Where do you get your ideas? It’s a question I’m often asked and can answer fairly confidently; from anywhere and everywhere, from my own experiences, from newspapers and magazines, overheard conversations and snippets of other people’s lives. However, perhaps a harder question to answer would be, how do you find your story?
The idea for Gorilla Dawn presented itself in an article online that claimed in bold letters that your mobile phone is killing gorillas. Unaware of a link, I read on to discover that the manufacture of nearly every electronic device we use requires the minerals tantalum, tin, tungsten and gold. Many of these minerals are sourced from the Democratic Republic of Congo in the forest home of the eastern lowland gorilla. So, I thought, what has my phone got to do with this? Well, it turns out that the regulation of minerals is very opaque and that multinational electronic companies directly and indirectly fund the armed groups that control many of the opencast mines where mineral ores are dug out by spade and shovel. The armed groups terrorise local communities, displace people from their land and kidnap children to recruit as child soldiers. They also decimate gorilla populations through habitat loss and poaching. Five million people have died as a result of the violence since fighting began in the 1990s and research shows that the eastern lowland gorilla may become extinct by 2050. These are hard facts to swallow. As I read the article on my computer I realised that we are all linked to the people and gorillas of the Democratic Republic of Congo via the electronics devices we use every day. My mobile phone and computer really could be responsible for the demise of the gorilla, and that didn’t sit comfortably with me.
The more I researched around the subject, the more I felt certain that there was a story hiding within all the information I had gathered. Finding the story is like trying to see the dark matter between the stars. This is the point at which as an author you need to switch off the analytical part of your mind and let your thoughts float. If you look too hard, the story will disappear. The brain needs to unhinge and do backflips and somersaults while you stare out the window. Neural alchemy. I prefer to call it daydreaming.
This is the point at which Imara emerged from the darkness, fully formed, waiting for her story to be told. A kadogo, a child soldier; a girl with a scar crossing her face from her forehead to her chin. She was a character so distrustful of me that her story only revealed itself as I wrote. Her past only revealed itself to both of us at the end. Like all child soldiers, she must keep her tears inside. Kindness is a weakness and friendship is forbidden. If she is to survive, she must listen to the demon deep inside, berating her and guiding her, keeping her alive. Imara has become hardened to her way of life. But I wanted to find a way through, to find Imara, to find the girl she had once been. The answer came through another character, a young gorilla taken from the wild. Not even the demon could prevent the bond that grew between them. As Imara’s story grew, she became real to me. Real in the sense that Imara could be real. She could be one of the many children swept into wars not of their making. There are many Imaras out there: invisible children whose lives have been damaged as a result of world greed for resources.
But I wanted the story to be one of hope too, hope for children like Imara and hope for the gorillas and the natural world. There are many brave men and women rangers who risk their lives on a daily basis to protect the forests and the communities that live alongside them. There are many Congolese trying to find a peaceful way forward in a turbulent world. But as consumers of electronic goods, we too become responsible for the fate of the gorillas and the people whose lives are affected by mining for minerals.
Technology may seen to be the cause of the problem, but it also provides the answer too, because it gives each of a voice; a voice to demand that governments pass laws to ensure fair-trade conflict free minerals, a voice to tell electronics companies that we won’t buy their products unless they responsibly source their raw materials and a voice to speak out for those who have no voice of their own.
Imara’s story is inextricably linked with our own, and all our stories are inextricably linked with the natural world.
You can find out more about conflict minerals here.
Gorilla Dawn is published by Oxford University Press in paperback on 3rd September, priced £8.99.