COLUMBIA — A cheerful string of African beats bounce off the tiny studio’s neon green walls. Four male Ivorian voices invite even the shyest of listeners to sway their hips and “feel the magic in the air.”
Then there’s a pause. The music fades, and the rhythm gives way to a playful but confident female voice.
The Fistula Foundation offers more information about the condition and how people can help women and girls who suffer from it.
“How’s everyone doing this Saturday? This is your host, Tricia Simbu. Thank you so much for tuning into Motherland Jam on KOPN/89.5.”
Since February, Patricia Simbu Mabengo of Columbia has been leading the weekly two-hour musical journey through Africa, and on this Saturday she featured tunes from Morocco, her native Democratic Republic of Congo and South Africa.
"It doesn't matter even if you're not from Africa,” Mabengo said. “When you hear that beat, you can't help it. You have to tap your feet."
Although music is an important part of African culture, Mabengo knows that two hours of music every Saturday don’t come close to conveying the essence of Africa. It can’t explain the decades of bloody conflict that have torn apart the rich cultural fabric of many of the continent’s nations, including the Democratic Republic of Congo.
To bring attention to this conflict, Mabengo will represent her native country in the Miss Africa USA pageant on Aug. 9 in Maryland. Being her country’s standard bearer, she hopes to raise awareness about one of the most commonly used tactics in the Congolese war: rape.
Mabengo knows it’s not easy to represent the culture of an entire country. But that's exactly what she will be doing in Miss Africa USA, a humanitarian pageant that seeks to empower young African women by providing opportunities for leadership and service, according to the Miss Africa USA website. Participants must have been born in Africa or have at least one parent who was born there to be eligible, Mabengo said.
The contest requires contestants to advocate for a platform and create a micro-project to improve a community in Africa or the United States. The pageant pays to send the winner to travel to her community of choice and complete the project.
Mabengo’s reason for choosing rape as a weapon of war as her issue is simple: it’s a violation of human rights. Although she was born in the western portion of the Democratic Republic of Congo — and most of the conflict has been in the east — she is aware that she or any of her family members could have been victims of rape.
“I can’t see myself talking about the Democratic Republic of the Congo without talking about rape as weapon of war,” Mabengo said. “It just makes no sense.”
“The country is approximately the size of Western Europe — and rich with diamonds, gold, copper, cobalt and zinc, among other minerals," according to the Women Under Siege website. "But instead of being a boon to the country, these resources have become the fodder for conflict as warlords, corrupt government officials, and competing ethnic groups and corporations fight to master them. Sexualized violence has become one of the choice tools in this struggle. The story of DRC is full of colonial dominance, war and poverty — all of which has led it to become known as the rape capital of the world.”
Four women are raped every five minutes in the country, the website says.
“They (soldiers) severely rape the women.... I’m talking about 20 soldiers come to your house, they rape you, they rape your daughter, they rape your infant, then they make your husband rape you, your husband rape his son,” Mabengo said. “It’s really crazy disgusting things that go on.”
These brutal rapes commonly create tears and holes in the woman's or girl’s vaginal walls. When these walls are broken down, there’s no structure separating the vagina from the rectum and bladder.
The United Nations Population Fund describes the condition. “Women with fistula are unable to control the constant flow of urine and/or faeces that leak from the tear,” it said. Women who suffer from the condition “are often divorced by their husbands, shunned by their communities and unable to work or care for their families.”
The Panzi Hospital in the eastern Congolese city of Bukavu specializes in performing fistula repair surgery for survivors of rape. It also provides counseling and other psychological rehabilitation services to help the women go back into their communities.
“I think there’s only one other doctor in Congo that does that (surgery),” Mabengo said. “That’s why the Panzi Hospital is so important.”
Although her main focus is on survivors of rape, Mabengo said she wants to help Congolese women in general by providing resources and skills to help them make money for their families.
Mabengo would like to travel to Bukavu to assist women working at the hospital, but the Panzi Foundation currently can’t afford to bring her there.
Until she can go to the Democratic Republic of Congo, Mabengo contributes to the hospital’s operation from a distance. In April, she raised $1,000 for the Panzi Hospital, and she also held a fund-raising soccer tournament on June 27.
After her April campaign, she decided it was no longer enough to raise awareness and money: It was time to be more hands on, she said. Although she had always wanted to participate in the pageant, raising money for the Panzi Hospital gave her a “backbone,” she said. The chance to travel to her homeland and work with rape survivors just sealed the deal.
“I think that it’s on a different level when you actually get to connect with the women face to face,” Mabengo said. “It’s something that I have to prepare myself (for) because this is not a joke. These are people’s lives. It’s one thing when you read it, but when you actually have to go there and see how it’s affected their lives, it's going to impact me in some way as well.”
April 20, 1995, marked not only Mabengo’s eighth birthday but also the start of her new life.
That day, Mabengo reached Columbia, the last stop of her transatlantic journey to the United States from what was then Zaire.
