Coach Kibomango fights with just one eye. He lost his other eye in a bomb explosion in his hometown of Goma, Congo. Kibomango grew up fighting as a child soldier, but today he is one of Congo’s top boxers. And he’s helping other former child soldiers cope with the heavy baggage they carry out of war. Kibomango can’t keep the lure of war away, however.
Boxing and Congo are not unfamiliar bedfellows. Rumble in the Jungle—one of the most-famed boxing matches of all time—squared George Foreman and Muhammad Ali against each other. The two heavyweights danced around the ring for eight rounds before Foreman, the world champ at the time, succumbed to Ali. The fight was cultural dynamite, stirring the enthusiasms of Congolese across the country.
And because of the efforts of Congolese leaders like Kibomango, boxing has returned to the world’s poorest country. The members of his boxing club share in the pain he experienced in his childhood: Most were conscripted by militia groups before they were teenagers. All of them experienced unspeakable horrors. But in the boxing club, gloves replace guns. Kibomango believes boxing, unlike the brutality of bush war, is about control and discipline.
“I feel at ease when I see them practicing,” Kibomango says. “Considering what we passed through, when I see young people practicing like this, it pleases me a lot.”
It’s a feel-good story: A therapeutic boxing club for boys recovering from the heinous life of guerilla warfare. But it ends on a depressing note. Kibomango’s young boxers are leaving the club. And they depart for the very existence Coach Kibomango helped them escape. With a new rebel army forming in the jungles outside Congo, young men willingly disappear back into the ranks, desperate for a paycheck. Though he has invested his life helping fellow child soldiers recover their identity, he admits he is close to reenlisting: “There’s no other way of surviving without being a soldier.”
Alli and I saw Les Misérables over Christmas break. The stirring message of gracesurpassed any I’ve witnessed on the big screen. But one scene particularly haunted me. Weaving through the busy streets of 1830′s Paris, the film directors introduce Fantine, a single mom struggling to provide for her daughter. She struggles to make ends meet and eventually loses the factory job keeping her from life on the streets. With nowhere else to turn, Fantine resorts to selling her very body. She sells her hair, auctions her teeth, and sinks to prostitution to provide for her daughter.
Fantine’s story is fictional, but her plight is anything but. The commercial sex trade enslaves millions, with many of these girls lured into these horrific chains with the prospects of a good job. Sex trafficking and child soldiers are products of Adam eating an apple. They prove evil and are the worst displays of human depravity. But their fuel is joblessness. These are complex spiritual sufferings, but they are also straightforward financial realities.
Kibomango and his band of Congolese boxers hate their memories of ethnic massacres, torture and forced rapes. They desperately want to expel the demons of their childhood. And Fantine knew the decision to sell her body would lead to her death. She—and the millions of real women (like Rosa Andre) who face the same hard decision—never willingly enter this destructive industry. They acquiesce to it or are duped into it by the promise of a job. The child soldiers want to survive and the sex slaves want to provide for their families. The wake of joblessness for Kibomango and Fantine is death.
Jean Valjean, the gentle hero of Les Mis, rescues her from her misery and comforts her last days with the dignity of a hospital. And he takes in her orphaned daughter, Cosette. Like Valjean, we should bandage the wounds of the dying and care for the orphans. But even more, we should help them to not die. What Fantine needed most was a good job. If our solutions to Kibomango and Fantine’s problems ignore the simple economic realities, we fail to treat the malaise that will likely cause their death.