Friday, December 28, 2012

The Beauty of Collaboration

Even the most intimate of stories is not told in a vacuum. Storytelling by its very nature is born of collaboration—a connection between the storyteller and the audience. As the storyteller, I feel very fortunate to have a group of committed friends who have shown interest in my story and have encouraged me to share this story with a wider audience. To me, my story is just an ordinary story and for a very long time, I did not see why anyone would be interested in reading about it. But the more I shared the rough drafts of my life’s journey with my colleagues, the more they encouraged me to pursue a formal path of literary publication. And I am glad they were very persistent and convinced me to pursue this path.

The process of working on this memoir has been a journey of self-discovery. And one of the best decisions that I made as I decided to embark on this path was to enlist the help of my colleague Elysia Kotke. With her expertise as an editor and writer, Elysia has been able to go through and make sense of my mountains of story drafts and information about my life experiences, and she has provided the guidance for me to tell my story in a more powerful way.

It is my hope that throughout the course of 2013 you will get to meet some of my colleagues who have been very supportive with this project. And today, I would like to introduce you to one of them: Elysia Kotke. I will let her tell you about herself. Elysia, the stage is now yours…

“Words form a tender bridge extending across distances of time and space to create a place where author and audience can connect.”                       - Anonymous

I can remember clearly the day that I met Chingwell. As an introverted writer born and raised in the Midwest, I’m more comfortable behind the scenes; I often feel shy meeting people for the first time, but Chingwell’s genuine warmth and gentle spirit put me at ease. When I listened to her talk about her work in the DR Congo, her passion inspired me to believe again that maybe I too could make a difference in the world.

Now, having worked with Chingwell for the past three years, I feel that we have formed a unique bond. Although, we have grown up in different cultures and lived different lives, we seem to intuitively understand one another. And we are united by a mutual desire to uncover the commonalities of our experiences.

When Chingwell approached me with the idea of Remember for Me, I was thrilled by the possibility. But the reality of the project has surpassed my expectations. Through written drafts and interviews, Chingwell has shared with me the raw material of her story—her memories and experiences. And with careful hands I have worked to gently shape these stories while always striving to preserve the natural beauty of her voice and the powerful authenticity of her memories.

In this way, I have been blessed with the opportunity to stand quietly over her shoulder, to witness and connect with her stories—and to discover the universal truths and experiences that unite our different lives and cultures. I have laughed and cried; I have learned so much.

Last week, I attended a local school with Chingwell as she read a few excerpts from the chapters we have worked on together so far. As Chingwell read a passage from Remember for Me in which she visits her favorite river stream at five years old, the 12th grade students leaned forward to catch her soft words. When she finished, the class was silent. Then, one by one the students began to share their thoughts. One girl said “I remembered what it felt like to be five again. I felt like I was with you, but I also felt like I was myself as a child. As you were running through the jungle, I was running through my woods.”

Chingwell’s story is powerful and universal. It is the story of children everywhere—their curiosity and joy, but it is also the story of a very specific place and time, the story of what it was like to grow up as a child in a village in the DR Congo at that time. My role in this project is to edit and guide this story, to represent the audience, and to continue supporting the tender bridge of words which will one day allow many other readers to cross over and meet Chingwell as well.

Monday, December 3, 2012

The Magic of Storytelling

Growing up in the DR Congo, we did not entertain ourselves with television, movies, or even radio. We owned few books and toys. Instead, we played outside, and on dark nights when the moonlight was too faint to play our games, we gathered around the fire to listen to the stories told by our parents, relatives, and neighbors.

Many of these fables and folktales had powerful morals, but a few seemed to exist for simply the pure joy of igniting the imagination. One of my favorites was the story of the monkey and the crocodile.

The story inspired illustrator Nick Rebman
to create this humorous drawing.
One day a monkey found himself facing a problem. He needed to cross a huge river, but he didn’t know how to swim. As he paced the bank of the river trying to figure out how he would get across, suddenly, a crocodile appeared. The crocodile was very hungry and seeing the monkey, he happily thought to himself “Ah, I have found my lunch!”

But as the crocodile prepared to attack and eat the monkey up, the monkey pleaded, “Dear crocodile, I know that you are very hungry, and that you are going to eat me no matter what, but please I have one wish to ask you still. I don’t want to die on this side of the river. I would much rather die on the other side. Please dear crocodile, I would very much appreciate if you would help me cross the river. And when we get to the shore on the other side, you are welcome to eat me, and I will die happy.”

The crocodile thought for a minute and then agreed to the monkey’s request. He thought to himself “What do I have to lose? I will have my lunch, what do I care which side of the river I eat it on?” So the crocodile, picked up the monkey, tossed him on his back, and the unlikely pair began to make their way across the river.

