Mama Koko and the Hundred Gunmen

An Ordinary Family’s Extraordinary Tale of Love, Loss, and Survival in Congo


By Lisa J Shannon

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Driven by her family’s devastating losses, Congolese expatriate Francisca Thelin embarks, with human rights activist Lisa J. Shannon, on a perilous journey back to her beloved homeland, now under the shadow of one of Africa’s most feared militias — Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army. With gunmen camped at the edge of town, Francisca is forced to face a paralyzing clash between her life in America and her family’s rapidly evaporating world — and the reality that their rush to her family’s aid may backfire.

Mama Koko and the Hundred Gunmen weaves Francisca’s journey with stories of the family’s harrowing encounters with gunmen and tales from their past to create a vivid, illuminating portrait of a place and its people. We hear of Mama Koko’s early life as a gap-toothed beauty plotting to escape her inevitable fate of wife and motherhood; of Papa Alexander’s empire of wives, each of whom he married because she cooked and cleaned and made good coffee; and of Francisca’s idyllic childhood, when she ran barefoot through the family’s coffee plantation gorging herself on mangoes and fish that “were the size of small children.”

Offering compelling testimony to the strength of the human spirit and the beauty of human connection in the darkest of times, Mama Koko and the Hundred Gunmen also explores what it means and requires to truly make a difference in an unjust and often violent world.


Copyright © 2015 by Lisa J. Shannon

Published in the United States by PublicAffairs™, a Member of the Perseus Books Group

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Book Design by Pauline Brown

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

Shannon, Lisa, 1975– author. Mama Koko and the hundred gunmen : one ordinary family's extraordinary tale of love, loss, and survival in Congo / Lisa J. Shannon.

pages cm

Includes bibliographical references.

ISBN 978-1-61039-445-1 (hardcover) — ISBN 978-1-61039-446-8 (e-book) 1. Women and war—Congo (Democratic Republic) 2. War victims—Congo (Democratic Republic) 3. Atrocities—Congo (Democratic Republic) 4. Congo (Democratic Republic)—Social conditions—21st century. 5. Thelin, Francisca. 6. Thelin, Francisca—Family. 7. Congolese (Democratic Republic)—Biography. 8. Congolese—United States—Biography. 9. Shannon, Lisa, 1975– —Travel—Congo (Democratic Republic) 10. Lord's Resistance Army. 11. Kony, Joseph. I. Title.

HQ1805.5.S525 2014



First Edition

10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1

For Heritier

• • • •


• • • •

Maps of Dungu and Region

Mama Koko and the Hundred Gunmen

Epilogue, or a Tale of Many Termites

What You Can Do Before Setting This Book Down

Appendix: Congo and Joseph Kony

List of Characters

Author's Note



Maps of Dungu and Region


I Imagine

• • • •

Sometimes I imagine standing in the corner of the family coffee plantation, maybe in a nearby field, watching the family hover around Roger's body. The day the attacks started, they found him off the road by the river, in the bushes under a shroud of palm leaves, hacked, his mouth and wounds boiling with a greedy riot of insects.

Roger was the first to die. When the family found his body, neighbors were already rushing to gather their bare essentials, slipping away on the footpaths and back routes, as inconspicuous and silent as a mass exodus can be. Yet Roger's family carried his body back to the coffee plantation for burial.

I picture the family as they linger: mulling around, digging the grave, dressing him for hasty burial. Mama Cecelia kneeling over him, washing away the blood, her calloused fingers sweeping clean every crevasse and axe wound bourgeoning with insects.

Roger's pre-teen sons sulk in the corner, the spark in their eyes draining fast. His church-going wife Marie, tall and full of grace, presses her fingers into a rosary, leaning on Jesus to get her through each imposing minute. Roger's younger brother and another of his sons, each on the verge of manhood, dig the grave. His father Papa Alexander's eyes track the bloodthirsty crawlers shaken free by Mama Cecelia as they make their rapid retreat into dusty fields or dark hiding places, like the neighbors now on their way to Sudan. Maybe he surveys the scene, scanning his coffee kingdom, watching the brush for movement, for clues that scream Time's up.

