In Koli Jean Bofane - "In an environment tainted by lethal waves of uranium, cobalt, tantalite, what can we expect from individuals passed through this mixer, evolving in a context of a last generation nuclear reactor? Permanent radiation doesn’t bring innocence, it leads to rage."
In Koli Jean Bofane, Congo Inc.: Bismarck's Testament , Indiana University Press, 2018.
To the sound of machine gun fire and the smell of burning flesh, award-winning author In Koli Jean Bofane leads readers on a perilous, satirical journey through the civil conflict and political instability that have been the logical outcome of generations of rapacious multinational corporate activity, corrupt governance, widespread civil conflict, human rights abuses, and environmental degradation in Africa. Isookanga, a Congolese Pygmy, grows up in a small village with big dreams of becoming rich. His vision of the world is shaped by his exploits in Raging Trade, an online game where he seizes control of the world's natural resources by any means possible: high-tech weaponry, slavery, and even genocide. Isookanga leaves his sleepy village to make his fortune in the pulsating capital Kinshasa, where he joins forces with street children, warlords, and a Chinese victim of globalization in this blistering novel about capitalism, colonialism, and the world haunted by the ghosts of Bismarck and Leopold II. Told with just enough levity to make it truly heartbreaking, Congo Inc. is a searing tale about ecological, political, and economic failure.
Setting: DRC, mainly Kinshasa
What it’s about: How do you write about a country as big as Europe, ravaged by decades of war that have taken six million lives? With cold, mocking irony, and an instinct for the ridiculous that alone can do justice to so many injustices.
A kaleidoscopic, wild ride across a society in the midst of upheaval: beset by terrible war but full of vim; suffering the legacy of colonialism, but also the country that gave the world the uranium that made the first atomic bomb—a society starting to write its own story after a century of colonial domination and postcolonial intervention.
The central figure is a short pygmy, Isookanga, who decides to “get into globalization”, leaves the jungle the seek modernity in the capital Kinshasa. We find him in superdry jeans and a Snoop Dog t-shirt at the beginning, desperate to leave his remote jungle community for a 21st century world where “people at least talk about networks or the absence of networks, USB keys, compatible interfaces”. He spends the book engaged in a “globalization” role-playing war game online called Raging Trade using a laptop he steals from a young doe-eyed anthropologist, in which he competes for natural resources with opponents like Mass Graves Petroleum and Skull and Bones Mining Fields. He justifies stealing the laptop as “a repayment of the colonial debt”. When his village elder comes to the city to find him, he lambasts his old ways:
“You don’t know how to communicate. You’ll never be on Twitter.”
The story quickly expands to draw in new characters, teenage street gangs, their leader, a girl who we meet frenetic escape through the jungle to escape war lords, war lords who dream of clearing the jungle with napalm to clear the way for mining (“they call it lungs, how are you supposed to breath in a place like that, the trees suffocate everything.”), church groups with shell companies, corrupt UN soldiers, and Chinese entrepreneurs (with whom Isookanga goes into business selling heavily branded cold water). At the heart of the interweaving stories lie war crimes in Eastern DRC whose dark role in the characters lives slowly unravel throughout the book.
It is a book where the colonial legacy is not the dominant theme, but an ever present ingredient in people’s choices and interaction. In one scene Isookanga meets the Belgian anthropologist again, who sleeps with him out of colonial guilt, feeling every act like a recompense for a historical crime:
“Every shake of her sensitive stomach reverberated like the salvos of savage neocolonialism: like the diktats of the IMF, like UN resolutions, like a new edition of Tintin in Congo, like the Dakar speech of an uninformed French president, like racist words spread on the twittersphere.”
