FILE – In this Monday, June 29, 2020 file photo, clockwise from top left, Simone Ngalula, Monique Bitu Bingi, Lea Tavares Mujinga, Noelle Verbeeken and Marie-Jose Loshi pose for a group photo during an interview with The Associated Press in Brussels. Five biracial women born in Congo when the country was under Belgian rule who were taken away from their Black mothers and separated from their African roots are suing the Belgian state for crimes against humanity. The case is being examined on hursday, Oct. 14, 2021 by a Brussels court. (AP Photo/Francisco Seco, File)
‘BRUSSELS (AP) — A court in Brussels has started considering a crimes against humanity lawsuit brought by five biracial women who were born in Congo and taken away from their Black mothers when they were little and the country was under Belgian colonial rule.
Lea Tavares Mujinga, Monique Bintu Bingi, Noelle Verbeken, Simone Ngalula and Marie-Jose Loshi are suing the Belgian state in hopes it will recognize its responsibility for the suffering of thousands of mixed-race children. Known as “metis,” the children were snatched away from families and placed in religious institutions and homes by Belgian authorities that ruled Congo from 1908 to 1960.
“My clients were abducted, abused, ignored, expelled from the world,” lawyer Michele Hirsch said Thursday as a court in the Belgian capital examined the civil case. “They are living proof of an unconfessed state crime, and soon there will be no one left to testify.”
The five women have requested compensation of 50,000 euros ($55,000) each.. The court is expected to deliver a verdict within six weeks.
The five women, all born between 1945 and 1950, filed their lawsuit last year amid growing demands for Belgium to reassess its colonial past.
In the wake of protests against racial inequality in the United States, several statues of former King Leopold II, who is blamed for the deaths of millions of Africans during Belgium’s colonial rule, have been vandalized in Belgium, and some have been removed.
In 2019, the Belgian government apologized for the state’s role in taking thousands of babies from their African mothers. And for the first time in the country’s history, a reigning king expressed regret last year for the violence carried out by the former colonial power.
Hirsch said Belgium’s actions are inadequate to what her clients experienced.
“The Belgian state did not have the courage to go all the way, to name the crime, because its responsibility incurred damages,” the lawyer said.. “Apologies for history, yes, but reparations to the victims, no.”
Lawyers say the five plaintiffs were all between the ages of 2 and 4 when they were taken away at the request of the Belgian colonial administration, in cooperation with local Catholic Church authorities.
FILE – In this Monday, June 29, 2020 file photo, from left, Marie-Jose Loshi, Monique Bitu Bingi, Lea Tavares Mujinga, Simone Ngalula and Noelle Verbeeken speak with each other as they as they look over papers during an interview with The Associated Press in Brussels. Five biracial women born in Congo when the country was under Belgian rule who were taken away from their Black mothers and separated from their African roots are suing the Belgian state for crimes against humanity. The case is being examined on hursday, Oct. 14, 2021 by a Brussels court. (AP Photo/Francisco Seco, File)
According to legal documents, in all five cases the fathers did not exercise parental authority, and the Belgian administration threatened the girls’ Congolese families with reprisals if they refused to let them go.
The children were placed at a religious mission in Katende, in the province of Kasai, with the Sisters of Saint Vincent de Paul. There, they lived with some 20 other mixed-race girls and Indigenous orphans in very hard conditions.
According to the lawyers, the Belgian state’s strategy was aimed at preventing interracial unions and isolating métis children, known as the “children of shame,” to make sure they would not claim a link with Belgium later in their lives.
Legal documents claim the children were abandoned by both the state and the church after Congo gained independence, and that some of them were sexually molested by militia fighters.
“If they are fighting for this crime to be recognized, it is for their children, their grandchildren. Because the trauma is transmitted from generation to generation,” Hirsch said Thursday. “We ask you to name the crime and to condemn the Belgian state.”
As the latest wave of xenophobic attacks in South Africa dies out, churches in the country and others on the continent are demanding an end to the persistent problem, affecting economic migrants in one of Africa’s biggest economies.
