JWW in the Congo: Our “Collective”
by Michael Ramsdell
Greetings JWW blog readers. My name is Mike Ramsdell. I have had the privilege of capturing this “Congo journey” in still and moving images. I am pleased that Janice has asked me write a guest blog for two reasons. The first is so I may shamelessly plug my most recent film – THE ANATOMY OF HATE: A DIALOGUE TO HOPE. (You can learn all about it at www.anatomyofhate.com) The second, and admittedly more important reason, is to speak about the one thing my travel partners have not spoken of – themselves.
At the risk of repetition, it is important that I define the scope of meaning when I refer to “my travel partners”.
13 days ago, having never met John or Diana, and having had very little interaction with Naama and Janice, we boarded an Airbus – destination: the center of Africa. From that day to this, we have flown the span of the Continental United States, the North Atlantic Ocean, Western Europe, the Mediterranean Sea and the northern half of Africa … twice. We’ve driven the entire circumference of Rwanda as well as significant snaking journeys into the belly of the North and South Kivu Provinces of Congo-Kinshasa. We’ve boated the entirety of Lake Kivu, one of the largest fresh water sources in Africa, the long way. And we’ve walked endless mountainsides, village roads, agricultural fields and the border of Rwanda and Congo-Kinshasa … twice.
For most of the trip, we 3 men on the trip shared a room – Isaiah, the Tutsi minister born in Congo who served as our interpreter, John the head of the Los Angeles Jewish Federation, and myself, a Lebanese-American filmmaker.
Our days would begin with our faithful scheduler, Naama, kicking our bedroom door at 6 am and politely telling us to get the hell out of bed. We would. The three of us stumbling from under our mosquito netting, like the perfect preface to an off- color joke – an African, an Arab and a Jew stumble around in their underwear….
At breakfast much coffee was consumed. Perhaps because it was phenomenal coffee, perhaps it was because of an addiction to caffeine, or perhaps because it was the only thing on the table. Whatever the reason, it worked – conversations and Blackberries began to hum at a frantic pace.
From there we would pile into an array of vehicles: a small van, a few station wagons, or at times an NGO caravan. The roads in Congo are reminiscent of a river-bed, long ago dried – replaced by lava flow and red clay cut through the world’s largest post-apocalyptic homeless shelter, where the only things which have survived are Chinese motorcycles and goats. Sometimes our vehicles had windows which opened, sometimes not. (And although I readily admit I contributed to the odor to an embarrassing degree, there is something quite indescribable about the smell of a taxi that has been packed full of humans and baked in the equatorial-sun for the last 30 years.) The trips on average were an hour and a half in length. During these trips conversations ranged from the definitions of Genocide and the feasibility of the previous days visits, to family anecdotes and useless trivia. All amidst a blur of power bars, text messages, and road block shakedowns.
We would arrive at our destination – a village, a hospital, a refugee camp. At times uplifted by the faces and stories, at other times the horror cut to the bone.
From there we would pile into the vehicles and do it again, and then again.
Around 6 pm, we would start back home in our square-wheeled vehicles for dinner. This was followed by hours of email attempts, photo uploads, and driving conversations about the day’s experiences. Then back to the rooms for a bucket shower and a few hours of sleep before the sound of Naama’s voice started the joke all over again.
At the end of such travels there are two possible outcomes – either you never speak with your travel mates again, or you are bonded to them in a way words and images fail to express– no matter how capable the auteur. A simple silent expression, a wordless moment, confirms that these strangers have now become woven into your experiential fabric in an inextricable way. Or more appropriate to the work we have seen –we have now become a “Collective.” A team united – working together for a communal benefit.
And what a collective it is….
Diana – the world traveler, whose kind smile and motherly voice was as comforting to those of Africa as it was to those of us from the US. Her tireless notations, questions and insights were an act of inspired will, as I’m sure she didn’t sleep a full night for the entire trip.
John – a man who wouldn’t complain under torture. His profound command of pragmatism and compassion is a balance not many can walk and even fewer can so capably articulate. In short, he is an incredibly wise man. To have John as an ally is to have an advantage.
Naama – a warrior who one day, I am quite sure, will back Genocide into a corner and kick the living hell out of it, making it beg for mercy and promise to never, ever show it’s face on this spinning rock again. I thank God for Naama.
And Mama Janice – a woman who was never short on prayers, hugs, snacks or tears. She is a force of nature with only two speeds – on and off. Her compassion, her intelligence, and her will have no linguistic or cultural boundaries. Her ability to motivate and focus, while never hesitating to meet the emotional and empathetic demands of the situation, is nothing short of amazing. In just a few days Mama Janice changed many lives in Congo. And I have no doubt that before she is done, she will change many, many more. Mama Janice – the Starfish are more grateful than you will ever know.
If this sounds as though I am boasting about Jewish World Watch – please know that I am. And not just about the four representatives with whom I had the pleasure of traveling. I am boasting about the thousands of you who have contributed and supported this incredible organization with time, money and action. I am boasting about the profound Rabbi Schulweis whose vision and wisdom catalyzed this small but fervent group of people in work that is, by anyone’s measuring stick – Godly. And I am boasting about the men and women at Jewish World Watch who are working tirelessly and passionately to bring the words “NEVER AGAIN” out of the esoteric emptiness of intention– into the Samsara of reality, where “will and action” must cut the path for prayer.
I traveled through Africa with five individuals looking for hope. And although many wonderful people with incredible stories proved hope in Congo is alive and well, I have left Africa with this collective as my most profound hope. The six of us, proof that it is not about the God we pray to, but the Peace we work for. I am certain that if enough of us heed the words of Leviticus – then we can leave our children a world we have so long aspired for and will “NEVER AGAIN” have to offer an explanation to our God or ourselves – as to why millions of our human collective were murdered in horror as we stood idly by.
“DO NOT STAND IDLY BY!”
God Bless and Shabbat Shalom,