The Beauty of the Congo

When we boarded our flight from Delhi to Rwanda (connecting in Ethiopia), we were pleasantly surprised with a huge Boeing 787 Dreamliner aircraft that looked brand new. For some reason, we weren’t expecting a long flight, but then we were informed it was going to be 7 hours. Neither of us had ever been to Africa before, and we had become so comfortable in our five-star accommodations in Delhi that it was hard to look forward to the next project ahead of us. That all changed though.

From what we could see out of the airplane window, our connection in Ethiopia was exactly what we were expecting Africa to look like: a barren land covered in dirt. But an hour later when we descended into Kigali, Rwanda, we were in awe at the completely opposite landscape we found. That’s when every preconception we had in our minds was shattered — when we discovered the incredible beauty within the heart of Africa.

The Free the Slaves Democratic Republic of the Congo Country Director, a fun, Congolese man named Crispin, and a jovial, sharply dressed Rwandan driver named Duncan picked us up from the airport and we began our 3-hour drive to the Rwanda/DRC border. Most of the car ride consisted of a back-and-forth friendly comparison of the two countries (Crispin representing the DRC and Duncan speaking for Rwanda). For instance, Duncan claimed Rwanda had the best coffee, but Crispin argued that most of the “Rwandan” beans were actually grown in the DRC and that Rwanda roasted it and sold it. Their opinionated debates were filled with laughter but we, however, were virtually silent the whole drive, simply because we were glued to our windows soaking in the beauty that passed us by. The breathtaking views were never ending — lime green tea plantations, patchwork hillside farms, and thousands of lush green rolling hills. Duncan informed us that Rwanda is called “the land of 1,000 hills” though the hills are so large they are more like mountains. We arrived at the DRC border just before it closed and met our translator/fixer, Adolphe, who guided us through the incredibly easy process of entering the DRC. Once we were on the streets of Goma, Crispin told us to not judge the DRC by the roads, to judge it by the houses. The houses in Goma were huge — with steeply pitched tin roofs and tall privacy/security gates. The roads weren’t terrible near our hotel, but we soon found out why this is a common saying in the DRC, after many several-hour bumpy rides to the villages where we worked.

We worked in a village named Rubaya, in the Masisi territory, which is known for its mineral-producing mines. The three-hour drive to get there from our hotel was one photo opp after another, with rivers winding through the lush landscape and views of Lake Kivu, but the ride was exhausting since you had to brace yourself from the impact that resulted from driving on the nearly impassible dirt road.

It was in Rubaya that we were able to pick up on our first Swahili word — mzungu, which means white person. Everywhere we went, people of all ages cried out to us “Mzungu! Mzungu!” They’d also greet us with their only English, “good morning”, at any hour of the day. Photographing was quite hard in Rubaya, since when we’d walk anywhere, crowds of people would follow and gather around us. We’d be surrounded by 50 to 100 people within seconds of setting up a shot, the crowd would be staring in amazement and then when we’d show them any photos we’d taken on the tiny LCD screen, they’d laugh and others would push in to see.

“The Economics of Freedom” is one of the video stories we produced about two programs Free the Slaves and one of its local partners, ASSODIP, implement in Rubaya to help survivors of slavery regain their livelihoods. One of the programs gives slavery survivors vocational training and the tools to become a small business owner. For men, this means barbering, and for women, tailoring. The second program is a savings and loan program, where survivors contribute to a weekly savings account and are given interest-free loans to help their small businesses. These programs go hand-in-hand for helping survivors regain their livelihoods and break the cycle of slavery.

The other video story we produced is “Movie Night in the Congo,” which is about a fictional film that the US State Department, Free the Slaves and one of its local partners, Search for Common Ground, collaborated to produce with a production company based in the DRC, called Collywood. The Swahili film illustrates three of the main types of slavery that exist in the remote villages — debt bondage slavery, child slavery, and sex slavery. The film is a tool for teaching villages about the threat of slavery, and how to fight against it. By taking the film into these villages and projecting it for all to see and understand, Free the Slaves and its partners are creating awareness, which is the best way to begin to tackle the problem, by informing the ones who are most vulnerable or susceptible to slavery. The video we produced, “Movie Night in the Congo”, is about the first mobile cinema screening of “We Are Not Slaves” in the village of Rubaya. Our video will also be presented to the US State Department, which is an exciting opportunity!

