Congo as Poverty Porn

What can we do for 'the worst place in the world'? Surely this play in London, is not the thing.

Promotional Still from The Drink It in the Congo.

As an Africanist and a woman of color, I make it a mission to support diversity in storytelling. This often means I am setting myself up for failure; at the receiving end of a botched history-cum-geography lesson about “Africa” or some other place where ‘black’ people are. This time, while watching Adam Braces play, “They drink it in the Congo,” the failure was so severe that it reduced me to tears. In an act of self care, I walked out at intermission. Though in an attempt to give the play a chance, I read the second half at a later date. It was futile.

For the first 90 minutes, I watched as black men were portrayed as violent and full of rage and as sexual predators, and black women were portrayed as victims and silent workhorses. The stage was transformed into a coltan mine in the middle of the presumed Democratic Republic of Congo, and black characters from one scene transform into violent militia in the next. I watched more black men, holding machine guns, allude to forcing a father to rape his daughter. In the next scene I watched that same young woman writhe in agony, an aid worker speaking to her in broken French, while rattling off stats on a phone to confirm said rape. I watched as black bodies were brutalized and put on display for consumption of art. In a play that promoted itself as being about the Congo, I watched as black characters were used to prop up the self-exploration of white leads.

I have little to say about the quality of the writing, acting or stage production – I will leave that to the experts (some of whom have taken umbrage with these things). But as a community psychologist who seeks to grapple with the basic premise of what makes us human, of what makes us act, of what makes us real, there is much to say about the premise behind Brace’s play – and what could have been produced instead.

This play exists as a supposed think piece, a project that is likely rooted in an effort to appeal to fundamental aspects of humanity. A piece to “get people talking” and thinking about the Congo, or “the worst place in the world” as it is labelled on the play’s website. But I can safely say he didn’t stand a hope in hell of doing this – not in the way he set it up.

To assume that invoking extreme emotional responses will lead to critical reflection on life, liberty, and in this case, the plight of the Congolese, shows a limited understanding of how emotions are related to action. Much psychological literature has been devoted to exploring how emotions can be used to inspire action, and in some cases, changes that aid the “tortured other.” Such research tells us that when a stimulus evokes an emotional response, in our efforts to manage emotions, a process of engagement, thought and action, and occasionally change, can occur. The wide use of emotional appeals in the humanitarian aid industry is rooted in such evidence.

The play seeks to regulate the emotions of theatre goers through the use of shocking and largely violent stimuli (guns, rape, tragedy), with the hopes of triggering a cognitive  engagement and a response.

However, the reality of emotion regulation theory is, that numerous factors will influence whether or not engagement or change occurs in response to emotion. For example, are the audience the type of people who are likely to engage in critical thinking? Or are they the type of people to respond to uncomfortable emotions through denial or switching off? Does the stimuli in question present a challenge to someone’s existing understanding of the world (perhaps a black lead fighting for the Congo instead of a white one)? It turns out, that the latter is more likely to invoke thinking and action. However, given that this play fails to produce alternative perspectives on the Congo, instead flipping the script on white characters and their role in the Congo, the use of stereotypes are wasted. We are left with little more than a piece of poverty porn, wherein stereotypes of the Congo, its suffering, its violence, and the sexualized and violent African, are reified.

This vision of the Democratic Republic of Congo just isn’t true. Every day, people exist, survive and sometimes thrive in that country. And, a host of local organizations in the country are currently using art, theatre and other forms of media in an attempt to present a counter narrative to what is peddled by western media and international NGOs.

For example, Yole Africa (the art of empowering youth), a Goma-based organization uses the arts to provide a local narrative to challenges what is “known” about the Congo, presenting stories of everyday life, its joys, sacrifices and successes. Their Youtube series Art on the Front Lines, includes short films that focus on the stories of teachers, artists and children in Goma who work at using art to challenge the colonial legacies in their education system to “show the world that you can make something professional out of nothing,” as quoted by a local teacher. If given the chance, people from the DRC can tell you that they, like people all over this world, are more than just the product of things that happen to them. We are all more than the effects of war, of suffering and of violence. This as a counter narrative is what holds the real power for change. For if it can happen to them, what is to stop it from happening to us? This counter narrative, a reminder that our own happiness and safety is just as fragile as theirs, is far more likely to be the type of stimulus to inspire real cognitive reflection and change.

In the hands of the mainstream media, stories of the DRC will not seek to uplift or challenge our thinking. In the hands of mainstream media, the Congo remains the heart of darkness, because there is no reward in claiming otherwise. However, the days are long behind us when the “poor and suffering” must rely on the voice of an outsider to speak on their behalf. If the play must be the thing, then perhaps the people behind productions like this one should step out of the way, and leave it to the Congolese to tell their own stories.

  • The thoughts and ideas presented here are Dr. Burgess’s own, and do not reflect the opinions of her affiliated institutions.

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