Ben Rawlence’s Radio Congo succeeds in capturing life on the ground in East Africa. Perhaps I am reading in too much of my own experience, but I don’t think so. I confess I usually am bored with travel writing, but not this book. Mr. Rawlence tells of his 2007 journey to find out what was going on in the unreported areas of the Congo after decades of war. And it only makes sense that it wasn’t reported because even those living nearby had not visited to find out. But you can’t blame people for being cautious when they have endured so much violence so recently. He not only survived this quest, plight, success, adventure; but he wrote about it in a timely manner. The book was published in 2012.
Mr. Rawlence doesn’t bore the reader with daily log entries but the days he does choose to share are well fleshed out, especially how he experiences his surroundings and deals with different people (whether they be helpful or obstructive). I found his personal interpretations of what makes people act the way they do to be right on target, but I won’t be a spoiler. Another piece of what made his descriptions of people seem so real is how he relates the hope and optimism of the people he encountered. Humans never cease to amaze me in their ability to make do and see something to be optimistic about. He also reports on the locals’ irritation that the rest of the world doesn’t seem to want to know about what they are going through. Listen up World Press.
We are given enough of a glimpse of his goals and side trips that we get a sense of the highs and lows he encountered working toward his goal, to see the unreported places along the coast of Lake Tanganyika to Manono. Though I have traveled it, East Africa remains a place that ever challenges me, even the names of the places seem like something from a fairy tale. Manono—a place that to me was just another of those East African names that makes you wonder if the teller is making this up. And who wasn’t captivated by the news reports of war between peoples called the Hutus and the Tutsis and the viciousness of the thugs called the Mai Mai? It always sounded like it had to be unreal though you knew it wasn’t.
Though it was in 2007 that Mr. Rawlence travelled this stretch of the country (that even now continues to be torn with strife), he imparts much clarity on the local scene. Though he doesn’t dwell on the atrocities, the truth that war has wrecked havoc there is clear. And the havoc is registered in social relations, human necessities, the environment and future prospects for normalcy. Mr. Rawlence tells of a host of lesser known players and impacting conditions in the Congo’s recent turmoil (all in my lifetime!) so that most readers are bound to learn something new about the situation. Perhaps it will even help exploit upcoming opportunities for peace in that land. For they shall come. One local saying he references is “Mficha chi haze” or “he who hides his nakedness will not give birth.” Provocative on so many levels! Just like this book is satisfying on so many levels.
Buy it. Read it. Let me know what you think.
See this post for a list of other books I have recommended.