Omékongo Dibinga clasped his hands and bowed his head for a moment. Then, his voice boomed. “Five million screams falling on deaf ears, fatherless children fathered by foreign soldiers. Homes with no husbands, husbands with no honor,” he recited, filling the basement auditorium in Syracuse University’s Life Sciences building at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday with verses describing the plight of thousands of Congolese women experiencing sexual abuse as a result of war in the Congo.
The audience, made up of students, faculty and the Syracuse Congolese community, listened, riveted by the intensity of his performance.
Dibinga, a Congolese-American activist, rapper and motivational speaker, shared a table with two professors from SU - Beverly Allen and Micere Githae Mugo - and the director of the Congolese Community of Syracuse, Cyprien Mihigo, as part of Wednesday night’s panel discussion on “Genocide and Sexual Violence.” Allen is a professor in SU’s Languages, Literature and Linguistics department and an expert on the war in Bosnia, and Githae Mugo is a professor of African American studies. The panel discussion was part of a weeklong program, Genocide Awareness Week, sponsored and organized by the SU chapter of the student group STAND: A Student Anti-Genocide Coalition.
Among the audience was a high school class of 13 students and their teacher, Shane Zanetti, from outside Corning, N.Y., a two-hour drive away. “It wasn’t what I expected,” said Zanetti. “It was beyond what I expected. It was really great.”
Dibinga speaks all over the country. He will be on a plane six days out of seven this week, but he decided to make a trip to Syracuse after he met SU STAND members at the National STAND conference in Washington D.C., where he shared some of his work in writing books, creating music and developing workshops to promote awareness of the situation in Congo, three months ago. “We had been working on getting Omékengo for several months, and we were so pleased that he could come,” said STAND president, Rebecca Chad.
“The talk was pretty inspiring,” said junior sociology major Jon Boll. “I think something like Genocide Awareness Week is vital. For America, a country with so many resources and influence, it’s not that hard to make a little change. We could make change.”
Born in Cambridge, Mass., Dibinga is the seventh of nine children, holds a Master’s degree in Law & Diplomacy and is currently a doctoral student in International Education Policy at the University of Maryland. His parents, originally refugees from the Congo, emphasized the importance of education during his youth, and gave Dibinga the desire to learn and educate others through speaking, writing and his music.
With six rap albums already released, Dibinga tries to create music that will have people thinking in a different way from when they first entered the room. “I try to write things that help people understand what other groups might be going through around the world,” he said in an interview after the panel discussion.
Kambale Syaghuswa, a member of the Congolese refugee community, came to the panel discussion because he cannot escape the memory of his family still living in war-torn areas in the Congo. “I can’t miss it. At least to make people know what is going on back home is very important to me. I’m here alone. If we are talking about the rape, that’s my mother is being raped back home, my sisters, everyone,” he said.
“If you can make a loud voice so that people can know and then stop it. And things like Genocide Awareness Week will help. We don’t need the whole world to hear, but even just one person, it helps.”
“Genocide Awareness Week, that’s what college is about,” said Dibinga. “It’s about changing your knowledge and opening your mind to things. I believe that it’s events like these outside the class room and engaging with people who come here with real-life testimonies about what they’ve seen, and leaving people with concrete steps to take action, that’s what college is all about.”
The Syracuse University Real College Radio station, WERW, also interviewed Dibinga and played samples of his music from 10 p.m.-midnight Wednesday. Visit their site to read more about Dibinga or listen to the radio show.
Genocide Awareness Week continues today with a talk by former head of the Adventist Development and Relief Agency International in Rwanda, Carl Wilkens, and a reception hosted by STAND, the Student African American Society, Syracuse Real College Radio (WERW) and UNICEF on Friday. For more on the week, check out the School of Education's events calendar.