What to do when a Congolese bishop says, 'You must be our voice'

How do I tell a brilliant and kind religious leader that it is not my job, as a researcher, to be the voice for the Congolese people, that he is a far better voice than I could ever be? They didn't cover this in graduate school.

Mary Knox Merrill/The Christian Science Monitor/File
Congolese who've been forced to flee their homes due to war sit in a United Nations camp for internally displaced people (IDPs) outside of Goma, Democratic Republic of Congo.

My research in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) is about social services, which means that when I'm here, I spend a lot of time in church offices.

Religious groups run almost all of what's left of the DRC's education and health care systems, and they do a lot of work in democracy promotion, child protection, reintegration of former combatants, and other sectors. Every major religious organization has a bureau de coordination at which you can find various bishops, coordinators, counselors, secretaries, pastors, and assistants who are in charge of all these programs.

Friday, I found myself at the office of one church in Butembo.

I met with the appropriate authorities, gathered statistics on the number of schools and hospitals and clinics they run, and got ready to leave. As I stood up to go, they said, "You need to greet our bishop." And so we went to greet the bishop, who not only speaks English, but who proceeded to tell me that the day prior, on a long drive through the mountains, he had prayed to ask, "Who will come and help us?" And he looked at me and said, "And now you have come. And you must be our voice. You must be our ambassador, to tell the world about our lives here." He used the word "sauti," Swahili for "voice."

And then the bishop blessed me and I left.

They didn't cover this in graduate school. How people will pin their hopes, their belief that one day things will get better, on a foreigner simply because of the fact that you are there. How do you tell a brilliant and kind man that it is not your job to be the sauti for the Congolese, that he is a far better voice for this place and these people than I could ever be?

I can't be the sauti for the eastern Congo. But here is what I can tell you: there are churches in a medium-sized city in North Kivu. They run hospitals, clinics, and most of the schools. Life is very difficult in this city; most of the population are desperately poor, there are urban IDPs (internally displaced people) and former child soldiers everywhere, and the state is weak. But there are schools, and they open their doors day after day, year after year, so that children can be educated. There are health centers, where only basic medications are available, but there are nurses who care, doctors who make miracles happen without the right equipment, and specialists who nurse dying children back to health. And there is a bishop who wants you to know that this work exists.

--- Laura Seay blogs at Texas in Africa.

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