Articles


This article appeared in the NY Times on February 3rd, 2010

From ‘Oprah’ to Building a Sisterhood in Congo

BUKAVU, Congo

Five years ago, Lisa Shannon watched “Oprah” and learned about the savage, forgotten war here in eastern Congo, played out in massacres and mass rape. That show transformed Lisa’s life, costing her a good business, a beloved fiancé, and a comfortable home in Portland, Ore. — but giving her a chance to save lives in Congo.

I found myself stepping with Lisa into a shack here. It was night, there was no electricity, and a tropical rainstorm was turning the shantytown into a field of mud and streams. Lisa had come to visit a woman she calls her sister, Generose Namburho, a 40-year-old nurse.

Generose’s story is numbingly familiar: extremist Hutu militiamen invaded her home one night, killed her husband and prepared to rape her. Then, because she shouted in an attempt to warn her neighbors, they hacked off her leg above the knee with a machete.

As Generose lay bleeding near her husband’s corpse, the soldiers cut up the amputated leg, cooked the pieces on the kitchen fire, and ordered her children to eat their mother’s flesh. One son, a 12-year-old, refused. “If you kill me, kill me,” he told the soldiers, as his mother remembers it. “But I will not eat a part of my mother.”

So they shot him dead. The murder is one of Generose’s last memories before she blacked out, waking up days later in the hospital where she had worked.

That’s where Lisa enters the story. After seeing the Oprah show on the Congo war, Lisa began to read more about it, learning that it is the most lethal conflict since World War II. More than five million had already died as of the last peer-reviewed mortality estimate in 2007.

Everybody told her that the atrocities continued because nobody cared. Lisa, who is now 34, was appalled and decided to show that she cared. She asked friends to sponsor her for a solo 30-mile fund-raising run for Congolese women.

That led her to establish Run for Congo Women, which has held fund-raising runs in 10 American states and three foreign countries. The money goes to support sponsorships of Congolese women through a group called Women for Women International.

But in her passion, Lisa neglected the stock photo business that she and her fiancé ran together. Finally, he signaled to her that she had to choose — and she chose Congo.

One of the Congolese women (“sisters”) whom Lisa sponsored with her fund-raising was Generose. Lisa’s letters and monthly checks of $27 began arriving just in time.

“God sent me Lisa to release me,” Generose told me fervently, as the rain pounded the roof, and she then compared Lisa to an angel and to Jesus Christ.

Scrunching up in embarrassment in the darkened room, Lisa fended off deification. She noted that many impoverished Congolese families have taken in orphans. “They’ve lost everything,” she said, “but they take children in when they can’t even feed their own properly. I’ve been so inspired by them. I’ve tried to restructure my life to emulate them.”

Lisa Shannon with the Congolese Lisa named after her, and the girl’s mother.

Lisa Shannon with the Congolese Lisa named after her, and the girl’s mother.

It’s true. While for years world leaders have mostly looked the other way, while our friend Rwanda has helped perpetuate this war, while Congo’s president has refused to arrest a general wanted by the International Criminal Court, while global companies have accepted tin, coltan and other minerals produced by warlords — amid all this irresponsibility, many ordinary Congolese have stepped forward to share the nothing they have with their neighbors.

So Lisa is right that Generose and so many others here are awe-inspiring. Lisa tells her story in a moving book, “A Thousand Sisters,” that is set to be published in April. Congo is now her obsession, and she is volunteering full time on the cause as she lives off the declining royalties from her old stock photos.

She earns psychic pay when she sees a woman here who named her daughter Lisa. After we visited Congolese Lisa, I asked American Lisa about the toll of her Congo obsession — the lost business, man and home they had shared.

“Technically, I had a good life before, but I wasn’t very happy,” she mused. “Now I feel I have much more of a sense of meaning.”

Maybe that’s why I gravitate toward Lisa’s story. In a land where so many “responsible” leaders eschew responsibility, Lisa has gone out of her way to assume responsibility and try to make a difference. Along with an unbelievable cast of plucky Congolese survivors such as Generose, she evokes hope.

