God and the Crocodiles: A Journey through the CongoAndrea Böhm
München: Pantheon Verlag, 2011
Andrea Böhm has travelled extensively in the Congo; her thorough knowledge of the country lends great depth to her impressions. Bravely, she visited places that even experienced Africa correspondents avoid. Yes, she has indeed suffered from "Congo fever": a brief depression followed by a vague sense of bewilderment that ordinary life can continue in such an insane context. "Yes, she is often stared at, "amused, curious, friendly", but the fact that she is a woman has never made any difference. "The local macabre sense of humour was the best defence against panic", she remarks drily.
Böhm's travelogue starts in Kinshasa where inhabitants organize their physical survival under unimaginable circumstances and yet do not relinquish their dreams. Today, in the stadium where Mohammad Ali fought against George Foreman in 1974, there is a boxing school for women. The members of a symphony orchestra play "Ode to Joy" on homemade instruments. Homeless soldiers are living in the palace of former president Mobutu. In Mbuyi-Maji, the capital of the diamond province of East-Kasai, the big mines have long since closed down and "creuseurs" are continuing their digging under dreadful circumstances and at their own risk but for someone else's profit. Böhm's experiences in Mbuyi-Maji make for shattering reading but what she writes about the Kivu is truly dreadful. War still rages here and the suffering is beyond measure. Böhm has done careful research and her reports are sober. The facts about child soldiers and the rape of women are often too gruesome to report. There is no word for "trauma" in the Congo and so the victims' only hope lies in forgetting. Is there still hope? Yes, without any doubt. Böhm was accompanied by Jean-Claude Kibala, an engineer from the town of Troisdorf in North Rhine-Westphalia. He is a former parliamentary candidate and later became Deputy Governor of Southern Kivu. But how does one build up government structures in a country where most citizens only recall the government as little more than a band of robbers?
The book ends with a return to Kinshasa. "I would like to go back", Böhm writes. "I have not yet done with this city and this country." This is what the book shows above all: one cannot help but realize that the author loves this damaged and drained country and the unshakeable will to live of its inhabitants. This is one of the reasons why this book distinguishes itself in an agreeable way from others that see only horror and hopelessness in the Congo.