A powerful new play questions whether our well-meaning desire to help war-torn nations is futileby Sameer Rahim / September 7, 2016 / Leave a comment
The conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) is the worst you’ve never heard about. During the civil war that still rumbles in the east of the country, 5.4m lives have been lost. Today the government and rival militias fight over control of valuable mineral resources. The scale is almost unimaginable—so why do we hear so little about it? And even if we do force ourselves to look, what can we in the west actually do?
These are the difficult questions posed in Adam Brace’s ambitious—perhaps overly ambitious—and powerful new play at the Almeida, They Drink it in the Congo. The title refers to a famous cartoon advert for a 1980s juice drink, which many of us of a certain generation still associate with the Congo. Brace has clearly decided that humour is the best way to open up the audience to his difficult subject matter. The set-up is that Stephanie, a white do-gooder born in Kenya, is trying to plan a festival in London called Congo Voice. The festival will celebrate the culture of the country and, she hopes, draw the world’s attention to the Congo’s problems.
Over the course of the play, Steph’s idealistic ambitions for the project are stripped away. The Congolese diaspora is divided over whether to get involved. Some think it legitimises the current Congo government led by Joseph Kabila; others think it’s patronising or are afraid of a militant group threatening anyone involved. Even Anne-Marie, a campaigner for women’s rights in her home country and an enthusiast for the festival, is under few illusions: “This event may be many things,” she says, “but truly Congolese is never one.”
The London scenes are mainly played for laughs: the social competition between the Congolese, the buffoonish PR man who’s only helping ex-girlfriend Stephanie because he wants to get back with her. But when the action shifts to the Congo for one memorable, terrible scene the audience is shocked into seeing another reality. A father and daughter living near a mine chat in Swahili. They discuss the 9/11 attacks, which the girl has never heard of but the father has seen on television. To them these are distant, irrelevant tragedies—just as theirs are to us. Then the militias come. Be warned: the scene is so disturbing that the person I was with fainted.
Strangely enough, 100 years ago an even worse conflict in the Congo (costing between 10 and 15m lives) also provoked a sustained PR campaign in Britain. As told in Adam Hochschild’s superb 1998 book, King Leopold’s Ghost, some westerners were horrified by the atrocities they saw in the Belgian Congo: forced labour, whippings, rape, and limb amputation. Black Americans such as George Washington Williams and the Reverend William H Sheppard, as well as the Irishman Roger Casement and Englishman Edmund Morel wrote books, ran campaigns and rallied government support against Leopold II. He was exploiting the country for its rubber, which Europeans used to power new technologies such as bicycles and cars. He was probably doing much the same as the British and other European powers were doing in Africa—but his greed made him an easy figure to hate, and his actions were seen as a threat to other imperial powers. He was an allowable target.
As They Drink it in the Congo explores, these days more valuable than Congo rubber is Coltan, a key component in computers and mobiles. One of the play’s central characters—literally, he stands in the middle of the stage for nearly all the action—is Oudry, a Congolese Sapeur dressed in a dandyish pink suit. He represents technology, reading out the text messages and emails of the characters as they send them. Oudry then transforms into a miner in the Congo digging out that precious coltan. He is the man whose family is brutalised by the militias. In the play’s second half, his clean suit is soiled and his head glistens with an open wound. (On stage a similar gaping hole—the wound of the Congo—remains exposed.) All the electronic devices the characters used in the first half are replaced by sinister spiked objects that remind us of their troubling provenance.
The strength of Brace’s play is that it anticipates all the possible objections that might be raised against it. Isn’t this really about Stephanie’s colonial guilt? Is it right to spend money on a festival in London that could be used to help the Congolese? Even if money is sent will it just be stolen by militias? Dramatically speaking, though, the play is weighed down by these issues and in the second half it meanders, with the audience waiting for a strong conclusion which never quite arrives.
Trying to encapsulate such a complex story into one play might have been a fool’s errand. (For their Great Game cycle in 2009 about Afghanistan, the Tricycle gave themselves 12 half-hour plays.) Brace half-acknowledges this when at the end you are handed a list of books and documentaries about the Congo. For me, though, it is heartening to see a new play trying to grapple with an incredibly important problem playing out on a continent often poorly reported on. Congo Voice might have failed, but the Congolese people are, in however diluted a form, given a voice here.
When the historians of the future come to write about Congo, they will undoubtedly lay some of the blame for its problems at the outside world’s lust for its resources. The well-meaning liberals who try to highlight these problems, one of the satirical targets of Brace’s play, will come out better than most I suspect. Not because their campaigns made that much practical difference. (The horror of the Belgian Congo came to a partial end when Leopold died in 1909, not because of an attack of conscience on his or the world’s part.) But because they refuse to turn away from their own complicity with one of the world’s worst tragedies. Ignorance is no excuse.