A fatal mistake hangs in the air, between their sighs. The weight of it settles around them, like their hands on each other's shoulders. They do not know that the shreds of human dignity exercised with rituals like washing a beloved's dead body have retreated with the termites into the fields. There would still be time, if the family only knew how to hear Roger's wounds whisper their warning: You are no longer human. Run.

Yet they stay, washing their beloved Roger and preparing him for the cold earth. With each swig of tea, each soothing stroke of wet cloth pressing closed Roger's gaping skin, muffling his axe wounds' siren screams, the family exchanges what they do not know will be their final glances between one another.

A Day Like Any Other

• • • •

The same day they buried Roger, on the other side of the world, Roger's cousin Francisca was up at five in the morning, as she was most weekdays, to put on the pants as they would have said back home in Congo. It meant the man goes to work. Francisca bypassed her stacks of African-print dresses and instead zipped up her slacks right alongside her American husband Kevin, a Peace Corps volunteer turned buttoned-down engineer.

On the way out the door, Francisca caught a glimpse of herself in the mirror: fresh braids bound tight to her head in ornate patterns, shiny dark skin plump with lotion, a dash of ChapStick on her lips, the sum of her makeup routine. Clean and simple, like her mother Mama Koko taught her. Why cover up all that beautiful? Francisca greeted herself in the mirror, her coffee-colored eyes rimmed with blue beaming back. As always, she said out loud, "Good morning, lovely!"

Craftsman bungalows pulsed past in the early morning light as Francisca drove to work. She pulled into a mammoth one-stop shopping center, inconceivable back home, compared to her town's one-room general store. Inside cavernous Fred Meyer's, the ambient hum of the ventilation absorbed voices, rattling carts, announcements of spills in aisle nine. Fluorescents washed out the faces of shoppers roaming the windowless open space, packed twelve shelves high with everything from rib-eye steak and bananas on special to cement faeries for the garden, day-to-evening wear, fashion socks, hand blenders, assorted wrenches and paints, fishing gear, and diamond pendants promising to delight and last a lifetime. Everything you need, all in one stop: You'll Find It at Fred Meyer's.

Francisca slipped on her chef's coat and pinned on her nametag: "Francisca, Cheese Steward since 1996." Francisca had no background in cheese. There were no sample trays of brie and gruyere, no sharp cheddar finger sandwiches served with iced tea on the old wooden porch of her childhood "castle," as the family called it, overlooking their coffee plantation in that far- northeastern pocket of Congo. Francisca spent her childhood summers roaming in the cotton fields, wading through the cassava leaves, gorging on mangoes and termite-oil delicacies, not cheese.

Francisca didn't even like cheese, though her customers would never know it. She thought of it as white people's food. She got the job as cheese steward because she spoke French; French is useful when it comes to cheeses.

That morning, it was out to the floor to organize the olive bar, crowned with gourmet salts from faraway places like the Black Sea and the Himalayas. Anyone browsing the cheese display who listened in would have heard Francisca singing hymns to no one in particular. By the time Francisca finished arranging the display of packaged cuts of cheese in take-home wedges, Roger was already buried on her family's coffee plantation. By then, the family members had split up, and more of them had been murdered by axe.

Francisca was home by noon. She shed her work pants, which reeked of cheese and olive juice, and slipped on one of her African-print skirts. In her living room, surrounded by remnants of home, many-hued dark wood trim blending with ubiquitous African figurines and safari-themed wallpaper, Francisca turned on African music, nice and loud, and danced Congolese style, heavy on the hip thrusts and booty wagging.

