In Congo’s Shadow (book review)

As some regular readers of the blog may know, I do review aid worker’s memoirs, broadly interpreted, as part of my ongoing research in this emerging field of writing popular narratives of development.

So my interest in Louise Linton’s book In Congo
s Shadow-One Girl’s Perilous Journey to the Heart of Africa was sparked the moment I came across the excerpt in the now infamous UK Telegraph article that sparked a much broader controversy under the #LintonLies hashtag.
And while I contributed to the initial trending viral discussion my aim was always to review the book properly. But since then has been a much broader discussion far beyond her book and its shortcomings, I will also add some broader reflections on the affair towards the end of my post.

Welcome to Africa a place of ‘local opportunists’, ‘primitive’ countries and ‘pigeon-like’ people who are ready for ‘snatching and stealing’ (and we are only on page 45).
It is 1999 and 18-year old Louise Linton from Edinburgh embarks on her 6-months volunteering gig at a commercial fishing lodge on the shores of Lake Tanganyika in Zambia. And among the many oddities, one of the core questions remains unsolved: Why write and publish (with the support of ghost writer Wendy Holden who is probably to blame for some of this disaster) this account almost 17 years later, with no updated, contemporary reflection that make Louise Linton look like a naïve teenager from the very beginning and give the book the vibe of a teenage romance and coming-of-age novella that adds virtually nothing to the person and brand Linton is today?

So the reader is not confronted with even a slight hint of history, but rather with the ‘Africa is a country’ narrative that has been critique so widely over the past years. A central aspect of the book, bluntly hinted at in the title, is the conflict in Congo and neighboring countries and the violence between Hutus and Tutsis is summarized as a ‘macabre game of musical chairs’ (p.39).

Discussion about history and context never move above the level of literally a group of white people sitting at a dinner table in a lodge and complaining about ‘them’. Even if I am hesitant to pull the r-word yet, this whole narrative was outdated in 1999 when the discussion presumably took place and they seem so much more ignorant in 2016.

Louise sets up her village school where women ‘were learning at the same pace as the children’ and a Vivaldi concerto ‘lured people to the doorways of their huts’
Louise gets quickly bored by the routines in the lodge that seem to consist of running a daily log of the inventory (‘
“If we didn’t we’d get robbed blind,” (Anne, the wife of the lodge’s patron) said
, nodding at a group of local men standing around waiting for their orders’ (p.73) and listening to tall fishing tales of mainly rich white tourists who visit the lodge.

So she embarks on every voluntourist’s dream mission: Setting up a school under a big tree in an African village. Even if I want to give 18-year old Louise the benefit of voluntourism doubt and remind myself that online discussions on that topic were not yet established in 1999 she inadvertently outlines a textbook case of ‘how not to volunteer in Africa’ with the help of Michael Jackson CDs, high school geography knowledge and an upper middle class upbringing in Edinburgh. ‘Saving just one child from the poverty and AIDS here would make it worthwhile’ (p.124)-a line we should probably print on T-Shirts for the next voluntourism-themed Halloween party.

But I will take no further joy out of exposing Louise further. You get the picture.

The Gods Must Be Crazy or: how it all ends with handing a bottle of Coca-Cola to Zimba
In the end, rare and perhaps superficial droplets of reflection disappear in a vast ocean of self-serving experiences and a narrative of constant othering.

Perhaps the most important thing I have learned, though is that you cannot assume you understand a culture until you have lived a part of it. I came here with a limited perception and naively assumed many things about a country I knew nothing about’ she writes in a letter to her father (p.183).
At the same time she confesses that ‘during my trips to the village, I entirely forget that I am engaging with African tribeswomen as if they were old friends’ (pp.228-229). The constant reminders of contrast, difference and sometimes superiority reaffirm the one-way street of the experiences where Louise grows, learn and feels better-and then leaves with a heavy heart.

It all of this happens in a context of ‘helpless’ people or a visit by a Peace Corps volunteer who describes the philosophy of her safe sex workshop with a sentence like ‘Sex is a big deal when there is so little other pleasure. It is often an unemotional process but they go at it like rabbits’ (pp.191-192).

She also has an affair with a much older pilot who takes her on her plane around the region and ultimately survives the much-discussed night of horror when ‘stupid’ rebels with ‘voices laced with poison’ (p.253) make an appearance at the lodge. These often Hollywood-esque encounters are rounded off when she offers a full bottle of Coca-Cola to Zimba, the girl from the village who has been following her around (and, you probably guessed it, almost gets adopted by Louise).

No accountability for reinforcing stereotypes

The fact that some people read Linton’s story and believed it enough to even publish an excerpt of her book in a news media outlet like The Telegraph is a good example of how inaccurate perceptions of Africa are deeply ingrained in the minds of most people (Muchemwa Sichone, Zambian entrepreneur, in a chat interview with me for my NPR piece)
Publishing her memoir without any contemporary context, learning trajectory, humility and with a great deal of artistic license has done Louise Linton no favors. Her disappearance from Twitter and redaction of the book seem to be emergency measures that need to be followed by thorough reflection. As a brand, an actress, model and designer, she displayed mind-boggling ignorance about how the mediatized world of 2016 works. Even without anticipating a viral hashtag and shitstorm, her carelessness in communicating her story has been rightly and harshly criticized .

I also spoke with Pernille Baerendtsen, a Danish journalist and media trainer who has been engaging with contemporary African cultural and political transformations for many years. She witnesses more profound changes emerging in various discussions:

The balance of who is communicating ‘Africa’ is shifting as the traditional gatekeepers (such as Western media and celebrities) are gradually loosing their monopoly - partly to an African youth with access to new technology and social media. These shifts should not be underestimated. In particular, these current debates bring forward questions of ‘Otherness’. It questions the division of humanity and our identities based on which one of us is considered to possess a higher value than the other.
When all is said and done we are looking at a terrible memoir. We are increasingly calling such disasters ‘teachable moments’ in higher education and this could be a particularly teachable experience for future voluntourists and the like.

But then again, how many more of those moments do we really need? Maybe we simply need less vanity publishing and short-term media outrage and more new approaches to writing about volunteering experiences that take the complexities of ownership of the narrative(s) seriously.


Linton, Louise with Holden, Wendy: In Congo’s Shadow-One Girl’s Perilous Journey to the Heart of Africa. ISBN 978-1-522-70804-9, 283 pages, Pre-press production, London, 2016.
The book is no longer available from Amazon's platforms:


 

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