Travel writers and the media, in a quest for sales and viewers, are often guilty of pandering to the more stereotypical of perceptions about the Democratic Republic the Congo (DRC). Books and articles are often replete with references to violence and rape within Africa’s so-called ‘heart of darkness’.
In Tim Butcher’s Blood River, for example, in which the author treks across the DRC solo, Butcher’s emotions seem torn between anxiety for his own safety and wonder at how far the Congo has slipped since colonial times. Next year, it seems similar tactics will also be employed as Hollywood heartthrob Tom Hardy journeys across the DRC in a two-part TV special where “Tom’s tough-guy image will be tested to the limits when he is given a warts-and-all look at one of the most dangerous places on the planet” and he comes “face to face with some of the people who live in this forgotten part of Africa”. More broadly, the DRC is frequently cited as being the “rape capital of the world” and rarely reported on except as being war-torn, lawless and ungovernable.
All this smacks somewhat of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and Colonel Kurtz’s notorious last words “The horror! The horror!”. Yet, as Michela Wrong points out, the title ‘Heart of Darkness’ and Kurtz’s famous quote together constitute one of “the great misquotations of all time”. With both of these phrases Conrad refers not to the innate horrors within the forests that follow the Congo River, but to the depravity of the multi-talented European trader Kurtz, who loses his mind in the Congo and adopts increasingly grotesque attitudes and practices.
Over the years, such dominantly negative perceptions of the DRC have been reinforced. More optimistic contributions are often hard to find. It is for this reason that Ben Rawlence’s Radio Congo: Signals of Hope from Africa’s Forgotten War is such a welcome addition.
In it, Rawlence makes for a contemplative guide, leading the reader through a series of encounters with a great variety of people across the country. These meetings form the book. There emerges a patchwork of personal accounts, interspersed with an array of hopes, desires, fears, dreams and ambitions that paint a picture of a people coping after the devastation of war. This is a book about citizens of the DRC with the author thankfully avoiding the temptation of turning his journey into a testosterone-pumped adventure in which he is the protagonist.
Rawlence begins his journey in Goma with Manono, a mining town deep in the heart of Katanga province, as his final destination in mind. He first discovers this town in a promotional photograph of Katanga published by Belgian mining companies during the 1950s. The photograph depicts a large new house, complete with swimming pool and tennis court in the heart of the Congolese forest. Manono is hundreds of miles from Lubumbashi the regional capital of Katanga and hundreds of miles south of South Kivu. An obsession with discovering what happened to this ‘modernist experiment in the jungle’ becomes Rawlence’s mission, the premise for his journey.
This quest takes Rawlence south along lakes Kivu and Tanganyika, and finally west, deep into Katanga. He is resolved to travel slowly – by foot, boat or bike – and to linger whenever possible in order to speak with as many people as possible. The author’s willingness to delay and make detours means that he takes the time to understand local issues, and it is the stories of people Rawlence meets along the way that make Radio Congo so appealing. They are often tragic, but other times humorous.
By the time Rawlence arrives in Manono, the reader has met rebels from the FDLR (Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda), a cheese maker from Goma, two demobilised Mai Mai child soldiers, priests, miners and activists, among a host of others. The conversations throughout the book are highly revealing and the effect is compelling. The discussions enable readers to become better acquainted with the daily struggles, hopes and dreams of this cross-section of Congolese.
The author’s stay in Mitwaba, the final stop before Manono is particularly powerful. During the Second Congolese War (1998-2003), the region surrounding Mitwaba was known as the ‘triangle of death’, presided over by the notorious Commander Gédéon, a Mai Mai warlord. In 2006, the Mai Mai – local Congolese militias whose broader allegiances tended to be unfixed and switch frequently – handed over their weapons and accepted demobilisation packages and Gédéon was sentenced to death by a court in Lubumbashi for crimes against humanity. He subsequently escaped.
Rawlence also visits Mabidi, a town near to Mitwaba, a year after the Mai Mai’s demobilisation. The atmosphere is uneasy. The Mai Mai have returned to the villages they used to terrorise to live alongside their former victims. “To a large extent, the Mai Mai are the children of the village”, he explains, and so their return is seemingly a natural one. However, many of the returning Mai Mai fighters find it impossible to live next to those they used to terrorise. The solution is to split the village in two, one half for the demobilised Mai Mai, the other for the rest of the villagers.
Rawlence describes a conversation with Ngoy, a villager whose daughter was kidnapped by a member of the local Mai Mai, as “exhausting”. The daughter married her abductor and now live together in the Mai Mai part of the village. Ngoy refuses to see her. “He [Ngoy] still cannot understand how, the night she was kidnapped, his daughter did nothing to stop her future husband from beating him. He constantly re-lives that night in his mind and continues to feel that awful pain every time he sees his grandchildren innocently playing outside his house.”
The Mitwaba passage makes for an emotional read. It is also characteristic of Rawlence’s ability to cut to the heart of the issue. Throughout his stay in Mitwaba, Rawlence demonstrates sensitivity towards the wounds affecting parts of Congolese society as it returns to normal life after more than ten years (at the time of his trip) of the most brutal war.