Francisca's teenage son Isaac came and went, keeping to himself, as would any proper budding hipster-musician. Francisca didn't like to be alone, and that afternoon she called her Congolese friend Cecile in Wyoming to check in and chat about doctor appointments or the grandkids or to remark on differences in America and Congo—how in America everyone is supposed to seek counseling when things get rough. But back home, Francisca just talked to Mama Koko.

One of her grown daughters swung by with the grandkids after school, to say hello and pick something up or drop something off or use the computer or just hang out. Eventually, Francisca got to cooking dinner, very soft beans in the stew and extra peanut butter in the cassava leaves like Mama Koko always did, served with rice—brown rice for Kevin, white for her and the rest of the family.

Then it was early to bed, preparing for another day of putting on the pants. As Francisca drifted to sleep that night, she couldn't imagine on the other side of the world Mama Koko lying on an abandoned stretch of road, collapsed from exhaustion, surrounded by wailing grandbabies.

For Francisca, it was a day like any other.

The call came the next day.

It was her friend Cecile, a fellow Congolese-American transplant from Orientale Province. Cecile told Francisca that gunmen—the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) led by Joseph Kony—had launched massive attacks the previous day in Orientale Province, home to both Dungu, the town where Mama Koko and dozens of Francisca's family members lived, and the village of Duru fifty-some miles north, where Francisca's father had built the family coffee plantation.

Francisca knew of neighboring Uganda's cult militia leader Joseph Kony and his LRA, notorious for abducting more than twenty thousand children and displacing more than 2 million people in Northern Uganda. Kony had formed the LRA in the late 1980s, proclaiming himself a prophet and spirit medium and aiming to base his rule of Uganda on the Bible's Ten Commandments. In 2006, the LRA deserted their Uganda stomping grounds of twenty years and staked out new headquarters next door in Congo. They found ideal conditions to hide under the dense cover of elephant grasses and thick forest canopy of the Garamba National Park, close to the village of Duru, home to Francisca's family coffee plantation. Eventually, the group splintered and spilled into Sudan and the Central African Republic, occupying an area about the size of California. A few dedicated commanders coordinated remotely, often via satellite phone.

Cheap cell phones had recently swept that remote pocket of Congo, so Francisca's family had called before with stories of the LRA stealing from the markets and child soldiers trickling out of the forest hoping to go home. But she'd never heard of attacks on people in Orientale, until that day she got the call from Cecile.

Francisca stayed up all night and into the next day, frantic, camped at her antique dining room table, trying to get through to her family. She would dial, only to get a recording: The party you are trying to reach is not available. She'd wait a few minutes, stare at the phone, rest her fingers on the table's protective glass cover. She'd pray to Jesus and Abraham and the ancestors. Then she'd dial again and hear a pick-up, maybe a hello, only to be cut off in two or three seconds. Dial, only to hear the phone ringing and ringing, and no answer. Dial, wondering if she'd ever hear from her family again.

She didn't get through to them that night.

That week, during her days in the cheese department, Francisca told herself Leave it at the door, professionalism first. When she failed to corral her thoughts, she ducked before anyone could spot her involuntary tears, and got busy wiping down the countertops, the glass cases, the stainless steel. Some of the other deli-department ladies wanted to know Why so awfully quiet? How come her eyes are so red? She didn't mention the late-night crying spells sopping her pillows. "I'm just tired. Didn't sleep so well."

Her granddaughters tried to air out her mood, but when she heard them whisper Uh, oh, she's crying again, Francisca decided it was unfair to weigh down the family. She did her best to keep updates brief, daily routines in motion, and dinners cheery. Luckily, Kevin was an early and heavy sleeper. Still, her sons peppered her with Are-you-okays, despite her reassurances she was fine.

One of her sons, Solomon, said, "Your eyes are red."

"I'm tired."

He urged her to try to set it aside. "Can't you just let it go?"

