Beargirl gave us a blast on the weekend, about all the awfulness in the world: all the horror, cruelty, and injustice. She gave us both barrels about war, famine, concentration camps, hunger, disease, and predators both human and animal. It was a worthy blast, more articulate and heartfelt than I usually manage (though on a par for rage).
She was right, and unapologetic about it. It was also a flanking movement designed to evade direct contestation of whatever it was we were talking about before we got the blast (shoes maybe, or towels), and like any flanking movement it only worked because it was pursued with all the élan of a full frontal assault. I sat in front of the fire picking the lint from my socks as the barrage went on, like Wilfred Owen in the trenches, all the time thinking: we’ve got to talk about the Congo.
I’m not sure why the Congo flared into my mind. As Beargirl raged against the machine flashcards of King Leopold; Roger Casement; Lumumba; Mad Mike; Mobutu Sese Seko; Laurent Kabila; Joseph Kabila; Paul Kagame; Yoweri Museveni; Joseph Kony came and went, interspersed with half remembered glimpses of generic stills that were offered up by the news coverage over the last fifteen years (the river, the jungle, the mud flats, the malnourished children, the shanties, the guys with Kalashnikovs, the refugees).
I looked into Beargirl’s eyes and I wanted to tell her about the vast inventory of terrible things but she was too full of them already. And what would I say? No, wait! There are so many more horrible things we can talk about! There are so many terrors and dreads out there. I have examples!
I said nothing much, certainly nothing about the Congo, and helped Beargirl pick up the towels. This is gesture is unremarkable. We do it all the time. Who tunes in for the latest update on Western Sahara; or how the negotiations on Azawad are going; or the fate of the OPM in West Papua; or how the people on Muhurichar survive; or what the change of sovereignty in the Pamirs means for Tajiks? Not very many and that’s OK, we’ve all got to choose what to think about lest our hearts and minds simply explode. Which happens, really it does: a passing familiarity with Hiroshima Day marches reveals the liturgical nature of knowing horror and the weight of that service.
Beargirl wanted, at least in part, for us to explain why nobody fixed up the horror. Why hasn’t this stuff been sorted? Why it was still here. She didn’t want the simple answer that people reproduce themselves and the horror is reproduced too. She wanted the complicated answer about the failure of politics, the failure of culture to be righteous. As ever, you can’t answer that. As grown-ups we know that we work with what we’ve got, and some of what we’ve got is broken. The limitations on action, the constraints upon agency, the demarcations of time & space: we do what we can in spite of these, in hope. Hope is for the hopeless.
This is why the Congo flickered into my mind as Dr Sternlove and myself were found responsible for the state of humanity. The Congo speaks to the choice we must make. The choice is not about knowing or not knowing about the horror, about our failures. This state of affairs is precisely stated in Sven Lindqvist’s extraordinary book about the Congo, Exterminate All the Brutes: “You already know enough. So do I. It is not knowledge that we lack. What is missing is the courage to understand what we know and to draw conclusions.” Mostly we don’t do this; we invest everything in the knowing and next to nowt in the understanding, never even getting to the point where conclusions might be drawn. Knowing is not paying attention.
The great outpouring of Stop Kony stuff last year is exactly what happens when the knowing outweighs the understanding. Lots of petitioning, t-shirts, posters, social media, occasional press conferences, celebrity endorsement, plastic bangles, donation receipt centres, and media coverage goes on, lots. But Kony had been in the jungle since the late eighties, doing bad things, and he’s still there, doing bad things. But I’d hazard a guess that relatively few of those who wore awareness bracelets took the time to understand the rural politics of Uganda, or to think about Alice Lakwena and the Holy Spirit Mobile Force, or the reasons some Acholi support Kony, or the role of President Museveni in elongating the conflict. Nor to think about how the ghosts of Katanga are still being played out, nor the support offered Kony by both sides of the South Sudan conflict, nor the terrifying instability arising from the Rwandan genocide, the First Congo War, and the Second Congo War. Nor, even, how inseparable African politics are from four hundred years of slavery, colonialism and neo-colonialism. I would even be so unkind as to suggest that relatively few wearing of the bracelet wearers could locate Gulu on a map, maybe not even Uganda.
What the Congo could give Beargirl, what it gives me, is an arena for hope. Hope comes from understanding hopelessness, not knowledge. Knowledge is simply an accrual, understanding is a navigation of a moral topography based on a firm grasp of the hopeless position we are in. Within that topography we can find spaces to speak, to draw conclusions and sometimes act on them. That space is hope. Beargirl doesn’t need to know about the Congo, she needs to find the space and sit with the hopeless.