A Lesson About the Congo from Daniel Miko-Mikyene

We met Daniel Miko-Mikyene while he was on the job, in the lobby at Fairmont Junior High. After greeting us in French, he walked us through the hallways of lockers and award cases to a small conference room with a whiteboard on the wall and a printer tucked on a tiny counter next to a long conference table. The students’ daily schedule was posted on the walls along with the falcon mascot. And all the while, through the phone calls, bell tones, and intercom announcements, Daniel kindly answered our questions. Perhaps it was the setting, or that he knew we were all students ourselves, but as we spoke to him, Daniel’s answers reflected a desire to educate, rather than dwell on his own story. By the end of the interview, he’d given us a lesson on the Democratic Republic of Congo, colonization, and the politics inherent in language. 

Daniel started his lesson with a comparison, or lack thereof, for context. “We cannot make a comparison between Africa and the United States,” he said. “The United States is a developed country. On the other hand, Congo is a country very rich in minerals. Very, very rich. All cell phones, all computers…  These are Congo materials. But the population is poor. Why? Because of politics.” These “politics” Daniel was referring to was colonialism, and the contemporary consequences thereof. Like many countries in Africa, the borders we know today as the DRC were drawn in the late 19th Century by a European power — Belgium, in this case. In 1885, King Leopold II of Belgium claimed the Congo as his personal property, naming it the “Congo Free State.” For decades, the forces of Belgium drove Congolese into forced labor, demanding harsh quotas for rubber production. This practice and the many crimes it gave rise to are now known as “Red Rubber” atrocities (Viaene 752). 

Daniel spoke about his own familiar connection to these historical abuses. He mentioned that he had grandparents whose arms had been cut off, perhaps due to a refusal to work. Accounts like what Daniel described were, tragically, a well-documented occurrence within the Belgian Congo. According to historian Roger Anstey, one of such cases was documented by a Congolese man named David Engohahe. The testimony reads: “I myself saw a man at Likange who had had both his hands cut off. Sometimes they cut them at the wrist, sometimes farther up… with a machete[…] It was sheer cruelty; the State treated us abominably” (Anstey 72). Though most of us in the room don’t speak French, we all felt the gravity in Daniel’s voice as he made chopping gestures at both of his wrists. While this wasn’t the reason he himself left the DRC, it was crucial to the lesson that we understand the legacy of cruelty that colonialism represents.

However, on the whole, Daniel’s interest in colonialism primarily centered around language, and how it was used as a tool to subjugate. Here, Daniel circled back around to the question of why he was speaking French.“This is where the introduction of the French language began[…] They took some Congolese [and] brought them to Belgium to study[…] It was to bring civilization to the country. In Congo, there was no school. They did not want to embody themselves in Congolese culture.” Here, Daniel was likely referring to the efforts among Belgian missionaries to create a “civilized,” “elite” group of Congolese people to aid their colonization efforts in the country. While Belgian missionaries were taught the various languages of the Congo, people brought from the Congo were taught European languages (Yates 38). 

These efforts continued in the Belgian construction of the Congo’s education system at the time. Those few among the Congolese who had been chosen by Belgium were made to speak French, something the Belgian state considered as a sort of paternalistic gift. And, of course, all of this was done in the interest of generating economic power in the region for Belgium. Historian Angina Ndoma writes, “The language [the Belgians] chose, French, was to be taught only to those Congolese needed in local enterprises. The maintenance of French as the official language in the Congo was a realistic political action predicated on the assumption that Belgian leadership was the prerequisite to rapid economic growth and increased security in the Congo[…] On the other hand, since most nom-European army officers and state officials in the Congo as well as British American missionaries were speakers of English, the generalized use of French was to be instrumental to stop the spread of the English language” (Ndoma 150-151). 

Daniel’s point in bringing in this angle seems to be that language was not just a matter of administration or practicality, but as a deft political tool. “[French] is not our language — it is a language of colonization. Therefore, it is colonization,” he said. 

After the interview, Daniel took to the white board to draw lines along which the Congo is divided, as well as how language divides the Congo the most. With the Congo presenting more than 450 dialects, there are only four official national languages. These include Lingala, Swahili, Kikgongo, and French. French is the official language because it is the language that is mostly spoken in the Congo. It is the language which over the whole Congo can be understood by most everyone. 