After Kevin and the kids went to bed, she stayed up, every night, most nights until after one in the morning, hoping to reach someone, anyone, who might know if Mama Koko was okay, if the family was still alive. She took short breaks to pray in front of the guest-room shrine, a wall packed with Catholic religious icons mixed with photos of her beloved departed. Then back to the dining room table for endless touch-tone dialing.

Finally, one night, a cousin answered the phone. Francisca blurted out her one and only question: "Is everyone okay?"

Then she heard gunshots, and the line went dead.

The Year of Bad News

• • • •

Out of our puttering five-seater charter plane, Francisca and I looked down eight thousand or so feet to Congo below. Above the land leading to Dungu, vast blankets of the Congo basin forest stretched to the horizon in all directions, rivers slicing through, catching the sunlight. The canopy was too thick to see through, leaving what was beneath entirely to the imagination, aside from a couple of mining towns and tiny settlements on remote bends in the river.

It had been a year of bad news since the day Francisca got that first call. She was tired, distracted, spending almost every night up, trying to get through to her family for news, unhinged by the media reports intermittently firing across the international wires, mixed with static-marred cell phone calls from home. Sometimes she could talk for a minute or two before the line cut out. Sometimes, in the middle of the night, after she had finally gotten to sleep, her phone would ring and, panicked, she'd jump out of bed and run to answer it, her hands shaking so much that she fumbled when she tried to pick up, hitting the wrong buttons.

Occasionally, Francisca's calls made it through to her brothers or Mama Koko, when they weren't spending months at a time hiding in the bush. No one had died the day she heard gunshots and the line went dead, but that was little consolation. Every call yielded broken, hasty reports of gunmen and cousins, nieces, nephews, and more cousins killed, abducted, burned alive on Christmas Day.

I found myself at Francisca's dining room table that fall into spring into summer and back into fall, not because I was her close friend but because her family was smack-dab in the middle of Congo's latest firestorm. I'd known Francisca since 2005, three years earlier, when my do-or-die Congo activism began.

I didn't know much about Congo before 2005. I'd read half of Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness in college, before dropping my "Literature of Colonialism" class. I might have seen something about militias and massacres in Congo on an episode of ER, but figured it was fictionalized for the show's melodramatic effect. Eventually, it was an episode of The Oprah Winfrey Show that hooked me. The catalytic episode was a documentary-style report about both the war raging in Congo's far-eastern provinces—where millions had died in the deadliest war since World War II—and the rape crisis there, which had metastasized into a pandemic, the worst on earth. But the war and rape pandemic were virtually ignored by the US media and by policy makers around the world. The camera lingered on the eyes of the Congolese women as they told their stories. It stirred something in me. A metamorphosis began.

That first year, I created Run for Congo Women, a fundraiser for Women for Women International's sponsorship program. I—the wimpy runner—did a thirty-mile trail run, alone. The $28,000 I raised went straight to women in Congo. The next year, I set a goal of a million dollars, hoping to start a movement for Congo. I edited my life, swapping my photography business's cash-flow charts and sales reports for dusty trail runs and sweltering advocacy days in DC. I traded out my fiancé (he wasn't up to the shift in direction) for my new Congolese sisters. Every square inch of my life was dedicated to my work for Congo.

In 2005, that first year, a former missionary to Congo had struck up a conversation with Francisca at the cheese counter, and invited us both over for tea and Congo talk.

Back then, Francisca glowed when she talked about home, sharing meticulously organized albums containing photos of her family sitting in front of lush flower gardens, posing with fish the size of children, standing next to the town's colonial manor house, vegetation sprouting from every window and eave in its slow-motion tumble into the Kibali River.

It was through these photos that Francisca first introduced me to her family, the cousins and nieces and nephews and uncles, before so many of the pictured were killed, before Francisca ever thought all those deaths even possible. I saw her father André on his coffee plantation, a broad smile spread across his face, the ease of a man comfortable in his skin. André's only brother Alexander looked well groomed, with the knowing sideways smile of a younger brother who had come into his own.

