Q&A: Pulitzer-winning playwright inspired by Congolese refugee women

Playwright Lynn Nottage talks about her Pulitzer Prize-winning play, “Ruined,” which tells a powerful and moving story about women in the war-torn Congo.

Lynn Nottage (far right with hoop earrings) with some of the refugees she interviewed.  © Courtesy of Lynn Nottage

NEW YORK, United States, June 10 (UNHCR) - Lynn Nottage's Pulitzer Prize-winning play, "Ruined," tells a powerful and moving story about the suffering and survival of women in violence-ridden areas of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). Conflict in the vast African country has left hundreds of thousands of people dead and millions forcibly displaced over the past two decades. During her research for the play, the American playwright interviewed refugee Congolese women in neighbouring Uganda. "Ruined" last year won the Pulitzer for best drama. Commissioned and first staged by the Goodman Theatre in Chicago, its well-received first European run, at London's Almeida Theatre, ended last Saturday. Nottage spoke recently by phone to UNHCR Web Editor Leo Dobbs, who saw the play in London. Excerpts from the interview:

Tell us about the play

"Ruined" is set in the north-east section of Congo, in the Ituri rainforest. It's set in a brothel that's at the edge of a coltan [a metallic ore used in electronic equipment such as mobile phones and computers] mine. It revolves around the story of Mama Nadi, who's a very shrewd and industrious businesswoman, who at once exploits and protects young women who have been sexually exploited by soldiers in the armed conflict that's going on in that region.

Why did you write it?

In 2004, I became very interested in the impact of armed conflicts on women in Africa. As we know, women by and large don't start these conflicts but they always find themselves disproportionately the victims of the violence. I was particularly interested in the war in [the Democratic Republic of the] Congo. The casualty numbers were so staggering that I wanted to investigate what was actually happening to women. I began reading the news stories and doing research through human rights organizations, but I couldn't find the narratives of the women beyond the raw descriptions of violence. I wasn't getting a picture of who they were in three dimensions. So I travelled to East Africa to track down Congolese refugee women.

When I began interviewing them, what I heard came as a total revelation to me. I knew that women were victims, but I was absolutely floored by the extent to which they were being brutalized. Ultimately, that's what led me to tell the story of "Ruined" and women who are trapped in the middle of the conflict in Congo

Where did you do your research?

Initially, when we arrived in the Ugandan capital, Kampala, we were going to head north to the border with Congo. At the time, renewed violence broke out and they advised us against crossing the border near Arua. So we ended up tracking down refugee women who had fled into Uganda. We used local refugee organizations and groups like Amnesty International to help us identify those individuals. On the second trip, I ended up going to several refugee camps throughout northern Uganda which, in some instances, had Congolese refugees. I also went to the border with Congo.

I think that people really felt fee to talk to me. I said to them, "I am not from an aid organization. I am a story teller and there's nothing I can give you other than an ear to listen and I can be patient and I can be compassionate. But you can't expect that I'm going to deliver to you anything tangible other than being a body in a room willing to listen to your story from beginning to end." What was really interesting about saying that is that it was strangely comforting and soothing to people, because so many of them said that organizations were interested in hearing and documenting the horror, but were not interested in their humanity. Often I had to listen to the minutiae of a person's life before I got into the details of what happened to them during the armed conflict. But I think it was very comforting to people to have their stories heard in some totality.

Were there any particularly moving stories?

I think all of them were particularly moving and what struck me was how similar they were. I expected that I would hear different stories, but their stories almost become like mantras - that they were people in the business of living and suddenly their lives were interrupted by soldiers, who ripped them out of their homes or the fields, brutalized them. And then they found the strength to move on.

Were you surprised at the scale of abuse?

Absolutely. When I was there in 2004, I was definitely surprised by the fact that almost every single woman I interviewed had been raped. The thing that I found incredibly remarkable about the women is that they could find stillness and a kind of discipline to recount their tales, as horrific as they were. By the time they got to the end, sometimes there were tears, but beyond the tears I found that there was a kind of hopefulness and that these women were clearly survivors. These were women who would tell me their story not because they had been defeated, but because they somehow felt that the act of telling the story was purging it and was going to allow them to resurrect their lives and move on. That's definitely what I felt and I remember sitting with my director after hearing one woman's story. We cried and we embraced her and then we began talking about something completely different. There was laughter and there were smiles, and I said: "Oh, she's going to be okay."

Do you continue to follow the situation in the Congo?

I definitely follow the issue much more closely than I did prior to writing the play and prior to taking the journey, but it's an incredibly frustrating situation. One expects to hear different stories and it seems to me that six years after I began this journey, the stories remain remarkably similar. It surprises me. People say, "What can be done?" Being an eternal optimist, I always believe that through education and the women taking back their lives and figuring out ways of empowering themselves, it will transform the situation. But then I read the headlines again and I feel frustrated.

A senior UN official recently described the Democratic Republic of the Congo as the rape capital of the world. The problem is not going away.

I think that, unfortunately, rape has become such an effective tool in the Democratic Republic of the Congo because it is cheap and efficient . . . Soldiers don't have access to certain arms and so rape becomes the cheapest weapon that they can use and the most efficient weapon to destroy the culture and communities . . . I don't think rape is unique to that region, I just think it has become a very efficient tool.

Do you follow the problem of the forcibly displaced in Africa?

I do and I have. When I was in Uganda, I visited a lot of refugee camps. When I began my research it wasn't Congolese-centric. I was interviewing refugees all over Africa and I interviewed a lot of Sudanese refugees, a lot of Somali refugees and many Ugandans who were internally displaced.

Are you happy with the London show and do you plan to take "Ruined" to other European countries?

I thought it [the London show] was beautifully staged. I think the cast was deeply invested and the majority of them were either born in Africa or are of African descent and I think they really enjoyed giving voice to people in the continent. I certainly felt they were fully committed to those characters and embodied them beautifully.

I was talking to a producer about bringing it to France and Belgium and I know that the Belgians are very interested in the play because there is an Afro-Belgian company that wanted to do it and then take it to [the Democratic Republic of the Congo capital of] Kinshasa, which would be absolutely fabulous. I know they are in the process of trying to raise the money to do that. We are going to be travelling to South Africa later this year with a production that's beginning in the United States.

Have there been any refugees in your family?

We came via the Middle Passage [by which Africans were shipped across the Atlantic to become slaves in the Americas and the Caribbean] in shackles and chains. So, I suppose we are refugees in a way.