Great Lakes Literary Playlist

Until coming to Rwanda, I violently resisted the notion of buying an eReader: a book is not a book unless you can crack the spine, write notes in the margins, get high on binding glue and the aroma of ancient pages, and dutifully display said book in your living room to show how smart you are- or so my brother teases me. Reading is often a solitary event, an act occurring between the reader and the text, but a book jacket and a public bench can make it a more social one: books start conversations, attract potential mates, even encapsulate and broadcast some part of your identity. Books have long been a crucial part of my own identity, confining me happily to solitary corners, but have even forced me from my introverted bubble, one Victorian/Edwardian/Georgian serial at a time. I used to read on the bus in London, commuting from my neighborhood of Wood Green (tenderly nicknamed “Stabbing Corners”) to my university in Tottenham (home of the the Spurs, glory, glory, Tottenham Hotspur). This simple act embroiled Shy Leanne in more than one George Eliot-oriented discussion.

An eReader, with its slim design, keeps your reading material anonymous. It is significantly less impressive to read the wrist-breaking epic tomes of the Russian Literary Gods in electronic form; there’s less of a sense of accomplishment. And yet, when you have to physically lug all of your earthly possessions through airports and onto packed buses and apologize for your backpack dealing a right hook to the baby next to you, the eReader starts to look quite attractive. All of this esoteric introductory babbling is to say that with the help of my Kindle, I can knock back a lot more books than normal, even in Rwanda – and easily access them, via wifi, instead of traveling to Kigali to find an actual bookstore (and then getting irritated at the stock of too much Harlan Coben and not enough Everything Else). I await the day I can cuddle with my library, currently stored in boxes in my garage back home, but until then, I have my iPod in grapheme form, brimming with knowledge/distraction.

2015 know thy context 1

Great Lakes Literary Playlist, “Know Thy Context” Edition

Today’s TracksKing Leopold’s Ghost (Adam Hochschild), Dancing in the Glory of Monsters (Jared K. Stearns), & Strength in What Remains (Tracy Kidder, who by now owes me royalties for all the shoutouts) “The Great Lakes” can refer to either that region of the north-central United States with Lakes Superior, Erie, etc., or, in the African context, the Rwanda-Burundi-Congo (and kind of Tanzania, Uganda, and Kenya, due to Victoria) triangulation around Lake Kivu and Tanganyika, the region that was the locus of the Rwandan genocide of 1994 and the resulting refugee flight into Congo, Burundi, Tanzania, and (at that time, to a lesser extent), Uganda and is now an economic sub-region. For travel to Burundi and Congo, I have a CEPGL: Communauté Économique des Pays des Grand Lacs, the Great Lakes visa for Rwandan residents. Thus, these three books center around this region, where guarded borders and national demarkation lines fail to contain ethnic, political, and social spillover.

First up. Some history: King Leopold’s Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism in Colonial Africa, by Adam Hochschild (Houghton Mifflin; Reprint edition, 1999), basically explores the period when King Leopold II of Belgium ran the Congo Free State as his own personal colony. Along the way, Hochschild describes the mass atrocities committed against the people of the area, a swath of country in sub-Saharan Africa the size of Western Europe which included extensive use of forced labor in horrific work conditions. In describing the penal system, in which work deemed insufficient would result in Congolese losing hands, being raped, or outright murdered, Hochschild outlines the evil of colonialism in Africa, resulting in theft of billions of dollars in resources, and crippling the social and political structures of a chunk of continent the size of Western Europe.

In telling this story, meticulously researched and well-received by the historical community, the author presents vignettes mottled by humidity, the dense environment of Congo a constant context for Hochschild’s prose. He provides detailed portraits of the men behind colonialism emboldened by ego and manufactured identity (in the case of both King Leopold II himself and the “famed” explorer, Henry Stanley, who practiced “indiscriminate cruelty” against the Africans he encountered), effectively erasing the popular myth of the wordly man of science colonial Indiana Jones. Instead, in clear juxtaposition, Hochschild profiles the men we should revere, those names we should devote the space in our memory and knowledge to: George Washington Williams, William Henry Shepherd, Edward Morel, and Roger Casement, all influential in uncovering, reporting, and protesting Leopold’s abuses.

The story of Edward Morel, a shipping clerk, was the most poignant to me, perhaps because of a visit I made to Antwerp at New Year’s of this year. It’s a beautiful city, marked by tall row buildings trimmed like gingerbread houses, winding around cobbled streets.  We spent a day wandering around this place, and made out way to the dock area, now a museum to the history of the city with a heavy emphasis on its diamond heritage, and I stood at the place where Morel mentally put the pieces together. The clerk had begun to notice a trend: to the Congo, the ships carried instruments of war and slavery: weapons, chains, clubs, whips. On return, they carried riches: gold, precious minerals, rubber. The math, according to Morel, did not add up: never was their an adequate payment leaving Europe, bound for the colonies.


