Documenting Congo

Mama Koko and the Hundred Gunmen: An Ordinary Family’s Extraordinary Tale of Love, Loss, and Survival in Congo, by Lisa J. Shannon, (PublicAffairs), 240 pages, release date 3 February, 2015

I finished Lisa J. Shannon’s Mama Koko and the Hundred Gunman a week ago and have spent a good chunk of the time since then mulling over what, exactly, I have to say about the book. The subject matter is timely; the author has done important work on behalf of Congolese women.

The history of Congo since its “discovery” has been brutal. For some three decades, Congo was unique in being the only African colony owned by a private individual: King Leopold of Belgium. Leopold’s Congo was a hell of forced labor on rubber plantations. “Control” of native Congolese was documented through the removal, collection, and counting of Congolese hands. Yes, hands. Over the course of Leopold’s rule, the population of Congo fell by perhaps as much as one-third. After an international campaign to end Leopold’s rule there, Congo became a colony of Belgium in 1908.

Congo achieved independence in 1960. After more than a century of occupation and uncompensated export of Congo’s resources, independence presented significant challenges. Although Congo had a population of roughly 15.25 million at that time, Shannon notes that “When the Congolese people gained their independence… only nineteen Congolese people had college degrees and fewer than fourteen thousand were enrolled in secondary school.” Congo’s first democratically elected president, Patrice Lamumba was killed in 1961, most likely with CIA cooperation motivated by the growing ties between Congo and the Soviet Union.

The history of Congolese independence is one of constant civil war. Multiple guerilla militias have preyed upon the Congolese people, most recently Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA). In 2005 Kony and four other members of the LRA were indicted by the international criminal court for crimes against humanity, including genocide, forced relocation of populations, child sexual slavery, and the use of child soldiers. It is this Congo in which Shannon’s narrative takes place.

Shannon is the founder of Run for Congo Women, a series of thirty-mile runs held in multiple locations with the goal of raising awareness of and support for Congolese women. Her first book, 2010’s A Thousand Sisters, tells of her experiences visiting Congolese villages and interviewing women affected by the violence.

Mama Koko and the Hundred Gunman chronicles Shannon’s second trip to Congo. Along with her friend Francisca Thelin, she travels to Thelin’s home village of Dungu. While the women’s purposes are complimentary, they are different enough to create a tension that lies in the heart of this book. Thelin, whose family has lost members to the LRA, is more interested in a visit home to spend time reconnecting with her remaining family members. Shannon is determined to document the recent violence using Thelin as an interpreter to such an extent that Thelin has much less time with her family than she’s hoped. In addition, Shannon’s and Thelin’s experiences documenting the violence are significantly different in that Thelin is related to nearly every Congolese individual interviewed. Unlike Shannon, for Thelin, these aren’t “just” atrocities—they’re family stories.

Because of Shannon’s and Thelin’s competing purposes, I felt distinctly uncomfortable reading the book at times. Shannon notes when Thelin is a less-than-enthusiastic interpreter and records Thelin’s repeated requests for more family time. Yes, these stories need to be told, but it feels wrong to have their telling depend a woman who has already lost so much to the conflicts in Congo.

That said, one of the strengths of Shannon’s book is that it offers more than a series of descrptions of atrocities. Shannon provides historical background to contextualize the current state of Congo. She also provides suggestions about how readers can contribute to the movement for peace and justice in Congo. Among the groups she highlights are Invisible Children, the Enough Project, Resolve, and Women for Women International.

In a way, the tension at the heart of this book feels appropriate. It feels right that the process of gathering this information should be uncomfortable and that Shannon documents this discomfort so carefully, even at the risk of making herself less appealing to readers.

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