Africa has been one of my great loves since I first traveled there 14 years ago. I've been captivated since the first time I set foot on its red soil for Peace Corps. I met my wife there. And I truly believe that there's no place on earth that tests the will, breaks the body and yet exalts the spirit like Africa.
But the tiny country where I lived, Togo, is almost idyllic when compared to the place I'm traveling this weekend: the war-torn eastern reaches of the Democratic Republic of Congo. It is home to one of the world's most horrific ongoing tragedies. It is where Mercy Corps is carrying out some of its most lifesaving work, providing water and other critical assistance to more than 100,000 war-displaced people every day.
There are few places that capture the imagination like Congo — its very name implies unexplored mysteries. But there's very little mystery in what's happened to the place — and especially its people — over the last decade. The facts speak for themselves:
- Since 1998, at least 5.4 million people have perished because of the conflict. That's the most war deaths since World War II, and nearly seven times more fatalities than the Rwandan Genocide.
- In Congo, about 1,200 people die each day, mostly from conflict-related disease and hunger. That adds up to at least 36,000 people every month.
- Cholera, an often-fatal disease caused by poor sanitation and contaminated water, is spreading through displacement camps at an alarming rate. Almost 1,000 new cases were reported in a single province last November.
- There are more than one million displaced people in eastern Congo, including 250,000 forced from their homes over the last four months.
Once I hit the ground, my daily itinerary will depend on what's going on: whether there's combat between rebel factions, which roads are safe to travel and where the displaced populations are headed. I will mostly be traveling to the sprawling displacement camps where Mercy Corps works. I will bring you the stories of the people I meet — and do my best to convey their voices, their challenges and their spirit.
That spirit is one of the reasons I fell in love with Africa. Because no matter the depths of poverty or desperation of daily life, there is kindness there. There is generosity. There are smiles, in spite of everything.
And that's what I know I'll find on eastern Congo's rocky ground.