Tuesday, 30 June 2015

The Great Forgetting - Brisbane Festival and the Congo

The Democratic Republic of Congo sits in the very heart of Africa, in the cradle of all humanity. It is the size of Western Europe with a population of 75 million. It has an astonishing history. But what do we know about it?

Arts festivals are made for illumination. In September this year, Brisbane Festival offers a series of brilliant works from or about the Congo. 

Why shine a light here? Because the Congo has helped form the history of the world. In more ways than you might think…

Congo's Curse

The Congo is blessed with more natural resources than almost any other country on the planet. A Congolese legend has it that God, tired after creating the world, stopped at this part of the earth and dropped all his sacks of riches. And these riches have helped make the world as we know it.

When the world needed rubber for the tyres of the newly invented motorcar, the Congo was there with half the world’s known supplies.

When the world needed copper to feed its need for electricity and industrial expansion, the Congo was there with the world’s largest supply. This same copper formed the bullets that won World War I.

When the world needed tin for the conductors used in almost every electrical circuit, the Congo provided.

When two atomic bombs dropped on Japan to finally end World War II, the uranium came from the Congo. 

That smart phone in your pocket? It couldn’t work without a mineral known as coltan. And yes, you guessed it, 80% of the world's supply is in the Congo.

The world has benefitted hugely from the Congo, but not always honourably. In 1924 Joseph Conrad, author of Heart of Darkness, set in the Congo, called this reaping of resources the ‘vilest scramble for loot that ever disfigured the history of human conscience’. He didn’t see half of it.

It is Congo’s curse. This nation, home to so many natural treasures, should be one of the richest on the planet. But it is the poorest.

The Congo, in helping to make the world, has been consumed.  

The Great Forgetting

When King Leopold II of Belgium made this country his private property between 1885 and 1908, he sent much of the population into forced labour – slavery – in order to better plunder the rubber for tyres. His private army cut off the limbs, and sometimes heads, of slaves to enforce the quotas that would make him an immense fortune. During this ‘red rubber’ period, ten million people were killed, perhaps half the population. And Leopold never once set foot in the Congo.

It is one of the great atrocities of the 20th century, and is now largely forgotten.

Following Belgian colonial rule through to 1960, and then the dictatorship of Mobutu who snatched 40% of Congo’s wealth for his personal use through to 1997, civil wars broke out. These wars, triggered by the genocide in neighbouring Rwanda, have caused unfathomable poverty, pain, sickness and death. 54% of the population have no access to clean drinking water. Only 4% have electricity. 30% are illiterate. Life expectancy is 48. There is unspeakable and unchecked sexual violence, a means of traumatising not only women and girls, but whole families and villages – a weapon of war. The United Nations has called the Congo the 'rape capital of the world'. The death toll is staggering – around six million have died, half under the age of five.

The ‘Great War of Africa’ is the deadliest conflict since World War II, and is largely ignored.

Why isn’t this front-page news?

The thing is, the situation in the Congo now is just too complex for us. Our media can’t tell the story in a clear overarching narrative, so largely don’t bother. There is no Hitler or Pol Pot. Capitalism isn't fighting communism. Sunnis aren’t fighting Shiites, or Kurds fighting Turks. How do you talk about a war involving maybe 30 different rebel groups and the armies of nine countries, yet does not seem to have a clear cause? It is an uncinematic war. A war of ragged edges.

Even more insidiously, it’s probably best for business if conflict continues. During the slave trade, chaos was deliberately created in the Congo so that slaves could be more easily harvested. In our time, rebel militias, neighbouring nations and complicit multinational corporations prefer a cash-in-suitcase economy to one that is taxed and regulated. It’s no accident that combat, even now, sometimes shifts location with the rise and fall of commodity prices.

The Congo at Brisbane Festival

Brisbane has a large and lively African community. The annual Africa Day Festival alone draws over 7,000 people in a daylong celebration of African art, clothing, dance, music and food. The Congolese community is a significant part of that wider African presence.

It seems only natural that Brisbane Festival should offer a fresh dimension to this growing part of the city’s personality. 

Four Festival works, across all art forms, draw attention to the Congolese and their history, arts and humour. Coup Fatal glows with a generosity of spirit – it is said that Kinshasa IS music, and this show proves it. Macbeth comes from South Africa but is set in the Congo and speaks directly to the battle over mineral resources: the Macbeth of Shakespeare and Verdi proves a magnificently illuminating metaphor. In Le Cargo, Faustin Linyekula writes a history of the Congo with his body and his conversation with us is heartrending in its honesty and warmth. Prize Fighter tells a staggering story from a Brisbane perspective.


Coup Fatal

These four shows are terrific nights in the theatre. But I hope they offer more. I hope they inspire empathy, kindle curiosity and encourage action. The Congo has provided much to us all, to its incalculable cost, and now I hope that Brisbane Festival audiences will discover just a little of the richly creative and resilient spirit of this remarkable nation.

No comments:

Post a Comment