But as they neared the far shore, the monkey jumped from the crocodile’s back, and ran as fast as he could until he reached the high lands where the crocodile could not follow. The monkey looked back, yelling at the crocodile, “how stupid you are crocodile! Did you think I would sit quietly and let you eat me? You must be nuts crocodile!” And the monkey ran off, leaving the crocodile helpless at the shore of the river. The crocodile was very hungry and angry indeed!

I loved this story as a child and asked to hear it over and over again. I loved imagining the huge crocodile carrying the monkey on his back—a small passenger who had just tricked him in order to get across the lake. Even at the end, I always felt scared for the monkey, and hoped that he would never return to the same river.

The world is changing very quickly, but the magic of stories and the power of storytelling lives on. Even in the rural communities of the DRC, such as the one that I grew up in, technology, climate change, and the progression of time are altering the traditional ways of life. I feel it is more important now than ever to remember and record our stories and our shared history.

By sharing my story in this memoir, I invite you to join the circle around the fire—and share your own story as well.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Remember for Me

You may have noticed a recent update to the working title of my memoir. As this memoir has progressed and the story has unfolded, “Remember for Me” has emerged as the title that best fits this story. Throughout the writing and editing process, I constantly find myself thinking back to the words my mom spoke to me on a phone call from the Congo in March 2012.

“As I am starting to forget and may not always remember what I say or tell you, I want you to remember for me. Write it down so that you will remember and remind me.”

With this request, my mom was asking me to remember for her in a literal sense. In the past few years her health has become more of a concern. And a recent stroke has sometimes made it difficult for her to remember details of her past.

But in this request, she was also asking me to remember figuratively. To remember not just for her, but also for my grandmother, for all of the people I grew up with, for our small village community, for my nieces and nephews, and to remember a way of life that is connected to the dreams of our ancestors.

Faced with our own mortality, we begin to ask ourselves: how will we be remembered? What is worth remembering? As I write this story, I realize that the true purpose of this story is to remember our mothers. We remember the women they were, the women they became and honor the women, we as their daughters, have become today—our lives intertwined, can never be completely separated.

By remembering where we come from, we are remembering who we are.

Remember for Me!

Monday, November 12, 2012

Pulling Back the Veil

Some time ago I watched a video that touched me deeply. The video depicts scenes and people from everyday life in Afghanistan. This is an Afghanistan not seen in the news—a place and people obscured by turmoil and war. In an interview with The Atlantic, the filmmakers said, “With this film we don't want to exclude the ongoing war but we wanted to show another reality of Afghanistan, which shows daily life that is still going on.”

I hope that by sharing my story of growing up in the DR Congo, I too will be able to show you another reality of my home, one which is about solidarity and universal experience, more so than war and poverty. With this memoir I hope to draw back the veil on some of the scenes of daily life, the beauty, joy, and resourcefulness of the people that has been buried beneath the more dominant story of the ongoing war in the DR Congo.

One of my most vivid memories of my childhood was accompanying my mom to her restaurant in the commercial district of our village. The sights, sounds, and smells of a bustling rural market where everyone traveled on foot or by bike were forever imprinted on my young mind. It was a community of people who were deeply connected—held together by a mutual need and experience. Here I came to understand the value of social capital. I witnessed the extraordinary resourcefulness and determination of people working with the resources that were available to them that day. And above all, I came to learn my mother’s business philosophy which placed greater importance on the dignity of others than immediate financial profit.

Here is an early excerpt describing these experiences. Please comment and share your impressions!

The Village

Twenty minutes later we were approaching the village’s commercial district. The road on either side of us was lined with towering mango and flamboyant trees, their vibrant red and yellow, five-petal flowers and waxy green leaves creating a corridor of brilliant color. Along the way, we passed other travelers on bike or foot, and Mom greeted each of them. It would have been almost unheard of to pass someone without acknowledging them. Several times on the ride, when we had passed one of Mom’s close friends, or someone of special importance, Mom had stopped and gotten off the bike to pay her respects and get the latest news.

Now, as we entered the market neighborhood, I saw that almost every house that we passed had its own flamboyant tree in front. In the shade cast by the umbrella of branches, each homeowner had set up their own small stand selling a wide variety of produce and livestock. We passed merchants selling crowded stalks of bananas, chickens in hand-woven crates, bushels of leafy green legumes, small, strong-smelling pineapples, ripe red tomatoes, goats standing placidly at the end of their tethers. There were mushrooms of all shapes and sizes—baskets full of mushrooms as small as buttons, and individual mushrooms as large as umbrellas; red, pink, and yellow tree mushrooms, freshly harvested from the forest. In a flash, I saw small, egg-shaped eggplants with a wonderful bitter taste unlike eggplants in the U.S., and baskets of small edible seeds, or sacks of dried wax worms—a special delicacy. I gripped Mom’s waist tightly as I drank in all of the new sights, sounds and smells of village life outside of the Mission.

