Spotlight on Congolese Women: Q&A with Film Director & Activist Shana Mongwanga

Born in Bukavu, East of the Democratic Republic of Congo, Shana is a Human Rights Activist /Campaigner and also works as a  Director, Producer, Writer & Actor. She is currently based in London.

Shana Mongwanga interview.

Shana Mongwanga interview.

In response to a growing frustration and the lack of tackling the root causes of refugee issues, Shana founded AFRICA LIVES! to challenge stereotypes about developing countries, particularly in Africa, often portrayed as an un-resourceful, dying continent, and the perpetual victimization of African women. AFRICA LIVES! is an organization dedicated to projects encouraging positive social change using films, theatre and art.

Shana has directed documentaries on extremely important and difficult subject matters related to the Congo. These are just a few examples of the kind of projects she has been involved in:

In 2012, she directed ‘2016 – Congo’s New Dawn’ which questions whether 2016 can be Congo’s New Dawn, when Congolese women continue to be killed and raped and children are still slaved in mines to provide multinationals with coltan and other conflict minerals while President Kabila is still in power. The short film was screened at Cannes film festivals short-film corner in 2013, and short-listed for Sundance film festivals short-film competition in 2013.

In 2011, she directed ‘Congo – A COMMON CAUSE – From London to Bakavu’, a no-budget film by British Congolese Women about their journey in Congo to attend the World March of Women, to highlight the issues faced by women in the East of Congo.

In 2007, she directed ‘Destitute in London’, a short film about the journey of a Congolese asylum seeker in London, which was screened at Cannes film festivals short-film corner in 2008.

Shana successfully uses the arts to raise awareness about crucial issues and encourage positive social change in the Congo. Her work is inspiring and necessary – she depicts the problems that thousands of people continue to suffer with because of the destitute conditions in the DRC to an international audience.

Lisapo volunteer Alex Nicolaides interviewed Shana via email.

ANAs an African woman, who (or what) would you say has inspired you?

SM: Many things have inspired me in the past and they are a result of some of my actions today as far my activism is concerned. Now, I am in a period of reflection and growth, some will say maturity. And I think it is equally important to pause for a time and review what has been achieved, or not, and realistically look at what can be done in the future. Whether it is in our personal lives or specifically as an advocate for women’s rights in general, and in Africa, and in Congo in particular. Now I am more interested in looking into situations in a pragmatic way and deciding well, this is what I can do with whatever skills, abilities or contacts I have. You’ll notice that many women are inspired by men. Many African women build their belief systems and lives around dead men, be it Jesus or Patrice Lumumba. I am sure they were great. But I am interested in the now. How do you inspire us to better ourselves and others? Lisapo – Your blog inspired me. So I guess I am inspired by strong dynamics of real and tangible change. 

Many African women build their belief systems and lives around dead men, be it Jesus or Patrice Lumumba. I am sure they were great. But I am interested in the now. How do you inspire us to better ourselves and others?

Shana is an activist, film director, writer and actor with  a Masters in Political Science/ International Relations and is a Bachelor of Law from the Catholic University of Louvain

Shana is an activist, film director, writer and actor with a Masters in Political Science/ International Relations and is a Bachelor of Law from the Catholic University of Louvain

AN: How would you like to inspire others?

SM: Now that’s a frightfully pragmatic and direct question. We need more of that! I would like to inspire others to be free in their way of thinking and not to be afraid to take action particularly as women. The more we are, the less of a burden it is for those who are on the frontline. Sometimes it can just be little things (a share, a tweet or volunteering a few hours) but too many educated women are sitting back too quietly whilst other are on the frontline and it needs to change. There is only so much others can do. In terms of Congolese activism I note that many of the very active campaigners in the Diaspora are in their fifties or sixties, sometimes they look as youthful as any 40-year-old, but they are the ones running down the corridors of Westminster, the European Union, or the French and American Senates trying to change the dynamics. They are already a minority within a minority and they are carrying the burden of trying to redress the country in their old age. It needs to change.  The youth, Congolese educated women need to step in and do their share as well. Maybe they are too busy in their own denial. Maybe the atrocities are too much to bear; maybe the politics seem too ugly. But when we rise as women we change the dynamic in the most dramatic ways. That time is now! I hope your blog and this interview can contribute to more African and Congolese women to blog and share info about African women’s conditions. If you have time to update your status you have time to read and share important news about other women. By contrast you will see many young men leading Congolese organisations or campaigning work, which is good. But how do we ensure our agenda and message also come across?

