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The Congo is not hopeless: Ben Affleck at TED2013

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TED2013. Long Beach, CA. February 25 - March 1, 2013. Photo: Ryan Lash

Photo: Ryan Lash

On Sunday night, Ben Affleck accepted the Academy Award on behalf of his film Argo as it was named the Best Picture of 2012. And today, he appeared on the TED2013 stage kicking off Session 10, “Secret Voices.”

“This is not a TED Talk. I will not be interesting or funny. This will not be exciting in any way,” he said. “Though I feel a little bit like Al Gore in the TED headset. He’s not here, is he?”

And then he gets serious. “At the Academy Awards, I mentioned my wife, and I said: The people we love, we have to work on those relationships,” he said. “The other thing that I work on is Eastern Congo.”

“I felt like I wasn’t doing enough to give back to the world. So I found one of the most damaged, suffering places in the world, where 1 in 5 children die before the age of 5. It’s a place where a million people are displaced, regularly, inside the country. Where there’s the worst gender-based violence in the world … There are a lot of things to lament, particularly in the last 15 years when 5.5 million people died from conflict-related violence.”

Photo: James Duncan Davidson

Photo: James Duncan Davidson

As Affleck says, many people object to this number. So he asks us to imagine that the number were 3 million people. Per capita, that would be roughly the equivalent of 12 million people in the United States. “That’s the population of Chicago, Boston and Philadelphia,” he says. “If they had every single person who lived there die, we would probably take some steps. There would be a reaction.”

So why haven’t we responded?

“I think we are a naturally good people. We care about one another. When our neighbor has cancer, we go over with meatloaf and take care of their kid,” says Affleck. “I think what happens [when we think about the Congo] is that we feel it’s too big, it’s too difficult to look at … I can understand my aunt who passed away, but 3 million deaths I can’t understand. I don’t want to understand — it’s just too painful, so I disengage.”

Too many people say that the situation in the Congo can’t be changed and that corruption runs too deep.

“I don’t believe that’s true,” says Affleck. “I’ve seen and met people doing incredible things, mending the fabric of their lives — their family’s lives — brick by brick, stitch by stitch. It’s changed my views on what’s possible.”

Photo: James Duncan Davidson

Photo: James Duncan Davidson

Tonight, Affleck is here to show us just a scratch off the surface of the amazing things happening in the Congo. And with that, he introduced the Orchestre Symphonique Kimbanguiste, from the Congo, playing a composition called “Luba.”

In crisp suits, the musicians made beautiful music — their strings diving and soaring with beauty. And hope.