Daniel wanted to teach us that the Congo is more divided by language rather than actual border lines. He was able to show us where he was from in the Congo, and how he saw the Congo divide because of the language that was used. 

He spoke Swahili and it was shown on his map that Swahili takes over most of the Southern part of the Congo. [Insert Image] The city Kinshasa is considered their capital,and this is where Swahili is spoken as well. The towns surrounding the capital also show that Swahili is also the most popular language spoken. Which then changes to where French becomes the more spoken language. Which then leads to the center of the Congo where Lingala is starting to be the language that is used the most.  

According to an educational video by Babbel USA, French is the 3rd most spoken language in the world and about 48% of all speakers are from Africa (“How Many People Speak French?”). To Daniel, it was a surprise that we only had about 1 ½ people at the interview that actually understood him. Special thanks to Brandee being able to translate for the interview. As well as Brandon being able to talk about the interview, the parts he did understand. Not being able to understand him in his native tongue was perhaps another reason that refugees have a hard time adjusting to their new “home”. 

Daniel was able to teach us where he thought the borders were based on where he saw language divided. This is part of his experience that is more than just map border and by experience that he had in the Congo. As a group we were able to ask questions on what parts he considered “home” and how French was integrated into the country. As the writers in the project, we thought this was such a personal note that Daniel shared with us. Not understanding French, this was part of the filming where we felt part of the lesson he was giving. Being able to see the rough sketch of the Congo, helped image the kind of borders he saw in everyday life. Which as writer gave us the inside for sight of who Daniel might be. As a teacher and refugee it was greatly appreciated to have a better understanding of his own language. As writers we were interested in the fact that French became the language he uses most, moving to an English-speaking environment. With the conversation we had with Daniel before the interview his English was limited but was enthusiastic about being able to do the interview in French. In his way of teaching more about his homeland; he was able to talk in a native tongue for himself. As writers, it was refreshing to listen to someone in their native tongue and be able to teach us about his experience. For many of us this was our first interview, and to be able to get a new education in a different country from the first person was something that none of us took for granted.

Daniel’s tale unfolds against the backdrop of displacement, identity, and resilience, echoing the struggles of countless others forced to flee their homelands. His journey, like that of many refugees, was not a straightforward voyage from Congo to America, but rather a circuitous route through Cameroon, catalyzed by the intervention of international organizations like the United Nations. As Daniel articulated, the refugee experience encompasses myriad pathways, each fraught with its own set of challenges and uncertainties.

The enormity of the refugee crisis looms large, with millions worldwide uprooted by conflict, persecution, and violence. In recent years, increases in violence have only exacerbated the issue. 2023 saw over 7 million people affected by fighting between the Congolese government and armed groups in the eastern provinces of North Kivu, South Kivu, and Ituri (UNHCR). 

Daniel’s narrative serves as a poignant reminder of the human toll exacted by these crises. “The Congo is at war[…] You will find in Uganda, there are Congolese who are in refugee camps. There [are also refugees] in Tanzania. We have a lot of students who were born in Tanzania, in refugee camps,” Daniel said. Recent statistics underscore the scale of the issue, with thousands of Congolese refugees seeking sanctuary in the United States annually — anywhere from 16.28 thousand arrivals in 2016 to 4.88 thousand in 2021. The fluctuating numbers over the years reflect the evolving nature of the crisis and the corresponding response of resettlement policies.

Touching once again on language as a central theme in Daniel’s story, intricately woven into the fabric of identity and cultural belonging. The imposition of French by Belgian colonizers in Congo eroded indigenous languages, exacerbating communication barriers for refugees like Daniel. His reflections underscore the importance of preserving linguistic diversity and the challenges faced in navigating linguistic landscapes in foreign lands.

Bureaucratic hurdles emerge as yet another obstacle in the refugee journey, as illustrated by Daniel’s accounts of protracted wait times and administrative complexities. “It’s not easy,” Daniel said. “The parents of these children [from Tanzania] — some parents have a total of 30 years in refugee camps.” The slow-paced asylum processes often exacerbate the already precarious situation faced by refugees, underscoring the urgent need for streamlined and responsive policies.

