Sunday May 26: Congo's Class Act - Human rights; from playing the role to living it
Me and Julie Sufu after a long day. Julie is a journalist and JHR trainer by day, but her first love is acting. (Lisa LaFlamme)
Under a full orange moon in a dilapidated concrete amphitheatre run by the local YMCA, an audience of about 50 people gave a standing ovation to a small group of actors with a big story to tell.
Performers at Kinshasa's Marabout Theatre laid out the history of the Congo. For Africa's third-largest country, it's bleak. There's unpredictable tribal rivalry, a greedy legacy of colonialism, the constant temptation of corruption and a record of sexual violence that is off the charts.
DR Congo is considered the world's largest failed state run by fear, and sadly the bottom line on the stage of this open-air theatre is that not much ever changes here, at least not for the better.
Of the four actors, Julie Sufu was the standout. By day, she's a journalist and JHR trainer, but her first love is acting.
In fact, Julie owes her professional life as a journalist to last night's playwright Ciceron Nzey van Musala. As a young girl, the teacher/author pushed her to stay in school and get a degree - on average, a rarity here.
In just one day I watched her juggle the three facets of her life in this paradoxical place where nothing is a given.
It started at a rundown university in central Kinshasa - ironically called Universite de Bel Campus.
Four young students in fresh white t-shirts stamped - JDH (Journalistes pour les Droits Humaines) were waiting to take us through the corrugated iron gates. Inside is an open dirt courtyard surrounded by rooms, as large as airport hangers.
Each one was packed with students sitting in near darkness, listening to a small voice at the front of the class.
As far as I could tell there are 5,000 students and four main disciplines of study - medicine, law, literature and communication.
One student from each faculty joined us in a narrow dirt floor space that doubled as an office. It was the unofficial meeting of the university's JHR club.
I say unofficial because anything that includes "human rights" in the title makes authorities here nervous and Le Bel Campus is reluctant to sanction the club.
Determined to make a difference, the organization has signed up 30 members. Julie knows the students by name. She and Freddy Mata have cultivated this seed protectively knowing that if anything is going to change here, it has to start with students.
Today is more than just a visit - it's an outreach to the university administration. Naregh Galoustian, the International Programs Manager from Canada, is also here to deliver two suitcase-sized amplifiers and a microphone as a gift to the university. There is an agreement that the school and the JHR club will share them and eventually Le Bel Campus will see clear to officially allowing JHR's existence.
Having wandered through several classes it is obvious that this is a well thought out offering. With no electricity, there are no lights and no audio. You can only hear the professor at the front of the class if you strain your ears.
Operated by a generator, the amps will dramatically change the ability to get the message out. In this case, it's attracting more students to the varied activities JHR offers. Imagine how much noise those two speakers will make.
The students we met identified two main human rights abuses - the cultural barrier for girls to go to school, and bribery.
I was told "there's always room for blackmail here. Whether it's getting into University or getting out with the right marks."
Remember, this is a university with spotty electricity and only a handful of computers, although the administrator wouldn't show them to me because, he said, the office was locked.
With no internet accessibility, the social media road is narrow. Students have a limited way to organize a gathering - again the speakers are the "future-past."
Walking across campus with Julie is another lesson in the power of the media here. She is constantly stopped by students who recognize her work as a journalist for a Kinshasa TV station.
She hosts a news program called "On est Ensemble" (we are together) and it covers everything from politics to culture to women's issues.
In her years as a journalist, handcuffed by a system that shuts down the truth, she defied the rules.
During the last presidential election, rumours were swirling of electoral fraud. Julie and her colleagues tracked down sources and obtained documents to prove it. She found page after page with the same voter's name and an X beside the same candidate. They also found boxes of spoiled ballots.
The story aired during the 3 p.m. news and by 3:10 her phone was ringing with government agents demanding a retraction.
The station stood by her, given the volume of evidence and despite intense intimidation against her, Julie told me the experience didn't scare her, it motivated her.
Two hours after she told me that story, Julie's bravery of a different sort was once again in full view. Singing and dancing through the turbulence of her country's past on an outdoor stage on Avenue de la Victoire.
I'm getting on a 6 a.m. UN flight to Goma - I have no idea if Ban Ki-moon's peace accord is holding because I can't get an internet connection. I guess I'll find out tomorrow.