Searching for common ground in Congo

By: Lena Slachmuijlder, DRC Country Director; Search for Common Ground

I’m writing to you from Goma, eastern Congo, with a perspective that I think we hear too infrequently. It’s about recovery, and giving people a chance to find solutions to their problems.

For the last five years I have lived and worked in the DR Congo, heading an NGO called Search for Common Ground (SFCG). Although we do not give out bricks or buckets or biscuits, our work enables us to give people a chance to reflect on what’s really going on around them, to have access to accurate information, and a chance to shift towards a more positive change.

You’ve all heard about the crimes committed by the Congolese army. SFCG has reached out to that same army, and we have found within it thousands of soldiers who are fully committed to working day after day towards transforming this army to become one which protects, not persecutes, civilians. We’ve equipped them with participatory tools to work within their units to combat rape, extortion and abuse of civilians. They know that it’s up to them to push back the tide of impunity and regain the respect of their compatriots. They want to be positive agents for change, given a chance to define a positive role.

We also work with actors and train them in conflict transformation, and equip them to go around from village to village in areas where refugees are returning from years of war. The actors aren’t there to tell people what to do, but rather to listen. Then, they reflect back the conflicts the community is experiencing through drama and you know what? The people in the community have all the answers about what should happen.

One often blames the government of the DRC for its perceived lack of engagement in building peace and democracy. The culture of corruption is deep rooted, and it will take years of practice to be able to say no to bribery and yes to transparency. Fighting impunity and ensuring that the state pays its public servants can be hugely effective in turning the page towards stability.

And all those victims. What about them? Given a chance, they can transform themselves, all by themselves. With a pile of musical instruments, former child soldiers in Bukavu have become well known performers, welcoming into their ranks other youth in need of a warm corner and a song. They’ve become so strong that they reach out to those who look even harder for a streak of brightness: rape survivors. Every week, they take their music and drums up to the Panzi Hospital and leave behind smiles, hugs, rhythm and melody in the hearts of the women and girls.

And all those rapists, what about them? With a big screen, we take films around the villages and towns and enable people to talk about why there’s so much rape and gender-based violence. Not everyone agrees why, or what should be done. But the space accorded to talk about it, confront opinions with fact and customs with laws opens the door towards being open to change and transformation.

Congo is a tough place, and it’s easy to be discouraged. But Congo today is nothing like the Congo I can remember on the eve of the 2006 elections, or the deeply divided Congo that existed when I first arrived in the country in 2001. Recovery is happening, and the silent majority is pushing things in the right direction. Open new opportunities, give keys to people to make new choices, and they'll soon redefine themselves, not as victims, but as an agent for a better DRC for tomorrow.