Monday, 19 April 2010

Ruined - Finding Mother Courage in DRC

Photo Hugo Glendinning

I went to see the European premiere of Ruined by American playwright Lynn Nottage at the Almeida in London on Friday. The play, presented in partnership with Amnesty International, is gut wrenching but gripping – and a powerful way to bring the huge problem of the DRC civil war and its impact on women to wider audiences. To research Ruined, Nottage travelled to East Africa three times to hear the stories of Congolese women brutalised by the war. She won a Pulitzer Prize in 2009 for the play.

“In Ruined,” says Nottage, “Mama Nadi gives three young women refuge and an unsavoury means of survival. As such, the women do a fragile dance between hope and disillusionment in an attempt to navigate life on the edge of an unforgiving conflict. My play is not about victims, but survivors. Ruined in the story of Congo.”

According to the International Rescue Committee, nearly 5.4 million people have died in that country since the conflict began and every month, 45,000 Congolese people die from hunger, preventable diseases and violence related to war. It is the deadliest war since World War II, yet it is still largely ignored by the media and the international community.

In “Finding Ruined,” her account on how the play came about, Nottage said she travelled to East Africa because she wanted “to paint a three dimensional portrait of women caught in the middle of armed conflict.” And she wanted to understand who these women were beyond their status of victims. She writes:

“I was surprised by the number of women who readily wanted to share their stories. One by one, through tears and in voices just above a whisper, they recounted raw, revealing stories of sexual abuse and torture at the hands of both rebels soldiers and government militias. By the end of the interviews I realised that a war was being fought over the bodies of women. Rape was being used as a weapon to punish and destroy communities…”

In the Kivu provinces, where the play takes place, about 160 women are raped every week, mainly by armed men, according to the UN Office of Humanitarian Affairs (9 February 2010). That is an astounding number. Ruined gives a face and a voice to the real women beyond the grotesque statistics. Like Sophie, many of the women are subjected to horrific injuries and mutilations and will have severe long-term internal vaginal and anal injuries. These women are “ruined” and will often be rejected and ostracised by their husband, family and community.

“When I was writing the play I wanted the audiences to get to know the characters well and empathise with them, so that when they leave the theatre they feel compelled to act rather than feel angry at humanity,” wrote Nottage in the March/April issue of Amnesty Magazine. She says that for her the biggest challenge was "finding hope, humour and optimism where there should be none".

If you would like to read more about the DRC or want to take further action, please visit the Ruined mini-site. Ruined is at the Almeida until 5 June 2010.

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