Lisa Shannon Is Staking Her 30s In The Congo

Lisa Shannon had a good life—a successful business, a Fiancé, a home, and security. But days after her 30th birthday while watching an episode of Oprah, she learned that the conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo had taken the lives of more people than any other war since World War II - 5.4 million people.  So how come she had never heard of it?

What started as a 30-mile solo run by a novice runner to raise money for two Congolese women, turned into founding a national organization, Run For Congo Women and now a book,  A Thousand Sisters:  My Journey Into the Worst Place on Earth to Be a Woman. In it, Shannon chronicles her journey of survival, fear, gratitude, and love and reveals how the women in Africa forced her to confront herself and the life she’d chosen at home and why she had to make a difference.

How do you describe your work? “I just had new business cards made so it’s going to be an easy one.  I’m a Writer/Activist.  I resisted the word activist for a long time because I thought of myself as a regular person who cares.  But, after 5 years of doing volunteer work to mobilize women, here I am, I’m a Writer/Activist.”

What three adjectives best describe you? “I’m squirming over this one. I’m kind of at a loss.  I try not to do that, to stand outside of myself.  I stay away from labeling myself as any one thing, but move forward intuitively staying in touch with my deepest sense of who I am.  It’s a hard question for me.  I don’t know if I can answer it.”

Cats, dogs, birds … describe your pets? “Cats.  I have three cats. One of my cats died last year.  I have two - technically - but I think of myself as having 3.”

Favorite season? “Spring.”

Name a city you’d love to visit.  Why? “Paris. Paris, because that was the whole plan.  On my 30th birthday, we (ex fiancé) had decided to go to Paris and we flew to England to visit his parents first.  I picked up a nasty bug so I ended up at home on the couch watching Oprah and that’s when I saw the episode about the Congo.  It was this hugely significant thing because I wasn’t happy and I knew I wasn’t happy. I was kind of thinking, I wanted to stake territory for my 30s and so 5 years later, here am I.  I would have never thought it would be this."

What’s the best thing about being single? “Focus and freedom, right?  I mean I don’t have to check in with anyone.  I just do what I want to do and I can stay completely focused on the thing that is the most important to me.  When I was in a relationship, I felt as a measure of respect, that I needed to check in about my plans and what I was doing so that by the end of that relationship I felt owned. I never want to feel that again.”

Describe your ideal “Girls’ Night Out.”  “When I was in Congo, a couple of women war correspondents were staying where I was at the Orchid Safari Club. We were sitting on the terrace swapping stories - sharing meaningful conversation.”

What’s the nicest thing a friend (or friends) have done for you? “There is a woman, Generose.  I talk about her in the book.  She lived through an incredibly horrific attack where a militia killed her husband and child and cut off her leg.  We had this moment.  I was having a really bad day on my most recent trip and I had stopped by to say hello to her.  I laid down in the back of the car and left one door open and I was crying and I felt this hand on my foot.  It was Generose and her little girl, and I understand enough Swahili to know that her daughter asked, ‘What is wrong with her?’.  Generose said, `she’s just tired.’  And it was a quiet moment but I felt like we were friends.  Despite the cultural divide, there was something unspoken between us that felt like we understood one another, we were really friends.”

What do you do for “Lisa” time? “Running is more about that for me.  Sometimes I get a massage and I started to meditate.  That’s new.  I like to read.”

What’s the best advice you ever received? “I can think of a piece of advice that came in handy.  You don’t get confrontational with people in Congo ever.  If you lose your temper, you might as well pack up and never come back because you will have permanently lost respect.  If I ever ran into to trouble, I was told to treat absolutely everybody like they were my best friend.”

What quality do you admire most in a man? “I would say a man who is confident enough in himself that he doesn’t feel threatened by a woman who is successful or focused on what is important to her.”

What quality do you admire most in a woman? “There are a lot of things but a woman who is self-possessed and knows how to create her life for herself on her own terms.”

Who are your real life heroes? “My real life heroes are Congolese women, categorically.  That is because they are women who have had militia come to their home, take their home, take their family and torture them in a way that is meant to  destroy their spirit and they are beyond resilient.  They are totally compassionate and still emerge as women who stand up for other women – in particular my sister Generose.  To be able to stand up for their spirit tells me how to be a woman, a better human.”

What is your guilty pleasure? “Honestly since I’ve gotten back from Congo, I’ve gone on this massive, cheesy pop music binge and I’ve been walking around with headphones non-stop.  I’ve never listened to music like that my whole life.  I have been a die hard Elliott Smith fan for ages but I can’t listen to a word of it.  Please don’t posture and tell me about your pain Mr. Wispy White Boy.”

What is your biggest fear? "The only recurring nightmare I’ve had from the time I was 10 centers around themes of marriage and children.  I think by extension what I’m really afraid of – the real fear – settling into the life I thought I wanted and ending up feel trapped.  Being scared that I would fall asleep along the way and not really live the life I wanted.”

If you could change one thing in your past, what would it be? “I guess I don’t think in those terms because everything that I’ve done has led to where I am now.”

Other than your own talents, what talent would you most like to have? “I would like to learn to be a better filmmaker and writer – storytelling in general.  I would like to increase that skill as much as possible.”

What is your motto? Or what words do you live by? “I don’t think I have one motto that I live by.  The one that’s been on my mind the most is that our job is to show up.  We don’t have control over the results.  Show up imperfectly and let go of the results but show up.”