October 27, 2008

Cornell Extends Congo Week

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“The Congo is the worst humanitarian crisis in the world and has been called the worst war since World War II,” said Nate Houghton ’11, founder and president of Cornellians for the Congo. “While conflicts like Darfur are so well known, the ironic thing about the Congo is that nobody knows about it.”
Throughout the event entitled “Break the Silence,” Cornell student activists have commemorated the devastating conflict in the Congo. Though Congo Week was officially celebrated last week on more than 100 university campus around the globe, Cornell students have decided to host a two-week campaign to ensure a lasting impact on the international perspectives of Cornell students.
From the brutal colonization by King Leopold to the Congo War that broke out in 1998, the Democratic Republic of the Congo has been a site of human cruelty and tragedy throughout history. According to BBC News, the International Rescue Committee said that a total of 5.4 million people have died over the past decade in the Congo, with 45,000 people dying every month.
The Cornellians for the Congo, supported by the Coalition of Pan-Africans Scholars, hosted a number of events last week, including a book reading of Heart of Diamonds by Dave Donelson and a screening of the film The Greatest Silence directed by Lisa Jackson. While most of the events have been attempts to raise awareness and inspire action, Cornellians for the Congo hope to raise money with their next event, a basketball tournament this Saturday.
Although the situation in the Congo is an atrocity against humanity, the country has incredible economic potential if it were to end its warfare.
“There are a number of facts that we do know about the Congo,” Houghton explained. “It has a tremendous amount of natural resources, including copper, oil, gold, diamonds and colton. 80 percent of the world’s colton, which is in every cell phone and laptop made, comes from Congo. We couldn’t live the way we do without it. Congo has the potential to feed Africa with its agriculture. It’s ridiculous when you think about how rich the country could be if it wasn’t at war.”
The Congo’s rich resources, however, are a key cause of the conflict, with different tribes vying for the same resources and neighboring African countries supporting different sides. Although the Congo was rich in natural resources, its colonization threatened any chance of having an educated populace, according to Houghton.
“It’s colonial history placed it in an horrible position,” Houghton said. “When the Congo was granted independence in 1960, there were only 30 college graduates in the entire country.”
Aleshadye Getachew, former co-chair and finance chair of the Coalition for Pan-African Scholars, acknowledged that while the conflict is the worst humanitarian crisis in the world, there seems to be a kind of silence in media coverage. A reason why the civil war is so under reported, according to Getachew, is the complexity of the situation.
“Even if you go through a basic Google search, the conflict is underrepresented in media,” Getachew said. “It’s not a simple conflict and so for that reason it’s been ignored. Congo week has been the most focused effort at raising awareness.”
While awareness is a fundamental goal of the student groups on campus, Cornellians for the Congo hopes to take their campaign to the next level by establishing a service-learning trip to the region.
“Awareness is important but action and service at a grass-roots level is our main goal,” Houghton said. “Our eventual long term goal is to create an annual service learning trip to Kinshasa to teach leadership development to high school students.”
As for the Coalition for Pan-African scholars, their main objective is to make sure Cornell administration is in support of humanitarian efforts in the region. The organization met with Stephen Golding, executive vice president for finance and administration, to discuss Cornell’s stance on the Congo.
“The University has nothing written in terms of the conflict in the Congo,” Getachew said. “Our goal is to have Cornell establish a formal proclamation of support for student groups and a decision to stop cooperating with companies involved in the conflict.
As for the majority of Cornell students, the lack of media coverage makes it hard for people to stay informed on the situation in the Congo. Jason Hwang ’11, marketing director of Cornellians for the Congo, recognized that student’s free time is limited and that the conflict does not play a role in the day-to-day lives if most students.
When asked if he thought many Cornell students were unaware of the conflict, Hwang replied, “Yes, but I don’t blame them. There’s a lot to do here and it’s easy to bogged down. Even I find it hard to keep up to date.”
While realistic in their goals, the participants of Congo Week hope to make a significant impact on Cornell’s perception of the Congo.
“I’m certainly not asking for everyone to go to the Congo,” Houghton said. “At least for Darfur, there is an effort to change the status quo at college campus at Cornell. Not just the students but Cornell itself as an institution can lead the way in bettering the situation.”