By Prisca Sam-Duru
Colette Braeckman is a Belgian writer and journalist covering Africa for the Daily Newspaper in Brussels since 30 years. She has published several books especially on Democratic Republic of Congo DRC, Mobutu and the genocide in Rwanda as well as the violence in Central Africa Republic. Braeckman authored the book on rape and violence in Kivu, DRC, titled ‘The Man Who Mends Women’, which was later adapted into a documentary film by Thierry Michel and herself. Braeckman in a chat, reveals more on her experiences covering war in Africa and her thoughts on African literature. Excerpts.
What informed your decision to work on issues of rape and violence in Africa?
I was so overwhelmed by the violence in Kivu and I was thinking, what can I do as a writer and journalist to help these people live through their trauma. So, I decided to let the world know about their sufferings and come to their aid. I took one person, a Congolese gynaecologist, Dr Denis Mukwege in Panzi Hospital in the outskirts of Bukavu, eastern DR Congowho has been a hero in the sense that he has helped the people especially women and children recover from rape and violence meted on them during the war.
We got the women to stage the scenes through the life and testimonies of Dr Mukwege. The book was published three years ago and finally we made the film. Thierry Mitchel made the film and I am co-author of the film, ‘The Man Who Mends Women’.
What were the challenges writing the book as well as making the film?
The challenge was in finding the people but that was not so difficult because as I told you, I know the women, the population of Kivu for a long time for like 30 years. So, I know them and as I went to them, they accepted to testify. Those who were real victims of sexual violence also accepted to testify which is not easy for any victim of sexual violence to do. I knew those people for a long time also. It was so difficult as we tried to get more respite to the viewers and audience to give their view of the beauty of the country. It is a shame that such a beautiful country like DRC, with such huge potential in human, economic potential and so much more, would be engulfed by so much violence. So we tried as much as possible to present the scenes not only with the aim of making people cry but so that they will think and ask why things are like they are in the country.
Are the scenes real?
The scenes are real because we went there. I filmed most of the war situations when they were on and the aftermath while some were from the archives. Scenes of women crying in the graves, burying their loved ones are all real, we went there with them. The people were happy to reveal their ordeals in the hands of rapists and those who slaughtered their family members because they said we were the first people to care about what they have gone through. They told us that since 10 years now they have kept silent and the outside world did not know their sufferings.
How long did it take you to write the book?
The book took me several months to write because I went to Kivu several times during research. I spent 2 weeks full time with Dr Mukwege, and took 6 months to assemble the facts together.
Have their been threats to your life because of the book and the film?
The day I will always remember is the day the book was published. We were in Brussels in November 2002 with Dr Mukwege when the book was released and we presented it to the press and the audience. Dr Mukwege addressed the large audience so when we went back to Bukavu, they laid siege in his home and attempted to kill him. They wanted to silence him, at least to intimidate him and since the release of the film, I have not been to Congo. Initially the book was prohibited in Congo. They said the army, their officers are angry because the film criticised them a lot. But later they changed their mind because they were under pressure. When they changed their government, the film began showing on TV and publicly within the country. I am going there next week and I can’t guess what the reaction of the people will be. Already they say the film is helping government and authorities to stop the violence. So, I presume the reaction will be positive.
What’s your view about African Literature?
Africa literature is a powerful tool because it speaks to the conscience of the people through their imagination and reality and when situation is bad people say its unacceptable. And I am happy that in Congo, many have seen both the book “The Man Who Mends Women” and the film adaptation and have questioned authority on certain issues.
Is this your first time in Nigeria?
Yes! it is. Nigeria is a fascinating country and I deeply regret that I did not come here earlier.
Have you read books authored by Nigerians?
Yes! Chinua Achebe’s, ‘Things Fall Apart’. Chimamanda Adichie’s ‘Americanah’. It is a wonderful introduction to Nigeria, its really immersed in them and I have bought lots of books from the Ake Festival that I will read when I go back. Nigeria literature is wonderful. Two amazing things about them are, the people read, they buy books and are passionate about them and this stimulates authors to write more.
What role should African authors play in the development of the continent?
African authors should describe the reality of the people. They have allowed foreign writers to tell their stories and I hate the image that is given to Africa by so called whites or European authors. They always give very negative or pessimistic image of Africa which is just a part of the reality. There is huge energy especially in a country like Nigeria, dynamic people working for change. Who can explain that to foreign audience if not the authors.