Congo Stories

Battling Five Centuries of Exploitation and Greed


By John Prendergast

By Fidel Bafilemba

Photographs by Ryan Gosling

Foreword by Soraya Aziz Soulemane

Afterword by Chouchou Namegabe

Afterword by Dave Eggers

Illustrated by Sam Ilus

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$17.99 CAD

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From the author of the New York Times bestselling and award-winning Not on Our Watch, John Prendergast co-writes a compelling book with Fidel Bafilemba–with stunning photographs by Ryan Gosling–revealing the way in which the people and resources of the Democratic Republic of Congo have been used throughout the last five centuries to build, develop, advance, and safeguard the United States and Europe. The book highlights the devastating price Congo has paid for that support. However, the way the world deals with Congo is finally changing, and the book tells the remarkable stories of those in Congo and the United States leading that transformation.

The people of Congo are fighting back against a tidal wave of international exploitation and governmental oppression to make things better for their nation, their neighborhoods, and their families. They are risking their lives to resist and alter the deadly status quo. And now, finally, there are human rights movements led by young people in the United States and Europe building solidarity with Congolese change-makers in support of dignity, justice, and equality for the Congolese people. As a result, the way the world deal with Congo is finally changing.

Fidel Bafilemba, Ryan Gosling, and John Prendergast traveled to Congo to document some of the stories not only of the Congolese upstanders who are building a better future for their country but also of young Congolese people overcoming enormous odds just to go to school and help take care of their families.

Through Gosling’s photographs of Congolese daily life, Bafilemba’s profiles of heroic Congolese activists, and Prendergast’s narratives of the extraordinary history and evolving social movements that directly link Congo with the United States and Europe, Congo Stories provides windows into the history, the people, the challenges, the possibilities, and the movements that could change the course of Congo’s destiny.

Chosen by Amazon as the Best Book of the Month for December 2018 in Biographies & Memoirs, History, and Nonfiction.

Featuring the life story of Dr. Denis Mukwege, winner of the 2018 Nobel Peace Prize



Why Congo?

Honorata’s Story

Honorata Kizende—her real name, which she insists on using because she wants her story told—has a hard smile and the kind of faraway eyes that have seen too much. She has a very expressive face and wears a leopard-print dress.

A few years before we met, Honorata was married with seven children, living in Shabunda in the eastern part of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (hereafter “Congo,” as distinct from the Republic of Congo, or Congo-Brazzaville, a neighboring country separated by the Congo River). She was a teacher at the time, and like teachers everywhere she was grossly underpaid. To supplement her income, she would go to the mines on weekends to sell salt.

On one fateful day, she reached the mine at around four p.m. A militia unit originally from Rwanda2 had appeared at the mine earlier that day and was engaged in looting. Honorata was abducted along with other women and girls. They were made to walk a circuitous route through the forest for hours, to make them lose their bearings—to prevent escape. Eventually they were taken to a militia camp in the forest, and when the soldiers in the camp saw the women, Honorata heard them say, “We are happy, the food has arrived.”

Shortly after their arrival, the soldiers began beating Honorata so ferociously that they knocked her bottom front teeth out. After this, four men spread her out, holding her arms and legs down while a fifth man raped her. This was repeated by the other four soldiers.

One of the soldiers noticed her wedding ring and cut it off, damaging her finger. He said, “Now you are not married: you are the wife of everyone; you are the food of everyone.”

Honorata was held captive for fifteen months. During her captivity, she and the other women and girls were taken to a new location every few months to meet new soldiers belonging to that same militia, and raped again. She lost count after a while.

“I was a wife and a teacher, and now I was being called ‘food.’”

Honorata could not resist because they had guns. The militia often fought over the control of different lucrative mines, which is why Honorata and the other women were moved around so much. One day during heavy fighting, twenty of the women and girls decided to try to escape. The villagers they encountered when they fled were afraid to help them because they feared the militia would come for them next.

However, despite the danger, a Congolese nurse decided to protect Honorata and the other escapees. He hid them in his small farmhouse in the forest. Honorata learned about the passwords that allowed people to go safely from one area to another. If they didn’t know the passwords, they were killed. The nurse always had them go with people who knew the passwords. Sometimes they had to wait a week until they could move safely to the next district. Battling heat, rain, and wind, Honorata estimated they walked 350 kilometers (nearly 220 miles) in the forest to reach the relative sanctuary of the main border town, Bukavu. Honorata sent word to her family that she was safe and finally liberated from the militia. But to her horror, her husband refused to allow her to come home, rejecting her because she had had sex “with those who cannot be called human.”