The attacks, targeting nationals from other African countries, began in early September with mobs looting foreign-owned businesses in Johannesburg, the nation’s financial capital. The violence – which left at least 12 people dead — also triggered revenge attacks and looting in Nigeria, Zambia and Congo.
“The attacks jettison cultural and ideological philosophies of Ubuntu (humanity) and Ujamaa (oneness),” said the Rev. Lesmore Gibson Ezekiel, a Nigerian who heads the Peace, Diakonia and Development department of the All Africa Conference of Churches, a continentwide ecumenical group. “This culture of violence must be rejected by all with accompanying actions of entrenching a culture of hospitality.”
Ezekiel urged the government and churches in South Africa to tackle the “recurrent and needless attacks on fellow Africans, who find South Africa as a safe space to thrive and (who) contribute to its well-being.” He urged the churches to open their doors to the migrants seeking protection and shelter and to provide humanitarian support as well as psycho-social support to them.
“We commit (AACC) to accompany all stakeholders in South Africa and the continent … to bring to a halt all acts that project Africa as a continent that eats its own,” said Ezekiel.
This is not the first time South Africa has experienced xenophobic attacks. Before the country’s independence in 1994, immigrants still faced violence and discrimination. The problem continued in post-independent South Africa, with about 67 people dying between 1994 and 2008. The attacks peaked in 2008, with violence and looting targeting Mozambicans and leaving more than 60 people dead. Those attacks ended with the deployment of the army, but nearly 20,000 people were displaced and countless injured. The violence resurfaced in 2015 and 2018 and has been occurring in poor neighborhoods in Cape Town, Durban and Johannesburg.
According to Ishmael Tongai, a self-employed Zimbabwean residing in Cape Town, the attacks often spark over allegations that foreign African nationals are taking away jobs meant for South Africans.
“Foreign African migrants are found (in) all sectors of the country’s economy. There are doctors, teachers, vendors and academics. Pastors and priests are also finding space among the millions of Christians,” said Tongai.
South Africa, with a population of about 55 million, estimates that more than 2.2 million foreign nationals from African countries live there. Although most migrants have arrived in search of jobs, the country’s unemployment rate is estimated at 29 percent.
South Africa’s president, Cyril Ramaphosa, apologized for the attacks but said they presented an opportunity for the continent to tackle poverty, unemployment and inequality, according to news reports.
While the country urged other African nations to manage the migration of their citizens, several African nations pushed back, calling on South Africa to protect their nationals.
But some South African religious leaders questioned the role of political leaders in the violence. Roman Catholic Cardinal Wilfrid Napier, who heads the KwaZulu-Natal Church group, said the clerics are concerned that some politicians are responsible for the violence through their derogatory and inflammatory statements about migrants, refugees, asylum seekers and other vulnerable people, according to the African News Agency on Sept. 9.
“Poverty and competition for scarce resources are some of the factors contributing to this violence,” said Napier. “Violence is not a solution, and blaming the weak and the marginalized is not a solution.”
Nigeria has taken a hard stand, saying it will evacuate about 600 of its nationals trapped in the violence. The West African country’s Catholic bishops censured the attacks but also praised the response to them by the Southern African Catholic Bishops’ Conference.
“We advise Nigerians living at home and abroad to be good and law abiding,” said Archbishop Augustine Akubeze, the president of the Catholic Bishops Conference of Nigeria.
Noting that Nigeria and South Africa have long-standing diplomatic relations, the archbishop urged the two nations to work to solve the problem affecting their people.
Congolese gynecologist and Nobel Peace Prize winner Dr. Denis Mukwege, in his office at Panzi Hospital on Feb. 6, 2013, in eastern Congo. Photo by PINAULT/VOA/Creative Commons
NAIROBI, Kenya (RNS) — At a tender age, Denis Mukwege accompanied his father, a Pentecostal church pastor, as he moved around the villages of Congo’s South Kivu Province praying for sick parishioners.
Those experiences inspired Mukwege to become a doctor — and later to found Panzi Hospital, a church-run facility in Bukavu, a community in eastern Congo. There, Mukwege has become known as the doctor who heals women suffering horrific damages after rape.
