Independent Lens

Pushing the Elephant

by Cynthia Fuchs

29 March 2011

As ambassador for the humanitarian organization, Mapendo International, Rose Mapendo tells her story again and again, encouraging her listeners to draw lessons from it.

Life's Work

cover art

Independent Lens: Pushing the Elephant

Cast: Rose Mapendo, Nangabire, John Mapendo
Regular airtime: Tuesday, 10pm ET

US: 29 Mar 2011

“A refugee is somebody like you, somebody who lost everything for one minute and found himself in a death camp.” As Rose Mapendo tells her story, she does not, in fact, look much like her listeners. They wear fine evening wear, and the tables where they sit as adorned with white cloths and silverware. Still, she insists on their similarity, and especially, on the random circumstances that can lead to devastation and brutal abuses, and sometimes, survival. She describes the numerous horrors she survived, beatings, rapes, and tortures, as well as birthing twins in a refugee camp, where, she says, “It was dark, no light… everything is dirty.”

Displaced during the war between the Congolese government and the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), Rose Mapendo and thousands of others became refugees. Now, she says, “I know the meaning of help, even if it’s just a glass of water from someone.” When her husband died, Mapendo left the refugee camp with nine of her 10 children. Relocated to Phoenix, AZ, she became an American citizen in 2006, and determined to help others like her.

A key component in her process has been forgiveness. As ambassador for the humanitarian organization, Mapendo International, she tells her story again and again, encouraging her listeners to draw lessons from it. For Rose, the most difficult lesson concerns her daughter Nangabire, whom she was unable to bring with her out of Africa. This is made clear at the start of the documentary Pushing the Elephant—premiering 29 March as part of Independent Lens on PBS—when Nangabire, now 17 years old, at last moves to Phoenix. Here she and her mother must reconnect after years of separation and trauma.

Beth Davenport and Elizabeth Mandel’s film underscores that Rose’s harrowing story is both extraordinary and too ordinary. Indeed, many people suffer fates like Mapendo’s. And though their stories may be lost—their cries for help unheard and their efforts unnoticed—Pushing the Elephant argues that such people, forced to flee their homes and become refugees, are also emblematic. As Mapendo shares her story—again and again—she means to create a world where such suffering is not so ordinary.

Mapendo’s efforts to reconnect with Nangabire acutely illustrate the dilemma of forgotten refugees. Early scenes in the film show Rose at work, traveling from one high-profile appearance to another, encouraging and embodying forgiveness around the globe, Still, back home, she’s fretful, anticipating her daughter’s arrival. She remembers what she was unable to do in the camp, how her children endured hardships. One son, Musavani, she recalls, “asked me why, we are dying, you cannot give us food?” Even when she had nothing to give them, even when soldiers raped her daughter, Aimee, Mapendo explains, she comforted her children, because that’s what a mother must do.

As a family, all made sacrifices. “Sometime night,” she says, “We put John in the middle of us.” She recalls that “many, many times, the soldiers were beating him.” Now he’s college-bound, and appears in the film shooting baskets in their driveway in the suburbs. He has only sketchy memories of his past, before the camp. “I remember we used to live in a house,” he says, now broad-shouldered and athletic. “I can’t remember if I had friends. Of course, I had friends. I know I have another sister that I’ve never met.” 

Rose’s memories of the camp are specific. “My children, each one have a story,” she says, “We have some story, maybe we never share.” But she knows too that as long as trauma remains repressed and unspoken, it maintains its capacity to ravage. And so she speaks out, and encourages her children to do the same, when they’re ready.

With Nangabire, Mapendo faces yet another dilemma, feeling unable to forgive herself for what she imagines her daughter has endured. “She could be raped or forced to marry,” Mapendo says, “Anything could happen to her.” Nangabire has her own worries about what she doesn’t know. She’s been living with her grandparents, and feels sorry that “My family spent so much time in prison, they went through so much I never had to.”

When mother and daughter are reunited, they finally learn what’s happened to one another. Nangabire enrolls in classes, as their lives seem settled at last. But still, Rose has work to do, and Nangabire understands: “Her life’s work is reconciliation and peace. I am proud, but I also miss her.” This especially when Rose sets off on her most daunting journey, back to Congo, believing that her return will help others, women who have suffered as she has. Though Rose is determined, John worries, fearful of what Congo represents for his family, as well as the danger posed by the government, which he worries “will suspect you.” Now known around the world, Rose feels empowered and willing to take the risk (the film shows that she has impressed celebrities like Susan Sarandon and Angelina Jolie).

Mapendo reassures her son that her trip “does not mean I love other people more than my family. In my heart, I feel we have to do something just to try to bring peace to the country.” And so she goes. In Congo, she is welcomed warmly, where she encourages women to tell her their stories. As they do, close-ups show how they feel—part of a community and stronger for it.

Independent Lens: Pushing the Elephant


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//Mixed media