Founder of Run for Congo Women
Lisa Shannon had what many would consider a good life—a successful company, a fiance, security. But one day, while watching Oprah, she was awakened to the atrocities in the Congo: women gang-raped and demoralized, millions dead from the worst war since World War II. She decided, at that moment, to become an activist and a sister. As the first grassroots activist in the U.S. working to raise awareness of the humanitarian crisis in the Congo, often called “the worst place on earth to be a woman,” she began with a lone 30-mile run. From there she founded Run for Congo Women and penned the striking book, A Thousand Sisters: My Journey into the Worst Place on Earth to Be a Woman. Her new book, Mama Koko and the Hundred Gunmen: An Ordinary Family's Extraordinary Tale of Love, Loss, and Survival in Congo will be released on February 3, 2015.
Do-It-Yourself World Leadership
Many of us dream of changing the world. But most decide to wait for “real leaders”—those with formal authority and influence—to do the right thing. But real leadership often emerges from the places society least expects. In this inspiring talk, Lisa Shannon shares lessons learned from her journey from lapsed idealist to some of the most dangerous places on earth like Congo and Somalia, to launching successful mass movements to stop atrocities too often ignored by the powers that be. With grace and integrity, she shares the harrowing but hopeful stories of the women she's helped, and where anyone—even you—can find the courage to step up and lead the world.
How do our narratives of Africa shape the world’s complex relationship with the region, and influence violence unfolding there? When is the only narrative more dangerous than “the single story” no story at all? How do we tell the truth about atrocities in places like Congo or Somalia—so easily framed as “cultural” or “tribal savagery”—without reinforcing old world stereotypes about Africa? For those concerned with human rights in faraway places, it can feel like a trap, like one must choose between action some frame as the “soft bigotry” of the “white savior industrial complex,” and the hard racism that allows war criminals free reign as the world turns away in discomfort, assuming the inevitability of violence in Africa.
In this talk, Lisa Shannon explores her trial-by-fire evolution as an American human rights activist and author, how concerned citizens can overcome the real, but paralyzing fear of doing more harm than good, and how we might move beyond these poles toward a more conscious activism.
Mama Koko and the Hundred Gunmen
International human rights activist Lisa Shannon spent many afternoons at the kitchen table having tea with her friend Francisca Thelin, who often spoke of her childhood in Congo. Thelin would conjure vivid images of lush flower gardens, fish the size of small children, and of children running barefoot through her family’s coffee plantation, gorging on fruit from the robust and plentiful mango trees. She urged Shannon to visit her family in Dungu, to get a taste of real Congo, peaceful Congo; a place so different than the conflict-ravaged places Shannon knew from her activism work.
But then the nightly phone calls from Congo began: static-filled, hasty reports from Francisca’s mother, “Mama Koko,” of gunmen—Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army— who had infested Dungu and began launching attacks. Night after night for a year, Mama Koko delivered the devastating news of Fransisca’s cousins, nieces, nephews, friends, and neighbors, who had been killed, abducted, burned alive on Christmas Day.
In an unlikely journey, Shannon and Thelin decided to travel from Portland, Oregon to Dungu, to witness first-hand the devastation unfolding at Joseph Kony’s hands. Masquerading as Francisca’s American sister-in-law, Shannon tucked herself into Mama Koko’s raw cement living room and listened to the stories of Mama Koko and her husband, Papa Alexander—as well as those from dozens of other friends and neighbors (“Mama Koko’s War Tribunal”)—who lined up outside the house and waited for hours, eager to offer their testimony.
In Mama Koko and the Hundred Gunmen, Shannon weaves together the family’s tragic stories of LRA encounters with tales from the family’s history: we hear of Mama Koko’s early life as a gap-toothed beauty plotting to escape her inevitable fate of wife and motherhood; Papa Alexander’s empire of wives he married because they cooked and cleaned and made good coffee; and Francisca’s childhood at the family “castle” and coffee plantation. These lively stories transport Shannon from the chaos of the violence around her and bring to life Fransisca’s kitchen-table stories of the peaceful Congo.
Yet, as the LRA camp out on the edge of town grew, tensions inside the house reach a fever pitch and Shannon and Thelin’s friendship was fiercely tested. Shannon was forced to confront her limitations as an activist and reconcile her vision of what it means to affect meaningful change in the lives of others.
Mama Koko and the Hundred Gunmen is at once an illuminating piece of storytelling and an exploration of what it means to truly make a difference. It is an exquisite testimony to the beauty of human connection and the strength of the human spirit in times of unimaginable tragedy.
A Thousand Sisters
Lisa J. Shannon had a good life—a successful business, a fiance, a home, and security. Then, one day in 2005, an episode of Oprah changed all that. The show focused on women in Congo, the worst place on earth to be a woman. She was awakened to the atrocities there—millions dead, women raped and tortured daily, and children dying in shocking numbers. Shannon felt called to do something. And she did. A Thousand Sisters is her inspiring memoir. She raised money to sponsor Congolese women, beginning with one solo 30-mile run, and then founded a national organization, Run for Congo Women. The book chronicles her journey to the Congo to meet the women her run sponsored, and shares their incredible stories. What begins as grassroots activism forces Shannon to confront herself and her life, and learn lessons of survival, fear, gratitude, and immense love from the women of Africa.
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