Book and Film Reviews
Dancing in the Glory of Monsters
The Collapse of the Congo and the Great War of Africa by Jason K. Stearns
Jason K Stearns worked and lived in the Congo for a decade. His book portrays vivid accounts of victims, perpetrators and eyewitnesses of events preceding of events which preceded the Rwandan genocide of 1994, an indirect cause of both Congolese wars. Stearns describes in detail not only the political causes of these conflicts but the economic factors to make sense of the “madness” which still lingers in the RDC to this day. Dancing in the Glory of Monsters is well documented by interviews with heroes, villains and victims of these atrocities. The book recounts stories within stories, how war made more sense than peace.
Stearns traces quickly the history of the African slave trade and the tribalism it created, the managerial style (or lack of) during the European colonial era and the African quest for independence of the late 1950’s early 1960’s as factors contributing to the African mind set. The two wars fought primarily fought for control, and/or influence in the eastern Congo involved forty-one players and nine different nations which at any given moment were sometimes allies, sometimes enemies and sometimes both. For Stearns there isn’t a single cause of the Congolese conflict. Sexual violence and economic interests proclaimed in thirty second sound bit in the American media were results of the conflict, and in no way caused the conflicts. It is impossible to simplify the complexity produced by the deep history of Africa, unknown to American audiences. Little was said about the anti-Tutsi frenzy pervading many events and atrocities occurring or as an indirect cause of some of the worst atrocities. The Western world didn’t care or couldn’t explain the complexities in a 30 second report on the nightly news.
The first war had been about getting rid of the refugee camps and over-throwing Mobutu. Congo was a state weakened by the fear of subversion and reliance on the matabiche or envelope. Governing to stay in power. The second war was about business – dominance by third party nations, or individuals vying for Congolese minerals. Coupled with the lack of a civil-minded government contributed a climate where marauding bands of insurgents seeking power and personal wealth through exploitation flourished.
The world looks for a short-term solution to a very complex African problems. The story of the Congo is dense, complicated and involves many layers. From Mobutu to Kabila, Congolese leaders governed to stay in power, not governing for the common good.
I found Dancing in the Glory of Monsters an interesting and worthwhile read simply because it was above and beyond what I read in the newspapers or on TV about Congo since my Peace Corps COS. I could relate to the tribal mistrust, to the political corruption and graft in every day life and how important the matabiche was make things happen. Dancing in the Glory of Monsters is a must read for anyone who served in the Congo regardless of your Peace Corps posting site. Towards the end of the book Stearns quotes Philip Gourevitch “Oh Congo, what a wreck. It hurts to look and listen. It hurts to turn away.”
The Keys to the Congo and Further Travels:
Memoir of a 2x Peace Corps Volunteer
by Irene Brammertz
(Zaire 1988-90; Malawi 2011-12)
October 2015, 207 pages
Amazon hard copy $30.00, e-book $8.99
Reviewed by Leita Kaldi Davis
Leita Kaldi Davis worked for the United Nations and UNESCO, for Tufts University Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy and Harvard University. She worked with Roma (Gypsies) for fifteen years, became a Peace Corps Volunteer in Senegal at the age of 55, then went to work for the Albert Schweitzer Hospital in Haiti for five years. She retired in Florida in 2002, and wrote a memoir of Senegal, Roller Skating in the Desert, and of Haiti, In the Valley of Atibon (amazon.com or firstname.lastname@example.org).
Irene Brammertz has written a diary type memoir, drawing on journals and letters she wrote and subsequently edited intermittently for ten years after her first service as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Zaire. When Irene was 70 years old she returned to Africa as a Peace Corps Response Volunteer for nine months in Malawi. Then she participated in a mission trip to the Democratic Republic of Congo (formerly Zaire) in 2013, when she revisited the people and places she had left behind in 1990.
In her memoir, Irene recalls all the tribulations of culture shock that every PCV experiences: "It's a wonder that anybody gets anything done to earn a living since it takes so long to just basically exist (water, firewood, food preparation, transportation – your own two feet.)" She struggled with the local language, dealt with volatile African weather, collaborated with international NGOs to make her health zone a success. She lived on $100 a month, had her computer and office supplies stolen, got dirtier than she'd ever been in her life, felt lonely at Christmas, came down with malaria and various infections, traveled like a native and managed to keep up with younger trainees and volunteers. Irene records so many stories, details of her experiences, in a cheerful voice. She's not a whiner. Many wonderful photographs illustrate the book, from "Gorillas in the Mist" to the solar lanterns she distributed to health centers.
What compels a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer to spend ten years off and on working on a book? Does one relive powerful experiences in writing about them? Is the desire so strong to share with family friends and the world at large a major part of one's life? Maybe it's just a love story that must be written.
Irene is an extraordinary person, who today continues her service with the RPCV group of South West Florida. Irene's fellow PCV in Zaire, John D. Yanulis, also Project Director USAID Miko Project in Madagascar, wrote a touching comment in his foreword: "Irene is one of a kind. I was so very privileged to have had her as my post-mate for nine months in Zaire. She helped me transition into Zaire with the same grace, perseverance, tolerance and patience that she lives every day." Irene surely has left many people who share the same sentiments in her wake.
Reviewed by Jessica Vapnek
The African Doctor (original title: Bienvenue à Marly-Gomont) is a charming film, based on a true story, of a Zairian doctor (Seyolo) who takes a position in a small French town in the 1970s after completing medical school in France. The comedy starts early, when Seyolo’s wife, Anne, and children are dancing around with glee at the thought of being based “in Paris” – he nods and smiles and lets them think that is the case, when in fact they are in a remote rural area with taciturn and suspicious French villagers.
The arc of this feel-good story may be predictable but provides two hours of good fun: Seyolo’s medical clinic is shunned and bleakly empty until he saves the day by delivering the baby of one of the most suspicious villagers; his kids are bullied at school until one of them becomes the star of the soccer team; a xenophobic mayoral candidate tries to stir up animus against Seyolo and the family but in the end, the villager-voters turn out to re-elect the nicer mayor – and Seyolo and the family remain in France.
There’s very little action that takes place in Zaire, but for any of us who know the country from Mobutu’s days, it’s easy to imagine and appreciate what Seyolo and his family were going through when they were suddenly dropped into rural France. In a way, the film is the perfect mirror image of our Peace Corps experience, although we Americans generally experienced nothing but warmth and welcome from our Zairian friends, colleagues, and neighbors. In the film the French villagers eventually come around to seeing Seyolo, his wife Anne, and the children as full and valued members of the community, but it takes time and there are tribulations along the way. I highly recommend the film, which is so enjoyable to watch. At the time of this writing, the film was available on Netflix.