We spent two nights in the village of Rubaya, in order to cut down on our back-and-forth transit and save our necks from whiplash. We stayed in a “hotel” — the only lodging option for visitors — called Sun City. Our room was a plywood box with no windows. We had to bring our own mosquito net, and we were glad we did even though there were no mosquitos. The mosquito net gave us a sense of protection on our second night when we were woken up by a rustling noise. Jordan woke up to the plastic shopping bag noise, who then proceeded to shake Cassie awake. “Something’s in our room!”, he whispered franticly. Cassie, still in a drowsy slumber, took a while to process what was going on. At first she was terrified, thinking a person was standing in the pitch-black room, but then was relieved when she heard the plastic bag rustling. “I think there’s a rat going through our food bag,” Jordan said. Cassie laughed in relief. “Should I get the flashlight?”, Jordan asked. Cassie voiced that she thought that was a good idea, but what felt like five minutes passed and Jordan, having not moved a muscle repeated his question. Cassie laughed again, knowing that if anyone had to rat-proof the room, it was going to have to be her. As Cassie moved the food bag out of the room, Jordan said as serious as he could be, “I wish this were a vivid dream.” Unfortunately, it wasn’t just one of the side effects of our malaria medication.

After we finished our four days of filming in the village of Rubaya, we closed our week in the DRC with a photography and website training for the Free the Slaves partners, as we always do on their projects. Then we transitioned into our editing phase, nine nights in a safer climate right across the border — in the slice of paradise otherwise known as Serena Hotel in Gisenyi, Rwanda. This resort is as good as it gets in the heart of Africa. Situated on the shore of Lake Kivu with views of the rolling hills beyond the lake and a volcano behind, the Serena may be located in one of the most beautiful places in the world.

As we relaxed on the beach looking out at God’s creation, we were tempted to go swimming but then decided against it because the lake has been known to kill hundreds of people a year with pockets of CO2 and Methane that bubble up from the bottom, suffocating swimmers and people close by on the shore. They even have a word for it — Mazuku — which means “evil wind” in Swahili. It’s also situated right next to Africa’s most active volcano, Nyiragongo, and you can see the lava’s red glow and steam rising above the top at night. If it were to erupt it would set off a chain reaction, releasing the billions of cubic yards of gas beneath the lake and suffocating people within a huge radius. On top of all that, it is the location of the world’s most frequent lightning strikes. These are just the things we thought about as we sat beneath an umbrella a few feet from the water, thinking about jumping in. We did swim in the pool though, just not during the frequent rain and thunderstorms that came without warning.

Like our accommodations in Delhi, the Serena in Rwanda also had a decadent continental breakfast, which included at least 10 different choices of fresh squeezed tropical juices, which you could then mix to make an infinite number of juice options. There were also countless of options of fresh fruit (our favorite being the passion fruit) and fresh baked goods, as well as anything you’d like to order from the chef. Every detail was elaborately thought of, from the art in the milk of the cappuccino to the purse-holder stand the staff would bring out for Cassie’s suspiciously oversized bag. Over one of our breakfasts on the patio overlooking Lake Kivu, we basked in the sun and found ourselves in deep conversation about how we imagined our time in Africa and the reality we experienced. We’d been so worried about our security due to the State Department’s travel advisories that we hadn’t even let ourselves imagine the beauty in the landscape and people we would come across. We felt that God had gone before us in every way, including His arranging of Christians to work with us so we were driven around listening to gospel praise music and eventually entered into spiritual conversations with them.

Every day in the DRC and Rwanda was a blessing and answer to prayer. Since Gisenyi is so safe, we even ventured out for dinner a few nights, where we enjoyed the local culture including lively choreographed dances set to American hip-hop music. When it came time to leave for New York, we were reluctant — not because we weren’t looking forward to our next projects, but because we were enjoying Rwanda so much. We hope we’re fortunate enough to go back again.

As always, if you are moved or inspired by the work of Free the Slaves and their partners, Search for Common Ground and/or ASSODIP, we encourage you to visit their websites and consider joining their efforts to end slavery in the DRC and around the world.

2 thoughts on “The Beauty of the Congo

  1. Your job is great,am so proud being part of your team for this shootting in Rubaya,
    i wish you guys all the best,and more success.

  2. I laughed histerically at the rat incident. So Cassie and Jordan!
    love mom

    I am so proud of your work and of both of you!

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