Yesterday the Beenleigh Library hosted the 171 Club’s presentation on the Democratic Republic of Congo with Blaise Mukendi. I went along to learn more about Congo-Kinshasa (its colloquial name which distinguishes it from “Congo-Brazzaville” — Republic of the Congo) and perhaps meet and talk with some Africans.

The 171 Club is named for the number of ethnic groups identified within the southeast Queensland city of Logan, and each month the club has been showcasing a specific ethnic group in a presentation hosted by the Beenleigh Library. An initiative of the Logan City Council Libraries, the 171 Club was recently named a winner in the social inclusion category of the 2010 ALIA Library Stars program, awarded by the Australian Library and Information Association.

In attending the session, I was particularly interested to hear about the ongoing Congolese conflicts from Mukendi’s perspective. He explained how local chiefs asked families to offer their sons to fight in militias to protect their local areas from the invading foreign armies (who were actually coming into the Congo at the behest of Laurent Kabila). This was how the numbers of Congolese child soldiers first grew. They were given up by their families to fight for their nation — much as other countries (including the United States) have done in fighting their revolutionary wars.

Blaise Mukendi of DRC, October 2010
Congolese-born Blaise Mukendi has lived in Australia for a year and a half although he fled the DRC sixteen years ago.

Mukendi’s journey to Australia took him through numerous refugee camps in Kenya and Malawi. He was a valuable administrator at the camps, useful for his hard-working ethics and his fluency in many languages. This talent led to a delay in visa applications as the camp administrators did not want to lose a valuable asset.

Two years ago, he received a humanitarian visa for himself and his wife to come to Australia. However, a spiteful colleague buried the paperwork, and when the replacement visa was finally issued, it was five days after Mukendi’s daughter was born.

Of course, she wasn’t on the visa paperwork. Mukendi and his wife had to choose between leaving their daughter and fleeing to the safety of Australia or hiding out in Malawi, where they were being hunted down by men Mukendi had reported for bribes and sex crimes within the refugee camps.

It was a very difficult decision. In the end, the Mukendis left their daughter Anna with a cousin’s family and flew to Australia. Immediately upon arriving in Australia, they began lobbying for a visa for Anna and she was reunited with them in five months’ time.

Congolese women with Blaise Mukendi, October 2010
Mukendi explained that the Congolese value three things very highly: food, sleep and good dress. He brought these women up the front to display their traditional dress styles.

Later, I brought out my rusty French to speak to some of the women. Because I was familiar with their dress from my childhood in Africa, I asked about where they purchased their fabric. The ladies explained that they send money to Congo and have their family and friends send the traditional fabric over to Australia. This greatly inflates the cost of these beautiful dresses, and I appreciate their traditional outfits so much more now that I understand how difficult it is to wear something that is commonplace in Africa.

In Congo, the average life expectancy according to Mukendi is 38 years for men and 45 for women. Infant mortality is 89 deaths out of 1000 births — almost 1 out of ten! The median age of Congo’s 62 million people is 16.1 years. It is a very young country, and the future is its youth.

After the presentation, we were invited to taste some traditional Congolese food. The women had prepared fufu (pounded cassava goo), sauces and stewed cassava leaves. David and I both really liked the taste of the cassava leaves (which we knew from our time in Kenya), so I’m inspired to find and purchase some locally. (One Congolese man said that he grows them in his garden for his friends and family, but he didn’t invite me to help myself too!)

In a bizarre twist, just as I was leaving, I was asked to take some photos of two women who were holding a Congolese toddler in their arms. It reminded me of how I have often been treated when I was a minority. My sister Renée in Hong Kong encounters this all the time when complete strangers ask if they can have a photo taken with her beautiful red-haired children.

I really enjoyed the 171 Club talk. Their next talk is featuring the Oromo people from Ethiopia. If you’re in southeast Queensland, you can register to attend via this online form or ring the Beenleigh Library on 3412 4130.