(The Root) — A poll conducted just before the 2012 presidential election found that issues related to foreign affairs rank among the lowest priorities for Americans. For this reason it is not entirely surprising that media outlets rarely cover international stories, particularly conflicts and tragedies, with the enthusiasm and intensity increasingly reserved for stories about Kate Middleton’s and Kim Kardashian’s pregnancies.
Those international stories that do generate high-profile attention usually do so only briefly, and often because of the involvement of a Hollywood celebrity, such as when George Clooney shamed the media into covering the crisis in Sudan. Now another actor is trying to bring media attention, and the attention of Americans, to the crisis in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
Isaiah Washington, famous for his role in the TV series Grey’s Anatomy and a host of films, is taking time out from promoting current projects, like the critically acclaimed Blue Caprice, to try to draw some of the media spotlight back onto the Congo crisis. On Saturday he will join others in Atlanta for the Million Woman Walk for Congo, sponsored by Dunia magazine, which has dubbed the walk an effort to remind Americans of “Africa’s Forgotten War.”
“Once I watched a few documentaries on the negative impact that coltan [a mineral found in the Congo that’s used in electronic devices] has had on the Congo’s mining industry, I was sickened, and I decided to engage. And when I engage, I am engaged from the bottom up,” Washington told The Root.
Since 1998, there has been an increasingly violent conflict enveloping the country, the deadliest in African history. Rebels supported by neighboring countries including Uganda and Rwanda clashed with the official Congolese government. In 2003 the war was supposed to have officially ended, but ongoing conflicts over the nation’s mineral resources — used in a host of international products such as cellphones, and therefore lucrative — have continued tearing the country apart, with tragic results for its people.
According to some reports, more than 5 million Congolese have died since the conflict began in 1998. What is surprising is that many of those deaths are attributed not to violence but to the humanitarian crisis that the violence has wrought: the onset of malaria, malnutrition and other preventable ailments.
Equally tragic, rape has emerged as a “weapon of war,” used to both harm and humiliate the female population and thereby destabilize families and ultimately the country for future generations. One Congolese doctor said that he has treated more than 30,000 rape victims in the years since the conflict began.
When asked if he thinks that black Americans don’t care about issues affecting Africa as much as we should, Washington replied, “I can’t speak for the hearts and minds of other African Americans and their involvement with the Congo. I can only show them by being an example of what an African American that is engaged can do. I’m just being an ‘example’ that has hope that others will become examples as well.”
Washington — who just returned from the South by Southwest Festival, where his new Western, They Die by Dawn (which co-stars Rosario Dawson), was recently screened — continued: “Anyone who still thinks of themselves as ‘black Americans,’ as you say, most likely will never care about African issues, because they are ‘black’ and mostly interested in ‘black’ issues in ‘black America.’ I haven’t been ‘black’ since James Brown died, but I understand the ‘black thing.’ ” But he clarified by saying, “I’m a proud African American with Mende-Mbundu ancestry.”