A Trip to Africa with Nicholas Kristof

The rebel soldiers and their big guns become silent when Nakunda speaks. Even the cows in the nearby fields stop mooing. He is motioning to me, with insistence: “Have another piece of chicken.” Moments earlier, Nakunda angrily denied that his soldiers had raped and killed untold thousands in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. “I am not a warlord. I am the liberator of my people.” Either way, you best believe I was eating that chicken.

Since it is unsafe to drive in the D.R.C. at night, Nakunda provided us with several armed escorts for our return trip to the city of Goma. An 18-year-old rebel jumped in next to me and jimmied his gleaming AK-47 underneath the seat. Within minutes, he was singing, laughing, and dancing to the Congolese music on the radio. However, his mood dramatically changed two hours later as we approached an armed government checkpoint.

Parents, teachers, and youth workers know that teenagers are crazy. And now my life was in the hands of one, here in the blinding darkness of the African night. Nakunda’s rebels and the government armies are at war; four million people have died in the D.R.C. in the last 10 years. A radio journalist was murdered the day before. A government soldier approached our stopped vehicle, his machine gun poised. The rebel soldier next to me had his hands under the seat, where his machine gun waited. The government soldier peered into the back window and looked past me, right into the eyes of the young rebel soldier.

And so went night Number One in the D.R.C. on my “Win-A-Trip” journey to Africa with New York Timescolumnist Nick Kristof. As part of an annual contest, Kristof selects a student to accompany him on a reporting trip in hopes of offering a new perspective that will attract younger readers to international affairs. This year, he also chose a teacher, which is why I skipped summer school and now found myself in the midst of mosquitoes, malaria, and machine guns.

So, everyone wants to know, “What is Africa like?” I don’t know, but the D.R.C. is not good, not good at all. In the midst of a civil war that no one knows or cares about, people struggle to survive. Rape, violence, poverty, and disease are omnipresent, normal life. There is little, if any, food, clean water, medical services, etc. Speaking with the teenagers and hearing their stories and beliefs was truly heartbreaking.

Rwanda, however, was inspirational and more representative of Africa as a whole. Just 10 years after the genocide, the country is clearly on the right path. Of course the people are still poor, but they speak with optimism and hope about their present and their future. The highlight of my trip was dinner with Ange and Leela, two participants in the Orphans of Rwanda program (run by Wesleyan alumnus Michael Brotchner ’95). These two young women lost everyone and everything to the genocide, and yet they have persevered. They are now in college, with full-time jobs and career goals. “It does no good to look back, there is no time. You must move forward.” They are vivacious and as beautiful as the Rwandan countryside.

Ange and Leela remind me of the exceptional students I teach in Chicago: young people who refuse to be restrained by their environment, poverty, family, or any such obstacle. I hope my stories and photographs will encourage our high school students to recognize the common struggles, worries, pleasures, and achievements they share with young people in this region of Africa. Most important, I hope that the beauty of the young people in Africa will convince our teenagers that we are all fellow human beings, regardless of ethnicity, race, or class.