The Bonaparte Docks where Edward Morel had his “flash of moral recognition” 

Hochschild calls this the “flash of moral recognition,” in continuing to uncover, like several men before him, the atrocities being committed, resulting in a massacred people that the author calculates at nearly 10 million, though an exact number can never be known. According to Wikipedia, when Leopold transferred his personal colony to the Belgian state, the castle furnaces burned for a week, destroying evidence.

Jump forward to the 1990s for post-independence Congo, Rwanda, and Burundi: Dancing in the Glory of Monsters: The Collapse of the Congo and the Great War of Africa by Jason K. Stearns (PublicAffairs; Reprint edition, 2012). The Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC, previously called Zaire) is still a place of extreme wealth, poverty, and violence, “blessed” the wealth of natural resources that other nations demand for production. I often compare the situation in Congo to Syria: there seem to be a dozen external players, each propping up a militia or revolutionary group. In the aftermath of the genocide in Rwanda, the genocidaires fled the border to (then-called) Zaire, mingling with the million plus refugees who fled the country itself, intertwining the fates of not only of those two nations but many others in Africa. Rwanda’s new leadership, the army called the Rwandan Patriotic Front, which had taken over control and effectively ended the 100-day genocidal slaughter, sought out a “partner” who would help overturn the long-standing Zairian kleptocrat, Mobutu Sese Seko, under who rife corruption had taken the should-be-prosperous nation to a state of near collapse. It gets more complicated from there, and Stearns attempts to unpack and unravel the situation, identifying the players and the organizations and countries that backed them up: Uganda, Chad, Burundi, Angola… and, of course, the United States and the West. Everyone wants a piece of the DRC: the diamonds, the minerals, the environmental wealth.

Much of this great war stemmed from Zaire’s tiny neighbor: though small, the Rwandan army is known for its rigid discipline, which bolstered Laurent Kabila until ethnic tensions erupted and the relationship soured after Kabila took power and dethroned Mobutu. And that’s the twenty-second version…which only gets us to the later 1990s. The conflict still blazes today, with tensions high between DRC and Rwanda. DRC accuses Rwanda of apprehending and exporting minerals like diamonds during those years (Rwanda doesn’t have diamonds but somehow exported them in the 2000s. Magic!) and continuing to manipulate regional power to gain more control of the Great Lakes. Rwanda hurls many accusations against the DRC, including continuing to harbor 1994 rebels who should be repatriated and stand trial for their crimes. For an American reader, who craves black and white and simple, Hitler-esque villains, the entire crisis is a lesson in frustration. “The entire population,” Stearns writes, “was involved in the drama, either as an organizer, a perpetrator, a victim, or a witness.”

But, of course, the last two, the victims and witnesses, they are the ones for whom this conflict is the most real. Stearns records evidence of massacres of Rwandan refugees, by Rwanda soldiers, perpetuating the Tutsi/Hutu conflict, and others committed by marauding ragtag bands of Congolese, Ugandans, and Burundians, augmented by soldiers of fortune. It’s the too-oft told story of this region, and I see the effects around me still. People struggle to survive as politicians make war. This is a poor review of a complex situation… for which I would refer you to read the book itself.

Finally, in a book drawing the political to the personal, Tracy Kidder presents the biography of Deogratias Niyizonkiza in Strength in What Remains: A Journey of Remembering and Forgiving by Tracy Kidder (Random House; 2009), most of the action happening concurrently with Dancing. Instead of reporting on troop movements and who funded who, Kidder tells the regional story from an intesely personal perspective: that of a common man, caught in between. Niyizonkiza, a Burundian medical student-turned-doctor founded the Village Health Works complex that I had the absolute pleasure to visit in March, sees his life disrupted by the events of 1994 and 1995, the unraveling of the region through the genocide, the Congo wars, and Burundi’s political conflicts that emerged as 30 years of internal war. He escapes to America, the land of milk and honey in his estimation, to the life of a poor undocumented immigrant- shuttling between tenement housing and his under-paying jobs, where abusive supervisors prey on his fear of deportation. He, like many in America today, has no voice: until he reaches out and someone reaches back. He builds relationships that give him a foundation for rebuilding his life, attending university, and eventually returning to his country to start a health clinic.

What’s the takeaway from these three books, connected to this greater region? For me, it’s this: those without power will continue to be abused if no one stands for them, if no one fights for them. In the colonial Congo days, there were men like Morel. In more recent history, this involved organizations like Human Rights Watch and the International Rescue Committee documenting and reporting crimes against humanity, often putting their researchers and staff in danger for the sake of informing the rest of the world and acting as a voice for refugees and innocent bystanders whose lives were interrupted, and too often ended, due to the violence.

But on a more positive note, we see hope with Deogratias, the strength and perseverance of people who survive and act on their conscience. Hope always remains, and the actions of individuals can indeed have impact: just ask (and spend some time reading about) Edward Morel, George Washington Williams, and Deogratias Niyizonkiza.


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