Friday, October 22, 2010

All Things Must Fight To Live

Most of this week I spent reading Bryan Mealer's Congo book, "All Things Must Fight to Live." The book's subtitle is "Stories or War and Deliverance in Congo." I picked this book up mainly because I know so little about such a vast country. The definitive contemporary book about Congo -- King Leopold's Ghost, has been languishing on my to-be-read list for years.

Bryan Mealer is a Texas-born UT Austin graduate, and an AP staff correspondent covering central Africa and focusing on Congo. This book covers a four year period in Congo's history, roughly from 2003 to 2007. Bryan is based mostly in Kinshasa, and goes to the front-lines of the war-zones just as the conflicts are erupting, and he reports what he sees. That makes up first half the book. The second half of the book, the deliverance part, consists of two epic journeys that Bryan sets out on. One on the Congo river and the other on a long train journey, once the railway finally starts operating.

By necessity, the book deals with a lot of violence and pillage. Bryan writes in a very even-handed way, no melodrama, no sensationalism. I guess when the subject matter is so harrowing there is no need for those devices. The book makes good reading, though it is definitely not light reading. All Things Must Fight has gravitas.

In many ways, this is not a travel book. It is really a journalist's take on a country that many of us won't probably visit anytime soon. Journalists like Bryans spend months and years in these places, so that they can bring us these stories and it is up to us to draw whatever conclusions we may.

Bryan writes with understated humor, and it provided much needed relief.
I found myself having the same conversations I'd had in every African election I'd covered.
"What kinds of changes will you demand from the winner?"
Silence. "Hmmm."
"So you're demanding peace, electricity, and better schools for your kids?"
"Oh, yes, yes….peace. Peace and schools."
But those sections are few and far between. Throughout the week, as I worked my way through this haunting book, I would repeatedly get dispirited about the bleakness of the events and the situation there. I had to put the book away, read other books on more "positive" topics, and come back to All Things Must Fight.

Very early on, I noticed that more than the description of the brutal killings, it was the overall hopelessness of the situation that really got me down. It was Bryan's descriptions of the rampant lawlessness, the cops' corruption (partly because the government owes them months of back-pay), the abject poverty in the interior where people's clothes rot and fall off from repeated use. Hordes of citizens of one of the world's richest countries in terms of minerals are resorting to illegal mining in the scorching heat, and getting paid a mere $5 for a week's worth of work while giving away 1000's of dollars of minerals. Railway workers living in camps, who barely have enough to eat, are still showing up to work every day even though they haven’t been paid in two years.

Normally, after reading a good book, I get evangelical about it, recommending it to everyone I come across. But this book is not for everyone. It is very good reading, but it is not pleasant reading. If you are up to reading the realities of a gruesome street war fought by machete-wielding and stoned 12-year olds, you should pick this book up.

I waffled for a few weeks about whether or not to read this book once I learned of the topics it covered. Ultimately, I think I read it in order to punch a small hole into my cozy suburban existence, to let a little bit of raw reality seep in.


Excerpts: Listed below are a few sentences from Mealer's book that I jotted down when reading.

[Bryan Mealer taking stock of the situation after he's been in Congo for around a year.]
All we really had time to do was make some record of the killing and the dying and hope to tell it the right way. I'd been there maybe a year, covered a war and followed it through. It wasn’t a long time by any stretch, but long enough to understand that total comprehension was impossible, no matter how long you stayed. No one really understood how twenty-five thousand people could walk twenty kilometers, meet in the same remote valley, and start dying there immediately. No one really understood what drove someone to behead a five-year-old girl with a farm tool, or to wipe out an entire village for the sake of a few dollars in gold or loot. It was too abstract, even as I think of it now.

[A pastor is serving as the journalists' translator to earn himself much-needed money. The pastor has just been approached by Doctors Without Borders (MSF) who want him to join them and help their efforts.]
It touched [the pastor] that MSF doctors left six-figure salaries in Europe and America to be frontiline medics in places most people didn't even bother pronouncing right; that in places where all hope and sanity were lost, these people were always the first to arrive, blood up to their elbows and never asking thanks. And in Congo, their staff had been kidnapped and held hostage for doing it.
"If it is God's will for us to live a healthy life, to escape the bondage of death and poverty, then MSF is doing the work of God. There are doing a kind of sacrifice. I respect you journalists because you give me money, but I respect MSF because they are saving the lives of us, they are doing great work, God's work! In the name of God, I will join MSF, even if they will pay me nothing!"

[Sometimes, for the river traders who paddle in small boats up to the barges to trade, their entire inventory ends up in the unforgiving river. I liked this paragraph because of how the Congolese react to this misfortune.]
The pirogue [traders' boat] might catch a bad wake after releasing from the barge and spin like an oil drum, spilling [the traders] into the river, vegetables and racks of smoked fist slowly vanishing beneath the water. But no one ever seemed worried. Instead, crowds would gather along the side of the barge and cheer. The dumped passengers would give an embarrassed wave and swim ashore.

[On his river journey, the tugboat that is pulling the barges simply detaches itself and turns back. It might be two days until it returns, and it has left all the passengers in the barges stranded in the Congo River, with forests all around for miles and miles.]
Instead of panicking, the Congolese only amped up the party. The saucy soukous of Werrason now roared behind an arsenal of fresh batteries, and jugs of palm wine sloshed from camp to camp. Stranded on a remote stretch of river in the middle of Congo, they reacted by dancing as if it were the last night on earth.

[Reporting from a polling station when a much awaited election finally takes place.]
I stood and watched the voters enter the Catholic mission and drop their ballots, and when they emerged into the bright morning sunshine, each had the strangest look on their face, one of deep abatement, as if every muscle had relaxed for the first time in years. It was then, while staring across this place so overrun with death only days before, that the significance of the day finally set in.

Related Post: Somebody's Heart Is Burning: Tanya Shaffer's Book

1 comment:

  1. I have been noting down all your recommendations.

    Will let you know my views when I am done with them.