I would like to inspire others to be free in their way of thinking and not to be afraid to take action particularly as women. Too many educated women are sitting back too quietly whilst other are on the frontline and it needs to change.

AN: What does it mean to you to be a Congolese woman?

SM: I am not sure it means anything specific, if I was a Tahitian woman witnessing injustice in my homeland I would probably act the same, using film and art to campaign. It’s more about the universality of resisting injustices than the specificity of being of Congolese origin. I run away from conversations that circle around identity because my identities are multiple. We are all special people and nations with special cultures and uniquely gifted. Perhaps I don’t even embody the Congolese culture very well. I have never cooked a Pondu (a traditional dish) and I actually really hate cooking or doing kitchen stuff. My native languages are a little broken; I don’t have a clue about Congolese music or dance except the old tunes by Mbilia Bel. Still, I know the country’s history like the back of my hand and will defend that land and the rights of its people to the grave.

Shana is a trustee of West London Opera and Manager of the Shakespeare Readers Society in London. Photo: Congo in Harlem

Shana is a trustee of West London Opera and Manager of the Shakespeare Readers Society in London. Photo: Congo in Harlem

AN: Do you have any advice or a message for young women?

SM: Yes, and this is one of the main reasons I agreed to this interview; we need more women to blog and have twitter followers and share and circulate information relevant to African women’s conditions.  We particularly need more Congolese women on twitter, facebook and blogs and media sites. I came across something that really turned my stomach and when it was hardly shared (online), I realised we need a dynamic change.  I find it shocking and repulsing that there were very little to no support at all from Congolese groups, media or organisations regarding what has happened to Congolese-born, Belgian Deputy-MP Gisele Mandaila who opposed the inhuman deportation of a Congolese woman and was then arrested, punched in the face and threatened with suffocation by Belgian policemen. It was disconcerting to see the omission of this news to inform the Diaspora and just showing support and concern. If Ms Mandaila was a Congolese man or defending a Congolese man will it be newsworthy for some people? If she had the political correctness of hating imperialism and openly worshipping Lumumba, Jesus, or both, maybe she will be worthy of a share or a tweet? When women die it is easy to recuperate and build then as icons. But when women are alive and denouncing injustice who is there support them? I hope more Congolese women develop their own blogs and media platform to inform others and truly impact on events like this. I hope your blog and this interview can echo this. If you review most of the stories that emerged during the year, many will be mainly male-orientated or involved man. Therefore, when  information is received, its circulation may be biased on the basis of gender. Particularly if you don’t necessarily have women in the editorial teams. It may not be done on purpose but it perpetuates a cycle of silencing women’s voices.

Many of the very active campaigners in the Diaspora are in their fifties or sixties. The youth, Congolese educated women need to step in and do their share as well.

AN: And finally, what kind of stories do you feel compelled to tell through your directing and writing work?

SM: I like all kinds of stories. I am into love stories and fantastic stories right now. I am intrigued by the process of grief and bereavement. But I must focus on  what I am cooking now, which is developing a play about the Greek tragedy ‘Agamemnon’ transposed in the African Saharan tribes and also adapting the thought provoking play by Koulsy Lamko ‘Ndo kela’ about the broken dream of Thomas Sankara. Both stories written by men and about men. From the Greeks to the African independences, you can see the impact of the prominence of narrations by and about men. Therefore, what I am interested in these stories is to bring the women’s narrative voice and deciphering their own conditions within these stories.

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