Swans Commentary » swans.com January 26, 2009  



Congo Round And Round


by Peter Byrne


Book Review



Butcher, Tim: Blood River, A Journey to Africa's Broken Heart, Vintage, London, 2008, ISBN 9-780-099-494-287, illustrated, 363 pages. 7.99 pounds UK.


(Swans - January 26, 2009)   As we watch more Congo horrors on the news, it's a good time to read Tim Butcher's Blood River. In August 2004 he flew to Lubumbashi, former Elizabethville, where in 1961 Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba had been shot by a Katangan firing squad under orders from Brussels with the approval of Washington. (Two Belgians, brothers, of Belgium's security forces cut the body up and dissolved it in sulphuric acid.)

Forty-three years later in a similar climate of violence, Butcher pursued his obsession with Henry Morton Stanley. Like Butcher, Stanley had worked for the London Daily Telegraph. Between 1874 and 1877 in an exploit that filled in the last great African unknown, he mapped the Congo River. (It would lead directly to the presence of the Belgian brothers with their hacksaw and axe.) Butcher wanted to retrace Stanley's original journey of discovery, "to draw together the Congo's fractious whole by travelling Stanley's 3,000-kilometre route from one side to the other."

Bitten by the Stanley bug, Butcher spent four years, nerves already taut, planning and gathering information. People in the know said the trek was impossible or even suicidal in the present tumult of the Congo. No structure at all remained, much less infrastructure. There was no transport system and no driving beyond city limits. The only hints of normalcy were provided by besieged international agencies that were present only because of the long absence of any "normal" life. There was no government to speak of, no law. Outsiders had to justify being at any specific place by documents only obtainable by bribing men who claimed to be, but often were not, officials. Rebels and Congolese soldiers moved in waves against one another and drove non-combatants who managed to escape with their lives into the bush.

Once on the road, Butcher realized that he wouldn't be able to report on his pleasure in travel since there would be none. Nor could he recount his adventures. He was too absorbed in hustling a lift or a bed to stand back and consider the drama that befell him. As he admits with a blush, his book could only be about travel by ordeal. He never hides the fact that he ran through the Congo like a scared rabbit. It's fortunate that the practicalities he had to deal with involved picking the brains of anyone he met who wasn't murderous and recording his findings. He had to step around threatening individuals with a tact that in his isolation he felt the need to tell us about. All this, together with the logistics of his displacements, gives us a vibrant, if alarming picture of the Congo today.

Butcher, on occasion without transport, has to lie on a cement floor under a mosquito net and simply wait. At such times he tells us about his surroundings ("In the tropics concrete can actually rot"); gives us a potted history of the Congo ("I was beginning to believe the Congo had some strange hold over bad news"); or probes his own deeper reactions ("The most valuable asset stolen from the Congo was the sovereignty of its people").

Henry Morton Stanley was without a doubt the pivotal figure of the modern Congo. For Butcher he was "a cocky chancer...who sought wealth and status through one of the most high-profile, lucrative but risky career paths of his time, African exploration." His tracking down of the Scottish explorer David Livingstone in 1871 made him the world's best-known journalist. But it was his trip in 1874-77, commissioned by the London Telegraph and the New York Herald, that actually changed history by proving that the Congo River was navigable half-way across Africa. Returning to London, Stanley saw his discovery being frittered away in tales of cannibals, gigantic snakes, and awesome river rapids. When he boldly proposed to the British colonial authorities that they colonize the Congo, they declined, citing their Cape Colony and its Zulu troubles as white elephant enough.

However, colony-hungry Leopold II, King of the Belgians, jumped at the chance. He sent Stanley to stake out the entire Congo River basin as his personal fief. When Stanley the explorer returned as a colonizer, the scramble for Africa had begun. Not until 1908 did Belgium take over Leopold's personal property and call it the Belgian Congo. That entity would last until 1960 when independence occurred and the coming of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (sometimes Zaire). Mineral rich Katanga province then attempted to go its own way with Belgian backing under Moise Tshombe. Cold war pressures crushed Patrice Lumumba, the first Congolese national figure to win an election. In the wake of the Katanga rebellion that was waged in part by white mercenaries, Mobuto Sese Seko took control of the Congo from 1965 to 1997. Laurent Kabila would finally oust him, only to be shot by a bodyguard and replaced by his son Joseph Kabila in 2001.