Just a few days earlier, Mabengo, her mother and her brother, had left their home in Kinshasa, a city near the western edge of the country, to join Mabengo’s father, Ve-Wenda Mabengo, in Columbia. He moved here in 1991 after receiving an MU scholarship to complete a master’s degree in agricultural economics.
One of Mabengo’s favorite activities as a child was attending English as a second language classes because she could interact with other international students who also were trying to master the language. English was completely new to Mabengo, who only spoke French and the Congolese language Lingala.
It was more than a language barrier that prevented Mabengo from assimilating to her new world, she said. Some kids would tease her because of her hairstyle or the food she ate.
“I just didn’t really feel like I was accepted by kids when I was younger, when I first got here,” she said. “That kinda kept me in a shell, a little bit shy to open up.”
Soon enough, though, Mabengo found soccer. “I got a little more outgoing when I started doing that, because I started meeting girls with something in common.”
The Mabengo home often was filled with the smell of fumbwa, a Congolese stew with tomatoes, peanut butter, onions and garlic. The family also preserved its roots by listening to musicians such as South African reggae singer Lucky Dube, and Congolese artists Franco, Rochereau and M’Bilia Bel.
One aspect of their culture the Mabengo family couldn’t keep was its native languages. Mabengo’s parents decided to speak English to help their children learn it faster, she said.
“I regret that so much until this day,” Mabengo said. “I hope that if I do marry a Congolese man that he will speak (Lingala and French) in the house … I hope that at least I can pass that on to my children where they can learn this and communicate to family back home.”
Mabengo’s link to her motherland was weakened in another way. Although Mabengo’s best friend when she got to Columbia was from Africa, as she grew up her core group included fewer friends from her homeland and more black Americans.
“There’s just not that many Africans in Columbia, unless you are older and at the university,” Mabengo said. “There weren’t that many when I was younger, and the ones that were, we were all disperse.”
As she grew up, she said she realized that many African-Americans in her surroundings weren’t succeeding.
“You don’t see people advancing, and it almost makes you feel like this is it,” Mabengo said. She said that while there are exceptions, many African-Americans here "feel like you go to high school and that’s it. You can’t do anything more past that."
Mabengo for years had harbored a dream to study international business and join the Peace Corps after finishing college. Shortly after graduating from high school, she switched directions and decided to study fashion design and marketing at American Intercontinental University in Atlanta, where she moved in 2006.
In Atlanta, however, she met lots of successful African-Americans, which refocused her on international affairs.
“It was the first time I saw African-Americans, people of color, really going out and making something out of themselves,” Mabengo said. “They would literally start their own businesses. You see a lot of black-owned businesses in Atlanta. You see a lot of entrepreneurs, you see a lot of people just really making things happen.”
Mabengo returned to Columbia and enrolled in international studies at MU. The African community welcomed her, and she became involved with pretty much everything that had to with African culture, including the African Student Association.
Mabengo played a key role in putting up panels about water scarcity and organizing fundraisers. She said her greatest accomplishment was the 2009 Miss Africa Mizzou Pageant, which 120 people attended.
She modeled the pageant after Miss Africa USA, which she learned about when she was in Atlanta.
Gbola Oseni worked with Mabengo when he was a member of the African Student Association. “She’s a very dedicated woman who succeeds in everything she does and never takes no for an answer,” he said.
In 2011, Mabengo became the African Student Association's president.
“The fact that she was a female president lightened up the community,” Oseni said. “It brought more girls to the meetings and more Africans, and not just West Africans. We made mistakes, don’t get me wrong, but it definitely changed for the positive.”
The Congolese woman would always find a way to make the association's projects happen, Oseni said. The organization couldn’t pay for speakers for its events, but Mabengo’s research and dedication made it possible for Nigerian poet Bassey Ikpi to come for Africa Week 2011, Oseni said.
“She took charge with such confidence, and she knew what she was doing,” Oseni said. “People were forced to respect her and everybody bought in.”
It’s been about 19 years since Mabengo arrived from the Democratic Republic of Congo. In all that time, she hasn’t had the chance to visit her homeland.
That doesn’t mean she’s not familiar with the her culture and the warmth of her people, she said. To learn more about her native country, Mabengo spends about four hours a week digging into its history and the specifics of her tribe, the Bayombe.
In June, Mabengo’s mother bought traditional rafia, a straw-like Congolese fabric, for the “traditional African girl” portion of the pageant. She’s also working on a gown for the “parade of nations," in which she will showcase the colors of her flag on a high-fashion dress.
“You want your dress to stand out,” she said. “You want to be creative, you want to be high fashion, but you still want to be appropriate. There’s so much that have you have to think of as far as the dress, but have that wow factor.”
In the midst of her fashion preparations, Mabengo is still actively promoting her platform through fundraisers. She’s determined to pursue the opportunity to empower Congolese women.
“When you hurt our women, you hurt our community,” Mabengo said. “Women are who help raise the community. They help put the community together. We have to keep empowering women and helping women out."
Supervising editor is Scott Swafford.