On Oct. 5, Mukwege and Nadia Murad, a young Iraqi human rights activist, won the 2018 Nobel Peace Prize for their efforts to end the use of sexual violence as a weapon of war and armed conflict in their countries.
The 63-year-old gynecologist, a Pentecostal Christian, is the medical director at Panzi Hospital, where for two decades he has treated thousands of women and girls badly mutilated after being subjected to rape.
In eastern Congo, armed men have been using rape as a weapon of war in a prolonged conflict largely centered on the control of mineral wealth. The region is rich in tantalum, a rare earth metal, along with tungsten and gold.
“I think they want to destroy the community. They rape in the presence of family members and the villagers,” Mukwege told this writer in an interview at Panzi Hospital at the peak of the violence in 2009.
“I feel bad when I see children, the same age as mine, have been raped, and they have been destroyed. They have no rectum, no sex organs, and this has been done by men who just want to destroy. This affects me as a person.”
But at the hospital, survivors of sexual violence have been finding help.
The doctor has been performing reconstructive surgery, giving them a new lease of life. And when they leave the hospital, the women are also emotionally and mentally empowered, apart from receiving financial and educational support to help rebuild their lives.
Since its founding, the hospital has treated more than 85,000 women and girls with complex gynecological injuries. More than 50,000 are survivors of sexual violence.
Rape survivors learn practical skills while recovering at Panzi Hospital in Bukavu in eastern Congo in 2009. RNS photo by Fredrick Nzwili
The doctor has dedicated his award to women all over the world harmed by conflict and suffering violence every day.
“Indeed, this honor is an inspiration because it shows that the world is … paying attention to the tragedy of rape and sexual violence and that the women and children who have suffered far too long are not being ignored,” Mukwege said in a statement released soon after he learned of the prize. He was in the midst of a surgery when the announcement was made.
“This Nobel Prize reflects this recognition of the suffering and the need for just reparation for female victims of rape and sexual violence in countries across the world and all continents.”
According to the doctor, the Nobel Prize will have real meaning only if it helps mobilize people to change the situation for victims of armed conflict. For years, he has advocated for the reclassification of sexual assaults, gang rapes and sexual mutilations by soldiers as war crimes. He has taken this advocacy to the United Nations, the U.N. Security Council and other international organizations.
Since the beginning, his work has been inspired by his faith.
In 1999, he founded the Panzi Hospital with support from the Communauté des Eglises de Pentecôte en Afrique Centrale. CEPAC, which was founded in 1921 by Swedish Pentecostals, is one of the largest Pentecostal groups in Congo. The church manages the hospital.
Although the hospital’s main focus is to offer medical and psychological treatment to survivors of sexual violence, it runs other projects too, including a training for medical staff on repair of fistulas, an HIV and AIDS program and a nutrition one, among others.
In Congo, CEPAC has an estimated membership of about 800,000 in more than 700 congregations concentrated in the eastern parts. The church runs more than 1,000 schools and about 160 health centers and implements several humanitarian and development projects in the war-torn region.
“We (churches) see Dr. Mukwege as a true blessing and a gift from God to CEPAC and Congo,” the Rev. Mateso Muke, spokesman of the 8th Community of Pentecostal Churches in Central Africa, said in a telephone interview Thursday (Oct. 18). “It’s a rare commitment to be helping ordinary citizens badly affected by violence, especially women. He is a true patriot.
“The award has given a good image to CEPAC and its work. Through him Congo and Africa have got a true defender of peace,” added Muke.
Other churches in eastern Congo have welcomed news of Mukwege’s Nobel Prize, saying it will boost the war against sexual violence in the region.
“We are very happy,” Bishop Josue’ Bulambo Lembelembe of the Church of Christ in Congo said. “This is also great recognition for the work of the church.”
Roman Catholic Archbishop Marcel Utembi Tapa of Kisangani said the award was an encouragement to all to oppose any forms of violence against women.
“The criminal use of rape as a weapon of war is a serious violation of life and respect for all human beings, especially women,” said Utembi.
