A narrative account of war in the Congo from Belgian journalist Joris (Mali Blues: Traveling to an African Beat, 1998).
“This book,” writes Joris, “is based on real characters, situations, and places, without ever coinciding with them completely.” “Assani,” the main character, is modeled after a soldier Joris met in 1998 in Lubumbashi, an African mining town. Assani is a cowherd whose forebears came from Rwanda; his family followed the good grazing to land that eventually became the Congo. There, Assani and his extended family would have been happy to live in peace, raising cattle and traveling down to the lowlands only for educational opportunities and to trade. But Assani is not allowed to go about his life as his deceased father and many uncles did. Instead, while traveling to school, he is identified as a former Rwandan and a Tutsi, the perceived enemy of his country’s despotic ruler, Mobutu. He does not choose war as much as war chooses him, particularly as travel between school and home becomes increasingly dangerous. The author explores Assani’s early life and shows us what kind of man he has become—smart, but traumatized, a general in the victorious army who has returned to the capital to try to right his savaged country while salvaging something of a life for himself. The episodes Joris illustrates are striking. At a school, a Hutu professor introduces the class to anti-Semitic literature, then goes on to declare that the “Tutsis were exactly like the Jews,” prompting Hutu students to begin chanting, “The only good Tutsi is a dead Tutsi!” But despite the inherent drama of the stories, too much is relayed in various third-person voices. “He was a Munyamulenge. She recognized the accent,” we are told, but the accent is never described. The result is flat, the impact diminished.
Lackluster storytelling dampens the effect of the strong reporting.