Amidst the adversity, Daniel’s narrative radiates with resilience and fortitude. His unwavering spirit in the face of uncertainty serves as a beacon of hope, underscoring the indomitable human spirit that thrives even in the most adverse conditions. By amplifying refugee voices like Daniel’s, we not only bear witness to their struggles but also lay the groundwork for informed and compassionate policy responses. In exploring Daniel’s lesson, we gain a deeper understanding of the refugee experience, transcending statistics and headlines to confront the lived realities of displacement. His story compels us to reexamine our assumptions and prejudices, fostering empathy and solidarity in our collective response to forced migration.

As we reflect on our collaborative endeavor, we extend our heartfelt gratitude to Daniel for his willingness to share his story with us. His courage and resilience serve as a testament to the resilience of the human spirit, inspiring us to redouble our efforts in advocating for inclusive and equitable policies for refugees worldwide.


Works Cited

Anstey, Roger. “The Congo Rubber Atrocities — A Case Study.” African Historical Studies, vol. 4, no. 1, 1971, pp. 59–76. JSTOR, https://doi.org/10.2307/216268. Accessed 21 Apr. 2024.

Ndoma, Ungina. “Belgian Politics and Linguistic Policy in Congolese Schools, 1885 – 1914.” Transafrican Journal of History, vol. 13, 1984, pp. 146–56. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/24328493. Accessed 9 Apr. 2024.

Viaene, Vincent. “King Leopold’s Imperialism and the Origins of the Belgian Colonial Party, 1860–1905.” The Journal of Modern History, vol. 80, no. 4, 2008, pp. 741–90. JSTOR, https://doi.org/10.1086/591110. Accessed 21 Apr. 2024.

Yates, Barbara A. “Educating Congolese Abroad: An Historical Note on African Elites.” The International Journal of African Historical Studies, vol. 14, no. 1, 1981, pp. 34–64. JSTOR, https://doi.org/10.2307/218113. Accessed 9 Apr. 2024.

“Democratic Republic of the Congo Refugee Crisis Explained | USA for UNHCR.” Unrefugees.org, 2018, 

“How Many People Speak French? | by the Numbers.” https://www.youtube.com, youtu.be/PkUM3C74ZKA?si=DyApdvzTg8VM5oW5. Accessed 21 Apr. 2024.

“Population and Society in the United States for Refugee Arrivals (Metrics), Congo, Democratic Republic (Country of Nationality): Data and Trends.” USAFacts, usafacts.org/metrics/refugee-arrivals-by-country-of-nationality-congo-democratic-republic/#:~:text=In%202021%20(most%20recent)%20there. Accessed 22 Apr. 2024.


Where is the Congo?

The Congo is a country in Central Africa that is also known as the Democratic Republic of the Congo. There is also another country beside it that is called the Republic of the Congo. Both were separated because of colonization that happened there in the 1880’s by Belgium. 

Now both are independent countries. 

What is the difference between an immigrant and a refugee?

The way of being an immigrant is to be seeking a better life or a better country to build a life. Looking for a permanent residence in the country and finding education, employment, and opportunities that might have not been given in your home country. You are choosing to become an immigrant. As a refugee, you are fleeing your country not looking for 

opportunities for a better life. It is because your home country is no longer a safe place to call home. It could involve politics, war, or protests that make a person become a refugee. You do not have a choice in becoming a refugee if you want to be safe. 

What is Swahili? 

It is one of the many native languages of Africa. It is the official language of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. One of three languages that Daniel can speak. 


This map explains the different cities that are in the DRC and how Daniel was about to differentiate from them because of the languages that are spoken there. This map clearly on where the country’s city lines are and how Daniel thinks of them. As a group, we were grateful to get first hand on how Daniel thought of his home, and how it lined up with an actual map. To get a better understanding of where Daniel was from and understand the directions he was telling us.



This YouTube video is helpful to understand how the French language is so popular overseas and how different it can be. It also explains how the language spread over different countries. I had many questions about the French language and how it was used throughout Europe and Africa. 



This video explains the Swahili language and the importance of Africa. It gives a better understanding of the language and the culture that surrounds it. Some points of Daniel’s made about the language are better explained. Gave me a better understanding of how many different languages there are in Africa, and the culture that is involved in language. 



