Book 14; Continent: Africa

Radio Congo: Signals of Hope from Africa’s Deadliest War by Ben Rawlence

  • 303 pages (288 pages excluding Acknowledgements, Index, etc.)
  • Read this thought-provoking book after the evening news, when you think you’re caught up on foreign affairs.

Ben Rawlence’s book isn’t a military or political history of the region. Instead, he gives us an intimate travelogue of a journey undertaken through isolated villages in 2007’s postwar Congo. There, in the Southern part, roads are scarce and the white, foreign journalists don’t go. Rawlence wondered about the people there: what was it like to return there after some tenure in a Zambian refugee camp? Who was in charge now? What did they know of the outside world these days? What had been the impact of foreign non-government organizations and the United Nations?

To the extent travel to the southern Congo is possible, one arranges to fly in a plane delivering aid or shipping out tin. This advice comes from the foreign journalists and mercenaries Rawlence drinks with in Bujumbura. However, he eschews air travel in favor of barges, motorbikes and even walking for the sake of seeing the area and meeting its people. His endpoint is Manono, a mining community planned in the 1950s by the Belgians who colonized the Congo. He had seen the black-and-white photos of the supermarket, the community swimming pool and the other amenities the first-world mining interests seemed to promise. If he can discover what has become of Manono, then he will have a sense of present-day life for the Congolese.

He describes a range of scenes over the course of his sojourn in this neglected part of the world, from the eerie lanterns of fishermen over Lake Tanganyika to a crumbling European cathedral, seemingly deposited in sub-Saharan Africa by a tear in the space-time continuum. The region’s violence and struggle for subsistence shape its appearance. For example, the hills above Lake Tanganyika are deforested for the sake of cattle ranching, but the cattle are gone now, slain or stolen by various militias. The ranchers have fled. Cassava is planted anywhere, including part of the runway at the local airfield or on what had been a golf course. All of it has been bombed or burned or looted.

Into this unforgiving backdrop Rawlence inserts the portraits of the people he meets. Minor bureaucrats from various offices expect payment for made-up licenses—annoying, yes, but many of them have not received a salary from Kinshasa in months. Priests squabble over his company (and therefore access to his beer money). Local chiefs and warlords want to show off their handiwork in the villages they control, for better or for worse. To the extent Rawlence wades into political history, he does it to provide context for how these people live their lives and the choices they make.

Everyone he finds in his travels invariably wants him to tell the UN something for them: build a road, send more goats, etc. He is a white man from a wealthy country, so surely he has those connections. He can’t help them, but he listens carefully. A road brings problems as well as blessings, he muses. Trade, yes, but also refugees or, worse, trucks full of soldiers. The handful of goats for the livestock breeding program will just be eaten. After all, if there aren’t enough for each family, then a village feast seems the fairest way to distribute the animals.

Rawlence illustrates that the deficit in communication, internally and with the outside world, has trapped the Congolese in poverty and violence. Internally, the people from one tribe or village do not trust the others. What’s more, former Mai Mai (grassroots militia formed to drive out the Rwandan army) have accepted government deals to lay down arms—only to be resettled next to the people they raped or tortured at one time. Kinshasa’s plans to reintegrate them breeds distrust in the bush.

As for the outside world, the aid is forthcoming, yes, but the NGOs don’t ask what is wanted. For example, one bureaucrat arrives in a bush town with great fanfare to present the area’s people with a new ambulance, but its hospital has no medicine for arriving patients. Another problem is that the NGOs often don’t understand the bird-in-hand immediacy of their beneficiaries’ lives in the bush. In other words, the first world may slap its collective forehead over the NGO goats being eaten, but if you eat your goat today, then the local warlord can’t steal it tomorrow. When Rawlence describes what he sees, the point of view of the people he meets seems a reasonable match to their circumstances.

He uses radio as a symbol of hope for this nation of disparate, isolated people. Villagers gather around any functional radio, for everyone wants news of the rest of Congo and the world. The local stations have a very limited range, but a few radios will get the BBC’s Swahili station broadcasting out of London. Warlords fear the radio and what might be said about them to undermine their control. Therefore, if the local radio station is broadcasting, then there is peace in the region. There is another reason to find hope in the radio. Perhaps, when one listens to Monono’s all-female talk show about planting vegetables, one will hear what is useful there and then send that next time, instead of an ambulance or just enough goats for everyone to have one, really good meal.

Photo credit: verhoogen.be / Foter / CC BY-NC-ND

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3 thoughts on “Book 14; Continent: Africa

    • As I was reading this book, I sometimes had difficulty seeing it as the “broadcast of hope” one reviewer called it. Having digested its contents now, I think “resilience” might be a better term for the optimism that reviewer seemed to find. The Congolese as Ben Rawlence describes them have an extraordinary capacity to deal with hardship and want. The term “hope” implies that their living conditions will improve. I hope that’s true, but even the author doesn’t suggest it will happen. Instead, he is careful to describe the ability of these people to *just get on with it* in the face of unpleasant and sometimes truly awful conditions.

  1. Pingback: Book 17; Continent: Africa | History Reading Challenge

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