And then there was Mama Koko, a name meaning great-grandmother in their native tongue of Lingala. I'd never seen a great-grandmother look so good. In one photo, adult Francisca posed playfully on Mama Koko's lap, both laughing. They look like sisters, an impression buoyed by their twinsy outfits. Each of their wardrobes was composed mostly of swaps or duplicates. Whenever Francisca found a beautiful Dutch Super Wax fabric, she bought enough for two dresses and sent the balance back home to Mama Koko. Sometimes she and Mama Koko made nearly identical dresses with the matching fabric—piping, buttons up the front, oversized caps sleeves for drama—even though they didn't plan it that way and the cloth was tailored on different continents.

Francisca urged me to join her there someday, for a slice of the real Congo, peaceful Congo.

I wasn't interested. My focus was on Congo's war.

But during that year of bad news, we sat together at her dining room table over many a cup of peach tea, both of us suspended somewhere between Congo and America.

Then it dawned on me: What if we could go to Dungu together, just as she had suggested so many times before? Even if the US media weren't covering Kony's attacks on her homeland, her remote pocket of Congo, we could collect her family's stories and share them with the world. Maybe Francisca could transform those anxious nights into a greater good. Maybe I could help her help her people.

We were wading into a deeper crocodile swamp than we knew, of course. We couldn't see then what our prodding might unravel. Or the fact that by the time our story reached its end, so many of the people central to our time in Dungu would be dead.

At the time we dreamed up our journey, it seemed purely good.

Francisca mulled over the notion of a joint trip to Dungu. All those losses. All those late nights. All those groggy mornings, up early to peddle gourmet salts to aspiring foodies who would never ask or understand her newly tired eyes.

Francisca decided to go.


• • • •

Our plane skipped along a dirt landing strip stamped into a grassy field on the edge of Dungu. Francisca's family members, about twenty of them, emerged from the shadows of the brick hangar and stood at attention as our plane came to a stop. To Francisca, after endless ringing and ringing and what-might-have-happened redials, it felt surreal. Looking out the tiny window at her beloved familiars, they now seemed somehow unfamiliar. This was not the joyous celebration of previous arrivals: Francisca could see by the way they held themselves that things had changed. The mournful drape of skinnier bodies, panicked eyes, the roomy smiles that had once greeted her now collapsed. They all looked older.

Dungu smacked of dust and heat. It hadn't rained yet that season, a misfortune worn by every blade of roadside grass, hovering in the air, sucked in with each gritty breath. Wisps of ash swarmed in drifts against a dull sky.

I followed as Francisca stepped down from the plane, enveloped by family under the wing. She embraced Mama Koko first. They both cried with relief.

As family members took their turns to say hello to Francisca, each holding on extra long and hard, Mama Koko stood back. She wore a vivid print dress and wrap like the rest of the women, each bursting with colors and patterns. Unlike the others who clutched their handbags and donned Sunday-best wigs and heels, Mama Koko wore comfortable sandals and a loose wrap. Her hair was cut close to her head for low maintenance. She held herself with an easy grace that must come with being the family's presiding matriarch.

Gunshots echoed across town, from the direction of Mama Koko's place. Francisca watched the family exchange tense glances. Francisca looked over at me, snapping photos, oblivious. She wondered: Should I tell her?

We'd almost canceled the trip. About a week before our departure, Francisca got another bad-news call about a fresh attack.

Most attacks raged in the countryside north of Dungu, driving villagers into town, under the shadow of the United Nations compound and the Congolese army patrols. But a week before our trip, an attack happened inside Dungu. As if calling a bluff, the gunmen just strolled into town. Right past the UN airstrip. Right past the Congolese army patrols. The LRA opened fire on residents, killing, abducting, beating a woman to death with firewood.

No one—not the United Nations, not the Congolese army—intervened.

It happened about a mile from Mama Koko's home, where we had been planning to stay.