Fortunately, she and four of the other women who had escaped from the militia met a Congolese sailor who had a house in Bukavu but was often away. He had mercy on them, allowing them to stay in the house—another in a long list of Congolese Good Samaritans who helped keep Honorata and her companions alive. In order to survive, Honorata worked as a porter for merchants in town. Two of the other four women were pregnant from the repeated rapes. She cared for them at the house.

One morning, Rwandan government soldiers who had invaded Congo came to the house and broke down the door. Two of the soldiers stayed outside. Five entered the house. They asked the women where their husbands were. Though the women said they had no husbands, the soldiers accused them of being the wives of Congolese militia members. They told the women that now they would have many husbands. The women were forced to take their clothes off and lay down. The soldiers said there are no old women in Congo.

All seven men raped all five women. Honorata didn’t know how they had the stamina for that. She begged them not to rape the two younger and smaller women who were pregnant. They raped them anyway. Neither fetus survived the attacks.

Honorata spent two weeks bleeding after the rapes. A nun took her to a health center to be treated, and then she was transferred to Panzi Hospital in Bukavu, where the heroic and world-renowned Dr. Denis Mukwege is the chief surgeon. She was diagnosed with five infectious diseases and spent three months in treatment.

After her treatment, Honorata was enrolled in a small crafts course. She was physically present but was not really there. As strong as she was, the severe trauma of her experiences had taken its toll.

Eventually, Honorata was sponsored by the American nonprofit organization Women for Women International (, and with the first support she received, she started selling bananas and avocados. This changed her life. She reconnected with her older son and sent money for him to go to school. Her other six children remained in Shabunda with their father.

Honorata returned to being a teacher with Women for Women International’s Congo program, this time teaching other rape survivors. She has taught health, rights awareness, decision-making, and nutrition. Her oldest son is now a state agent in the mining sector and a father of four. Her second son is an engineer agronomist with two daughters, one of whom is named after Honorata. Her third son has a license in public health. She never returned home to Shabunda, 290 miles (470 kilometers) away. “They are still in the forest,” she said in a hushed voice, referring to the militia that initially took her captive.

Honorata became an inspiration and mentor to countless Congolese women who have experienced physical and emotional trauma. She believes she should help other survivors, using her training to change their lives, just as it changed hers.

When Honorata was asked what gives her hope, she replied, “The work I do gives me hope, and the exchange of ideas with women gives me hope.”

When she was asked about her dreams for Congo, she demanded that “Rape and war should end in Congo. They are the diseases that are devastating Congo, a calamity. I dream of peace in Congo.”

Honorata’s experience is reflective of two coexisting realities we repeatedly came across in Congo. On the one hand: tremendous human suffering as a result of centuries-long, greed-fueled exploitation. On the other hand: resilience, resistance, movement-building, and hope for change, laying the groundwork for an altered future.

Real peace requires confronting and addressing the core interests that drive war, the “greed and grievance”3 that has fueled conflicts all over the world throughout human history. The peace Honorata seeks for Congo requires an understanding of what drives Congo’s cycles of war and suffering, and how America and Europe particularly have benefited extraordinarily and directly from the results of that suffering. We should look directly at this fraught history of unchecked greed and exploitation, acknowledge our own role in its perpetuation, and learn what we can—and must—do differently to help bring about real change.

It’s complicated and messy, and there isn’t just one answer. But there are things we can do to support the people and actions in Congo and globally that can alter the negative trajectories that have led to so much suffering in that embattled country.

To be sure, the history of the world’s progress has a gruesome underbelly, consisting of racism, slavery, appalling exploitation, war, and genocide. But our contention is that the case of Congo’s suffering over the last five centuries stands out in so many different ways. In fact, we considered naming the book A Monstrous Greed, from the words of a sixteenth-century Congolese king who had the foresight to summarize the next five hundred years of his country’s destiny as he watched his people being kidnapped en masse by European slave raiders and shipped across the Atlantic Ocean.

For these past five centuries, Congo has been the earthly equivalent of a Vampires’ Ball. Wealthy commercial interests from outside the country—including human traffickers, kings, colonists, presidents, tycoons, bankers, mining magnates, arms dealers, mineral smugglers, elephant poachers, and military leaders—have colluded with Congolese leaders to loot the country of its greatest resources. Congo is a country that has one of the richest natural resource bases in the world, one that a Belgian geologist in the 1890s described, apparently without irony, as a “veritable geological scandal.”

