‘The trouble with most people,’ a reporter friend of mine once remarked, ‘is they just don’t grasp the funny side of genocide.’ He was a rather eccentric friend, possessed of a none-too-healthy fascination with guns and violent death, but he had a point. As any soldier knows, horror lends itself to black humour. An uncontrollable fit of the giggles is often a spontaneous reaction to the utterly grotesque.
Gripped by post-colonial guilt, few Westerners have the nerve to admit this when it comes to Africa, which does a strong line in genocide, and the continent’s non-fiction suffers from the kind of po-faced earnestness that would make a missionary yawn. Jane Bussmann is a gloriously irreverent, genitally-fixated exception to the rule. As I read her account of Uganda’s Lord’s Resistance Army, convulsed with sinus-clearing snorts of astonished laughter, I found myself marvelling that so few of us Africa hacks have thought to try her mould-breaking approach.
The book kicks off in Beverly Hills, where Bussmann, a north Londoner who once nursed hopes of a script-writing career, spends her days making up quotes for interviews with celebrities she rarely gets to meet. Her interrogation routine — ‘You’re in amazing shape, what’s your secret?’ — is hardly John Humphrys, but works a treat in getting Hollywood stars to ‘relax and open up, like a bumhole on amyl nitrate’. She’s stranded in Stupid Town in the Golden Age of Stupid. When even actor Ashton Kutcher, the ‘bloke who took over from Bruce Willis on Demi Moore’, lectures Bussmann on her lack of moral direction, she’s forced to admit it’s time for a change.
She longs to join the ranks of those she dubs the Useful People. Failing to win a job at Doctors Without Borders (the organisation wasn’t recruiting celebrity journalists that year), Bussmann stumbles across the photo of a man who represents everything she craves: John Prendergast, former Director of African Affairs in the Bill Clinton administration, an expert on conflict resolution and a man who notches up frequent flier points to Darfur and eastern Congo. She develops a massive crush.
The conceit, sustained throughout the book, is that in a doomed attempt to impress the object of her passion, the smitten Bussmann sets off to investigate a crisis close to Prendergast’s heart: the long-running war between the Ugandan army and the guerrilla movement led by prophet-turned-warlord Joseph Kony. Embarked on the ‘worst date ever’ — it’s certainly one of the longest — she predictably fails to get her man, but finds her soul.
The (very funny) wisecracks and self-mockery do little to hide the fact that Bussmann is a scrupulous and compassionate reporter who checks reported truths first hand, badgers potential sources relentlessly, and is readier than most hacks to endure weeks in the kind of cheap African hotel where your electronics get stolen and breakfast comes with a side-serving of amoebic dysentery.
Marooned in the northern town of Gulu, she deconstructs the myths associated with one of Africa’s most consistently misrepresented stories.
She pins down the self-serving use to which Yoweri Museveni — still a donor darling despite every indication of wanting to become president-for-life — puts the crisis, logs a track record of cynically undermined peace initiatives and registers the healthy profits Uganda’s colonels make from the war.
Perhaps the Ugandan army’s failure to protect girls’ schools signposted for imminent LRA attack — the girls are raped and taken as rebel ‘wives’ — should not be thrown in its face, Bussmann writes with heavy sarcasm, ‘but at that point, it’s a little unsporting to call yourself an army. Call yourself a group of similarly-attired young men sitting in a nearby building who happen to have some weapons and ammunition they won’t be using.’
As for the supposedly ‘protected villages’ into which locals are unhappily herded, Bussmann discovers these are little more than ‘cash ‘n’ carry brothels’ for soldiers, where food is traded for sex. Noting the complacency with which international humanitarian organisations sustain the fiction, she swiftly loses her admiration for the smiley, lazy, Useful People. ‘All the world’s aid had come down to a porridge f***.’
The missing ingredient — and it’s one that has been superbly explored by academic Tim Allen and Financial Times journalist Matthew Green — is any examination of the historical and cultural factors that make Kony, in the eyes of northern Uganda’s Acholi people, nothing like as ‘loony’ or repellent a figure as the authorities would have you believe. Kony has only lasted as long as he has because his cause holds resonance with a population bitter at its marginalisation by a southern-orientated regime.
But Bussmann’s skill at grabbing your attention and never letting go, even while one sick laugh follows another, makes this a passing quibble. In 15 years covering the continent, I’ve come to despair at the way conflicts of the LRA type, which those who report them know to be as passionately engaging as anything they will ever cover, get relegated to the kind of human rights report so dry and boring, to use the author’s phrase, they have to be read with a finger.
This potty-mouthed, sarky, self-deprecating female journalist with no track record on Africa and a ludicrously inappropriate CV has succeeded where scores of doughty, better-qualified males routinely come a cropper. A small African war, headache of foreign editors and reluctant publishers, has never been captured to such hilarious and heart-wrenching effect. You go girl.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated July 18, 2009