This Mother’s Day, we’re celebrating a very special kind of mother – the kind of mother with the courage, determination, and compassion needed to shepherd her family through times of violent conflict. Mama Koko, from the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) couldn’t be a better example.
When Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) gunmen came blazing into her village, there was reason to worry. The LRA, led by the notorious Joseph Kony, is known for attacks against civilians, violent massacres, and kidnappings. In its reign of terror, the LRA has abducted more than 66,000 children who have been used as child soldiers or sex slaves.
In Mama Koko and the Hundred Gunmen: An Ordinary Family’s Extraordinary Tale of Love, Loss, and Survival in Congo, author Lisa Shannon charts a family’s course from an idyllic life on their farm through an unimaginable fight for survival against a ruthless enemy force. Following are excerpts from the book, and pictures of members of Mama Koko’s family and community.
Celebrate Mama Koko and other heroic mothers by sharing these excerpts from her story with your friends, and pledging to join us in our work to end genocide and mass atrocities.
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…
People passing by the fields paused long enough to tell her it wasn’t safe for them to stay. She, too, knew that they had no choice, that they had to keep going. To where, she had no idea.
It was such a long walk, so hot, and dragging the children was so wearying. They didn’t have a cooking pot, or even water. They were all so thirsty. They walked straight into the middle of nowhere. Twilight set in.
Mama Koko scouted a spot in the bush off the road and rallied the children to pile leaves into a bed, where they huddled together, and slept.
In the early morning, Mama Koko stood and felt the weight of it all on her sixty-nine-year-old bones. There was no choice; they had to continue to flee. They set out for another day. But she was dizzy. The world swayed and Mama Koko collapsed. The girls couldn’t rouse her. She lay on the ground, unconscious, surrounded by panicked, weepy teens and screaming grandbabies.
Water splashed on her face. Strangers hovered over her. She was still on the road, children’s cries around her. Passerby had doused her with what little water they had. She pulled herself up, and they kept going…
On the plantation there was time for everything. Coffee came in fall. By Christmas they had rice and millet. Termites came in the springtime. Dette collected, boiled, and dried them, then wrapped them in cloth, slowly squeezing out the termite oil, a delicacy for the year. Fruit ripened during summer vacation–lemons, avocado, guava, papaya, mango.
When André’s first harvest came in, they collected a full ton of rice, plus stacks of coffee. It was enough to reinvest and grow the plantation out to the stream running on the land’s perimeter.
Francisca’s summer break coincided with the peanut harvest every July. As soon as school was out, Dette and André loaded the kids up on their bikes and rode out to Duru…
And if the locals weren’t acclimated, then Francisca was a year and a half behind even than curve. The fresh wounds on a child felt as if they’d been inflicted on her own daughter. To her, Congo was home; these people were her neighbors. Violence was not inherent to the landscape of her Congo—mango trees were, and the fragrant air after a rain…
On the edge of a rice field, the family collected palm leaves and wove them into walls for a hut, with a plastic tarp for a roof. It wasn’t at all like when Francisca was a girl, when they were hidden from the Simba in the mango grove. Back then, Andre came back from the bush with bags of peanuts. The bush was our bank, they would say. But in 2008, the LRA owned the bush—no more bank. This time everyone was in hiding, every family with their own secret spot. People missed the harvest.
The family stayed for months. Mama Koko spent most days sitting at the corner of the hut, fighting off pneumonia, looking at the rice field, watching the sky.
One day, she heard a loud noise, like thunder. She looked up and saw fighter jets shoot through the sky. Then the boom of the bombs. Good. Kony must be dead, she thought.
When they finally made it back to Mama Koko’s parcel in Bamokandi, everything was gone: no shoes, no cooking pans, no sheets. They surveyed the damage, as the parade of shocked neighbors, friends, and cousins began, everyone swapping updates—who lived, who died, who hadn’t been seen in a long while.
It was only a few weeks before they had to flee, again…
“We won’t have mangoes this year,” Mama Koko mused, as we lounged on our stoop at the Procure—our daily ritual after arriving back from our self-imposed 4 p.m. curfew. “Normally they’re already the size of my thumb. But the flowers just bloomed and dried up. No fruit.”
She paused, as though reading an oracle. “It’s going to be a hard year.”
Food was on everyone’s mind. It was time to prepare the fields for the year’s planting. Following the LRA sightings on the outskirts of Dungu, everyone with land even a mile outside of town, especially to the north, mentally traced their route and calculated their odds. They had all pondered how fast they could run, who and what they would leave behind in that split second, should they see the dreadlocked men. They had all weighed the risk-and-regret equations, chewed the roulette fruits in their sleep. Would you die for a few piles of beans? Bushels of cassava?
I asked, “Who else died?” Francisca didn’t want to translate, but she didn’t want to lie.
Alexander was shutting down. “You’ll have to check your list.”
He started to crack. It was in his eyes.
I saw it. “Is he okay? We can stop.”
Francisca didn’t translate.
“It’s okay. We’ll stop.”
I pretended to turn off the camera, but I let the videotape roll. I don’t know why. His pain radiated, filling the room.
Trying to infuse something human back into the moment, I said, “It’s so many people to lose in one day.”
I waited for Francisca to pass on my sympathies.
Papa Alexander stayed transfixed on the wall, trying to hold it all back. Francisca knew better, but she translated anyways: It’s so many people to lose in one day. Papa Alexander’s face tightened and creased, as if hit by high-voltage electricity, or having taken a hard bite down on aluminum foil. He folded into a gasping sob, way beyond words or even sound…
Under Mama Koko’s mango tree, Francisca’s brother cleared the underbrush, laid a cement foundation, and began stacking adobe bricks for Mama Koko’s new house. Even if she still refused to keep the good dishes, or to invest in a new tablecloth, her new home will have a tin roof, its own private sitting room, and two bedrooms, one for her and one for Francisca…
Photo credit: Lisa Shannon