Over the last five centuries and right up to the present moment, the United States and Europe have been inextricably connected to this complicated country in the very heart of Africa. The nation now known as the Democratic Republic of the Congo (formerly Zaire, before that the Belgian Congo, before that the Congo Free State, before that the Kongo Kingdom and other neighboring kingdoms) has provided massive benefits to the people of Europe and the US, largely without public recognition or acknowledgment. Major advances in the development of Europe’s and America’s economies were fueled by what has been taken from Congo, from captured human beings to stolen minerals to ransacked wildlife.

By following the money and greed over five centuries, we tell the story of how major global events have driven huge surges in demand for Congo’s riches—from colonial plantation agriculture to the advent of the automobile, from the Industrial Revolution to World Wars I and II and the Cold War, to the dramatic expansion of the global weapons trade, the rise of cell phones and laptops, and the mass marketing of electric and hybrid cars. The exploitation of the Congolese people who provided the labor to deliver the goods to satisfy world demand has been shocking. Even after the formal end of the transatlantic slave trade, at certain junctures the treatment of Congolese workers rivaled conditions during the major slave-raiding period. Forced recruitment, beatings, extreme poverty, hunger, segregation, and the continuing sale of human beings occurred, at different times, in Congo. The exploitation of rubber, copper, gold, tin, uranium, cobalt, tantalum, diamonds, oil, forests, and elephants have each produced unique forms of suffering for Congolese people and wildlife.

The causal link between Western convenience and opportunity and Congo’s suffering is direct and devastating. Product by product, Western innovations have driven demand for ingredients from Congo.

The negative impact this massive extraction has had on Congo may have no parallel in human history. At one point, roughly a third of the Congo region’s population had been sold into the transatlantic slave trade. Not long thereafter, as the Europeans descended in perhaps the ugliest chapter in all of Africa’s colonial history, some ten million Congolese people lost their lives in the context of a greedy European king’s brutal approach to extracting Congo’s natural resource riches. Congo’s mineral wealth was key to supporting World War I, ending World War II, and intensifying the Cold War.

And in its latest chapter, Congo has experienced the deadliest war since World War II, with more than five million deaths. As the philosopher and revolutionary Frantz Fanon is said to have posited, “Africa is shaped like a gun, and Congo is its trigger. If that explosive trigger bursts, it’s the whole of Africa that will explode.”

Instead of protecting its people and developing its economy, successive Congolese regimes, from the Belgian king Leopold and the subsequent colonial era right up through the regime of Joseph Kabila (who at the time of this writing had just indicated he would not seek a third term, and he had named Emmanuel Ramazani Shadary as the candidate to be his successor), have operated more like a mafia than a government, organizing the state to cooperate with all manner of foreign vultures in looting the natural resources and privatizing the considerable wealth of the country. All the money that should have been taxed and used for social services and infrastructure ended up in the pockets of wealthy Congolese and foreign business interests. Today’s corruption in Congo cannot be separated from the kleptocratic system, the roots of which go back to colonial-era depredations, as well as more than a century of massive bribery and kickback schemes by multinational corporations.

But this book isn’t just about that history of exploitation and how America and Europe benefited. It is also full of stories of Congolese people who have decided to take matters into their own hands and change the equation, the narrative, and the status quo. They are devising new and creative forms of resistance and transformation that are changing the terms of the relationship between Congo’s rulers and its people from the inside out, as well as altering Congo’s relationship with the world. In solidarity, there are activists in North America and Europe who are building a movement to change the terms of that exploitative relationship from the outside in, aiming for a fair, equitable, and respectful partnership between Congo and the rest of the world.

Unless consumers and voters act, insatiable American, European, Asian, and neighboring African companies and governments will not stop taking whatever they want or need from Congo, because the undeniable truth is that the world desperately needs the natural resources that Congo has. Therefore, if unchecked, companies, governments—and through them, indirectly and usually unwittingly, we as consumers—will do what is necessary to get access to those natural resources that end up in products that make our lives better, more convenient, and less expensive.

But the destructive pillaging of Congo need not continue. It is heartening and remarkable to see what a global grassroots people’s movement—led by Congolese people risking their lives on the front lines—has been able to achieve in bringing an element of fairness and justice to the relationship between Congo and the rest of the world. The situation is complicated, yes, but there are solutions, and there is a multitude of activists in Congo—and many in solidarity with them all over the world—standing up for change.

The hopeful signs of progress that have emerged in Congo during the past decade are in large part because of the efforts of Congolese “upstanders”—as Samantha Power calls those who stand up in the face of injustice; the opposite of bystanders4—working heroically to make a difference in their communities. But it is also in part because of a people’s movement half a world away in the US and in Europe, led by students who care about their direct connections to the pain of the Congolese people.

