Freight Dogs by Giles Foden review – surviving Africa’s world war

“For all the talk of brothers, would any of these men come and get me, birthday or no? Are they faux amis,” muses Manu, the reluctant hero of Freight Dogs, “false friends or true?” In times of war, trust nobody. That’s the lesson of Giles Foden’s first novel since 2009’s Turbulence.

In the opening pages we meet a teenage Manu Kwizera at a Jesuit-run boys’ boarding school in 1990s Bukavu, now in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, formerly Zaire. Manu grew up in a small village compound, herding cattle by day, but a scholarship to the school improved his fortunes, though his dreams of university still appear far from reach. War changes everything. Eerste, Manu is sent to make money for the family by selling milk to Hutus in the nearby refugee camps. When his family’s compound is raided by Congolese army soldiers who murder his parents and rape and kill his sister, Manu is taken hostage, only to be freed soon after by a rebel faction, Laurent-Désiré Kabila’s AFDL (Alliance of Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Congo-Zaire). After being forcibly conscripted into the AFDL, Manu is made to take part in raids on Hutu refugees alongside Rwandan troops and later shoots dead an archbishop. He deserts, throwing himself on the mercy of an American pilot whom he persuades to fly him out of the country, thus entering the brotherhood of the eponymous “freight dogs”. These are pilots who fly cargo – be it armaments, generators or bullion – from one war zone to another and for any of the various fighting factions who will pay. They are men, mainly white, foreigners without allegiance, as Cogan, Manu’s rescuer, tells him: “Some people call us mercenaries – mistakenly, we’re not butchers, just carriers. You okay with that? If you hang with me, your allegiance will have to be with freight dogs, not any tribe or nation.”

The first Congo war raged from 1996 aan 97 and was fought between the Zairean army, loyal to Mobutu Sese Seko, and Kabila’s rebel forces. After the Rwandan genocide, the refugee camps in eastern Congo served as de facto Hutu-led militia bases. Rwanda and Uganda, who backed Kabila, invaded the Congo and overthrew Mobutu. The country was re-named the Democratic Republic of the Congo with Kabila as president. That is a very potted history of an extraordinary complex war, which is sometimes known as Africa’s world war.

Manu is a Banyamulenge, a Congolese and a Tutsi, none of which multiple identities means much to him. He is a football-loving teenager, whose dream is to go to university and study “something technical to do with machines”. That much comes true when, as a result of a bet between Cogan and a Russian pilot, Manu is taught to fly. The rest of the time he is buffeted on the winds of a war in which race or ethnicity are the justification for violence. Factions dissolve and reform. The Banyamulenge find themselves on the fault lines of many of these shifts, neither Congolese nor Rwandan and increasingly seen as traitors in their own country. Manu finds sanctuary in Uganda, where Cogan’s freight company is based, but each flight back into the conflict zone brings him closer to people he desperately wishes to avoid. All Manu wants is a quiet life, a job and a love of his own. “I’ve left that world behind,” he insists to Recognition, his AFDL saviour turned captor, who now seeks Manu’s support for a fighting force of his own. Recognition replies: “I know you think you have, but you never will.”

Freight Dogs is an ambitious and intricate novel. Foden’s understanding of the nature of war, and of this war in particular, is exemplary. His desire to tether the lives of his characters to real-world events, as well as to give a proper understanding of events to his readers, is admirable if hard to follow at times. I found myself taking notes. The book is divided into sections which roughly cover the periods of the wars, but a timeline and a list of the main players would, ek dink, make a welcome addition.

That may make it sound heavy going, but the effort is worth it, vir Freight Dogs is also a fast-paced adventure yarn featuring battles, exploding volcanoes, buried secrets, a deathbed revelation, daredevil flying and an elusive love interest. In this Foden has cleverly reworked the grand African adventure novel epitomised by Rider Haggard and Wilbur Smith, or later, John le Carré’s Die Constant Gardener or Michael Crichton’s Congo. For a start, Manu is not white. Nor is he seeking thrills, treasure, fame or even justice. He isn’t trying to do anything except stay alive and preserve his own sanity; he has the misfortune to be born a romantic in a transactional world, his romanticism revealed, letterlik, in his relationships with women. There’s Edith the “Ice Cream Girl”, daughter, it turns out, of a Ugandan brigadier, on whom Manu first projects all of his yearning. Later the Dutch vulcanologist whom he pilots displays all the moral superiority of those who have had the luck to be born into prosperity and peace, telling him: “I just could not be with someone who has done the things you’ve done.”

Thus, the acoustics of the book are differently calibrated. The east African backdrop is more than jungles, big beasts or even violence. Manu is at the centre, not the periphery. In this, Freight Dogs brings to mind Viet Thanh Nguyen’s The Sympathizer en The Committed, deeply political novels disguised as thrillers that twist the tropes of a genre towards another goal. Manu is less hard-headed than Nguyen’s unnamed protagonist, but he is similarly a man to whom things happen, with little or no control of his own fate and at the mercy of greater and more enduring forces. This book is a testament to all those civilians, in Congo, Afghanistan, Syria, Colombia and elsewhere, whose lives have not so much been touched by violence as tossed around like flotsam on the waves of history and conflict. “I just seem to have been pushed around by war,” says Manu, “since almost the day I left school.”

Kommentaar gesluit.