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How not to write about Congo

Let me take a page from Binyavanga Wainaina’s essay and blog my own two cents, a little bit less tongue-in-cheek, about how not to write about the Congo.

It’s not all about rape and minerals. Yes, things are bad in the country, and by all means file stories about the conflict and the suffering. But focusing on the ghastly violence distracts from the politics that gave rise to the conflict. This comes at a cost: If all we see is black men raping and killing in the most outlandish ways imaginable, we might find it hard to believe that there is any logic to this conflict. We are returned to Joseph Conrad’s notion that the Congo takes you to the heart of darkness, an inscrutable and unimprovable mess. If we want to change the political dynamics in the country, we have above all to understand the conflict on its own terms. And those terms are not just: Rebels are raping their way across the country to get their hands on conflict minerals.

Look for agents, not just victims. In print and on radio, the Congo sometimes descends into a kabuki theater of snot-nosed children/rape survivors oppressed by savage black soldiers. We need to get away from this. Some Congolese are unscrupulous and vicious, but they usually have reasons for what they do. If we can understand why officials rape – and it’s not always just as a ‘weapon of war’ – and why they steal money – it’s not just because they are greedy – we might get a bit better at calibrating solutions. Of course, it’s much harder to interview a rapist or a gun-runner than their victims. But don’t just shock us; make us understand. Otherwise we only have ourselves to blame when we react to a rape epidemic by just building hospitals and not trying to get at the root causes.

Be careful with ethnic descriptives. For a while, the CNDP was “an ethnic Tutsi rebellion.” While the group was indeed led by Tutsi and backed by many in the Tutsi community, without further context, that description makes it seem like the reason for their rebellion was rooted in their ethnicity. Of course, it was, but it was not because part of their DNA sequence gave them a predilection for AK-47s, but because their ethnicity was historically entwined with land conflict and local power struggles since at least the 1930s.

Which brings me to the FDLR. Yes, they are almost all Hutu. And some of their leaders were involved in the 1994 genocide. But we really don’t know how many were – a study done for the Rwandan Demobilization Commission in 2008 only had evidence of a handful of FDLR leaders’ involvement in the genocide. And of the soldiers who return to Rwanda, very few have been found guilty in gacaca courts for crimes of genocide. Yes, anti-Tutsi diatribe is still prevalent among the FDLR, but the group has also included a few Tutsi officers in the past, and has collaborated with Tutsi groups such as the Banyamulenge in South Kivu and RPR in North Kivu. So be careful not to conflate them with genocidaires.

There are few unambiguous heroes and villains. Paul Kagame is not a saint, not is he Beelzebub. Joseph Kabila is not a Tutsi infiltrator, a Manchurian candidate, or a selfless patriot. They are both leaders acting within the constraints of their political systems, driven by a mix private and public motives. What exactly those constraints are and that mix is: that, my dear foreign blogger/activist/foreign correspondent, is the challenge to figure out.

I hate to disappoint you, but many local NGOs have some pretty serious governance problems; those aid-workers in their air conditioned vehicles are not always just in it to save the world (and when they are, it can be all the scarier). But some of these people have persevered despite all adversity. Figuring out who is who and what shade of gray their moral universe is colored can take some time. Take that time.

Challenge yourself. Write different stories. Who are the Chinese companies working in the Congo and what have their experiences been? Did you know that Congo was one of the first countries to experiment with mobile cash-transfers to pay for demobilized soldiers? Have you checked out the famous artist studios in Kinshasa of Cheri Samba or Roger Botembe? The country’s tax revenues have doubled over the past several years – how does that square with its corrupt reputation? What are Dan Gertler’s financial relations with the Israeli right-wing? The Kivus apparently produces 40% of the world supply of quinine – might be a story there.

It ain’t easy. I know that most journalists writing on the Congo only have 300-1,000 words or a few radio minutes to explain a mess of a conflict. I empathize. And many writers do a great job. But there are also few long, investigative pieces about the conflict that make it into print. That goes for both Congolese and foreign writers. I am convinced that there is a market for intelligent, well-crafted pieces that do not reduce Congolese to a good-guys-bad-guys morality play. So let’s raise the bar.

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