Before Francisca got the news, Kevin and their kids hadn't offered any commentary on our plan. Francisca could feel it, though: They didn't want her to go. When Francisca mentioned the in-town attack to Kevin, he didn't say much, but Francisca's daughter Lomingo came over and gave her a talking-to about abandoning the trip. "But think how you would feel if it was me over there," Francisca said. "If I don't go now, I may never see Mama Koko again."

Francisca knew she had to tell me about that attack. When she called, I could hear the angst in her voice—fear, but not for her own safety, or mine. She was scared that I would cancel. And she wouldn't go alone.

I said, as though willing it to be true, "We'll be fine."

"We'll be fine," Francisca said.

"We'll be fine."

"Yeah. We'll be fine."

Neither of us slept that night. When we talked the next day, we stumbled on an eerie kismet: We'd both dreamed the night before that the LRA cut off our arms.

At the time, I tried to problem-solve. I sought counsel from policy experts. Some advised that the key was having a getaway vehicle and staying on the other side of town. I asked my friend Sasha, who had spent two years in Northern Uganda, "So, if we see the LRA, any safety tips?"

Stunned by the naiveté of the question, he replied, "If you see the LRA, you're dead."

LRA gunmen were spotted in Mama Koko's neighborhood the morning of our arrival.


  • “It's never easy for a writer to negotiate the bloody shake-up of history. Far from being silenced or rendered speechless by the complicated political transformation, Shannon chose to narrate the compelling stories as vital testimonies to reflect on the role each one of us can play.…Shannon's emphasis in Mama Koko and the Hundred Gunmen is on the extraordinary tale of a marginal family, caught amidst the crossfire for power and control….Shannon must be credited for bringing to life the stories of human sufferings in an unjust world, which are often subsumed in dominant political-economy discourses that focus on resource extraction as a means of so-called human development.” —Deccan Herald

    "Lisa Shannon is known for the courage, grace, and love through which she brings to everyone's attention the harshness and beauty of humanity experienced in the Democratic Republic of Congo. With a compassionate eye, she analyzes how ordinary individuals deal with that difficult reality. In Mama Koko and the Hundred Gunmen, Shannon shows the magic of her writing by taking the reader on that journey. It is a journey of the heart that everyone should read."—Zainab Salbi, founder of Women for Women International and author of Between Two Worlds
  • “Lisa Shannon is a young woman with courage, conviction, and a craving for adventure... Shannon skillfully reveals a tapestry of characters and personal narratives that are at once moving and frightful... Beautiful writing.”–New York Journal of Books

    “Harrowing… Shannon's book bother offers a rich portrait for her subjects' lives and serves as a call to action… A highly personal and memorable story.” –Kirkus

    “This compelling narrative is not easily forgotten, nor are the many people whose stories she collected. This is a valiant record of the testimonies of vital witnesses; readers will not be able to look away.” —Booklist

On Sale
Feb 3, 2015
Page Count
240 pages

Lisa J Shannon

About the Author

Lisa J. Shannon is a human rights activist, writer and speaker. In 2005, she founded Run for Congo Women, the first national grassroots campaign in the US working to raise awareness of the forgotten humanitarian crisis in Congo. Since then, she has spearheaded multiple major media and human rights campaigns for Congo and Somalia. She was a 2012-2013 Gleitsman Fellow with Harvard’s Center for Public Leadership and is a 2013-2014 fellow with Harvard Kennedy School’s Carr Center for Human Rights. Shannon holds a Masters in Public Administration from the Harvard Kennedy School and an Honorary Doctorate from Georgetown University.

She is the author of the award-winning A Thousand Sisters and she has been featured on countless media outlets including The Oprah Winfrey Show, National Public Radio’s Morning Edition, the New York Times, the New York Times Magazine, the Economist, and more. In 2010 she was named one of O Magazine‘s 100 Most Influential Women on the Planet.

She lives in Portland, Oregon.

Learn more about this author