Our first destination was the huge open market two blocks from the restaurant where Mom bought the ingredients she would need for that day. Located at the intersection of four different regions, Musumba was a major center of commerce for indigenous residents. Traders came from all directions to buy and sell their goods in our village. And today, like usual, the market was bustling—everywhere I looked people were unloading things from their bikes, arranging their goods, and shouting greetings to Mom and one another. Never had I seen so many people in one place.

They were all around us—walking, talking, laughing, singing, greeting each other, and hollering to attract customers. For those who already had a captive audience, the dance of making a deal had begun. The negotiations were endless, as the prices were never set, but instead determined by what the seller thought the customer could afford, and how eager they were to sell their stock. Gesturing and laughing, vendors and customers, went back and forth, playing the game by in turn bluffing and calling each other’s bluffs. These interactions were quite time-consuming and through this practice strong relationships were built up slowly over time.

[This chapter goes on to talk about the way bartering and credit worked in the market; the daily flag-raising ceremony; Mom’s restaurant, how she prepared food, and how her customers were served and ate; Mom’s business philosophy; and my experiences playing with children from the village (outside of the Mission).]

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Friday, May 25, 2012

A Place of Reflection

A few years ago, I was traveling with some coworkers along a rural road in the DRC. Suddenly, our car blew a tire. This event in itself was not extraordinary—car tires don’t last long on the rough roads in this area. But a year later I happened to be traveling along the same road, and our tire blew out in the exact same spot!

Luckily, I had my camera with me this time and snapped the picture you see at the top of this page. I took this picture spontaneously, but I can now see how it fits into a bigger story. To me, this photograph represents a place of unexpected reflection. Twice, I have been halted in this place—forced to pause and reflect on the road behind me and the path ahead.

In many ways, the process of writing my memoir has been a similar experience. Unexpectedly, I have felt compelled to begin writing about my life—both in the DRC and the US. Recording my memories and reflecting on these stories has forced me to pause and look back on my journey. As if through the lens of a camera, I see my experiences in a new light and with a new focus. Just as I look behind me on the road, I also turn and look ahead, peering into the distance to see where the path leads.

My hope is that once this process is complete and the journey has been resumed, this memoir can serve as a snapshot—not just of my own life, but also of the many people I have met along the way.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Going Back to the Beginning

“As I am starting to forget and may not always remember what I say or tell you, I want you to remember for me. Write it down so that you will remember and remind me.”

My mother spoke these words to me on a phone call from the Congo in March 2012. Unbeknownst to her, I had already begun writing.

About a month earlier, I had been struck with the urge to write. I am not a writer by trade, so I have no idea where this impulse came from or where I found the audacity to tackle such an undertaking. But at the time, I simply felt compelled to remember and record.

I closed my eyes and called upon my oldest memories. I was back in the Congo. The colors, scents, and emotions of my childhood bloomed around me in luscious, vibrant tones. I heard the many voices of my youth laughing, scolding, greeting, teaching, and singing—always singing.

But my journey did not end in the Congo. I now recalled my seemingly impossible journey to the U.S. as a 17-year-old girl, separated from my family for the first time, and speaking no English whatsoever. I arrived in Iowa to a new world of electricity, running water, moving pictures, and white faces.

Finally, I began to think about my time as a student in graduate school. As I completed my degrees, I began to make the natural transition into adulthood—taking responsibility for the world around me and making choices about my own impact. I found that I was inspired by the women I had known, both in the Congo and the U.S., and their natural entrepreneurial skills. I knew that my mission in life was to support and connect these women.

Now, reflecting on my story as a whole, I realize that it is not mine alone. It is my mother’s story as well. It is the story of my sisters, cousins, grandmothers, and all of the women in my village. It is the story of countless brave and passionate women in the U.S. and around the world. Our lives, intertwined and interdependent, are impossible to separate.

Just as my story does not stand alone, it will also take a village to realize this book. How can you be a part of this journey?

1) Help fund this project. We need to raise $7,500 to cover the initial production costs. This money will allow us to prepare the manuscript and obtain the support of a major publishing house. Anyone who donates $50 or more will receive a complimentary copy of the book when it is eventually published.

2) Help spread the word. Each week we will post excerpts and progress updates on this blog, and also on Facebook ( and Twitter ( You can follow our progress and encourage others to do the same. This will show a potential publisher that there is interest in this story.

Please consider supporting this project, and help me share this beautiful and empowering story!