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…