Around 1990, Mobuto had allied the Congo with the Hutus beyond its eastern frontier. In 1994, the assassination of its Hutu president triggered a genocide in Rwanda. Mobuto welcomed fleeing Hutus who brought more instability to the Congo and would never leave. The Tutsis, who took power in Rwanda, began using Kabila to bring down Mobuto. But in no time Kabila broke with Rwanda, and two alliances fought each other, Rwanda, Uganda, and Burundi on one side and the Congo, Zimbabwe, Angola, Chad, and Namibia on the other. This conflict, at times claiming a thousand lives a day, lasted from 1998 to 2003, and has never altogether ceased. None of the participants, not even the Congolese, cared to make civil government work. The priority was to strip the Congo of its unequaled treasure of precious metals and minerals for individual gain.

In the third millennium it was still Stanley's Congo. Greed and mindless brutality trampled a population that could only rush for cover like so many ants. All of which left Tim Butcher in a quandary shared to some extent by the whole post-colonial Western world. The African correspondent of the Daily Telegraph was no innocent. He had covered wars in Bosnia, Kosovo, Sierra Leone, and Iraq. But for him the Congo was different. He saw it as "a totem for the failed continent of Africa" and confides: "The Congo represents the sum of my African fears and the root of my outsider's shame."

And then there was Stanley. Butcher can't get over working for the same newspaper as the most notorious journalist of the nineteenth century. He is even mystified, not to say miffed, that Stanley's trip goes unmentioned in the modest homage to the paper's luminaries at the Telegraph headquarters. Weren't the great Victorian's exploits as an explorer unparalleled? Butcher can't forget the man's ingenuity, tenacity, and pure macho muscle. He forgives him the bombast of his prose and has a sneaking admiration for his P. T. Barnum tricks. He even claims Stanley was not an "utter racist" because he accompanied his African bearers back to their home in Zanzibar. In short, Butcher is infatuated and wants us to share his feelings.

But even he is full of second thoughts. The Telegraph may be a center-right bulwark of the British Conservative Party but it's as post-colonial as the rest of us. Likewise, Butcher, when it comes down to it, is quite politically correct. He refuses, for instance, to play the European game of our-colonialism-wasn't-so-bad as-yours:

Those sniffy British colonial types might not like to admit it, but the Congo represents the quintessence of the entire continent's colonial experience. It might be extreme and it might be shocking, but what happened in the Congo is nothing but colonialism in its purest, basest form. (Page 122)

All the same Stanley remains a kind of wayward, beloved uncle:

His tactics in the Congo, especially the use of weapons to open fire on any tribesman who got in his way, and his role in installing Leopold's rule, taint him as an arch-colonial brute. I was fully aware of Stanley's negative image when I started out, but my journey nevertheless taught me a grudging respect for my Telegraph predecessor. I had seen the scale of his achievement, the difficulty of the terrain he had crossed, the rigor of the climate and the constant threat from hunger and disease. The fact that he survived the three-year trek from one side of Africa to the other taught me respect for his determination, stamina and spirit. (Page 333)

But the Congo presents a strong case for being in two minds. Among Butcher's family souvenirs are a pack of unsent picture postcards printed in Leopoldville, now Kinshasa. His mother brought them back from an uneventful trip through the Congo in 1958. She traveled with a schoolgirl friend, and they met no more difficulties than they would have going through France or Switzerland.

What nags at Butcher, because it offends his sense of progress, is the descent of the Congo ever more downward. It was a place "where the normal rules of human development and advancement simply don't apply." As he moves about in a country without civil structure, he can't stop noting the moldering remains of the "normal" Congo his mother knew. He made his forty-four day junket mainly on 100cc off-road motorbikes because encroaching bush had turned the roads into narrow paths. Rail tracks were historical curiosities. The former intense river traffic was replaced by native pirogues and a rare UN craft. One-time substantial buildings had trees growing out of their windows. Butcher's ruminations could be those of a traveler in the North African desert waxing whimsical over Roman ruins.

