International human rights activist Lisa Shannon
spent many afternoons at the kitchen table having tea with her friend Francisca
Thelin, who often spoke of her childhood in Congo. Thelin would conjure vivid
images of lush flower gardens, fish the size of small children, and of children
running barefoot through her family’s coffee plantation, gorging themselves on fruit from
the robust and plentiful mango trees. She urged Shannon to visit her family in
Dungu to get a taste of real Congo, peaceful Congo, a place so
different from the conflict-ravaged lands Shannon knew from her work as an activist.
But then the nightly phone calls from Congo began: hasty, static-filled reports from Francisca’s mother of
gunmen from Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army, which had infested Dungu and began
launching attacks. Night after night for a year, “Mama Koko” delivered the
devastating news of Francisca’s cousins, nieces, nephews, friends, and
neighbors, who had been killed, abducted, burned alive on Christmas Day.
In an unlikely journey, Shannon and Thelin decided
to travel from Portland, Oregon, to Dungu to witness firsthand the devastation
unfolding at Kony’s hands. Masquerading as Francisca’s American
sister-in-law, Shannon tucked herself into Mama Koko’s raw cement living room
and listened to the stories of Mama Koko and her husband, Papa Alexander, as
well as those from dozens of other friends and neighbors—“Mama Koko’s War Tribunal”—who
lined up outside the house and waited for hours, eager to offer their
In Mama Koko and the Hundred Gunmen, Shannon
weaves together the family’s tragic stories of LRA encounters with tales from
the family’s history: Mama Koko’s early life as a gap-toothed beauty
plotting to escape her inevitable fate of wife and motherhood; Papa Alexander’s
empire of wives he married because they cooked and cleaned and made good
coffee; and Francisca’s childhood at the family “castle” and coffee plantation.
These lively stories transport Shannon from the chaos of the violence around her
and bring to life Francisca’s kitchen-table stories of the peaceful Congo.
But as the LRA camp out on the edge of town grew,
tensions inside the house reached a fever pitch, and Shannon and Thelin’s
friendship was fiercely tested. Shannon was forced to confront her limitations
as an activist and reconcile her vision of what it means to effect meaningful
change in the lives of others.
Mama Koko and the Hundred Gunmen
is at once an illuminating piece of storytelling and an exploration of what it
means to truly make a difference. It is an exquisite testimony to the beauty of
human connection and the strength of the human spirit in times of unimaginable
tragedy. Download and start listening now!