But Why are You Interested in the Congo?

CLI Founder and CEO, Nathaniel Houghton, recently published an article on social change.is about his experience in starting a nonprofit in college, and why he chose a country (the DRC) that most people couldn’t place on a map:

My name is Nathaniel Houghton and I am the Founder and CEO of the Congo Leadership Initiative. CLI develops the next generation of leaders to be catalysts for peace and prosperity in the Congo. We’re a registered nonprofit in the United States with a staff and board  full of talented volunteers. Additionally, our programming in Congo is handled by equally skilled Congolese staff members. We engage Congo’s young leaders with programming that promotes socially responsible leadership and management skills.

Since we started CLI, I’ve had hundreds of discussions with people around the world about our organization, youth development, and the Congo. At some point in this discussion, I’m invariably asked one question: Why Congo?

This makes sense. The fact is that there are millions of middle-class, educated young white men from developed countries, but I can count on one hand the number of them who have made it their life’s work to engage deeply with the Congolese people. So I’m an outlier. I’m not Congolese. Some of my friends probably would have a hard time pointing out the DRC on a map. No one else in my family has ever even been there and (trust me), my parents aren’t planning a trip. Yet somehow the Congo and its people are as deeply woven into my life as any of these friends or family members.

My uniqueness isn’t the problem. The problem is that I don’t have a satisfying answer to the question. Those asking me about CLI and my involvement are expecting an incredible story. They ask “Why are you interested in the Congo?” and expect my answer to make them cry, change their lives, or at least be mildly entertaining. I don’t have an elevator pitch that can do that. So until very recently, I was extremely self-conscious about my interest in the Congo. I thought that I needed a story to tie everything together.

Patrice Lumumba was the Congo’s first and (depending on how you deconstruct the concept of “democracy”) only democratically elected leader. Before he was assassinated, he is notable for saying, “We are not alone. Africa, Asia, and free and liberated people from every corner of the world will always be found at the side of the Congolese.” This quote is powerful and interesting, and helps explain why no Congolese person has ever asked me why I’m interested in the Congo. They understand that this is not a charity mission. It’s not an American fixing the Congo. It’s just a group of people coming together to solve a problem and make the world a better place.

We tend to see differences, and that makes sense because they are so much easier to recognize. But the world works best when we see similarities. I read somewhere that we share 99.9% of our genes. A less exact way to make this point is that even if we look, speak, and act differently, we have so much in common. This isn’t just a mantra for how to treat others on a personal level – it’s a liberating strategy that organizations can use to work across what can amount to arbitrary, man-made boundaries.

Our achievement-based society follows the law of linearity, so when things – like my career choices – don’t seem to add up, we seek explanations. But I didn’t have a vivid dream or a vision or a near-death experience. I just started an organization… and we work in the Congo. The great part about my non-story is that it proves that no one needs a near-death experience to do what’s right. My choice to start CLI was unique, but that isn’t because I’m better than anyone else. If I can do this, anyone can.

At the end of the day, I am unable point to one moment in the Congo that changed my life, made me renounced every idea I had about the world, and led me to start a nonprofit in Africa. As it turns out, there are too many of these moments to count. Don’t wait for a story; make your own.

Keep your eyes on our blog…we will have a post coming soon about last week’s Leadership Accelerator in Kinshasa!

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