In this excellent book, part travelogue and part history of the Congo, Tim Butcher traverses Africa's 'broken heart' from East to West, retracing the...moreIn this excellent book, part travelogue and part history of the Congo, Tim Butcher traverses Africa's 'broken heart' from East to West, retracing the 1874 journey of Henry Morgan Stanley. Stanley, the journalist and explorer famous for finding the Scottish missionary, David Livingstone, was attempting to map the length of the Congo river from Lake Tanganyika all the way to the Atlantic coast.
Butcher's account of his six-week journey is not only extremely gripping, but also enlightening. Few Westerners have crossed the Democratic Republic of Congo overland since the 1990s, during which time the country has been plagued by war and anarchy. Butcher meets the victims of this violence and sees at first hand the horror of today's DRC.
In the DRC, the normal course of economic development has been reversed. One must be careful not to romanticise things, but the Congo of the 1950s functioned much better than it does now. The capital, Leopoldville (now Kinshasa), was a significant airport hub; the port of Matadi served ocean liners; and an extensive network of railways and roads criss-crossed the country.
Today's DRC is a place where roads and rail tracks have been reclaimed by jungle; where grandparents are more familiar with technological wonders like cars and motorbikes than their grandchildren; and where people flee into the bush to escape violence and floods rather than to the urban areas which, in most of the rest of the world, provide safe havens.
This deeply unsettling book is a reminder that peace and prosperity are not the natural condition of man and that, in the absence of law and order, there is regression to a Hobbesian world of corruption and violence, where the only law is the law of the jungle.
What accounts for the current predicament of the DRC? Some argue that its colonial history is to blame. From 1885 until 1908, King Leopold II of Belgium ruled the Congo as his personal fiefdom, robbing it of its natural wealth such as rubber, ivory, golf and timber, and enslaving and killing millions of Congolese. This exploitation was described by Joseph Conrad as "the vilest scramble for loot that ever disfigured the history of human conscience and geographical exploration".
This history of colonial exploitation has no doubt contributed to its parlous state now, but the Congo's problems can't be solely attributed to its colonial legacy, given that many former European colonies in Asia have since prospered. During a trip down the Congo on a UN riverboat, Butcher talks to the Malaysian Captain: "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 usual explanations: "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," retorted Ali. "Malaysia was colonized for centuries too...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...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?"
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 a good question, and one that ultimately Butcher remains unable to answer.
Overall, this is a brilliant book, spoiled only by the author's repeated efforts to ratchet up the tension by describing his fear of dangers which never materialize. Many of these dangers were real, of course, and his bravery was undeniable; but to overstate these dangers for dramatic purposes serves only to irritate. (less)