When David Lan first suggested I read A Season In The Congo I barely recognised the name of Patrice Lumumba. I vaguely remembered my South African father and his self-exiled friends mentioning him when I was a child. I didn’t know then that the rubber tyres of the bike I rode, or the copper in the cable that dispelled the darkness, or, as I grew, the uranium in the bomb I marched against or the coltan in the phone I prized or the diamond I declared my love with, I didn’t know that all these things that I took for granted as my right on the path to manhood were at the price of the right of the Congolese people to be truly independent, to escape poverty and conflict. And it was for that independence that Patrice Lumumba, and countless others, had died.
This play is not about race, it is not about racism or even colonialism as we imagine it, something of the past dressed in white linen; it’s about how the injustices of the past have shaped the injustices of the present, how economic colonialism is still being perpetrated today by a different cast of politicians, nations and corporations. The DRC’s curse is not its poverty but its wealth.
When David, Chiwetel and I travelled to the DRC with Oxfam, what first struck me was the violent contrast between the abundance of its natural resources and the deprivation of its people. It is a country nearly the size of Western Europe, where the land is so fertile it produces three crops of beans a year, and yet its level of malnutrition is the highest in the world. If all of the DRC’s arable land was cultivated it could produce enough food to feed the entire continent of Africa. But the land and the wealth of the Congo doesn’t belong to ordinary Congolese people. That’s what Patrice Lumumba was fighting for and that’s what the post-colonial western alliance killed him for. Lumumba wanted political, cultural and economic independence, but the governments we elected and industrialists we supported wouldn’t stand for that kind of loss to their coffers; they accused him of threatening our ‘way of life’, conspired to murder him, and dissolved his body in acid.
Looking back on our trip what I most remember now are the faces of the Congolese people we met: the women’s rights activist who, aware of the mortal danger she faced, publicly denounced a local warlord for ordering his soldiers to use rape as a weapon of war; the heavy brow of the elderly social anthropologist who’d spent a lifetime trying to make sense of the anarchy (as a teenager I thought anarchy was cool). The gentle smile of the young politician who, in the grubby parliamentary canteen, refused to believe that it wasn’t possible to eradicate corruption. The look of shock that still seemed to haunt Pauline Lumumba’s eyes. The children’s faces, thousands and thousands and thousands of them, lost, abandoned and forced to fend for themselves in the cruelest circumstances.
No-one knows how many people live in the DRC, no-one knows how many children there are or how many of them can read or write. No-one knows how many women are victim to sexual violence or how many families have been dispossessed by the fighting. But one thing I do know now that I didn’t when David suggested I read this play is this, that we are all complicit. The least we can do is know what happened.
David, Chiwetel and Joe travelled to the DRC with Oxfam. For more info on their work in the DRC, visit www.oxfam.org.uk/drc.