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Crisis in Congo

Members of the University of Richmond's Sigma Chi and STAND chapters are co-sponsoring award-winning poet and rap artist Omekongo Dibinga to speak about the crisis in the Congo on Wednesday, Feb. 24.

UR STAND, a chapter of the student-led anti-genocide coalition, seeks to educate the community about the crisis in the Congo, an issue that has been ignored for too long said UR STAND President Maria Sebastian.

Dibinga - a rapper, poet and activist whose work has been featured on broadcasts such as CNN, BET, ABC, BBC, NPR and the Voice of America - said his greatest cause was ending the conflict in the Congo.

Titanium, tungsten and tin - similar to the blood diamonds of Sierra Leone - are minerals that have fueled an ongoing civil war in the country, and have caused the deaths of millions, Sebastian said.

An International Rescue Committee study calculated the war's death toll to be 5.4 million as of April 2007, increasing by 45,000 per month. The current total is estimated at 6.9 million, causing more deaths and lasting longer than the Holocaust, according to a Feb. 6 New York Times article. Warlords have exported gold, tin and coltan to buy guns and continue fighting.

The crisis is often called Africa's forgotten conflict. Beyond those who are dead, countless others have been raped and tortured, Sebastian said.

"It is important that we help Omekongo spread awareness about these atrocities because we play a role in them as well," she said.

Dibinga's parents are Congolese and his family has been fighting to liberate the Congo for more than 100 years.

"I am committed to making sure that my daughters - both younger than 4 - do not inherit this crisis," he said. "Those are my people suffering and dying there. I've lost relatives in this conflict, some whom I have met and others I'll never know. It sickens me that my homeland could be suffering like it is, and we in America not only know nothing about it, but are directly supporting it by our purchases of electronics, diamonds and gold."

Sebastian said Dibinga hoped to educate enough people to demand conflict-free products.

"Then we can do our part in ending the devastating war," she said.

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Part of STAND's mission is to educate people about these issues and to give them the opportunity to take action.

"We need help in this society," Dibinga said. "We know full well what we can't do because people tell us every day. We need soldiers for humanity to sell us every day on what we can do."

The day after Dibinga's show, UR STAND members will lead a "Cell Out," an organized cell phone usage-boycott, to raise awareness about the crisis in the Congo.

All you have to do is turn off your cell phone during the day and leave an outgoing voicemail message, Sebastian said.

She suggested using the following message: "Did you know that Congo has 80 percent of the world's reserve of coltan, a natural resource that is central to the operation of our cell phones? As we benefit from coltan, more than 5 million Congolese have died in the deadliest conflict since World War II as a result of the scramble for coltan and other minerals key to modern technology. Join us in solidarity with the Congolese people and turn your phone off for a day."

The voicemail recording should explain the crisis to callers so that they understand the correlation between their cell phones and the struggles in the Congo.

"As students at such a prestigious university, we need to be aware of what is going on in other parts of the world," said Matt Sobel, Sigma Chi's philanthropy chairman. "We all learn about the Holocaust in grade school; however, many people are unaware of the similar horrors going on in Africa, specifically the Congo."

Dibinga said he thought college students had the best chance to make real change in this country.

"College students have extreme amounts of resources and access to technologies, corporations and influence makers," he said. "I believe that college students are the best prepared to stop U.S. involvement in any conflict - from apartheid, sweatshops, Sudan and, of course, the Congo."

The key, he said, was to make students realize their ability to make change right from where they were.

Dibinga was introduced to STAND at a conference by the advocacy organization, Enough Project, in Washington, D.C., a few months ago. Their energy and dedication to ending genocide blew him away, he said.

"I felt I had finally found my people," he said. "From there, I started hearing from different STAND schools about me coming to their campuses. You will be the first STAND campus I'm visiting ... quite historic for me."

Sebastian had the opportunity to see Dibinga perform in Washington, D.C.

"UR will now have the same opportunity," Sebastian said. "Omekongo is an incredible artist and I'm sure he will not only educate his audience but also inspire them to take action."

Sobel said he thought many college students could relate to Dibinga's genre of music, which would educate them and make them aware of the situation.

"I am just trying to sell people on themselves and their inner greatness," Dibinga said. "Seeing people realize they are powerful beyond their measure, based on something I said, gives me such a high, but keeps me humble at the same time."

Dibinga keeps his Web site, www.omekongo.com, updated with weekly motivational messages and videos. He said he planned to bring copies of his curse-free rap CD "Bootleg II" to Richmond, which includes 25 remixes of songs by Jay-Z, Akon, Tupac, 50 Cent and more.

Sebastian and Sobel said they expected 100 to 200 students to attend the event.

"However, our fingers are crossed that more will come," Sobel said.

Contact reporter Elizabeth Hardy at elizabeth.hardy@richmond.edu.

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