The Power of “Ruined”
Lynn Nottage's Pulitzer Prize winning play enlightens audiences across the country. Ruined just finished a run in Berkeley, California, plays this month in Denver and opens April 22 in Washington, D.C.
With her play Ruined, Lynn Nottage not only won the 2009 Pulitzer Prize but continues to inform her audiences about the war in the Congo and how rape is used as a weapon in that war.
During the play's recent run at California’s Berkeley Repertory Theater, Madeleine Oldham, the theater’s literary manager, moderated a conversation on women’s rights in Africa. The panelists agreed that a powerful play like Nottage's can perform an important role in bringing to life the human truth behind grim statistics of wartime sexual violence.
“When I saw Ruined, I saw the Congo I knew, with the horror and humor and the confusion that is the reality of the Congo,” said Anneke Van Woudenberg, from the Africa Division of Human Rights Watch. “So much of what raises our interest in an issue is popular culture—film, books, plays.”
Panelist Muadi Mukenge, from the Global Fund for Women, said Nottage, who traveled to East Africa to interview women fleeing the armed conflict in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, captured what she found there in a way that people can take in. “Sometimes it’s hard to get people to read a book,” she said. “I felt like she brought back what she found and humanized the Congolese people.”
Five million people have died as a result of the war, Van Woudenberg said. “It’s the deadliest one in the world, more deadly than Iraq or Afghanistan, yet we rarely hear about it, and I think that’s partly because of our presuppositions about the Congo, that it’s the heart of darkness,” she said. "It’s horrible, but it happens.”
More than 200,000 women and girls have been raped in the Congo. “It’s one of the worst places in the world to be a women or a girl,” Van Woudenberg said, adding that a large percentage of the rapes are of teenage girls between 12 and 17 years old.
One of the world's poorest countries, the Democratic Republic of the Congo has vast mineral resources, including gold, diamonds, copper and coltan, which is essential to digital technology, including cell phones and computer chips. Much of the fighting is over these resources, and the Congolese people aren’t the ones getting the wealth, Mukenge said.
“Established multinationals have been profiting for a long time,” she said. “There is a way to have access and develop the Congo and not have the kind of atrocities we’ve been hearing about.”
What’s happening in the country is about more than human rights, Mukenge said. “This is a political and an economic issue,” she said. “Until we know who is providing the guns, we have not asked the right questions. Who is keeping the rebel groups in power?”
Oldham asked the panelists what’s happening in the country that gives them hope. Heidi Lehmann, from the Women’s Empowerment and Protection Unit of International Rescue Committee, is impressed by the resilience of the women. “So many of the women we work with refuse to be defined by the sexual violence they experience,” she said. “The women are saying they are more than that.”
Since so many of the rapes are public, there is no way of hiding it—and that means women come together to support one another and a women’s movement is growing, Van Woudenberg said. She added that in her job of prosecuting perpetrators, she sees some progress. “There are four Congolese perpetrators in jail in the Hague,” she said. “That’s important because how do you rebuild a society if you don’t have rule of law?”
Panelist Rachel Niehuus, from the Cal Human Rights Center, said she was encouraged that when touring Africa, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visited organizations in the Congo working with women who had been raped. Clinton then refused to go to Rwanda, which Niehuus finds significant. “Rwanda has played into the violence in the Congo,” she said. “I think this administration has a desire to see this end.”
Mukenge, who is Congolese, is hopeful recalling how different things were when she was growing up. “It’s a very complex situation which makes you think it’s intractable,” she said. “We remember a time when this didn’t exist, so we know we can turn it around.”
[Image 2: Pulitzer Prize winner Lynn Nottage—her new play, a comedy, "By the Way, Meet Vera Stark," is currently in previews at Second Stage Theatre in New York.]
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