A health care worker takes the body temperature of a man in Mangina, Democratic Republic of Congo, on Aug 8, 2018. Health experts began Ebola vaccinations in Congo’s northeast village of Mangina for the latest deadly outbreak. (AP Photo/Al-hadji Kudra Maliro)
Thousands of faithful in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo are staying home from church services to avoid contracting or spreading Ebola.
“We are staying in our homes. We can’t go to church and worship together as Christians,” said Daniel Sango, who spoke to Religion News Service by phone from Mangina, 24 miles southwest of the town of Beni in North Kivu. “People are afraid of contracting the virus. Many are listening to the gospel of God on radio stations.”
Thousands of churches remain closed in the country’s eastern regions as the Ebola virus continues to spread. Since August, when the latest outbreak was declared in eastern Congo, 137 confirmed or probable cases have been registered, including 92 deaths, according to the country’s health officials.
In a bid to contain the virus, religious leaders and officials have urged residents not to meet in big numbers.
Earlier this year, three Ebola patients left a treatment center in the northwestern city of Mbandaka and attended a church service, where they came into contact with other congregants. The three patients were later found dead in their homes.
“People should not meet in big number either in church or elsewhere,” said pastor Sarah Kalenga of the Church of Jesus Christ in a telephone interview from Mangina. “We are finding ways to end the spread of the virus. People should pray from their houses and God will answer those prayers. We are trusting in God, but we should not tempt him.”
Ebola, which is spread through close contact with the blood, secretions, organs or other bodily fluids of those infected, is highly contagious and can kill within days. The virus returned to Congo only days after a previous outbreak that killed 29 people was declared over in July.
The Democratic Republic of Congo in central Africa. Map courtesy of Creative Commons
Two new cases were reported in Butembo last week, according to UNICEF.
“Butembo is an important commercial city and has nearly one million inhabitants. So there is a real risk the virus could spread quickly in such a large population center,” Gianfranco Rotigliano, UNICEF representative, said in a statement last week. “The number of confirmed Ebola cases in Butembo remains limited, but we have to ensure that everything is being done now to ensure that the outbreak is controlled at this early stage.”
Religious leaders in May suspended sacraments during the Ebola outbreak to help protect worshippers from contracting the disease.
“Although Masses are continuing, sacraments such as baptism and confirmation have had to be suspended,” Monsignor Jean-Marie Bomengola, secretary of the church’s Social Communications Commission, told Catholic News Service during the summer.
The Rev. Lucien Ambunga, a Catholic pastor, was quarantined after being infected with Ebola in Mbandaka town. The priest survived after being taken to a treatment center in Bikoro, a small town in northwestern Congo. The government said the priest became infected while praying as he placed his hands on an Ebola patient in his parish.
Measures have now been taken to help prevent the spread of Ebola virus in this central Africa republic. The government and the World Health Organization said an Ebola vaccination program is underway for high-risk populations in the eastern part of the country, including North Kivu.
“Vaccines are an important tool in the fight against Ebola,” said Oly Ilunga, the country’s minister of health. “This is why it has been a priority to move them rapidly into place to begin protecting our health workers and the affected population.”
A health care worker wears virus protective gear at a treatment center in Bikoro, Democratic Republic of Congo, on May 13, 2018. (AP Photo/John Bompengo)
Officials are doing what they can to encourage locals’ cooperation with prevention measures.
“We have decided to make treatment free to remove the financial barrier that could dissuade the population from going to the health center,” said Bathe Tambwe, an official in charge of coordinating the fight against the disease in eastern Congo.
However, some locals have dismissed use of the Ebola vaccine, saying it does not work. Many said they are prevented from mingling with others or even going to church after being vaccinated.
The mystery of the Ebola virus has left some locals believing that it is a curse or the result of evil spirits and that it can only be solved by prayers and fasting.
“I don’t think this is normal disease that doctors can handle. It’s brought by evil spirits as a punishment to the community,” said Sango, 30, a father of two who owns a butchery in Mangina. “We need to come together as a community and ask God for forgiveness for the sins we committed.”
Meanwhile, Christians in the eastern part of the country continue to pray at home for the end of Ebola and also to keep up the faith.
