Finding Humor in Unspeakable Evil

Review War and Peace


A Journey to the Dark Heart of Nameless Unspeakable Evil
by Jane Bussman
Nortia Press (2014), 328 pages



When you’re sitting at a cafe reading a book called A Journey to the Dark Heart of Nameless Unspeakable Evil, people tend to get curious. In response to the side-eye, I often found myself describing it as probably the only book you’ll ever read about mass atrocities that has you busting up laughing. At that point, the curiosity usually turned to confusion...which was my welcome cue to turn back to my reading.


Jane Bussmann uses this book as an introduction of sorts for those who, like her, have not spent their lives researching and working in human rights and atrocity prevention. She opens the door for those outside that community to join the conversation. A welcome move.

The crush, John Prendergast

So how did she, a comedy writer and celebrity journalist, find herself traveling in conflict zones, reporting on ongoing atrocities? Well, after googling "the most evil man in the world" and discovering Joseph Kony, she stumbled upon human rights activist and former advisor to Susan Rice, John Prendergast. To which she thought, “damn, I had to meet John Prendergast. He wasn’t just hot; he was wise. I wondered how wrong it would be to sit on his knee during the interview.”


What follows is a bit of a ridiculous journey, as Bussmann not only finds comedy in her travels, but discovers the story of one of the most wanted men in Africa, Joseph Kony. She infuses the world of Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) with her penchant for comedic flair. Somehow she manages to take topics usually read about in Foreign Policy and Human Rights Watch, and make them not only accessible, but entertaining. With her acerbic wit, it would seem this book should be inappropriate. It should be angering. Yet somehow, it is neither of those things. 


In her meeting with Betty Bigombe for example, arguably one of the most influential actors in the peace process with the LRA, she of course keeps the focus on her crush. According to Bussman, “former government minister Betty Bigombe was significantly more important than John in the Ugandan peace process, so I decided to interview her to ask what John was like. Twenty minutes later, we finally established that she thought he was single.”



Discovering the Impact of the LRA


Joseph Kony, leader of the LRA



Bussmann spends most of the book learning—well, learning and fucking up, but that’s part of her charm (Not many of us have accidentally taken photos of Colonel Charles Otema’s alleged torture chamber because it was a “really cool 60s looking building.”). In her travels, she learns about the legend of Joseph Kony, whom she refers to as a “satanic pied piper.” She learns about the different actors in the fight against his LRA—both the reliable and the not-so-reliable. She learns about the victims, their struggle. Midway through the book, she discovers what has become known as the “night commute”:


…I was alone on the street. And then I wasn’t. I’d stepped into a scene from a Stephen King novel. Children started appearing from nowhere. Literally thousands of them, a human tide of kids. They were streaming into town from every road, every dirt track, children of all sizes, some carrying school books, some blankets, some wearing white United Nations food aid sacks as fleeces. The children had an otherworldly quality—one little girl in a crispy pink ball gown seemed to float. They new exactly where they were going and some were singing as they walked. Children’s singing is invariably creepy and it made the scene even more sinister.


In 2006, led by the non-profit Invisible Children, students across the world participated in what was called the Global Night Commute. It was then that those outside human rights community learned of the frightening lives the children of northern Uganda were living. As Bussmann illustrates, every night these children walked from their villages into the city. They did this because the LRA comes in the night, violently murders families, taking their children, making them child soldiers or child brides. The only way these children knew to stay safe was to commute, to sleep on the floors of guarded buildings in the city, and then commute home in the morning. And while reports are that this practice has lessened in recent years, it is likely due simply to the LRA moving on to other regions, abducting children from DR Congo, CAR, and South Sudan.



Room of "night commuters" in Northern Region of Uganda. Credit: K. Burns



The night commute is just one of the horrors Bussmann discovers on her trip. Kony’s evilness knows no bounds. He and the LRA mutilate victims, rape victims, force children to fight as soldiers, threatening to murder their families if they do not cooperate. The stories she learns during her trip, each one more painful than the next, begin to bring together a picture of what it is like to live within reach of the LRA. It is surely not a sustainable situation. 



