On October 22 William Garvelink, a longtime Falls Church resident, was sworn in as the Ambassador of the United States of America to the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) during a small ceremony at the State Department. The DRC, formerly Zaire, is the third largest country in Africa and is currently fraught with civil unrest. It is a burgeoning democracy, struggling to build the foundations of a freely elected government, while thousands of Congolese refugees in the east are fleeing their country, emerging in neighboring Uganda, seeking solace from the fighting at home.
While the Congolese army tracks rebel General Laurent Nkunda, a Tutsi sympathizer, and his soldiers, the people of the Congo are forced to flee their villages to escape the fighting. The refugees surface in Uganda homeless, exiled without food or shelter. Uganda, torn by its own 20-year war, suffers its own displaced people. Lord’s Resistence Army (LRA) leaders remain hidden deep in the forests of the eastern Congo, despite the signing of a recent peace treaty. Nkunda is accusing the Congolese government of supporting ex-Hutu militia, the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR), some components of which played a role in Rwanda’s genocide.
Garvelink is no stranger to the struggles of the DRC. For the past 20 years he has traveled to the Congo many times, providing disaster assistance. Garvelink, as a responsibility of his previous position as Principal Deputy Assistant Administrator of the Bureau of Democracy, Conflict and Humanitarian Assistance at the United States Agency for International Development, spent a great deal of time in the conflict-torn eastern part of the country, especially in the tumultuous 1990s and early 2000s.
Garvelink’s job in the Agency for International Development entailed providing humanitarian assistance for populations in need following natural disasters or recovering from civil conflict. Since the eastern part of the Congo is volatile he often assisted the populations that were displaced by the conflict. Part of his responsibility was to provide the torn communities with access water, sanitation, healthcare and food.
Garvelink will depart for a three-year stay in Kinshasa, the capital of the DRC, before Thanksgiving. Part of his mission there will be to nurture the nascent democracy that has only just taken root.
“The election was last fall, their first democratic election since the 1960s, so they’re establishing democratic institutions that don’t have much of a history in the Congo,” Garvelink says. “They have a difficult task and we want to support them, as does the entire international community, as they build those institutions and spread them throughout the country.”
Those institutions, however, are threatened by the region’s instability. The strife that engulfs the DRC stems in part from its geography. The DRC borders nine other countries, several of which, like Rwanda and Sudan, have either recently endured, or are struggling with their own armed conflicts. Right now the Congo and its neighbors share war and refugees. Garvelink hopes that by bringing strong Democratic institutions to the DRC its thus-far troublesome geography can act as an asset and stabilize the region.
“The more stable, peaceful and developed the DRC is, the more so for the central part of Africa,” says Garvelink.
“The most important thing to do as the presidential representative of that country is to work closely with the government of the Congo to help them as they begin to reestablish democratic institutions after last year’s election and to spread those institutions throughout the country, help them bring basic social services and economic development to the country, to work with them and support the government’s efforts to settle the conflicts that are in the eastern part of the Congo and bring peace to the entire country of the Congo,” says Garvelink.
Although the Congo has many trials ahead of it, the country is rich in natural resources and boasts a vast array of minerals and rare species of plants and animals. It is a nation rich in copper and cobalt. The Congo also has coltan, which is used to make computer chips and cell phones. Outside of Brazil, the DRC houses the next largest rainforest, full of undiscovered plants and animals. One of the rarest species of apes makes its home in the Congo, the Bonobo, as does the Okapi, a type of antelope found only in the forests on the DRC.
Falls Church is coincidentally the “sister city” to Kokolopori, a remote collection of villages in the Congo Rainforest Basin. The City of Falls Church is aware of the many civil and economic challenges facing the Congo. It has sought to assist in preserving the various natural resources that exist in the DRC, such as the protection of the Bononbo. Kokolopori residents are involved with the management of the Kokolopori Bonobo Reserve, in collaboration with the Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit organization, the Bonobo Conservation Initiative.
Linda Garvelink, the Ambassador’s wife, with whom he attended high school and college, is championing preservation of the Congo’s resources and is assisting in establishing a micro-credit fund to help Kokolopori residents start small businesses.
Linda Garvelink has extensive experience in financial services, marketing and working with micro-lending programs. She will take a leave of absence from her job at Grant Thorton, a financial services institution, to join her husband in the Congo.
The Ambassador sounds as fervent about his wife’s new role and potential contributions to the Congo as he does his own. “Her background is in banking and finance and one of her specialties is developing micro-lending programs. She is very eager to work with women’s groups and help them develop micro-finance programs. She will be looking for a number of ways to be involved in the community,” says Garvelink.
Residents of Falls Church and the Greater Washington, D.C. area have already raised $13,000 for the micro-credit fund, though the program is still growing and remains in the planning stages.