“Some of us have turned our houses to be churches. We sing, dance and pray to move closer to God. We read our Bibles and pray so that the Holy Spirit can guide us,” said Sango.
When Motebang Moeketsi looks at his country, he sees the majesty of its mountains, the stillness of its rivers and the joy of its people. Moeketsi lives in Lesotho, a country that sits between the Drakensberg and Maloti mountain ranges and is surrounded by South Africa. This land of 2 million residents and numerous awe-inspiring sites is a hidden gem, too long overlooked for Moeketsi’s taste. So Moeketsi, like many of his generation, is capturing and sharing his country’s beauty for the world to see. And what is being seen is changing the world’s view of this continent.
The beauty and diversity that is Africa is coming to light in photos and video from young Africans who tweet using #TheAfricaTheMediaNeverShowsYou.
Since #TheAfricaTheMediaNeverShowsYou appeared on Twitter, the world has been taking a new look at the continent that can fit North America, China and India within its borders and still have plenty of land to spare. The diversity of cultures, clothing, modern cities, and natural landscapes reveals a side of the continent that most Westerners don’t see on their evening news or in their social studies textbooks.
“In general, the media, especially non-African media, have shown poverty and diseases … little good,” says Moeketsi, a photographer and computer engineering graduate from the University of Cape Town. “Our role as Africans is to turn this mindset around using various channels. This hashtag provides us with that platform. Africa has come a long way from the ruin created by those who now fault us for it. Images and perspective are important because how people perceive you often feeds how they treat you.”
How it got started
That was the sentiment that caused Rachel Markham of Ghana and her friend, Diana Saleh, a Somali-American, to create the hashtag back in June. The two were tired of seeing stereotypical images of the continent that only captured extreme poverty, corrupt governments and people living in jungles. According to a Fader interview, Saleh asked her followers to join her in showcasing the beauty of Africa. The hashtag hit a much-needed-to-be-addressed nerve and hundreds of images were tweeted of contemporary African fashions, amazing ancient and modern architecture and stunning people. The hashtag was mentioned more than 70,000 times in its first few weeks and beautiful images appeared on Instagram as well.
The tweets come from countries all across the African continent, showing photos of countries with growing economies, industry, new construction, energy businesses, IT and banking. As some tweeters have pointed out, all homes are not huts, every country is not at war, and not all African children have flies on their faces.
“We are attempting to change the fixated face of Africa from the dying, malnourished child, to healthy children playing,” says Moeketsi, the father of a 3-year-old son. “Hopefully, we can shed new light on our continent to those who have never been here and those who have been told by the negative images not to come.”
Images as narrative
Some in the Western world, as well as some on the African continent, see the media bombardment of African images of poverty and disease as a holdover from colonialism. Back then, it was the so-called African savages who needed to be civilized. Today’s images continue to depict African countries as powerless and in need of outsiders to take care of them rather than seeing African countries as equals in the community of nations. “By providing other images of Africa, we’re putting our continent on equal footing on the world map,” says Moeketsi. “We’re giving people an alternative, allowing them to learn about Africa’s strengths and beauty, and think about African countries as places to invest in or where they can take an extended vacation … like they would countries in Europe.”
Moeketsi joined the social media revolution a few years ago, tweeting several images he had taken with his Canon EOS. One of the favorite places in Lesotho for this sky-diving and bungee-jumping enthusiast is the scenery around Katse Dam. A photo he tweeted of its calm waters is now being used by the Lesotho Tourism Development Corporation (@VisitLesotho). “This hashtag is doing wonders for Africa,” says Moeketsi. “It’s allowing us to depict Africa exactly how we see it on a daily basis and how we would like others to see it who haven’t been here. We have our share of misfortunes, but what country doesn’t? Homeless people litter the streets of even the wealthiest nations, and yet that has not been reason enough to never zoom in on their beauty. It will always be important to show the troubles so that they are addressed, but it’s equally as important to show the good so that it can be appreciated.”
See more of Moeketsi’s photography on Twitter: @Mocats_ .
Maisie Sparks is a writer and author. Her latest book is 151 Things God Can’t Do.