The conflict minerals that are Congo’s curse are also a strongly felt presence. In another scene, the girl who fled Kivu is turned sex worker for a Lithuanian UN soldier, who after sleeping with her sits down to eat the meal she has cooked, devouring not just her innocence but the very essence of a country divided up for its spoils — Congo Inc:
“He savoured every bite, savouring every flavor, absorbing them, forging images in his mind: protides, lipids, salts, oligo elements, iron, aluminum, tantalite, magnesium, germanium, cobalt, copper, uranium bauxite…”
Or, more directly as the war lord puts it:
“Is it with tree trunks that you make powerful computers, iPhones and missiles? We need copper, steel, cobalt, coltan.”The definitive book from DRC? It captures the many tragedies of the country, remembering the colonial legacy without making it the sole driver at the expense of the agency of today’s actors. There is a wealth of Congolese literature out there: if you want more, start with Emmanuel Dongala Sony Labou Tansi.
Why you should read this: This is by far the best book I have read this century.
When I worked in Berlin, some colleagues came from several African countries for a meeting. When asked what sights they would see with their free time, they said nothing to do with the Second World War or the Cold War. Instead they wanted to see the place where the 1884 Berlin conference took place the conference were European powers divided Africa.
That is the legacy of Bismark the title refers to. That building doesn’t exist any more and the spot is marked with a tiny plaque, fitting for a moment in history forgotten in Europe but which still haunts Africa today. (Ironically, I randomly discovered this book in a Berlin library — otherwise I would never have heard of it either).
But the story is dominated not by this history but by the characters, for whom the author has great sympathy and the toxic historical legacy they have to carry, as he tells us in the last lines:
“In an environment tainted by lethal waves of uranium, cobalt, tantalite, what can we expect from individuals passed through this mixer, evolving in a context of a last generation nuclear reactor? Permanent radiation doesn’t bring innocence, it leads to rage. Too bad for those sensitive souls if the place of concentration and fission is Kinshasa, laboratory of the future, and incidentally, capital of the nebulous, Congo Inc.”
Further reading: This is the kind of book that deserves to be featured in a review in the London or New York Review of Books. In the meantime, settle for a review of the latest history of Congo:
- Thomas Coombes
The main character in Congo Inc. is Isookanga Lolango Djokisa. He is an Ekonda -- a Pygmy -- but stands out because his unknown father wasn't, and so he wound up: "a good ten centimeters taller than the tallest Ekonda". In his mid-twenties, Isookanga lives in a village deep in the Congo countryside but has grand ambitions: "I'm an internationalist who aspires to become a globalizer". Under the screen name Congo Bololo he's an avid player of the massively multiplayer online role-playing game Raging Trade -- which, with its ruthless contest to exploit natural resources, is "the recommended game for any internationalist wanting to know how to get into the business world".
Isookanga leaves his backwoods village and ventures to the big city, the teeming DRC capital, Kinshasa. Not easily fazed, he goes with the flow when he arrives, certain that he'll find opportunity. He befriends the teenage Shasha, called 'La Jactance' -- "the Haughty One" --, a leader among the shégués, the street kids of Kinshasa. The diminutive Isookanga is about their size, but of course much older, but they take him in as one of their own -- and he proves his mettle as a negotiator when one of them is killed by the authorities and they run riot.
Isookanga also befriends Zhang Xia, abandoned in Kinshasa by his business partner after a failed venture and now unable to return home to China. Isookanga suggests an improvement to the packaging of his water-business -- enhancing the flavor of the packets he sells, and branding them as Swiss -- and that proves reasonably successful.
Others who feature in the story include Kiro Bizimugu, a former brutal warlord who wreaked havoc as Commander Kobra Zulu, who has been given a cushy position as CEO of the Office of Conservation of Salonga National Park as part of the pacification process; Waldermar Mirnas, a MONUSCO (United Nations Mission for the Stabilization of the Democratic Republic of Congo) officer, who regularly calls upon Shasha to service him; the reverend leading the Church of Divine Multiplication, who devises a grand Ponzi scheme (and is the person Kiro Bizimugu's wife ultimately turns to to escape the husband who had scooped her up during his marauding, massacring time); and various street kids.