The primary elements of the book will be Ryan’s photographs, Fidel’s interviews with and profiles of Congolese upstanders, and John’s research into the history, commerce, and interests linking Congo with the US and Europe, as well as the efforts of Congolese and good-willed people around the world to alter the trajectory of Congo’s history of exploitation. Though you may not know it from its portrayal in the news media and movies, Congo is not just a story of war, poverty, disease, and dependence. Through Ryan’s photos and the accompanying stories, some of the beauty of the country and its people will be featured. And illustrations by a Congolese artist, Sam Ilus, highlight the vibrant and creative artistic community in Kinshasa.

This is not the definitive history of Congo, and we are not posing as experts. We are, however, aspiring to understand how the United States and Europe have benefited from Congo for centuries, what the impact has been on the Congolese people, how those people have reacted and resisted, and what Americans and Europeans can do to right the imbalance. After all, simply looking at corrupt African leaders today doesn’t take into account the centuries of international exploitation and mass extraction that have required deeply corrupt multinational relationships and networks in order for the banks, mining companies, neighboring countries, and others to carry out this mass looting.

Congo is a case study in globalization and fighting for fairness. There is a growing movement of Americans and Europeans, especially young people, who want to know that their clothes, food, and technology are ethically sourced and want to understand how to be good global citizens. In that vein, Congo is a perfect case study of:

• the causes of global inequality (why some countries are so much richer than others)

• America’s and Europe’s role in perpetuating inequality; i.e., how European invasions and colonial domination initiated some of these problems and the US later enforced the status quo or prevented positive evolution while exploiting the situation for America’s and Europe’s benefit, and

• what can be done about these systemic injustices, rooted in addressing the history that created inequality and reforming the structures that sustain inequality, which taps into many of the forces that are animating young activists now across Congo, Africa, America, and Europe.

Three distinct themes will be highlighted:

First, Congo’s cyclical crises are a direct result of its connections to America and Europe. The world was “interdependent” with Congo long before interdependence was even a concept. The timing of inventions, innovations, and peak demand in America and Europe has had profound impacts on Congo as the latter supplied personnel or material for Western progress for five centuries.

Second, Congolese are fighting back against these forces of inequality and injustice. Congolese from many different backgrounds will tell their stories, demonstrating why there is so much hope for Congo’s future. We believe this small sampling of courageous narratives will strike imaginations and inspire readers around the world.

Third, because the causes are in part global, the solutions must not be left to the Congolese alone. By themselves, they cannot address the actions of multinational corporations, global and local banks, arms dealers, mineral smugglers, predatory neighboring armies, and governments in the US, Europe, Asia, and Africa that have inflamed and profited from the crisis in Congo. The good news is that as part of the international response and resistance to these globalized root causes, multinational activism has played a significant role, especially the activism of American and European students in solidarity with Congolese human rights movements and against the rapacious behavior of war profiteers.

It’s not an exaggeration to say that millions of precious human lives are at stake in Congo.

When you use your laptop, remember that minerals from Congo have made it more affordable and make it work more efficiently.

When you pick up your cell phone, remember Honorata and all the other Congolese who have suffered or died as a byproduct of the technological convenience you hold in your hand.

We’re supporting the building of a movement that tells the politicians we elect and the companies from which we purchase that we cannot allow such heinous human rights crimes to continue. We must speak out as loudly and creatively and innovatively as we can and say… not on our watch.


The Story of the Kongo Kingdom

Before and After the Europeans Landed

Instead of starting with the European invasion that instigated the global scramble for Congo’s resources, we want to begin the story with what Congo was like before the Portuguese explorers landed in the late 1400s. Things were very different then, which begs the question of what would have happened to Congo and, more broadly, to Africa if the European explorers, missionaries, merchants, slave traders, and colonial armies had never shown up.

Before Congo, there was Kongo, otherwise known as the Kongo Kingdom.