Useful People

Early into Unspeakable Evil, as Bussman is struggling with a career as a celebrity journalist that she hates and views as ultimately pointless, she tells of watching TV and seeing a neurosurgeon from Doctors Without Borders. He was doing something. He was helping people. He was being useful. She then declared, “there are two kinds of people in the world, Useful People and Useless People, and I had worked my entire adult life to be absolutely useless.”


Bussmann regales her readers with tales of her self-loathing life as a celebrity journalist in Los Angeles. Her self-deprecating nature perfectly in contrast with the beauty obsessed stars she was interviewing (with exceptions, of course). Yet, in discovering this world of Useful People, she begins to see a way in which she, a celebrity journalist, could perhaps become useful. It would require some creativity.


So, to recap: I was now flying to Africa to teach, with zero teaching qualifications, because what I really wanted to do was write a serious piece about 25,000 kidnapped children and a peacemaker, and the only way I could achieve that in today’s media climate was by sending Mail on Sunday readers on holiday to a war zone. A war zone full of black people.


Jane Bussmann

Bussman’s foray into becoming a Useful Person is as often heartening as it is painfully awkward. Throughout the book there are moments you’re so embarrassed for her, you want to hide under the table. At one point she meets a former child solider who had served as Kony’s personal tailor. I’m sure she looked great in the dress she had made by the young tailor, which turned out to be in the same material as the local school uniforms. This, however, is nothing compared to her realization that she had unintentionally been flirting with known war criminal Kenneth Banya.


Yet this embarrassment is balanced by moments where the fact that she’s naive and coming at these situations with fresh eyes, allows her to ask the questions others wouldn’t, to meet and speak with people others avoid. It is what led her to get in a car with a dangerous general as he took her to show her how they were fighting the LRA, the bodies of dead LRA members as evidence.


There is something so relatable about her quest to become a Useful Person. Made even more relatable, perhaps, as she struggles to achieve that status. It leaves the reader, myself included, wondering just what exactly it means to be useful. Does one have to be a rockstar human rights activist, or can everyone find ways to be useful? How does one find a way to use their own skills to serve the world beyond them?



Kony Remains

The situations in which Bussmann found herself, the violence and its aftermath she encountered, still exist today. Joseph Kony continues to to terrorize innocent civilians, stealing their children in the dark of night and turning them into ruthless soldiers for his own cause. Activists are still fighting for his capture, and while he has mostly been pushed out of Uganda, the international community is still faltering in its attempts to bring him to justice. One would hope to be able to put these stories in the past tense, but as the many reports coming out of the region detail, Kony’s reign continues. To date, approximately 100,000 children have been abducted by the LRA and 2.5 million people displaced. Sadly, it seems he's been ramping up as of late.


Reach of the LRA from 1985-2015, via Harvard Humanitarian Initiative


I had the opportunity to hear Jane Bussman speak at a very "D.C." event a while back promoting Unspeakable Evil. It was at the Center for American Progress in a room full of young Useful People, all surely on their way to becoming the heads of prominent NGOs. They too, I think, were there simply to get a glimpse of John. (This hunch was confirmed as they swarmed him at the end of the event). 


Yet, it was clear to me that her book wasn't really for them. I’m sure they enjoyed it, if they read it. But it's purpose lies beyond their small community of professional human rights workers. Aside from being entertaining, a book like this holds little value for those who already know about Kony and the LRA.


Its inherent value exists in its ability to bring more people into the conversation. In the same way that Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie talks about taking out the jargon and making feminism accessible to the average person, so too is it necessary to make the conversation about atrocity prevention accessible. Governments, NGOs and activists cannot make real progress in these situations without the loud voices of the general populace joining them in the call for change. 


As Bussmann tours the country, giving hilariously inappropriate talks about Joseph Kony, she's reaching a population that perhaps even the great John Prendergast hasn't been able to reach. In bringing comedy to this complex process of how to stop a warlord, she is making human rights activism accessible to everyone.


So, is this book going to solve the problem of Joseph Kony? No. Is it going to help dismantle the LRA? Not likely. But you know what it might do? It might just bring a few more voices into the conversation.  



Uganda, Joseph Kony, LRA, John Prendergast