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Congo: The Epic History of a People

4.36  ·  Rating details ·  6,151 ratings  ·  494 reviews
The gripping saga of one of the world's most devastated countries

The Democratic Republic of Congo currently ranks among the world's most failed nation-states, second only to war-torn Somalia. David Van Reybrouck's Congo: The Epic History of a People traces the history of this devastated nation from the beginnings of the slave trade through the arrival of Sir Henry Morton S
Hardcover, 656 pages
Published March 25th 2014 by Ecco (first published 2010)
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The Democratic Republic of Congo is about as fucked as a country can get, and one of the most defining examples of a failed state. It is also – and this is not a coincidence – a site of crucial importance for the resources of the modern world, from rubber and ivory in the nineteenth century, through uranium during the Cold War, to the coltan inside every iPhone and Playstation 4 – it's all been supplied from this vast country where life expectancy is 49 and three-quarters of the population have
Mikey B.
Mar 22, 2015 rated it it was amazing
This book provides us with a history of Congo from the days of the Belgian King Leopold II to the present day. It is a history of the exploitation of natural resources. One could at least say that the British in India, for example, provided some education for the indigenous population – whether it was military training or a formal education.

The Belgians just took – first the rubber from the trees, which they didn’t even bother to cultivate like the British did in Malaysia, forcing the Congolese
Jul 10, 2018 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
While difficult to read at times, "Congo" is a horribly mesmerizing account of the last 150 years of Congo's history. From Leopold II and early colonialism to present day conflicts, life in the Congo has been an endlessly bloody affair.

Reybrouck's book is an important work. He uses memories and anecdotes of natives to tell the country's history. Most histories, particularly African histories, have been written by the colonizers. As Reybrouck says, "All I know is that I would rather talk to norma
Apr 13, 2013 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: africa, colonialism, congo
Excellent read, mainly due to the balanced composition: a historical narrative interwoven with testimonies that sometimes are really captivating. Reybrouck of course depends on witnesses to make things a little more tangible, but this occasionally weakens his story, especially in the turbulent period of Kasavubu and Lumumba. Also the real character of Mobutu remained somewhat obscure, foremost in his later period. And the efforts of Van Reybrouck to give his work some literary flair, at times re ...more
Aug 04, 2014 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
This book was widely popular in Van Reybrouck's native Belgium when it first came out in 2010, and with good reason. He goes back to essentially prehistoric times and traces the history of the Congo (or today, The Democratic Republic of the Congo, DRC) up until the times leading up to just a few years ago.

It is an expansive history which of course encompasses the history of Central Sub-Saharan Africa, and per usual much attention is given to colonial times, through independence and up until the
Feb 27, 2019 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: history
Early on, I was prepared to give this book a 2- or 3-star review. I found Chapter 4 (about Congolese religion) quite interesting, but other than that there wasn't much in the first 5 chapters that really grabbed me.

The early chapters are a menagerie of names, places, dates. The years and characters change quickly. There’s not much to grab hold of. Every chapter feels like the start of a new book.

Finally, things start to pick up in chapter 6, at which point you're already 227 pages in. Chapters 8
Jun 08, 2017 rated it it was amazing
This review is partly written with sarcasm but has no intention to offend any of the people of Congo or any other African state.

An interesting well researched book that presents the History of Congo from the beginning of the slave trade until modern times (2010). Some parts of the book were very complex and hard to follow because there are so many people and organizations involved, it became hard to follow. Altogether a nice read if you manage to follow all the different names and organizations
If you are looking for an honest account of what happened in Congo Free State under the rule of king Leopold II, read Adam Hochschild's book instead, read Conan Doyle's The Crime of the Congo, read Twain's King Leopold's Soliloquy with excerpts of the Casement Report. I don't know if Van Reybrouck's version of the history of Congo is deliberately misleading or just naive, but there are many sentences here that made me cringe. ...more
Aug 12, 2015 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: history
This book is unusual in its reliance on oral history. However, given the events that have occurred in Congo-Ziare-Congo over the period 1960-2010, it is difficult to see how a complete picture could have been assembled using only document sources. The necessity of oral history approach also indicates how much Congo has lost in the disorganization of government over the period; the normal archives of a functioning government are not to be had. This is a chilling story of how eastern Congo in the ...more
J.M. Hushour
Dec 05, 2014 rated it it was amazing
Van Reybrouck is the archetypal historian-voyager whose jargon-less, civil, practical approach to his subject makes one want to go grab a beer with him somewhere. He also shines because much of his writing and research centers around sitting around grabbing beers and time from random Congolese figures, some of note in recent Congolese history, others just random joes and janes he meets about the country.
This is history as it should be written: as an encounter. The Congo is never distant, never b
Aug 10, 2015 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
On completing this meticulous account of the history of a nation, my only thought was that nobody could possibly top this – van Reybrouck’s tale, now translated into English, leaves no stone unturned and throws up a huge number of new insights. Above all, any attempt to paint Congo as a territory in binary terms is exposed as lacking – so Patrice Lumumba, often portrayed as a saintly presence and deposed by the CIA is portrayed as completely ill equipped for power, the aftermath of the Rwandan g ...more
Whitlaw Tanyanyiwa Mugwiji
The book is an expansive history of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, from the pre-colonial era to 2010 when the book was first published. The author brings this epic history to life by combining the DRC´s conventional historical narrative with ordinary people´s tales. The book reads like a novel while at the same time it is as rigorous as an academic text.

