This interview is part of a series of profiles celebrating October’s special youth-focused New Internationalist magazine. Read articles or buy a copy here.
Natasha Makengo manages to embody that dream combination of scientific knowledge, artistic skill and natural communication. The Congolese-born 25-year-old has a degree in molecular biology and is a singer and painter. She has also campaigned with the charity Save the Congo since 2009 and now directs their interfaith programme, as well as working for the Institute of Child Health at University College London.
Makengo was born in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) but moved to Britain as a toddler, growing up in south London, largely unaware of the obstacles faced in her home country, where 45,000 people die every month and rape and violence are endemic.
It was only after coming across a talk by Congolese gynaecologist and founder of the Panzi Hospital, Dr Denis Mukwege, while on a university placement at Harvard Medical School, that she realized the extent of what was happening.
‘I was just horrified and completely shocked… I’m Congolese and I’m supposed to really care about my country and I had absolutely no idea,’ she explains. She knew that on returning to Britain she wanted to join a group like Save the Congo.
Makengo’s connection with her birth place was strengthened in 2011 when she went to the DRC as an electoral observer. She says the experience has stayed with her: ‘Just seeing the potential and the beauty – wow. It was an amazing experience.’
Despite this passion, Makengo says she can feel isolated when campaigning on the DRC, especially as things seem so bleak: ‘I feel a lot of people are completely oblivious – or possibly ignorant – of what’s happening, and because it overwhelms a lot of people they shy away from our campaign.’
Art is now Makengo’s favourite item in her activist tool box. In September her paintings focused on the situation of women in the DRC were showcased in London as part of a two-week exhibition for the African and African-Caribbean Design Diaspora.
‘What’s great about the arts is that they’re approachable and alluring, compared to statistics,’ she says. ‘I often think that when I tell people, “oh, 5.4 million people have been killed”, people immediately become depressed and it’s overwhelming, but the arts open conversation; they are more engaging.’
She also sees music as a big part of this captivation, and uses a concert that took place in London’s Wembley Arena this summer as an example. Africa Unplugged had a line-up of 20 African artists and money raised went to charities, including Save the Congo. ‘That’s an example of Afrobeat artists thinking about Africa and its politics – as much as we were celebrating our culture during that event, and enjoying our music.’
Although artists back in the DRC find it difficult to be outspoken for security reasons, she says the diaspora are more forthright. ‘There’s been a kind of awakening of consciousness in the Congolese music world. There are artists like Baloji [who grew up in Belgium]: when you look at his videos or lyrics you can tell that he’s politically aware and that the politics of the Congo is something that’s at the forefront of his thoughts.’
Looking to the future, Makengo dreams of using her science background to reform the DRC’s healthcare system, and she already has in the pipeline a project to help young women there.
More immediately, she is working with Save the Congo to get their agenda on the table at the G8 summit when it is in England in 2013. She says Britain is ideally placed to make a difference through politics. ‘We believe that the government has a massive influence on the Congolese government, given that the UK is the biggest bi-lateral donor through humanitarian aid,’ she explains.
Makengo sees raising public awareness and making links with Britain as key to galvanizing political action. ‘I want people to know that violence and conflict is not something completely alien to us here,’ she explains. ‘Yes, it is happening in the Congo, but it happens every day here in the UK too, it affects all of us.’
To find out more about Save the Congo, go to their website or follow them on Twitter @SavetheCongo.