The story does not focus solely on Isookanga, but also on these other actors, including slices from their pasts and how they got to where they are now, such as Shasha's harrowing, heartbreaking escape with her brothers that led her to Kinshasa. The reach extends to Zhang Xia's wife, hoping for his return, and the Chinese authorities' quite different impression of what he has been up to.
Among the storylines is that of Kiro Bizimugu's ambitions to exploit the natural resources of the park whose conservation he is meant to be overseeing. He dreams of annoying nature wiped out of the way:
Kiro dreamed of a Congo made peaceful by napalm, where all that needed to be done was to exploit the riches of the subsoil.
Isookanga continues to play at Raging Trade too -- a game that appears ever-closer to real life, as Kiro sees a potential partner in the young man and Zhang Xia turns out to have a computer disc with valuable information about the mineral wealth in the countryside, waiting to be exploited .....
The individual stories appear to have fairly limited overlap at first, but Bofane brings them together nicely in the novel's resolutions, when various characters find their pasts, and some of their recent (mis)deeds, catching up with them. Nicely paced, the stories work themselves out neatly -- and horribly: it's not exactly happy ends all around.
Congo Inc. doesn't shy away from horrors: while Isookanga lives quite safely, even on the streets, many of those he encounters have suffered or been responsible for the unspeakable. Bofane offers more than glimpses of these: when he notes that: "Each rebel group had its own technique to mutilate a woman's genitalia" he also goes on to describe them. If present-day Kinshasa is largely a safer-seeming space -- the one shooting, early on, is almost simply an unfortunate accident -- Bofane does have two of the characters get their violent comeuppance by the end -- quite shocking turns, really, because they aren't expected in a story where most of the violence has been left behind, in time and more distant place.
Fundamental to the novel is the idea of 'Congo Inc.', the valuable resources that the country is practically overflowing with and that, from the rubber of Belgian Congo-times to the uranium vital to building atomic bombs to the essential minerals and metals which so much modern technology depends have made Congo Inc. the: "accredited supplier of internationalism". The focus is on recent history -- roughly from the Rwandan genocide, and its destabilizing effect on the Congo on -- but Bofane repeatedly points to the foundations of this in the past, with the root cause in the imperialist carve-up of the continent (hence also the book's subtitle, Bismarck's Testament).
The vibrancy of the country is also captured: "At least in Congo anything was possible" -- but the endless possibilities are both for good and bad .....
Isookanga's village-elder uncle comes to warn his nephew that, back home: "Something's happening in the ecosystem, Isookanga. Parameters are in the process of changing radically", and the young future chief does return home -- though without abandoning his internationalist ambitions. The two philosophies -- one grounded in the traditional, and leery of the encroachment of even just the radio antenna installed in the village, the other looking towards integrating with the global economy and culture -- look set to continue to clash, but Bofane leaves the story open-ended enough that it's unclear which will prevail. Despite the flashes of unimaginable violence and grim experiences, there's a sense of hopefulness throughout, and also in the conclusion, as well.
Congo Inc. is vivid in its description -- in some places arguably disturbingly so -- and gives a great sense of the city, and the country's recent history, and what the population has had to deal with. It's also well plotted, a novel that brings together various lives and stories in both realistic and unexpected ways. Bofane does skim over this and that, but there's considerable depth, and profound reflection, too.
An impressive work of the heart of contemporary Africa, and an excellent introduction to the vast country, culture, and history of the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
[Note: In his Foreword Dominic Thomas writes that: "The DRC is one of the largest and most densely populated countries in the world". The DRC is indeed huge (at over 2.3 million square kilometres the eleventh largest country in the world), and it is one the most populous (16th, worldwide), but it is most definitely not densely populated (except of course, in urban areas): at Wikipedia, for example, it only ranks 183rd of 241 countries and territories, i.e. it is, in fact, among the more sparsely populated countries in the world. Parts of Africa are, indeed, densely populated (such as the Nile Delta), but on the whole, and despite a still rapidly increasing population, it remains an astonishingly empty continent.] - M.A.Orthofer