Painting by Cheri Samba

Lokuta eyaka na ascenseur, kasi vérité eyei na escalier mpe ekomi. Lies come up in the elevator; the truth takes the stairs but gets here eventually. - Koffi Olomide

Ésthetique eboma vélo. Aesthetics will kill a bicycle. - Felix Wazekwa

Saturday, February 19, 2011

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.


Anonymous said...

Thank you for a nice piece. I'm curious to know more about the mobile phone cash transfer experience. Contacts and sources would most appreciated.

Lars Ekman

Jason Stearns said...

Hi Lars - I know that Celtel (now Airtel) has a program back around 2006-7 to pay demobilized soldiers through mobile cash transfers. Soldiers were sent codes once a month that they could use with local dealers to obtain cash, thereby cutting out all the bureaucratic middlemen and possibilities for embezzlement. Unfortunately I didn't follow up on this and don't have any further sources or information.

Anonymous said...

Dear Jason, you should send this piece to all young ladies that comes to goma and bukavu looking desperatively for raped women, generals and ore smugglers. It should be printed on posters and put on every border.

I'm trying to convince friends listen to other stories from congo. positive stories especially. drops of life in a sea of sadness.

Staff Benda Bilili is one of these for example.

Paulo Avelino said...

“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. “
The same could be said of Joseph Stalin, Hosni Mubarak, of any leader or, to be fair, of (almost) every person. To say that is not to say much. And might be dishonest, if the subliminal intention is to downsize any crimes those gentlemen might have committed.

Anonymous said...

Something else you could do is get more Central African journalists/bloggers to ghost write for your blog since you have been blessed by academia and the media as an expert on all things Congo.

Or you can create an alternative forum for Congolese voices that your english speaking readers will go for. The trick is don't let readership know these writers are actually educated Congolese then no one will pay attention. If I sound cynical its because I'm a non-white very familiar with the way the status quo operates. Even those with the best intentions often can't help themselves. It's social programming that everyone has grown up with.

Right on with Wainaina's essay. Thanks for sharing.

Anonymous said...

In my opinion, Paul Kagame, Museveni, Joseph Kabila are dancing the music the US, England and Israel have been orchestrating in Central Africa. You yourself as former UN upper officer have investigated the monstriosity of these 3 presidents, but you haven't been courageous enough to write about them. Btw, I feel have much respect for the writer of this piece:

Anonymous said...

Once again Jason you are insulting memory of million congolese people. I don't know what to say to you.I once called you a Kagame, Hyppolite kanambe aka Joseph Kabila and tutsi lobby and a liar. you said I insulted you. I think you're more than that, you are also a racist and a danger because some people look at you as a congo expert ( you're not). You said:"If all we see is a black men raping and killing in most outlandish ways imaginable,we might find it hard to believe that there is any LOGIC to this conflict" There is not and it can not be a logic for that.
"Some congolese are unscrupulous and vicious, but they usually have REASONS for what they do" please there is no reason to rape or kill innocent people.
"Paul kagame is not a saint nor 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 mix private and public motives". You are a very skillful lobby Jason.Would you say that about Saddam Hussein or Adolph Hitler ? Paul Kagame is a dictator, a genocidaire and a world criminal. Hyppolite kanambe aka joseph kabila is indeed a rwandan tutsi infiltrator and impostor(known by everybody in congo , rwanda and all over the world), also a killer as his mentor kagame.
Nothing can justify the raping and killing in congo.
As a good lobby you say:"Write different stories" Who are the chinese companies and their experiences instead of women being gang raped? Check out Cheri samba or Roger botenbe studios in kinshasa in place of talking about killing of thousand in butembo? The country's tax revenues have doubled over the past several years, while corruption, poverty and unemployment had triple.
One day all this will stop and the truth you has been trying to cover will prevail, and this day is coming soon.

Anonymous said...

I totally agree with the previous message....are we talking about the conflict in the Congo or not? If we want more positive news we can access it through other papers and websites. But when an article is concentrating on the issue, why would the focus be anything else? Beleive or not, the issue does involve minerals such as Coltan, it does involve these companies extracting such minerals, it does involve weapons, it does involve rape, it does involve murder. And the international community should know about it, so that we pressure our governments, we pressure those companies that are contributing to this crisis!

Anonymous said...

Jason when you are trying to distract people about congo. Other are working hard to let the world know the truth about what is going on in congo, HOW AND WHY.

Anonymous said...

So some people really believe that some Congolese rape and kill for absolutely no reason? Common, good or not, logical or not everyone have a reason to do what they do.

Young child fighter once told me that he was not raping women. He was "fighting" for the community, thus it was normal that women agree to be taken when they need... Maybe they are able to do it because, among other things, there is no law enforcement in the country.

As for the killing of civilians they "protect" it was not a bad thing. When the one you protect doesn't want to support you by giving you his mattress or some money that means he is an enemy and must be fought.

Does these reasons make sense? For that young boy it did and nothing else mater to him.

I don't think Jason was saying that the reason they have are good or bad and that we have to shut our eyes on bad things.

First those who do bad things have a reason to do what they do and we need to understand them and stop putting the same label on each and every actions. Especially when the label used is so simplistic that it "explain" only a small minority of the problems.

Same for the leaders, if we only say Kabila is evil and stop there. If Kabila is replaced the next one is likely to become like Kabila if the external pressures on Kabila remains unexplored. So maybe focussing more on these would be better to understand the root.

Logical or not if we don't try to understand the motives of men behind these actions the problem can't be solved, ever.

Post hoc, ergo propter hoc

Thomas Hubert said...

Thanks Jason, very useful. Trying to rise to the challenge on a daily basis...

Anonymous said...

The EXPERT on ALL CONGO MATTERS! You are just doing your business as usual in this world of people who are so little inclined to find out who is being called expert really!

Anonymous said...

Mr Stearns, sometimes you give the impression that you make no difference to what Tonny Blair has been for Kagame. You would back him no matter how montrious he is provided that he serves the interest of the west. But it's not your fault. Since Hutus, Tutsis, Bantous, whatever they're called, can't be humans themselves, you can only take advantage of the situation!

jina said...


Jeb Sharp did amazing work on Congo -- and rape -- in 2008 for BBC's The World. It was necessary, informative, respectful work. There was no kabuki theater, and while there were children in the piece, they were not, to my knowledge, snot-nosed. There was also a remarkable degree of agency in her stories.

Stephanie McCrummen reported from Congo more deeply than any staff correspondent based in Africa I've followed. Lydia Polgreen did precisely the kind of investigative work you are asking for. Stephanie Nolen did remarkable, deep, sensitive work from Congo when she was based in Africa.

Those are four examples of reporters who, against many obstacles -- budget constraints, disinterested and/or clueless editors, an American predilection for hero/villain stories that is not the fault of the media but a deeply rooted part of the American weltanschauung, and almost constant misunderstanding by almost everyone who encounters what we write from these places -- have done urgent, needed work from Congo.

There are surely others I've left of the list. And for every journalist you read who commits the sins you've outlined, it might also help to keep in mind there are a few in the world working really hard to avoid them. It might help even more -- to hold them up as models to those doing lesser work, and to give your interested readers an alternative instead of yet another reason to sigh about the media -- to name those who are doing worthy work. Also, they will probably appreciate that you noticed.

In the meantime, any time you or any of your readers has a story idea you think everyone's missing, by all means, please, get in touch.

Jason Stearns said...

@jina. Could not agree more.

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