One Million Thumbprints: What I Never Want To Forget #1

Apr 4, 2016

Photo by Chelsea Hudson. Traveling in Rwanda to the boarder of the Democratic Republic of Congo

Relentless violence has plagued the Democratic Republic of Congo for decades. Ushered in by King Leopold from Belgium in 1885, this lush country with bountiful resources was pillaged at the directive of the king in a desperate and ruthless attempt to claim a part of Africa for himself. He hoped to bring himself and the small country of Belgian a piece of the wealth and power other European nations were gaining through colonization. Extreme violence used to extract natural resources the cheapest way possible laid a foundation of exploitation in this beautiful country.
Even after becoming an independent nation in 1960, the DRC has struggled to find stability and peace. The Rwandan genocide and Rwanda’s subsequent invasion of DRC in 1996-1998 also added to the complexities of violence in this country. More than 5.4 million people died as a result of mass murder, famine, and disease born of this recent chaos, making it more deadly than WW II. Although the nation held peaceful elections in 2006, it was not enough to bring restoration to the multilevel destruction in which 45,000 people die each month and there was widespread displacement.

Corruption and violence are as abundant as its natural resources as many people and governments see DRC through the lens of greed. Everyone wants to claim a stake in DRC’s natural resources. Many refer to the natural rescues in the DRC as “the curse of the Congo”. Even though the DRC is estimated to have more than $20 trillion in natural resources at its disposal, it is ranked second to last on the recent United Nations’ human development report. This report is a standard of living assessment reflecting life expectancy, educational access, literacy, income and child welfare. In addition, the DRC is considered one the top worst place in the world to be a woman today. It is estimated that 400,000 are raped in DRC annually.

One of the riches countries in natural resources

Extreme poverty, tribal and racial violence, corruption, greed, and a history of targeted gender based violence all contribute to a culture of violence which undermines the stability of a functioning judicial system in the DRC. 
This is what I knew of the Democratic Republic of Congo when I was invited to join One Million Thumbprints. This is why it took me so long to say, “Yes.”
I am ashamed to say it, but I was afraid. 
I had written a chapter in my book Refuse To Do Nothing: Finding Your Power To Abolish Modern-Day Slavery about the DRC, but I was afraid to travel and see it for myself. I was especially afraid of traveling to the Eastern part as this part has historically seen the most violence. This was the part of the country I knew where women were most vulnerable.
I knew just enough to be worried.
Did I really need to go? Was there really a greater purpose for me to leave my own family and see for myself what was going on in this country? Was this too risky? Would my going make a difference? Was God prompting my curiosity or was it more selfish? Would my going help in anyway the women for which I was traveling to meet? Did I have what it would take to walk through my fear?
These were the questions I had to wrestle with before I joined the One Million Thumbprint team and to a certain degree they were still the questions I carried with me as I boarded the plane to Africa, crossed into the DRC, and all along our ride from Goma to Rutshuru where we would meet with the women for which this entire campaign was to help support.
I was very quiet during the three hour rugged drive away from Goma to Rutshuru – deeper into the Eastern part of DRC. A military escort led the caravan of three off roading vehicles into some of the most bumpy roads I’ve traveled. The lack of infrastructure in this area of the DRC was noted immediately. Large deep crevices split the main roads in the heart of Goma – one false turn and a vehicle could drop five feet down with no barrier or curb as a warning.
Almost immediately we were told not to take pictures. No picture taken allowed while traveling through this part of the country. Three hours driving 40-50 miles an hour and I was silent. I stared out and tried to take mental snapshots of the incredible landscape and at the same time tried and negotiate peace within my fearful mind. I kept reminding myself God was with me and moments of peace would come. Then thoughts of “Oh my goodness! What am I doing here?!” would come screaming into consciousness and I would become fearful again.
Then, I would look out and see mountains covered with dark and bright green vegetation and I would hear our driver pointing to a volcano ahead and I was enamored with the beauty of this county. And then we would pass a young man with a machine gun just sitting on the side of the road and I would look away hoping he would not notice me fearfully staring out.
And then I saw two little boys happily waving to the peculiar stranger in the large white glasses and I smiled and impulsively waved back. “Such cute kids!” I thought to myself. Then I missed my own kids.
“Why am I here?” I asked myself.
“To bear witness to what I’m doing,” a thought whispered back.
Despite the moments of fear, I also was at peace and so I silently sat back again and looked out the window. This was my experience driving into Congo.
After dropping off our luggage at the convent we would be staying at for the next three nights and washing our faces from the dust of the three hour drive, we reached the World Relief offices in Rutshuru. We were finally going to meet the women we had been praying for, raising money for, and advocating for. Although we were tired – we were also very excited!

Thick layers of dirt covered our faces, neck, and arms after the 3 hour drive.

Fighting back tears I was so humbled as thirty-three Congolese women sang songs of welcome as we walked into the building where we would be meeting the next couple of days. I was overwhelmed with emotion and the colors. Oh the colors! The colors of the fabric the women were wearing was what I remember most. The colors of the fabric seemed to match the present emotions: joy and anticipation and thanksgiving. We were all simply so grateful to be together. Both groups of women had been planning and talking and anticipating meeting one another and the time was here.

Photo by Chelsea Hudson. Members of the Sexual and Gender Based Violence (SGBV) group with World Relief

Tears flowed again when I spotted Esperance. She was there in the flesh! The woman who was the catalyst for this trip. The woman I carried on a poster for months and who I shared her story over and over. She was there in the middle of the group of women – much smaller than I imagined and yet as equally joyful as she was in the picture I carried. She was sunshine – wearing a bright yellow dress and a yellow head wrap and a large contagious smile.

Fear was turned into joy. I was here.

I would have missed out on this joy if I had allowed fear to stop me from following where God was leading. This moment. This lesson. I never want to forget.