Classroom Discussion Guide

While this short film does feature some details about Daniel’s life, a good portion of his interview centers on the Congo, and how its history and its language affects the country today. Because of this, the film may work well as a supplement for a wider discussion about colonialism and linguistic justice. 

For example, some of the details that Daniel mentions during the interview coincide with the historical events described in King Leopold’s Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism in Colonial Africa by Adam Hochschild, so they pair well together for the purposes of class discussion. 

We’ve included general discussion questions and procedures for your consideration, but also a section for excerpts from King Leopold’s Ghost, should you choose to use them.


General Discussion:

After the short film concludes, allow the students some time to reflect on what they saw. Then, if numbers allow, set them up in small groups to discuss a few or all of these questions together:

  • Was there anything that Daniel said that surprised you? If so, what was it?
  • According to Daniel, what role did language play in the colonization of the Congo?
  • What stuck out to you about the language divide of the modern-day DRC? How does it compare to where you live?
  • What does ‘home’ mean to Daniel? How do you think his experiences have affected his perspective?
  • What did you think about how long Daniel had to wait between fleeing the Congo and arriving in Boise? How do you think this long process affects those who have to navigate it?

After the students have gone through the questions, it may be helpful to go through the questions again as a class and have groups share what they discussed in their groups. The groups can compare their answers and perhaps identify common themes that emerge.


King Leopold’s Ghost Supplemental Discussion:

In the aftermath of King Leopold’s Ghost, Hochschild mentions how difficult it can be to adequately depict oppressed peoples when writing narratives about colonialism. He writes, “My greatest frustration lay in how hard it was to portray individual Africans as full-fledged actors in this story. Historians often face such difficulties, since the written record from colonizers, the rich, and the powerful is always more plentiful than it is from the colonized, the poor, and the powerless. Again and again, I felt frustrated that we know so much about the character and daily life of Leopold and so little about those of Congolese indigenous rulers at the time, and even less about the lives of villagers who died gathering rubber” (338). 

  • Given this historic difficulty in citing oppressed peoples that Hochschild describes, what role do narratives like Daniel’s play in telling the story of the Congo in a modern context?

In the chapter, “Where There Aren’t No Ten Commandments,” Hochschild describes the schools that King Leopold’s colonial government set up. “The children’s colonies were usually ruled by the chicotte and the chain. There were many mutinies. If they survived their kidnapping, transport, and schooling, most of the male graduates of the state colonies became soldiers, just as Leopold had ordered. These state colonies were the only state-funded schools for Africans in Leopold’s Congo” (144). Daniel touched on the existence of these missionary schools briefly in the interview, naming them as a clear part of the colonial project.

  • How can educational structures facilitate oppression and exploitation? Conversely, how can education be used to liberate?

Lastly, in the final chapter, “The Great Forgetting,” we read how the atrocities in Colonial Congo were almost erased from history. “The Congo offers a striking example of the politics of forgetting. Leopold and the Belgian colonial officials who followed him went to extraordinary lengths to try to erase potentially incriminating evidence from the historical record[…]  ‘I will give them my Congo,” Leopold told Stinglhamber, “but they have no right to know what I did there’” (319). 

  • Who has the “right” to history? How do you think this cover-up attempt by Leopold and the Belgian government affects the Congo today? 


Statements from the Filmmakers

“No one will ever understand exactly what you have gone through and experienced as a human being regardless of your story. Although, that does not mean we can not try and be educated on how different parts of the world are and what we experience differently as humans based on our individual experiences.
Being kind and actively listening can change someone’s life.”

Ashlyn Miley, Facilitator of Written Communication

“Language is not always a barrier, it is an opening
into people’s true lives and comfort levels even in a different place– especially those that are
refugees or immigrants. They have a story to tell and they should tell it.”

Brandee Anderson, French Translator

“When we engage with and invite in people who
have a different language or background as us, we open the door to learn things we never would
have otherwise.”

Brandon Rasmussen, Education Director


“I learned how to work with such a big group and learn about different learning techniques that each set of students had. I enjoyed being
able to communicate effectively.”

Lucille Cuellar, Engagement Manager


“Something I hope people take away from this documentary is that we
live in a diverse country with people from many different backgrounds. If we take the time to sit
down with people and get to know their story, the world can become a better and more
welcoming place!”

Naomi Rivera, Film Technician