On this visit to Congo, Lisa is organizing a Run for Congo Women right here in Bukavu, for Feb. 28, with Congolese rape survivors participating. You can sponsor them at www.runforCongowomen.org. And one of those participating in the run, hobbling along on crutches and her one leg, will be Generose.

This article appeared in the NY Times on January 16, 2010:

Our Basic Human Pleasures: Food, Sex and Giving

Published: January 16, 2010

Want to be happier in 2010? Then try this simple experiment, inspired by recent scholarship in psychology and neurology. Which person would you rather be:

Richard is an ambitious 36-year-old white commodities trader in Florida. He’s healthy and drop-dead handsome, lives alone in a house with a pool, and has worked his way through a series of gorgeous women. Richard’s job is stressful, but he spent Christmas in Tahiti. Unencumbered, he also has time to indulge such passions as reading (right now he’s finishing a book called “Half the Sky”), marathon running and writing poetry. In the last few days, he has been composing an elegy about the Haiti earthquake.

Lorna is a 64-year-old black woman in Boston. She’s overweight and unattractive, even after a recent nose job. Lorna is on regular dialysis, but that doesn’t impede her active social life or babysitting her grandchildren. A retired school assistant, she is close to her 67-year-old husband and is much respected in her church for directing the music committee and the semiannual blood drive. Lorna believes in tithing (giving 10 percent of her income to charity or the church) and in the last few days has organized a church drive to raise $10,000 for earthquake relief in Haiti.

I adapted those examples from ones that Jonathan Haidt, a psychology professor at the University of Virginia, develops in his fascinating book, “The Happiness Hypothesis.” His point is that while most of us might prefer to trade places with Richard, Lorna is probably happier.

Men are no happier than women, and people in sunny areas no happier than people in chillier climates. The evidence on health is complex, but even chronic health problems (like those requiring dialysis) may have surprisingly little long-term effect on happiness, because we adjust to them. Beautiful people aren’t happier than ugly people, although cosmetic surgery does seem to leave patients feeling brighter. Whites are happier than blacks, but only very slightly. And young people are actually a bit less happy than older folks, at least up to age 65.

Lorna has a few advantages over Richard. She has less stress and is respected by her peers — factors that make us feel good. Happiness is tied to volunteering and to giving blood, and people with religious faith tend to be happier than those without. A solid marriage is linked to happiness, as is participation in social networks. And one study found that people who focus on achieving wealth and career advancement are less happy than those who focus on good works, religion or spirituality, or friends and family.

“Human beings are in some ways like bees,” Professor Haidt said. “We evolved to live in intensely social groups, and we don’t do as well when freed from hives.”

Happiness is, of course, a complex concept and difficult to measure, and John Stuart Mill had a point when he suggested: “It is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied.”

But in any case, nobility can lead to happiness. Professor Haidt notes that one thing that can make a lasting difference to your contentment is to work with others on a cause larger than yourself.

I see that all the time. I interview people who were busy but reluctantly undertook some good cause because (sigh!) it was the right thing to do. Then they found that this “sacrifice” became a huge source of fulfillment and satisfaction.

Brain scans by neuroscientists confirm that altruism carries its own rewards. A team including Dr. Jorge Moll of the National Institutes of Health found that when a research subject was encouraged to think of giving money to a charity, parts of the brain lit up that are normally associated with selfish pleasures like eating or sex.

The implication is that we are hard-wired to be altruistic. To put it another way, it’s difficult for humans to be truly selfless, for generosity feels so good.

“The most selfish thing you can do is to help other people,” says Brian Mullaney, co-founder of Smile Train, which helps tens of thousands of children each year who are born with cleft lips and cleft palates. Mr. Mullaney was a successful advertising executive, driving a Porsche and taking dates to the Four Seasons, when he felt something was missing and began volunteering for good causes. He ended up leaving the business world to help kids smile again — and all that makes him smile, too.

So at a time of vast needs, from Haiti to our own cities, here’s a nice opportunity for symbiosis: so many afflicted people, and so much benefit to us if we try to help them. Let’s remember that while charity has a mixed record helping others, it has an almost perfect record of helping ourselves. Helping others may be as primal a human pleasure as food or sex.