My fascination with the Congo began, I think, with Warren Zevon’s “Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner.” Through sixty-six and seven, Roland fought the Congo wars with his finger on the trigger, knee deep in gore.
Or perhaps it was a Time-Life book I read at about that time, part of a series about unexplained phenomena like Bigfoot and the Loch Ness Monster, that featured tales of the mokele-mbembe, the dinosaur that lurked in the Congo’s dark swamps and jungles. The idea of such a thing captivated me; any landscape where such a beast could live had to be equally fantastic.
There’s been Conrad’s Heart of Darkness…Vachel Lindsay’s “Congo”…Henry Morton Stanley and “Dr. Livingstone, I presume?” In 2000, there was Jeffrey Tayler’s beautifully descriptive Facing the Congo: A Modern-Day Journey into the Heart of Darkness.
Little surprise, then, when I saw Dancing in the Glory of Monsters and jumped on it.
The book subtitles itself as “The Collapse of the Congo and the Great War of Africa,” but these aren’t the Congo Wars of Roland and the Thompson Gunners. There’s no romanticism here, no “Dark Continent” mythology.
“There is a long history of taking pictures and stories from Central Africa out of context,” concedes author Jason Stearns.
Instead, Stearns offers a profoundly disturbing look at a conflict that has torn the central part of the continent asunder and left millions dead—all of which has basically been ignored by the West.
“How do you cover a war that involves at least twenty different rebel groups and the armies of nine countries, yet does not seem to have a clear cause or objective?” Stearns asks. The antagonisms at work, he later goes on to say, are “fueled by struggles over land, tenure, citizenship, and access to resources, but also and most directly by popular prejudice and a vicious circle of revenge.”
Those prejudices sprang from the conflict in Rwanda between Hutus and Tutsi’s, which lead to a genocide that did attract worldwide attention but little relief aid or action. From there, the fighting spilled into the Congo and was seemingly lost from world view in the country’s deep jungles, where it simmered and boiled and where people bled and died.
“It is not a war of great mechanical precision but of ragged human edges,” Stearns says. “The Congo’s suffering is intensely human; it has experienced trauma on a massive and prolonged scale.”
Stearns does stalwart work—as heartbreaking as it sometimes is—tracing the four main phases of the war in the years since it broke out in the mid-90s.
“Since independence, the story of political power from Joseph Mobutu to Joseph Kabila has been about staying in power, not about creating a strong, accountable state,” Stearns writes. For instance, Mobuto once told the Congolese army, “You have guns; you don’t need a salary”–akin to an open invitation for his soldiers to plunder the country at will. “It was another manifestation of his famous ‘Article 15,” explains Stearns, “a fictitious clause in an obsolete constitution that called for the population to do anything they needed to do to survive.”
There is “layered complexity” to the Congo’s story, which Stearns tells through site visits and interviews with aid workers, politicians, military officials, rebel leaders, refugees, and survivors.
“The Congo war had no one cause, no clear conceptual essence that can be easily distilled in a couple paragraphs,” Stearns writes. “Like an ancient Greek epic, it is a mess of different narrative strands—some heroic, some venal, all combined in a narrative that is not straightforward but layered, shifting, and incomplete.”
As one Congolese tells Stearns, “There are too many people to blame.”
If Conrad’s novel offered a glimpse at man’s heart of darkness, then Dancing in the Glory of Monsters offers a glimpse at the dark heart of an entire continent. A soundbite, 140-character world has no room for that kind of exploration, no attention span for that kind of chronicle.
But there are a million dead Africans at the heart of that dark story.
Stearns, thankfully, finally, has brought them to light.