Demobilized child soldiers dancing in Goma, October 2009
Before the trip of “by art we live” to the Democratic Republic of Congo, an open line of communication and collaboration was opened with Jody Kennedy who teaches Middle School students in White Plains Public Schools, NY. Ms. Kennedy currently serves as a virtual trainer and consultant with the Center for Interactive Learning and Collaboration in Cleveland Ohio. She is the founder of the Global Ambassadors program and the Global Run project which is highlighted on the United Nations’ UN WORKS For People and the Planet website. Connecting with over 26 countries, Jody provides a virtual stage for youth to share ideas, art, music, and poetry-she has pioneered live videoconferencing to promote a global, borderless classroom. Jody’s expertise in interactive technology brings young people all over the planet face to face, in real time, to celebrate culture and art and a collaborative vision of humanity.
The Global Ambassadors, who are a very inspired and inspiring group of children, were very moved to launch an Art Drive to raise awareness and raise funds for the purpose of assisting demobilized child soldiers in Congo.
After several video conferences that I was invited to by Ms.Kennedy and the Global Ambassadors, a video was produced as well as a drive to collect art supplies and materials for sending to the Congo.
Quoted from Ms. Kennedy: “These are some examples of what the students who learned about the Congo from you created in order to help teach our community about Child Soldiers! Hannah created the T shirt design,Daniella and Sophia had the idea of selling pencils for $1 to raise funds to buy more art supplies. Daniella created the drawing . Hannah is an accomplished artist for her age. She herself has said that art has taken her through some hard times in life. I think that is why she feels so connected to this project.”
The GLobal Ambassadors' pencil design
What is better than children helping children? So inspiring! Thank you to Jody Kennedy and her Global Ambassadors who are always doing so much. I am so honored to work with you.
Safari is one of the child artists profiled by “by art we live” and his story is one that moved me so greatly. Safari (a self chosen name) is a 17 year old demobilized child soldier in the DRC. I met him back in October with the great assistance of UNICEF and MONUC in a center for demobilized child soldiers in Goma. It was during a trip that I took looking for child artists in a beautiful African county ravaged by war. Safari was kidnapped from his home by the armed forces and was made into a child soldier against his will. The experience left him like other child soldiers devastated and emotionally fragile. He is a child who had seen too much and done many unnatural things.
I met Safari through “art” and I met “art” through him. Through painting he found his happy place, a place where he can be a child again, dream again, find hope and inspiration again. He loves color, painting, drawing and being in a state of peace that art allows him.
The UNICEF office in Kinshasa is being kind enough to facilitate the arrival of this first care package to Safari’s hands.
After coming back home from my trip to Congo, I keep going back in my mind to the thought of what the camera really captures. It is strange how many cultures believe truly that a photograph can capture part of their soul, and so they hesitate to let you photograph them for fear of losing part of themselves in that process. I wonder about the truth of that, because the more I look at those faces in the photos, the more I feel a strong connection to something inside of those children. It reaches deep and stirs so many feelings in me that cause me to relive the moment that I met them and the moment that photo was taken.
I love photography for that reason, to be able to reconnect to a special moment, where I can see, feel, smell and experience the elements that moved me to take the photo in the first place. Yes, for sure the soul of that moment is captured in a photo. At least it is a trigger for my soul to relive the experience and be with it again, because that is how life changing and important it was to me.
On most city streets in Congo you see painted billboards, shop signs, and wall murals that are painted in a very colorful and unique style. Maybe it is for lack of money for printed ads and signs, but it makes for such a unique look that draws your eyes to the glaring ads that if anything, make you smile and think “only in Congo”.
And something about hairdressers..they are on every corner, on every street! I asked and was told that Congolese women love to stay looking “fine”. And they most certainly do.
The people of Goma have to live with the presence of 2 ghosts haunting them every moment. The first one is Nyirangongo, the active volcano only 13 Km away, that destroyed about 40 % of the city in 2002, then erupted again in 2005. In the evenings it was so eerie to see the flames come out of the mouth of the towering volcano and wonder when it will spit its fury again.
The second ghost is lake Kivu, one of the great African lakes with a huge mysterious aura to it, and lots of toxic methane gas that is known to have killed people fishing or boating on its waters.
Sitting on the great rift valley, there is also the carbon monoxide associated with the volcano threatening the residents of Goma at all times.
and as if this was not enough, Goma borders the town of Gisenyi in Rwanda, a border that brings war, disease, conflict, kidnapping of children to the armed forces, and a flood of refugees that totaled up to 10,000 people per hour crossing into Goma.
And in spite of all that Goma is one of the most beautiful places that I have seen, and it has a charm that goes under your skin and is there to stay.
They must have hope to give hope. They cannot be struggling for survival and be expected to carry the weight and responsibility of the future. It just goes against nature not to nurture the young and helpless.
They need us who have to give. And maybe just a very small thing can change a child’s destiny. The world is built on webs of connection, it is such a mystery. One small tug this way or that could alter the balances of things. No movement is too small.
I used to feel hopeless about making a difference, because what can one person do? But I now believe that every little smile won from a sad child, every small moment of confirmation given back to a child, and every bit of dignity offered to a child who tries is a huge victory.
A tiny candle is all we need to dispel the darkness.
So, finally we ended up in one of the REEJER centers in a slum part of Kinshasa. I could not believe my eyes entering this place. It was a small courtyard with children playing soccer with a self made little ball of paper and tape, other children asleep on the dirt floor, a few dingy offices, someone asleep in a little hole in the wall, and a small classroom with a dozen children who were told to expect my visit.
It was incredible walking in there. Piercing little eyes stared at me hesitating between a smile and a defying look at first, until their “teacher” asked them who would like to show me how they can draw?
Immediately 3 eager hands flew up and 3 of the boys went up to the board to draw what they called their message to the world, my camera being the messenger that will take their message with me on the plane to the big wide world outside Congo.
They drew with chalk, a message of peace, they said they want the guns to be turned away from the children of Congo. They want to live in peace and to grow in peace.
It was very moving to hear them and to watch those children, totally abandoned by parents, step parents, orphaned, or demobilized child soldiers, who are taken in by centers like this for lack of any other facility.
They then asked me what I would like for them to show me, so I said how about a song? Can you sing something. One volunteered to sing the Congolese national anthem, and was joined instantly by a deep chorus of voices repeating “Congo” rhythmically. It was simply beautiful.
Then I was about to thank them and give them a small present for their willingness to share their time with me when they totally threw me one off left field!!
They said, “hey, how about you sing us YOUR national anthem?”
“yes” they all echoed. And they stared at me and waited. I felt pretty helpless and in all fairness I had to stand there in front of their beautiful faces and sing with my totally non melodic voice the Lebanese national anthem!
When I was done, they just cheered so enthusiastically and we all laughed so much that an unforgettable moment was etched in the story of my life.
I am so grateful for the chance to be with children like these, who in the end of the day, and after all the brutality they go through and witness, are just children. They are funny, innocent, warm, naughty, full of mischief and just plain beautiful!