“Kongo civilization and the formidable artistic legacy it engendered—without doubt among the world’s greatest—developed across a vast swath of Central Africa over a period of two and a half millennia. Its diverse populace gave rise to a series of distinct polities that have been engaged with the West for a third of that time,” writes art historian Alisa LaGamma.5


The name Kongo descends from nkongo, “hunter,” a hero, an adventurer, in the Kikongo language people spoke along the Congo River. The people there told stories of the kingdom built by its founder, Lukeni lua Nimi, stories already generations old when Portuguese explorers, the first modern Europeans to visit, heard them in the late 1400s and Jesuit missionaries wrote them down.6

The earliest known periods of the Kongo Kingdom are marked by stories of innovating technology and expanding territory. Although archaeology in this region is still at an embryonic stage and will likely yield much more information as efforts increase over time, there is already plenty of evidence that the territory that became the Kongo Kingdom was characterized by a complex society. There were iron and steel workers by 350 BC—as, elsewhere in Africa, Carthage was challenging Rome—and social classes and a political authority appear to have existed by AD 100.7

By the 1300s, the first formal states emerged in present-day Congo, led by the Kongo, Lunda, Luba, and Kuba kings. One of the chief reasons for the development of these states, some of which were as big as modern-day Indiana or Ireland, was the advent of agricultural surpluses, which allowed them to more easily weather hard times. The states had feudal and hierarchical characteristics. The king was the indisputable leader who protected and supported his subjects, resolved disputes, consulted the elders, and took care of those in need. Not unlike today, each kingdom was broadly dependent on the distinct personality of its king. There were wide swings from progress to decline and back again, depending on the quality of the leadership and the intensity of the civil wars that often accompanied succession from one king to the next.8

In Kongo, each week of four days started with a holiday. The people farmed bananas and other fruits and crops, and raised cattle, pigs, and goats. The unit for distance was a day’s walk; they marked time with the phases of the moon. They paid the king taxes, with egg-shaped cowry shells serving as money.9

Although there was no written language in the Kongo Kingdom, they used another way to communicate: their langage tambouriné (drummed language). New developments were drummed throughout the kingdom, traveling up to 600 kilometers (370 miles) a day. European explorers called it the télégraphe de brousse (bush telegraph). This mode of communication was developed 1,500 years before Morse code.10

At peace, men collected materials for building and for cloth, utensils, medicines, and palm wine. Women fed their families by farming.11

The Kongo peoples had a unique and elaborate belief system. The universe was separated into the realm of the living and the realm of the dead, which existed parallel to each other. One’s life consisted of a progression through one realm and then the other, crossing the threshold that divides the two realms, which was believed to be a large body of water. The midpoint along the path was when one would transition to the afterlife. The living realm was marked by blackness, while the ancestors were full of color. Symbols drawn with chalk made from riverbed clay were connected to concepts of virtue, purity, and ancestral contact. The spirits of ancestors were regularly invoked. Power or weakness was seen in part as stemming from the ability to tap into these mystical connections. For example, a village chief, those with many children, those who lived long lives, and those who attained wealth were seen to have the ability to connect to ancestral spirits and their energies.12

The Kongo Kingdom produced luxury cloth and fabric, which was used also as a currency, although when more intricately woven it was considered priceless. Sixteenth-century Kongolese art was on the radar of the world’s art elite. Kongolese textiles were considered by some explorers to be on par with those from Italy at that time.13 When trade with the outside world began to accelerate, Alisa LaGamma elaborates, “Exquisitely crafted decorative artifacts produced by local artists as diplomatic gifts began to circulate outside the region. A very limited number of these presentation pieces survives in the form of carved ivory oliphants14 and finely woven raffia textiles and basketry.”15 A New Yorker article about a recent museum exhibit of Kongolese art concluded, “There are no other sculptures in the world so fierce and sorrowing.”16

The Kongo Kingdom’s diverse artwork consisted of copper and iron works, wood carvings, baskets, mats, and pottery, influencing artists such as Matisse and Picasso. Cubism was in part derived from pieces of art from Congo.17


  • "In this well-organized, vigorously informative, polyphonic, unnerving, and conscience-rousing presentation, [Prendergast] and researcher and activist Bafilemba trace 'the connection between natural resources exploitation and the violent conflicts' destroying the lives of millions in the Democratic Republic of Congo ... A thoughtfully assembled resource and a clarion call for readers to seek out ethically sourced goods and support efforts to bring justice and peace to this cruelly pillaged land."—Booklist
  • "Eye-opening reportage from an African nation that has been robbed and despoiled for centuries-but that is now finding paths of resistance ... No thoughtful reader of this book will look at his or her computer or cellphone the same way again."—Kirkus

On Sale
Dec 4, 2018
Page Count
352 pages

John Prendergast

About the Author

John Prendergast is a New York Times bestselling author who founded and runs both the Enough Project and the Sentry.

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Fidel Bafilemba

About the Author

Fidel Bafilemba is a Congolese field researcher who coordinates a civil society network called GATT-RN.

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