Former Associated Press correspondent Mealer recalls four unnerving years in Congo.
In 2003, the author was a freelance reporter in Kenya, striving to find noteworthy stories he could sell to American publications. His search was mostly in vain, until the AP’s Nairobi bureau chief suggested a trip to Congo, where a fearsome clash between the Hema and Lendu tribes had just led to many hundreds of deaths. Mealer’s subsequent stint in Congo forms the backbone of his potent memoir. From the moment he arrived, it was clear that the country was collapsing into chaos. The author pulls no punches in describing the sights that flickered before his eyes from his bases in Kinshasa and Bunia, or in retelling gut-wrenching stories related to him by the residents of towns decimated by violence. In Mudzipela, he talked to people who had witnessed beheadings, bodies chopped into pieces and even a man feasting on human remains. He muses on the vast differences between his own life and the lives of the Congolese, whose incredible stoicism in the face of monumental slaughter was something he never really adjusted to. Mealer occasionally returned home during his tenure, and brief passages about his life in Brooklyn provide an effective contrast. The author frequently mentions the respite both he and the locals found in music: the Congolese in Kinshasa’s ever-present live performances, “brash and thumping and spilling down the street at four a.m.”; the author in headphones clasped firmly over his ears at night to drive away the day’s horrors. The book takes a sudden, unexpected turn in its final pages with a lengthy account of Mealer’s trip aboard a rickety old train through the southern province of Katanga, a journey in search of hope and signs of rebuilding in this battle-scarred country.
Gutsy, richly descriptive recollections effectively conjure grisly events in a troubled nation.