Coming from Lebanon, I get asked a lot about the civil war that ravaged my country for so many years and with that question there is always a request to clarity what the war is all about there. On many occasions I find myself likening the war to a board game. The board being the land, the game pieces as the warring parties, and the ‘players’, well these are the giants and the warlords who have their big stakes in the game. The pieces get so sucked into the game that they forget who they are and sometimes even the reason they are in it, and the rule are changed often by the warlords and handed down to the players who follow blindly.
Congo is just another board game with so many bleeding players, young, old, male, female, tossed around mercilessly and discarded as the game keeps getting played.
It is difficult to imagine in our day of gadgets and the time of i-this and i-that available to everyone in the west even small children, that in some places like Congo, this is not the case at all.
And because of that, the children I met often asked me to take a message back with me from them to the world. They spoke mostly Swahili and through their translators they told me that they would like to draw these messages for me to photograph. So here, in the Cajed center for helping the children of the street, ‘les enfants de la rue’ in Kinshasa, the volunteer teacher allowed the children to take the time and draw some messages on the blackboard. And like the children that I met in Goma, these boys also dreamt of peace, of a world with no guns, of a colorful world that included them in it…
Then they went on to sing to me very playfully and very shyly their national anthem (video). After singing, they turned to me and requested that I sing my anthem to them, which I did, a bit more shyly than they did. I sang them the Lebanese anthem, because being with them brought me back to my childhood in Lebanon, or maybe it was the school desks that took me right back to elementary school. It was a very moving day for me meeting their bright faces and sharing unforgettable moments together.
If I were to put one common word when describing children from any country, I would say ‘resilience’…
Children are developing beings, changing at a rapid speed, growing, absorbing, evolving and filled with energy that drives them through their process of becoming young adults. What I saw in a lot of the children in Congo was hope, strength, power, joy and possibility despite of and against all odds.
At the beginning of their life journey, their future is unpredictable, unknown and allowing for just anything to happen. It makes me wonder what will become of the these young bright faces that I met, where they are now and where they would be years from now.
photo taken: during a french lesson at the Cajed center for the care of ‘les enfants de la rue’ (the street children) in Kinshasa.
For ‘les enfants de la rue’, the children of the street in Kinshasa, a bit of ground in an enclosed secure place can make a world of difference where their safety is concerned. These children roam the streets by night in search of food, opportunity and means and ways. During the day, a center like this one (Cajed), is a place for them to be with people who care for a few hours. The can, eat, have lessons, play and most importantly rest. These 2 children were fast asleep during the whole of my visit and despite other children playing and running and jumping all around them.
I am quite behind in these Congo posts for April, because it gets more and more difficult each day to go relive this experience through the thousands of photos captured there. Each photograph forces me to relive the moments with all the emotions that accompanied it.
When the streets of the city are your home, when you are solely responsible for your own safety while other children are tucked safely at home, when your survival is depending entirely on the kindness of others…
These piercing eyes belong to one of the 300, 000 children that call the streets of the cities in Congo their home. “les enfants de la rue” ~ the children of the street, wild eyed, witty, emotionally fragile, hard shelled, untrusting… the sad product of a humanity gone wrong. But still the strength in them and the hope in their eyes could not be missed.
I met these children in a center in Kinshasa that offers them lessons, food, daytime shelter and guidance where needed. They sang to me, drew messages on the blackboard for me to photograph and sang me their national anthem in a most rhythmic excellence which I filmed and will share in a future post.
“We want peace in the world”… Is that too much to ask?
Every child I spoke to in Congo told me the same thing, responded the same way when I asked them what their message to the world was, what was it they wished for the most…
” I want to live a peaceful life”
“I want to be able to go to school and not be kidnapped again”
“I want the war to stop”
“I want to find my parents again and live a happy peaceful life”
This boy in Kinshasa wanted to deliver his message in artform. He wanted to draw his message and asked me to pass it on, because maybe if everyone knew that the children in Congo do not want the war, then maybe, just maybe, the world can help to stop it.
Please share this message from a young boy in Congo, the country that has lost more than 5 million people so far to a bloody conflict that spares no child, mother or old person.
Back in 2009, when I visited Congo, there were about 300,000 children roaming the streets of the country and categorized under the name “les enfants de la rue”~ children of the street.
I interviewed some of these children in the CAJED center in Kinshasa, a Congolese non-governmental organization created in 1992 to lodge, care for and support vulnerable children, including children separated from their families and those formerly associated with armed groups, before reunifying them with their families and/or reintegrating them into their home communities. CAJED has been a UNICEF partner since 2004.
This girl in the photo caught my eye as she was passing across the way. She had a haunting look to her and eyes so expressive, they took my breath away. She was not one of the children I interviewed, she was just watching from a distance and her story was kept to herself, so was her name. I call her ‘the beautiful girl in front of the yellow door’.
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.
Today was my last day in the DRC, and I had planned to visit some child artists and some centers for children of the streets. For the first time since I got here things seemed to be all going wrong. Cars coming late, information miscommunicated, child not at appointment… you name it.
By the end of it, I almost gave up and asked the UNICEF person helping me to go back and call it a day. But being as sweet as he is (a very warm and wonderful Congolese named Florent), he insisted on making some calls asking desperately for child artists for me to meet in the last 2 hours I have in Kinshasa.
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!
This was the resounding message in the faces and words of the children I met today in Kinshasa. They want the world to know what is happening to them. The girl above attends an embroidery class for “les enfants de la rue”, the children of the street. There is an incredible number of children living on the streets of Kinshasa, being abused in so many ways including the basic lack of a normal home and family life. Thanks to centers like the one I visited today, some of these children are offered a routine of normality that they so desperately need.
a girl in front of the “hope” center in Kinshasa
Children find a place to be children in centers like these, where they are protected from life on the streets.