Had there been the option to dance until dawn I would have taken it, but as there wasn’t, I spent New Year’s Eve with my fire and two films. The first was one I’d frankly been putting off, as I knew it would be harrowing. ‘Beasts of No Nation’ follows the story of a child forced to become a soldier in a brutal W. African civil war. It’s an astonishing film, and its young star, Abraham Attah, gives an utterly convincing performance as a little boy ripped from his home, who watches his family killed and then is forced to fight and kill, by the charismatic monster, his commander ( brilliantly played by Idris Elba – another shocking oversight that he didn’t get an Oscar nomination).
It is every bit as ghastly and disturbing as you might imagine not least because of the invisibility of the unrest in West Africa that sparked the book by Uzodinma Iweale on which it’s based. I realised just how good and how close to reality it was when I watched the second film, Virunga, a documentary about the eponymous national park in Rwanda, last refuge of mountain gorillas. At the time the film was made, the government of Rwanda had sold its soul to the devil by giving a UK oil company (SOCA – famous for despicable deeds around the world – a real Voldemort of an organisation ) the right to process and then drill for oil in the Virunga national park. That’s completely illegal as its a World Heritage site. The park rangers and their leader were then in the position of having to defend the park and the gorillas against their own government. SOCA, realising that a nice bit of unrest and fighting would serve them well, encouraged rebel forces from over the border in Congo ( men who looked like they just stepped off the set of Beasts of No Nation) to overrun the park and solve the problem of the pesky wildlife and its human protectors. The level of greed, ignorance and corruption displayed by the SOCA official – a slick young French man, by SOCA’s security chief, a British mercenary so unpleasant no one could have made him up, and the leader of the rebel forces, who made Beasts look like the factual prequel, was depressingly predictable.
But in this darkness were incredible lights: the people who live in the park and who gathered en mass to bury and honour gorillas murdered by poachers; the Rangers, Andre Bauma and Rodrigue Mugaruka Katembo, who spoke inspiringly about their love for the gorillas and about the hope the park represented for their ravaged nation; the ranger’s leader, Emmanuel de Merode, whose calm quiet resolve in the face of violence and disaster was heart stopping and the french journalist Melanie Gouby, who documented the story. Gouby was amazing; a young woman who looked like she should be having coffee on the left bank talking about Satre, she befriended the SOCA official, filmed him secretly making remarks that would have been at home in the mouth of a 19th century slaver, and had dinner with his vile security chief. Can you imagine the bravery it took for all of those people to stand up for what is right, to continue to speak about it, in the face of the kind of violent threat that will slit your throat and leave you in a ditch without hesitation? (Merode was shot and almost killed in 2014 by forces many believe were allied to SOCA). These are the real super-heroes of the world, role models for young people to aspire to.
The film ends before the decision by SOCA to pull out – the coverage of the story turned up the international heat so much they had to get out of the kitchen. WWF hailed it as a great victory (I find their coverage saying We Won, a bit sick making) but there is no doubt SOCA or some other Multinational vampire, is waiting in the wings, and the gorillas are not safe and neither are the people who share their forest habitat. Neighbouring Uganda is allowing oil and mineral prospecting in Lake Edward which borders the park.
These two films, together with my experiences this year with The World Land Trust (documented in an earlier blog) confirmed a lot of things for me. One, that the development promised by big multinational companies is simply rape by another name. They take what they want, create unrest to be able to do it and then leave, blaming the backward nature of the indigenous population for the chaos they have created. The second is that conservation offers real development, the chance to improve human lives at a human scale while maintaining an environment that still provides water, food, and a place to live well
And the third is that the documenting and the telling of real stories like this, stories that the big voices of the world want to drown out with their shouting, is why kids need to read and to write non fiction. They need to learn the skills of curiosity, observation and the determined gathering of information; they need to learn how to turn information into story and they need to practice having a voice and making it heard. The telling of true stories is subversive, it has a power to change the world. Big voices hold the stage because they have the skill and the confidence to use words, but little voices can gain that skill and confidence and then, big voices- watch out.
and if you’d like a novel for young people that tells some of this story beautifully read Gill Lewis ‘Gorilla Dawn’
and you might like this by me, about refugee children on a W. African rubbish dump Rubbish Town Hero