Heart of Darkness to the hearts of people

The Times of London
Review of ‘Radio Congo’ by Ben Rawlence

Riding pillion on a motorbike piloted by a beer-loving priest through a rain sodden town lost in Congo’s endless jungle, Ben Rawlence arrives at an art deco villa built by a Belgian mining company half a century ago.

Like the town, Manono, in which it sits the villa was abandoned after independence, devoured by corruption and the voracious undergrowth, pillaged by war and eventually reclaimed by more foreigners, this time from the United Nations.

Nearby, a radio station staffed by a handful of unpaid volunteers broadcasts news of the town to surrounding villages, plays bolingo music on tape cassettes and hosts talk shows on women’s issues.

The Democratic Republic of Congo is well — if partially — known. It is the Heart of Darkness (even though Joseph Conrad’s title referred to the evil inside the country’s white colonialists), a place of endless savagery, boundless slaughter and venal corruption, the site of the deadliest conflict since the Second World War, “The Rape Capital Of The World” (see Nicholas Kristof) and a source of blood minerals.

It is a place where white adventurers still go to create their own myths. Tim Butcher did this with remarkable success in his 2007 bestseller Blood River in which he swiftly and fearfully charged through Congo with his head buried in colonial memoirs and maps. We never got to know the Congolese he raced past.

Rawlence’s Radio Congo: Signals of Hope from Africa’s Deadliest War is a challenge to what we think we know of the country. He moves slowly, listening to the voices of ordinary Congolese trying to rebuild their lives in a country emerging from war.

His journey starts in familiar territory: the volcano-shadowed eastern city of Goma, a lava-flooded magnet for refugees, mineral traders, self-aggrandising aid workers and cynical journalists.

Rawlence visits the militia-controlled tin mines of Walikale and rebel-held parts of Virunga National Park, home to mountain gorillas. This Congo is a place where almost every kind of trade benefits one armed group or another and helps fuel the conflict: minerals, charcoal, bushmeat, even cheese.

But he swiftly steps off this well-trodden path, plunging into a string of obscure villages and towns that huddle along the western shore of Lake Tanganyika and on into “le Congo profond” as one chief puts it.

Rawlence seeks Manono, a town built to serve the country’s largest colonial era tin mine. It appears in promotional photos from the 1960s as “a Corbusier dream lit by Edward Hopper, a Modernist experiment in the jungle.” Decades of corruption and war have wrecked the experiment; the jungle has taken over.

No one seems to know how to reach Manono by land. The combined trauma of colonialism, autocracy, corruption and conflict, has atomized Congo leaving towns and villages isolated islands in a sea of forest. They are connected to the outside world only by radio waves and the chains of exploitation that lead from hillsides stuffed with minerals or covered in timber to the faraway world markets.

Rawlence finds hope in the Congolese, if not in their predicament. Speaking the local Swahili language and armed with unfailing curiosity and a childlike belief in the essential goodness of people he unlocks the country in a way other foreign writers and travellers have failed to do.

With no need of the fixers and translators who are both filter and barrier to most outsiders’ understanding of the country he travels alone on foot, ferry, canoe and motorbike.

Sleeping on dirt floors, wooden planks, ships’ decks and in a flooded hotel and eating whatever is on offer — including something that claims to be a goat but looks suspiciously like a dog — Rawlence gets under Congo’s skin.

He drinks beer with Congolese chiefs, priests, spooks, bureaucrats, businessmen, activists and townsfolk. One precious bottle has travelled more than 370-miles by barge up the Congo River before being shared by a huddle of Catholic priests in a distant mission. And he consistently proves the adage that to make friends one should always travel with cigarettes.

He has no need for the maps that in any case barely exist; instead he asks locals how to reach to the next place. Throwing himself at the mercy of strangers’ hospitality he is never disappointed. Everywhere curious people offer food, shelter and occasionally a steaming hot bath (an extravagant luxury in the depths of the jungle) as well as their stories.

Empathy, politeness and a firm conviction that people would rather talk to him than do him harm bears Rawlence through even the notorious “Triangle of Death” where barbaric militias known as the Mai-Mai still roam.

The result is a travelogue more about the people he meets than about the traveller himself. In this Rawlence makes a self-effacing guide with a necessary sense of the ridiculous, an eye for the telling detail and a talent for evocative description but it is his closeness to the Congolese that really stands out.

“Before this trip, I knew more about how people in Congo were dying than about how they lived,” writes Rawlence. Radio Congo goes a long way to redressing that balance.