Stella Safari, Ember Hero

Story by James Pearson

This July I took my first trip to the Democratic Republic of Congo, a country that has not seen sustained peace for more than a century. I was lucky to travel with an amazing young woman by the name of Stella Safari, who was taking a different sort of first trip. This was her first time to Congo in 12 years, since fleeing war at the age of eight.

As she returned 12 years later, now a student at Dartmouth and a leader among her peers, she brought with her a mission: to inspire Congo's youth to invest in their country, so that future generations can enjoy peace and prosperity in Congo.

Back in 1999 the growing violence in the region reached Stella's private elementary school, and after the recent death of her father her family decided that the risk to her future was too great for her to stay. So she and her sisters were sent to America to live with her brother. "The majority of my family was left behind," she told me by email, "including my mother."

Stella remembers a wonderful childhood in Congo. "Before the gunshots, I attended a great school. I spent time with family and friends without having to be cautious about the things we discussed around the dinner table." These memories and a strong network of Congolese friends and family helped her maintain a devotion to Congo, even as she enjoyed the privileges of American life.

For years after Stella left, the family relied for their communication on friends and family ferrying letters and photographs back and forth across continents. Stella would also seek out information on the political situation in Congo through her community. "Though it was mostly older men who discussed politics enthusiastically, I often found myself intrigued by these issues and wanting to know more." Eventually the cell phone revolution and Facebook let Stella and her distant family communicate "more frequently and at very little cost."

It was her junior year in high school when Stella found a passion for making a difference in her home country. Then the president of her student government, she decided to organize a benefit concert to raise money for rape victims in Congo. "To my surprise we raised over $2,000 just by being adamant and educating our peers about the situation in Congo. I realized the power of my voice and have been using it since to advocate for peace in Congo."

Stella has since made it a life goal to bring more peace, liberty, and prosperity to her home country. "My dream is to see future generations of Congo having the opportunity to enjoy the same and even better childhood than I did."

This July she set foot on Congolese soil for the first time since her happy childhood there was cut short. She traveled with Falling Whistles, an organization aiming to bring peace to Congo after more than a century of conflicts, and with whom Stella had been working as a cultural liaison. After a quick trip to Congo's capital she flew to Rwanda and traveled overland to her home town, Bukavu, where her mother was waiting.

Stella spent several weeks catching up with her mother and meeting other family members and friends of the family. She was a minor celebrity in Bukavu, the long-lost daughter of a popular family. Walking down the street she would be greeted by total strangers who, though she had never met them, were excited to see her. It would often turn out that they were cousins or uncles. "I did not expect to feel so at home in Bukavu," Stella said. "However, when I arrived I felt an overwhelming sense of purpose and belonging."

Along with family she spent time with local youth and community leaders. "We discussed ways in which we can support one another and work in unity for the benefit of the country."

One of those community leaders is an intense and inspiring man named Amani Matabaro. He took Stella to his community, a town just outside of Bukavu called Mumosho, where he had built a marketplace where people of different ethnic backgrounds can trade together and build friendships. He calls it a Peace Market.

When the women of Mumosho heard Stella's story they were overjoyed and they gathered around her, cheering in appreciation. "It really touched me to spend time with these women," Stella recalled, "because in them I saw my mother, my sisters, my friends. It was incredible."

Two weeks later we were in the volcanic town of Goma when we received a call from Amani. Mumosho has been attacked by the FDLR, one of the violent rebel groups that seeds fear and uncertainty in the region. Several women were raped and a priest was abducted and held for ransom. "I was devastated when I heard about the attack by the FDLR," said Stella. She remembers thinking about the huge, complex web of challenges facing Congo, starting with a Congolese government that values its own interests far above its citizens.

"It's both frustrating and motivating for me. Frustrating because the issue is clearly a more "top-down" problem that we have little control over. Motivating because of the capacity and potential that exists from the bottom up and how eventually that can affect the top-down."

Next summer Stella plans to go back to Congo and launch a project to "promote action and unity through social entrepreneurship." The website, she says, is coming soon. We'll keep you updated.

Posted on November 7, 2011 and filed under Ember Hero.