Yet he isn't decrying the end of colonialism. He knows that it was cruel, unjust, and unsustainable. At times this makes him seem like one of those white characters in V.S. Naipaul's African novels. Though on the side of the angels, he keeps tripping over devilish contradictions. At one point he hitches a ride on a UN riverboat captained by Ali, a mild-mannered Malaysian:

"I don't know what it is about these Congolese people, or Africa in general, but look at this wasted opportunity," said Ali. "They don't want to make money for themselves. They just wait to take money from others."

Butcher offered Ali "the standard explanation about the Congo's problems: that the Congolese had suffered under colonialism and, when independence came, the Congo was pulled apart by forces beyond its control, as the Cold War preoccupation of the West allowed Mobutu, under American patronage, to run the country into the ground."

"Rubbish," said Ali, in what could be a paraphrase of V.S. Naipaul. "Malaysia was colonized for centuries too, most recently by the British, a colonial rule that was cruel and racist. We got independence at roughly the same time as the Congo in the early 1960s, and we were even drawn into a Cold War conflict for year after year as communist insurgents fought for control of Malaysia. But somehow Malaysia got through it and the Congo did not. Today Malaysia is part of the rest of the world. People go on holiday in Malaysia. The world's business community does business in Malaysia. We even have a Grand Prix every year in Malaysia. How can you explain the difference?"

Maybe Butcher's only reasonable answer would have been that Asia wasn't Africa. But he reflected to himself that Captain Ali had "distilled the quintessential problem of Africa that generations of academics, intellectuals and observers have danced around since the colonial powers withdrew. Why are Africans so bad at running Africa?"

It's not only because of his mother's postcards that Butcher seems to favor backward glances. He is steeped in writers' views of the Congo. (His book gives us not only a bibliography but a useful index, something travel writers often neglect.) Georges Simenon's 1940 stories show his hypocritical countrymen sleeping with their maids and defending the purity of their wives. Simenon derides the colonial bureaucrats wearing stiff collars and ties out in the bush as they nitpick the small print of the bylaws. In Albertville, Butcher seeks out the hotel ("decent service") where Evelyn Waugh began to write Remote People. It's now a ruin full of bullet holes. He stops at Mbandaka, smack on the equator. It's a town famous as an incubator for various death dealing diseases and where Graham Greene came to research leprosy for A Burnt-Out Case.

C.S. Forester's WWI story, The African Queen, took place on Lake Tanganyika. Katherine Hepburn and Humphrey Bogart came to the Congo to film it in 1951. Hepburn's diary describes the hotel where the film crew stayed and where she fought a battle worthy of a Hollywood star to have the best room with balcony overlooking the river. L'Hôtel Pourquoi Pas was now of course a shambles with squatters lighting fires on the floor.

Butcher read the diaries of Che Guevara whose one incursion into the Congo left him disappointed with the revolutionary zeal of the Congolese. Che found the young Laurent Kabila a drunken womanizer, not a freedom fighter. In Kisangani, Butcher met an Indian restaurateur who reminded him of a character in V.S. Naipaul's A Bend in the River, which described the lethal anarchy of the city. He quotes Congo Mercenary by former British army major "Mad Mike" Hoare on how for pay he made the river red with rebel blood. Conor Cruise O'Brien's To Katanga and Back informs him about Belgium's insufficient paternalism: "A good parent, after all, wants his children to grow up...he steps aside, and stays aside, as soon as he reasonably can." But Joseph Conrad has the last word. He describes a road over the Crystal Mountains that Stanley built for Leopold in the 1880s. Coming that way in 1890 to take up his post as steamboat captain, Conrad noted that the roadway was "marked by grisly cairns made from the bones of dead laborers, some still wearing their shackles."


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Published January 26, 2009