Greg Cummings’ Gorillaland describes a compelling and terrifying trip through the heart of Africa. The reader is treated to a cast of characters like individual strings in a Byzantine intrigue, from the pristine to the corrupt, to the archetypal and historical. When each is tightened into place and woven more completely together the story’s tapestry reveals the chaos, greed, natural beauty and power of Earth’s largest continent.
While following the story of minerals like diamonds and coltan, Cummings work exhibits a remarkable level of understanding of the issues. Richard Katz, the “Jewish” Diamond King from South Africa to New York, Natalie, the up and coming young NGO executive from WorldWatch, Derek, the rebel cowboy guide complete with boots are like Broadway Musical stars waiting for their solo to share their side of the story. Their arguments with each other pale when they become entangled with the rebel general and warlord Cosmo Zomba wa Zomba who has killed not hundreds, as the International Criminal Court in the Hague says, but thousands. Nearly all the characters are chasing the chance to restore the honor of a family member, an opportunity for bloodline healing. Lions are not the only predators in this story; crocs, revenge, and the past all come back to bite you in this story.
The setting of this story is the Congo, “The place is fantastical, with all its erupting volcanoes, exploding lakes, impenetrable jungles and, of course, the river. Add human suffering to the mix and you have the perfect setting for a movie.” The issues of saving silverback gorillas, who are being hunted as food and for witchcraft rituals, as well as the drama of how to remove resources from the Earth and what constitutes fair trade are enough for a blockbuster. But add in centuries of African struggle and conflict of religion, culture and the story really takes off. The additional issues of international aid from foreign countries, corruption in the military, and various feuds, boils this story into a cauldron that must erupt nearly as certainly as the possible explosion of Lake Kivu!
The anecdotes and life stories of the main characters explain the hardship and devastation of this vast land. Using the characters’ personal histories as context ….. Pedro’s loss of his entire Rwandan family living in Uganda due to the ravages of AIDS. The reader learns without feeling lectured. The “Lost Boys” tragedy of being torn from family or watching them suffer reveal how this army of young soldiers has been twisted into place. The ever present and lovely-looking yet nefarious Madame Nshuti, with a curious scar under her wig, a poorly ended affair with Derek, shows this Michele Obama of the Kivu to be a survivor but is she also a killer, and double crosser?
Natalie’s evolution is apparent when she yells at Cosmo while in the jungle, “You don’t frighten me. You disgust me. You think you rule the Congo? You don’t. When the real rain of progress falls on this country, murderers like you and Duke will simply melt away in the jungle, never to be seen again.” Many of the characters are forced to reconsider their life-long attitudes of hate to others especially Duke, who “was sworn to hate the Hamites.” Yet after interactions with Pedro, a Tutsi, he must alter his thoughts.
The moments for key players to cross and double-cross each other with arms deals, mineral wealth and loss of life seems to the reader like watching a tennis match. Which side is winning? Will evil overtake all? Just when you think you know what will happen next, some natural disaster like looming lava or great earthquakes disrupt all especially those on the river in their iroko pirogues.
In our technically-evolved world, we forget that nations have found ways to speak to each other. “Hakuna raisaux,’ said a Mai Mai soldier wearing the mane of a bush pig on his head, ‘we have no (cell) network here, but you can drum him a message, and it will reach that side now-now. I speak Balanga drum.” From far away, it is hard to understand or even imagine the jungle world of the Congo; this story brings light to so many critical elements of Africa that we should learn to understand.
Derek sums it up at one point, “You have to hand it to the Congalese for remaining so optimistic in the face of such adversity. I mean, these people have nothing: no government, no institutions, no infrastructure, nothing. Yet they still have a touching belief that great things will happen in Congo.”
On a personal note, I met the author, Greg Cummings, at a private screening in Bel Air. His astonishing first-hand knowledge of Africa, the gorillas and all the players in the madhouse of the jungle make this moving story very real. I know that his efforts to improve mining conditions and also help the gorillas have made for some of the best on-the-ground advocacy from the region. My elementary school students and I were fortunate to have him come and share his passionate intensity with us. We look forward to being part of the grassroots solution with creating more gorilla-friendly electronic devices, like cell phones and computers. Perhaps we can help to save this unique animal and even learn how to save ourselves.
Article first published as Gorillaland by Greg Cummings on Technorati.