I was particularly intrigued by the post independence Congo. How the Belgians, the American in cahoots with their puppet Tshombe assassi
Apr 14, 2022 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: non-fiction, history
Rating: 100/100%

Congo. A mystery for so long, Congo caught the world’s attention in the late 19th century as an incredible source of natural resources. Unfortunately, by the time imperialists realized their sins and abruptly left the county, the native inhabitants were left with a shattered state. On the first day of Congo's independence in 1960, they inherited an impressive infrastructure but had no native professionals qualified to run it: no officers, physicians, engineers, lawyers, agronomi
Errol Orhan
Nov 05, 2016 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
I got into monsieur Albert's cab, three days after I had arrived in Cape Town. I had never been to Cape Town, and frankly, I had no clue where this cab would take me. My colleague knew where we were going, but he was in another cab.

As we waited for the traffic light, I decided to ask monsieur Albert where he was from. 'Congo.' 'Which part of Congo?' 'Lubumbashi.' 'Oh, Katanga.' 'Yes, Katanga. How do you know Katanga?' Actually, I knew very little about Katanga, except for what I had read in the
Excellent but mysterious. An oral history as much as anything, and one that often feels almost magic realist. Did the author really conduct extensive interviews with a 126-year old man? Is Joseph Conrad's ship really to be found quietly rusting by the riverside in Kinshasa? Who knows. I would believe him - or at least, share his faith - for a chapter, and then skepticism would kick in, and then I would believe him again.

Then again, this a country that handily produces robot stoplights and indus
Apr 10, 2020 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Difficult read in every aspect... but a must-read if you want to gain insight in the history of Congo (and world politics while you’re at it)
Wai Hoi Tsang
Jun 07, 2019 rated it it was amazing
One of the seminal works on Congo. A masterpiece showing years of research, interwoven with the personal tale of discovery by David Van Reybrouck.
Erika Sampson
Dec 13, 2021 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I thrifted this at value village, and was able to use it for school. It is a really well organized book, and it made the Congo Crisis easier to understand. Shout out Van Reybrouck. Hopefully I finish my Zaire/Congo paper with a good grade. Cheers mum, thanks for the snack xx
A large number of popular histories are written by authors who seemingly would be more in their element if they were leaders of a (fringe) single issue political party. They never miss the chance to repeat every half a minute their main fixation, how the same issue X is always responsible for all the ills (or solutions) of the world, or if the X is an opinion, how almost every detail of almost every story always proves it right (or wrong). This isn't such a history.

Another large number of popula
May 01, 2016 rated it it was amazing
The history of the Congo is far from uplifting, and includes the slave trade, brutal colonial rule, a botched transition to independence, corruption and sectionalism, authoritarian governance, ethnic infighting, rape and cannibalism as a systematic weapons of war, child soldiers, and the worst aspects of global capitalism in the extraction of rare minerals. Yet, Van Reybrouck's style and pace keeps the horror from becoming overwhelming, and even makes reading this history a pleasure. A couple as ...more
Koen Van den Eeckhout
Oct 25, 2011 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: non-fiction
For someone like me, who knew virtually nothing about Congo, this book is a goldmine. Van Reybrouck manages to take the reader on a journey through more than 120 years of history, not only by giving information and numbers, but also, and mainly, by telling stories and describing personal experiences. He understands the art to summarize his thoughts whenever necessary, so that you never lose track of what's happening, despite the myriad of protagonists and places.

