Reading 7: Fear

The following post was written by high school teacher Will Okun and published on June 20, 2007, on the New York Times blog Two for the Road: In Africa with Nick Kristof.


I can hear the music pulsating in the thick Congo night, inviting me. “Come over, dance, drink, have a good time, enjoy life.” But I am scared to leave the hotel at night.

The breaking news is just over those mountains, the stories that will bring attention to the horrific conflicts of Congo. But I am too scared to go. There is fighting in the hills, and everyone says the soldiers on both sides are immoral, unpredictable, and without remorse.

It is terrible to feel such fear, it shakes you to the core. It controls your days and your nights, your security, your freedoms, and even seeps into your dreams. I do not have to live in such fear; in one week I can go home. But such is life in parts of the Democratic Republic of Congo, where various conflicts have killed four million people and displaced one-and-a-half million more since 1998.

Imagine living in a rural community where your daughter could be raped, or even sodomized, by soldiers every time she leaves home. Recently, Nick Kristof asked a village leader to speak with a woman who had been raped, and the line continued to grow and grow at a sickening rate.

Imagine living in a rural community where you do not grow crops to feed your family, because the soldiers will simply eat all the fruits of your labor anyway. Imagine hiding the fact that you have a job, because the soldiers will ransack your house first. Imagine leaving your village and home with your family in the dark of night for places unknown, because the soldiers’ violence devours everything in its path.

The gripping control of fear is not exclusive to Congo. I know families in Chicago who do not let their kids outside to play. I have seen children scatter when it was only a car backfiring. I have taught high-school gang members who know any day could also be their last day.

People do not appreciate security until they experience fear. Fear is so encompassing that it can become a person’s driving force. It is ludicrous to expect a person, community, or even a nation to prosper and progress when they are in the throes of instability, insecurity, and fear. Basic human rights like education, health, liberty, etc., cannot be developed and obtained until security is established, whether it be in Congo or in Chicago.

And yet most of us, including myself, are only truly concerned about the security of our loved ones. We do not care about the other side of town, [let alone] the other side of the world. How can I care about wars in Africa when I do not even care enough to combat gang warfare, bad schools, inadequate health care, unsafe water, etc., on the South Side of Chicago? How do I change this mindset, for myself and for others?

Source: Will Okun, "Fear," Two for the Road blog, June 20, 2007.

Will Okun, a white American, poses with a group of black Congolese young men.

Will Okun, a teacher from Chicago, joined journalist Nicholas Kristof on a reporting trip to the Democratic Republic of the Congo to take photographs as part of his project to photograph African and African American people in everyday moments.

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