Two women embark on the world after making unforgettable marks as Sycamores.
Violence erupted between protestors and police in the country’s capital. Images of lifeless demonstrators — people opposed to legislation that would help extend their president’s unwanted rule — spread across the globe on social media. Quickly, government officials froze communications. The internet was down. Not even calls or text messages would work.
And thousands of miles away were two Sycamores.
“We lost contact for about two days,” said Esther Musau in an interview with classmate Angelique Bokamba. “We understood that the government was crazy. It was no surprise.”
That government is the Democratic Republic of Congo. The protest in January 2015, in which dozens were killed, is an example of recent political unrest in Musau’s and Bokamba’s African country. While they manage the usual challenges of college, they also shoulder something greater — worries about their families back home. Thankfully, their families were unharmed and communication, restored.
And right now in Congo, “it’s totally messed up again,” Bokamba said.
“Congo has been a microcosm of many problems faced by most African states,” said Samory Rashid, professor of political science at Indiana State. “It’s wealthy, but its people are poor.”
Despite the country’s riches — large reserves of gold, diamonds, coltan, uranium and other commodities — 64 percent of the country’s 80 million people live in poverty. Widespread destitution, crime, human rights abuses, poor education, deficient healthcare and other troubles have long challenged the people. e country has seen brutal outbreaks of war, including the continent’s worst genocide in the 1990s.
Domestic and foreign exploitation has been behind many of those problems, Rashid said. e country’s natural resources, especially rare gems and minerals, provide just one example of how ordinary Congolese are robbed of prosperity. Because of bribery and other forms of corruption, profit from mining and selling minerals goes straight into the pockets of politicians. Or, it goes to foreign countries that enter Congo to steal those precious resources. Revenue is ultimately funneled away from the economy and Congolese communities.
“The poverty line is so high in Congo,” said Musau, a senior communication major from Kinshasa, the capital. “Everybody is ready to even kill their own brother just to have a little bit of money and o er a decent life for their family members.”
Such poor conditions have helped fuel discontent with the country’s current leadership, particularly against President Joseph Kabila’s 16-year presidency. The government’s efforts to delay presidential elections have sparked demonstrations that further rock the country’s stability.
“What you see now is a conflict mainly between the central government and everybody else,” Rashid said. “They’re tired of one person in the presidency who doesn’t seem like he’s going to leave any time soon …. People have a resentment because this person came into office with the idea of fixing things — and he didn’t.”
The episodes of violent protest, the country’s welfare and the safety of their families are some of the unimaginable worries in the hearts and minds of international students like Musau and Bokamba.
“Sometimes it can be a lot, especially since my country also fell into riots last month. And people have been killed,” Musau said. “I will say my faith really helped me bring myself together. Knowing that I don’t have to take all this alone. I also have a strong family that is very open …. Just holding onto my faith, I can take it; it’s going to be alright.”
“I used to really stress about it. I even had nightmares sometimes,” Bokamba said, a senior economics major from Lubumbashi. “But I just told myself that I should lead myself in a way that I can make a better tomorrow for my country. Worrying about it isn’t going to do anything for me. I should just learn more and hopefully change something tomorrow.”
“I have always been amazed by international students who can come to the U.S. and really excel in a strange culture,” said Tony Campbell, director of photography services at Indiana State. “Especially coming from Africa. It’s completely different. I think there’s a lot of bravery in just taking that step to get here, let alone to excel and to have a vision past here.”
Besides managing worries about home, Musau and Bokamba have had to navigate the immigration system, cultural differences, language barriers, getting involved on campus, even relatively mundane matters such as where to get groceries.
Despite the obstacles, the seniors have excelled — and racked up a list of accolades.
In the Office of Communications and Marketing, Musau works as a videographer and Bokamba as photographer — fast-paced jobs that demand artistry, technical ability and good interpersonal communication. They’re involved in campus organizations, including the African Student Union and the International Student Leadership Council. Musau’s short documentary about global perspectives on beauty standards was nominated for a lm festival. And Bokamba presented her research on Congo’s conflicts, politics and gender issues at two conferences.
“They’re outstanding students,” said Chris McGrew, director of the Center for Global Engagement. “These two Sycamores have really gone over and above what an average Sycamore goes through.”
Crediting Indiana State’s opportunities, faculty and staff, the international community and good friends, the Congolese women said they’ve grown as artists, students and individuals. Now in their final year, they said they’ve found their passions.
“I’ve become passionate about gender issues and politics,” said Bokamba, who plans to pursue a master’s degree in politics and economics. “If I’m comparing what a woman is back home to what I see a woman is capable of doing here, I feel like we are missing so much back home. We’re restrained to a position — you should be this, this and this. But you can be whatever you want to be.”
“It’s really storytelling for me,” said Musau, who aims to start her career in lm or documentary productions. “People who are different than me and kind of finding what their backstory is. That’s what I’m passionate about. Telling human stories.”
They both will take their Indiana State experiences with them as Musau pursues her career and Bokamba attends graduate school in the United States, and later when they return to the Democratic Republic of Congo. When that time comes, they know they’ll have much to do in their home country.
“When you go back, there’s much expectation on you,” Bokamba said. “People are looking at you — what are you going to change, what are you bringing back? I have that challenge with me. I know a lot of people from my country who came (to the United States), studied here and went back …. You expect things to change, but you don’t feel it. I don’t want to be like that. I want to bring change.”
And those who know these women believe they will.
“They are already amazing women — but I think they have the potential to become world changers if they choose to,” said Rachel Keyes, a photographer at the Office of Communications and Marketing. “ They both have really big dreams. They both have the strength and ability to follow those dreams through.”