Lisa J. Shannon, Mama Koko and the Hundred Gunmen; An Ordinary Family's Extraordinary Tale of Love, Loss, and Survival in Congo (New York: Public Affairs, 2015), 213pp.
The most under-reported humanitarian disaster of our time has been the conflict in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (former Zaire). Since the start of conflicts there in 1996, five million people have perished out of a population of fifty million — a staggering 10% of the population. Over half of those deaths occurred since the wars "ended" in July 2003. The overwhelming majority of the victims were civilians; about half of them were children. Millions more Congolese have fled to neighboring countries. Hundreds of thousands of women have been raped. Peace accords officially ended the wars, although continued hostilities and the social, economic and political consequences of the wars make for a fragile peace.
Stalin once said that whereas a million deaths is a statistic, one death is a tragedy. Lisa Shannon, a humans rights activist, speaker and author, moves beyond Congo's mind-numbing numbers and focuses on a single extended family in order to shine a light onto the Congolese darkness. In 2010, she returned to the Congo with the expatriate Francisca Thelin for a five-week visit with the latter's extended Congolese family, and in particular Thelin's mother and matriarch of the family, Mama Koko.
In addition to two wars, the Congo has suffered at the hands of a mad man named Joseph Kony and his Lord's Resistance Army. Based upon interviews with Mama Koko's extended family, Shannon describes what has happened in their village of Dungu — a town of about 25,000 people that has swollen to 125,000 because of refugees fleeing the LRA.
In addition to the savagery of the LRA, the people of Dungu have suffered at the hands of drunken Congolese soldiers, a hapless United Nations, and local militias. Shannon's book belongs to the literature of witness, as does her earlier book about the Congo called A Thousand Sisters (2010). The single best book on the Congo is the one by Jason Stearns, Dancing in the Glory of Monsters (2011).