In a university library in London, Ben Rawlence came across photos of the Belgian mining town Manono in the northern Katanga province of Democratic Republic of the Congo.
A while later, knowing more about how people were dying in the Congo than how they lived, he set of to find the now neglected Manono.
Radio Congo, published last year, is a gently-told travelogue about his four-month trip, from Goma in the east of the country, by boat, canoe, motorbike and on foot to the Belgian experiment in the jungle.
Rawlence, who works for Human Rights Watch, said he “had a hunch about the everyday nature of violence. About how people live in a war-ravaged country.
“When we imagine war zones, we imagine refugee camps to where people fled, but the other half of the village didn’t flee. This experience completely opened my eyes to the reality of those who stayed, to their system, their economy and the extremes of human experience, to the endurance to survive.”
People who have lived through wars, said the UK-born writer in an interview, “opened their homes, fed and looked after me. They drank beer and joked about how fat they have got, when not long ago they weren’t.”
The trip demystified conflict zones for Rawlence and made him cynical of Western media.
“When you stay with people in the villages they will tell you how their mother was raped in front of them, then you have tea and play football. It humanises people. They are people not victims. Wars happen in the thick of civilians. The people are the wood for the trees you can’t see.”
- Radio Congo is published by Penguin SA