Returning to ‘the jungle’ 35 years after the fight

OPINION - The Congo is plagued by a horrific civil war in the east where tens of thousands of women are being raped...

Luther Vandross was outed as gay after his death.

Next week will mark 35 years since my father, Muhammad Ali, fought his first boxing match outside the U.S. – the “Rumble in the Jungle,” which took place in the Congo.

The Congo was struggling – a young, impoverished country seeking identity on the world stage. My father was struggling too – his opponent was twice his size and younger than he was. A lot was riding on this fight.

But the iconic moment of that trip for him was not his win. It occurred perhaps the next morning, when after a thorough search, no one could find him to engage him in victory celebrations. Finally, he was located in a dusty village doing magic tricks for children.

He had intuitively grasped the bond. Here was a country that had just come out of unimaginable oppression in its successful bid for independence but had far to go. My father, a black man who had grown up in Louisville, Kentucky, was the embodiment of overcoming every obstacle imaginable, of the notion that you can get “here” from “there.” His bringing attention to the Congo, and the plight of the Congolese, was their iconic moment – their own version of George Washington crossing the Delaware.

But the Congo is still crossing. The country is plagued by a horrific civil war in the east where tens of thousands of women are being raped. Rape is being used as a weapon of war, in fact, to damage the population in that region to the point that they won’t reproduce.

I am too young to remember my father’s trip. The day I was born, Father’s Day 1974, he gave a press conference to talk about the fact that he would be going abroad in a few months.

But I am not too young to know that my father, who came of age during the Civil Rights era, knows the importance of never allowing anyone else to be devalued, of never accepting the status quo. That is why, with a mixture of pride and determination, I leave for the Congo to continue to help build the humanitarian bridge for which he laid the cornerstone so many years ago.

With Noella Coursaris Musunka, a Congolese fashion model who founded the Georges Malaika Foundation, I will lay the first stone for a new girls’ school in Katanga. It’s been proven that when girls go to school, a nation’s GDP increases, and the rates of HIV infection dramatically decrease. Educated girls are not so easily forced into marriages with men who take many partners at once.

We will also visit a women’s entrepreneurship college, where women are taught skills that will allow them to succeed in business, choose their own destinies, and help build a vibrant country. Without women, half of a nation’s population, a country has no backbone.

We will also be visiting programs benefited by UNICEF, The United Nations Worlds Food Programme and other helping organizations. I will also have the opportunity to speak to the students of The University of Lubumbashi and The University of Kinshasa and learn about the diverse needs of the Congolese people.

My father is no longer in the position to make such a trip easily. But I will be accompanied on this journey “back” by my 10-year-old son. To this young boy’s grandfather, that’s how it should be. Humanitarian efforts are supposed to stretch seamlessly not only from nation to nation but also from generation to generation.