A Thousand Sisters
is my first book. My first pro writing gig, for that matter. When I sat down to draft, I found myself in deep water. The proposition: Write a personal account of the deadliest war since World War II, through the intimate lens of friendship. My goal was to bring readers along with me on my journey to Congo so they could meet and bond with my sisters as I did; my hope was to engage them in the movement for Congo.
But how do I write honestly about the off-the-charts horrors in Congo that in our popular vernacular many would label "unspeakable" and "unthinkable"? Do these stories motivate? Or do they cause us to shut down and shut Congo out?
One of my sisters' stories is the quintessential example of this, excerpted from A Thousand Sisters:
"I was in my house preparing food for my husband when they came," she says. "They made me prepare food for them, then asked me to wake my husband, who was asleep. They demanded money. I had US$130, and I gave it to them, but they didn't care. They said, 'The US$130 was the nurse's participation. The husband is head of the school. He has to make his contribution.'
"My husband said, 'I have nothing.'
"They started to beat him, so I cried for help. The Interahamwe shot him immediately, killing him.
"I continued to cry to alert other people. They said, 'Shut your mouth. Put your leg on the chair.'
"They took a machete and cut off my leg. We had six children at home; one was my sister's child. The Interahamwe cut the leg into six parts and burnt them in the fire. They gave each child a piece of my leg and commanded them to eat.
"One of the children said, 'I can't eat a part of my mother. You already killed my father, so you will have to kill me.'
"They killed my child.
"They tried to burn the house. The children got us out. They took me to the garden outside. Because of the burning of the house, because of despair, because of the loss of blood, I was like a dead person."
When I returned from my first trip to the Congo, I told Generose's story twice. After gauging audience response, I didn't tell it again for a year and half.
In that period, I knew I wanted to write a book, but was stuck. What do I include? What would be too much? In an online video clip Philip Gourevitch, author of the genocide classic We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed with Our Families: Stories from Rwanda, posed a basic question: In our popular dialogue on these issues, people use the words "unthinkable" and "unspeakable" which allow us to posture as though we have dealt with the issue, when in fact we haven't dealt with it at all. He asked, "What is a journalist's job if not to think and speak?"
As writers and activists, it's our duty to tell the truth. But how do we make that truth palatable to a broad readership?
As I reviewed my 70 hours of videotaped interviews, filled with hundreds of stories of "the trouble I got from war," I discovered something. In my pursuit of Congo horror stories, there were a lot of questions I didn't ask. Like who was lost. I hadn't even asked their names.
Before I could draft a book, I had to go back to Congo, armed with different questions:
Inside, we pull the curtains closed and wait for the neighbors and children to disperse, so we can talk privately. It's dusk and we talk by candlelight. I ask about her son.
"He was a child I loved so much," she tells me. "The fact that he is the only one who refused to eat a part of me marked my heart."
"Do you remember the last thing you said to your child?"
"What I remember is the last speech he gave to the killer."
"What did he say?" I ask.
"To his father's killer, he said, 'I do not accept to eat a part of my mother.' They said, 'Then we are going to kill you.' He said, 'If you kill me, kill me. But I will not eat a part of my mother.'" Generose spaces out, slowly rocking back and forth, while Maurice translates, "They said, 'Then you better pray, because you are going to die.'
"He said, 'You're asking me to pray to God? Why? I do not love you. I am angry with you. How can I pray to God when I have such a bad heart against you?'"
We are quiet for a moment. Then I ask her, "What did the soldiers say?"
"They said nothing. They shot him. I heard the sound of many bullets, but what I saw was the one that entered here." She points to the middle of her forehead.
"What was his name?"
"And your husband?"
"What was he like as a person, a man, a husband?" I ask.
"The type of husband I dreamed of since I was a child. Someone very tall, who's not a drunk and doesn't smoke. When I met him, he had all these qualities, and I said, 'This is the man.'
"As a husband, he was responsible. As the father of my children, he was responsible up to the end of his life. He had a habit. When I was very tired he would say, 'Today, it is not your chore. I will prepare food for the whole family.' He prepared eggs and rice. That was his dish. This created a problem with his family. They said, 'How can a man prepare food for his wife? This must be a problem of witchcraft.'
"But there was no witchcraft. Only love."
"What do you miss about your husband?"
She doesn't hesitate. "When I was pregnant, very heavy with a baby, my husband would wash my body. It was very intimate."
Is it that Congo is too much? Or is it unbearable to see human beings strictly through the lens of horror? Are we only seeing half of the story?
Do we define the narrative of Congo by the questions we ask? How does our experience of Generose's story change when the questions change? Why so personal? Is it relevant?
When we deal with the violence in abstract, intellectual realms, we make room for pity. That is a tremendous first step. But for compassion, we must be willing to feel with Congolese. An easy way to do that is to get to know them. When we see Congolese people for the full human beings, the individuals they have always been — with loves and quirks and family bonds — the losses become real and personal.
And the personal is essential. We cannot measure the human cost of the war when we define people strictly by the violence they endure, any more than you can measure a human being by the few moments of violence at their life's end. We cannot leave out half the story. Learning this was a critical piece of my own journey.
I recently saw a program on PBS about genocide. The documentarian made a simple argument: To stop genocide (and I would add mass atrocity), two things need to happen:
1. The cost/benefit equation for the perpetrators must change.
2. We have to shift the way we to relate to those living through it. We must feel it like it is happening to our own mothers, sons, brothers, and sisters.
The truth about Congo will be too much... for some people. But for many, the truth is not too much. Especially if it is the whole truth.
We may cry. But then we do something.
And when we do something, we stumble upon one of life's great ironies: If we are open and travel to one of the "worst places on earth," we may just experience some of life's deepest joy, the singular joy that comes from connection to other human beings.