kid a meal if she has no place to sleep.

It is not enough to provide a polio survivor with a metal brace if he does not know how to use it.

It is not enough to repair a fistular tear, the result of rape or an unattended childbirth, if a woman has no promise of security.

And it is not enough to take a gun out of the hands of a child soldier if he or she cannot find work.

What we found were people working together to solve multiple—inter-connected problems—those feeding children in school so that they could become receptive to learning, those providing shelter as well as a meal to street kids, those helping people overcome disabilities by offering job training and a sense of purpose, and those healing physical and emotional wounds, to allow former child soldiers to start a new life.

There were seeds of change that gave us hope. And that is what we wanted to show in our e-book—Congo’s Children.

At HEAL Africa, a hospital in Goma, a young women will receive far more than medical care. “We treat her body, but we also give her skills,” Dr. Jo Lusi, the founder and director, says. Patients who are rape survivors often stay for several months. They take part in vocational training, learning skills such as sewing and ceramics. They are encouraged to sell their crafts—quilts, clothes, handbags, baskets, placemats, dolls, and necklaces.

Children who come to HEAL Africa either as patients or with their mothers go to class in a one-room schoolhouse. Emmanuel, 6, and Kibasa, 5, two brothers from the Kaléhe territory, where midwives are rare, were both injured during childbirth. They suffered from brachial plexus palsy, a nerve injury that can occur when the infant is pulled from the birth canal. They came to HEAL Africa for surgery, and while they waited for their shoulders to heal, they attended school.

Dr. Lusi encourages literacy skills and also provides vocational training for women. “If you assist women and children you have begun to deal with the health of a nation,” he said. “We must show women their rights and teach the men.”

“Healing is like making a big salad with many ingredients,” Dr. Lusi says.

Dr. Lusi has contagious exuberance and is an instigator of change at the grassroots level. Like many others he embraces a holistic approach—working to heal the body but also heal the soul.

They see that they cannot attack problems in isolation—there are no neat solutions, but there are complicated ones.

The DRC is a nation wounded by bloody conflict, but one filled with hope that its children’s future will be full of promise.

The youth are overcoming their alienation, their anger, and their nightmares as Congo’s people come together to affect change on many fronts—economic, educational, medical, and psychological.

Theirs are the stories that need to be told.

They remind me of a billboard one of our student journalists found at a women’s health clinic in Kenya. Painted on the sign were words from St. Augustine:

“Hope has two beautiful daughters. Their names are Anger and Courage—anger at the way things are and the courage to see that they not remain as they are.”

These words have stuck with me.