Currently, I am doing a multiple year reading challenge through most of the African nonfiction on my TBR, with the addition of a few novels. Based on the advice of a friend who also enjoys reading nonfiction about The Dark Continent, one of the first books to go on my challenge list was Lisa Shannon’s The Thousand Sisters. Since my Congo books were slated for next year, I had yet to experience her writing; however, when I was offered a review copy of this, her newest book, I jumped on it.
Lisa had the opportunity to travel to the home village of a friend, a Congo born woman married to an American who served in the Peace Corps in her village. Francesca’s family’s region had recently become embroiled in the tragic despotic conflict that has been spreading across the borders of several neighboring countries. Lisa convinced her that they should travel to the area together, with Francesca acting as translator and guide, in order for Lisa to document and then share with the west the continued abuses and trials suffered by the people of the region.
Lisa Shannon is a well-known activist for the women of Congo and has devoted her life to raising awareness of their plight. As such, I expected an insightful look at the hardships experienced by her subjects, but I was completely unprepared for what an outstanding narrative writer she is. She brings Congo to sweat-soaked, dust-laden reality. Its people come vividly to life as she shares their humor under duress, their love for each other, and their despair over the calamity that has descended on their once bucolic corner of Africa.
Mama Koko is primarily the story of Francesca’s family (Mama Koko is her mother) and their reminiscences. Lisa relates first person interviews, observes the situation at the time of her visit, and shares her insight. In addition, Lisa is unflinching in her analysis of her own motivations and emotions. There is an appendix at the end of the book where a brief but very informative history of the descent of Congo into chaos is detailed. Lisa states that she wanted the focus of the book to be on the family and their experiences, but as someone unfamiliar with the genesis and progression of the conflict, I appreciated her synopsis.
At the conclusion of the book, Lisa gives a list of organizations that aid victims of violence in Congo and encourages readers to learn more about their critical efforts. There is also a listing of all the people mentioned in the book and a distinguishing characteristic. My guess is that list will be moved to the front of the final publication, but if not, be aware that it is in the back and rather useful while you read, as there is a large cast of players in the narrative. Although they were not included in my galley, it looked as though there are going to be a significant number of maps in the finished product, which has been available for purchase since 3 February.
Chronology was the sole reason that this book did not garner five stars from me—I gave it a solid four and a half in places that allow halves. Lisa gives a linear narration of her interviews in the order she conducted them, along with her own experiences, as opposed to the order in which the events being recounted happened. At times, I lost my grasp of how the many occurrences slotted together.
That single gripe aside (and truly, it in no way affected the impact of the story Lisa was trying to tell), I would recommend this book to anyone who seeks to better understand the non-combatant viewpoint of a region in violent crisis. This story is not told as a journalist might report the conflict. It is the chronicle of one motivated, compassionate woman driven to share the anguish of families caught in the cross-fire of a tumultuous battle which came unbidden to their doorstep and which they have never embraced as their own. This is a book aimed at encouraging each of us to engage, both on an emotional and a hands-on level, in one of the great tragedies of our time.