Rawlence is similarly conscious of local issues when meeting the Banyamulenge, descendants of a community of Rwandan Tutsi immigrants from the late-19th century, in South Kivu. The Banyamulenge live high in the hills surrounding Itombwe. For years, their citizenship credentials have been questioned by local Congolese. During the early nineties, an attempt to expel the Banyamulenge turned violent, setting the scene for the First Congo War (1996-7) which would lead to the fall of President Mobutu Sese Seko.
During his brief stay with the Banyamulenge, Rawlence conveys a strong sense of the impossibility of their position.
“I pass along the row of village elders and clasp each outstretched hand, one by one. I am shocked by their size and texture. The rough, leathery palms are as cold as rocks; their hands have taken on the features of their beloved landscape and speak more than do their words of a lifetime of dedication to this land. Whatever others may say about them, these men must indeed know these hills like their own skin.”
Deeply attached to the land on which they have raised cattle since the 19th century, the Banyamulenge refuse to leave. Yet their Tutsi heritage and their involvement with the Rwandan army during both of the Congo’s recent wars doom them to perennial conflict with local neighbours.
As Rawlence travels deeper into the DRC, a sense of profound isolation grows. Massive distances separate towns. For much of the journey, the roads are impassable, having been reclaimed by the all-enveloping forest. Rawlence is obliged to travel by boat for much of the way. News arrives from abroad – from Nairobi, New York and London – but rarely from the next town. It is this sense of remoteness and inaccessibility that becomes increasingly tangible as Rawlence delves deeper into the forest.
At one point, just before his arrival in Manono, Rawlence is instructed by Erité, his bike driver, to walk along a forest path into town, the road being too rough to take a passenger. In a state of trepidation, Rawlence enters the forest. The passage conveys the density of the looming trees on either side and the forest’s capacity to “take over meagre human advances” if not constantly kept in check. As the “path emerges at the bottom of the steep wooded valley and opens on to a spectacular view of many more valleys disappearing into the mists”, one gets a sense of the sheer scale of the DRC and the distances that separate each town and village. The forest constantly seeks to repossess what little it has lost to man and, at present, it is winning.
The war may officially be over, but some of the remote communities Rawlence visits, far away from the current fighting in the Kivus, have already been largely forgotten. Few goods and luxuries reach these areas, deep within the DRC’s interior. NGOs rarely visit and items such as petrol and beer are in scant supply. Meanwhile, the Western media inevitably focuses on the more obvious and accessible of Congolese affairs: elections, peace deals, refugee movements, and so on. Radio Congo makes for an enlightening contribution in its focus on the more mundane and ordinary struggles of local Congolese. These stories, so often ignored, have a great deal to tell about the DRC's wars. Listening to them and understanding them will be crucial in overcoming challenges in the future.
As the title of the book suggests, the role of local radio is a recurrent theme throughout. “In this devastated land, local radio stations are a community’s ears, the receivers of news from the rest of the world for people cut off by the lack of roads, impossible terrain or the price of petrol and phone calls. And they are its eyes; the beacons of warning or hope that transmit the goings-on in a town to the surrounding countryside.”
“Those who work in radio are the best informed”, says Jean-Baptiste (J-B), host of Racou FM in Rutshuru. Following J-B’s advice, Rawlence sets out to meet these generous souls who do so much for the DRC. He meets many: Dupont’s Radio Maendeleo (‘Radio Development’) seeks to promote reconciliation through plays and talk shows; Radio Baraka runs a service that unites dislocated families through a message service; and the radio station in Manono airs self-help discussion groups in Swahili on subjects from ‘how to deal with a husband who drinks too much’ to ‘how to plant vegetables’. J-B’s rather grandiose declaration, that “radio is the spider’s web that is holding this country together” does seem to carry some weight in these remote areas.
Yet the book’s title is perhaps somewhat misleading. Between Baraka and Manono Rawlence meets no radio hosts. The Banyamulenge, high up on the plateau in South Kivu, have no radio station through which to communicate their concerns to the outside world. The Batwa near Kalemie suffer similar marginalisation but have no access to radio. In Mitwaba, there is no mention of a radio station promoting reconciliation between Mai Mai and their neighbours. One can’t help but think, that as Rawlence delves deeper into the forest, as the people become more isolated and vulnerable, the ‘signals of hope’ become all the fainter.
Radio Congo takes a refreshing approach to writing on the DRC. It is encumbered neither by an exaggeratedly pessimistic tone nor the sense of bravado that so often accompanies travel writing in Central Africa. As a result, the reader is able to form his or her own conclusions and opinions of the people Rawlence meets. At times, given the complexity of the conflict that engulfed the region for the best part of a decade, it is difficult to place each town and village within the broader context of the war. In this regard, a little more history would be welcome. As it is, Radio Congo is best read as a series of personal encounters each telling its own local story. At one point, Rawlence reveals that “before this trip, I knew more about how people in Congo were dying than about how they lived”. By the end of the book, Rawlence feels that the balance has in some way been reversed. Radio Congo has the same effect on the reader.
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