Unfortunately, when reaching the
Rachel Wexelbaum
Apr 12, 2014 rated it it was amazing
After reading this book, I now understand how the world works. I know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, the evils of paternalistic colonialism. I now know why many countries, after throwing off the yokes of their colonizers, become dictatorships. I now know why their economies fall apart, even though they have the riches of the earth.

Most importantly, however, I learned about the history of the Congo. I learned what the Congolese had lost under Belgian colonization, and what they had gained, then los
Robert Meyro
Sep 11, 2015 rated it it was amazing
Although this book took me quite awhile to read (550 pages), it is definitely one of the better history books I have read to date. The author tells the complete story of a country that has struggled to get on tracks both politically, and economically and brings into perspective how the country's past (starting under Belgian colonial rule) has affected it throughout time. By bringing in various first-hand accounts of the events throughout Congo's past, the author is able to illustrate the sentime ...more
Irma Ravkic
Jul 01, 2017 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
A very interesting book about the history of Congo. It's amazing how the protagonists are described here: their everyday lives, attitudes and humor in the hard times. I do think that the role of Belgium and Leopold II are slightly downplayed, but I guess this book doesn't go into much detail about a specific time frame, but tries to give a bigger picture of how external and internal forces over time shaped the history of this country. Reading this book made me realize how world is a crazy and co ...more
Mar 02, 2016 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
I have bought a hard copy of the book. With more than 700 pages it was too bulky to read it on a plane. However, this is probably the only flaw of the book. Well researched and written, it brings the reader to the heart of Sub-Sahara Africa explaining to the reader the last 150 years of history. As there are no many reliable written sources of early days of Belgium colonization of what is Democratic Republic of Congo now, the author brings affidavits from witnesses. I also like the author’s emph ...more
Mar 08, 2016 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Despite the very rare factual error or elusion of important details in the book, this has to be one of the best and most readable popular histories of any country in Africa. Van Reybrouck avoids many of the underlying assumptions that privilege written European perspectives over the oral histories of local peoples. He weaves together a tight narrative, combining his family's story into the broader themes of the DRC without talking over or underplaying the views of Congolese people. A great book ...more
Apr 23, 2016 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Some time ago, I read King Leopold's Ghost which focused on the colonial period of the Belgian Congo. This book takes a more expansive view and covers up to the current era. The author interviews many of the Congolese who were witnesses to the history he presents. Since it is a very brutal history at times it makes for tough reading. In spite of the frequent bloodletting it is a riveting read. The zenith for me is the Congolese culture. I found myself looking up some of the entertainers mentione ...more
Kingsborough Library
Jun 27, 2016 rated it it was amazing
I read this one for my friend Quinton, who had spent some time selling refrigerators in Kinshasa, and said he thought it was my kind of town.
Gerry Durisin
This was an emotionally challenging book to read, a tale of brutality, oppression, and greed in the second largest country in Africa. Van Reybrouck traces the history of this land and its peoples from prehistory to the twentieth century. Despite vast mineral wealth and other natural resources, the Democratic Republic of the Congo remains one of the poorest nations on the planet. Its people have suffered the ravages of war – starvation, torture, rape, and murder -- for most of the last century, a ...more
Peter S
Aug 19, 2021 rated it it was amazing
This was an excellent book. Reybrouck combines interviewing first and second accounts along with source material to weave together an extremely nuanced and all-encompassing narrative. Though reading about the pre colonization era, Lord Stanley, the Congo Free State, and the Belgian Congo were all interesting (albeit generally characterized by brutal and inhumane behavior), the two parts I found most interesting were the early Mobutu period and the mid-to-late 1990s.

In the immediate aftermath of
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David Grégoire Van Reybrouck is a Belgian cultural historian, archaeologist and author. He writes historical fiction, literary non-fiction, novels, poetry, plays and academic texts. Moreover, he is the founder of the G1000 project in Belgium, a platform for democratic innovation and inclusive participatory politics.

He was born into a family of florists, bookbinders and artists. His father, a farme

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“Back at the Berlin Conference of 1885, it was decided that the Congo Free State was to be open to international trade. Competition between market and state still exists today, in fact more than ever. In those days the focus was solely on the purchase of raw materials, today it’s about the selling of products as well—even in a desperately poor country, there is a great deal of money to be made with the trade in little commodities like phone vouchers, bottles of soda pop, or bags of powdered milk. To win the souls of all those dispossessed, foreign companies colonize the public spaces of the destroyed country with a temerity only thinly disguised by the bright smile of slick marketing.” 1 likes
“In 1830 Belgium became independent after an opera performance; in 1959 Congo demands independence after a soccer match.” 1 likes
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