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Congo: The Epic History of a People

4.34  ·  Rating details ·  4,840 ratings  ·  385 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
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
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
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
Peter (Pete) Mcloughlin
This magisterial history of Congo keeps the readers interest in a country which may not be of immediate interest to readers. The history of Congo goes back 90,000 years when the first evidence of human habitation of the area is well documented. Congo's prehistory is not static like other places there is an arc of development from hunter gathering existence to agriculture and iron working but the pace of change really picks up in the 1870s with the arrival of europeans into the interior of centr ...more
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
Apr 13, 2013 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: colonialism, africa, 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 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
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.
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
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
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
Sep 19, 2018 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: history, non-fiction
I had multiple issues with the writing style. It was filled with too many flashbacks, flashforwards, and flash-wherever-the-fucks. A section would start that was distinctly regarding some year (i.e. 1910) and suddenly we were talking about 1900 or modern times. Or both. The author failed to clarify when these jumps were happening and it messed up my fragile concentration. Basically, the flow of the book was like the urine stream of a centenarian with a grapefruit-sized prostate.

As for the topic,
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
An impressive historical account of the DR Congo, in which Van Reybrouck intertwines personal histories with the broader twists and turns of Congo's political history. It makes for a book that is easy to read, despite it being a big tome, but also offers a multifaceted account of Congolese history. I did find the first half of the book better than the sections talking about Congo post-2002, where I found Van Reybrouck took some analytical shortcuts and displayed a westernised view of the Congole ...more
I do not possess the words to describe this book.
All the words that come to mind don't do it justice enough, but I'm going to give it a try.

Congo is a masterpiece. It is sublime.
I'm not really into non-fiction, but the way it's written makes it feel like you're reading a fictional novel.
The book itself is quite thick, but it goes down very smoothly. You don't struggle to get through the pages. At least I didn't.
The only thing I lacked was time enough to spend on this book, because you can't delv
Theresa Smith
May 24, 2017 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
An excellent resource for anyone researching the extensive history of Congo, with terrific anecdotal evidence.
Gaute Gautestad
Jun 12, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Fantastic book from the European colonian time. So rough but but so interesting.
Thomas Bastiaensen
Must read
Frank Ullrich
Dec 19, 2018 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
An absolutely stunning journey through the Congo's - most recent - history.
I have to admit that I was completely ignorant about African history. Concepts as genocides, child soldiers, and cleptocracy were things that happened "somewhere in Africa".
This amazing read put the Congo on my - mental - map.
Greg Kurzawa
May 01, 2017 rated it it was amazing
Congo was the best book I read in 2017, and it deserves a review.

This book covers all the ugly history of the Congo from 1870 to 2010. It was tragic and terrible and reinforced my already firm conviction that people are no good at governance. That's not directed at Belgians, the Congolese, or anyone else, but at all of us. This book illustrates that. At the very highest level, stripped of so much brutal detail, Belgium pillaged the Congo for some 70 years. Everyone said, quit that! So Belgium qu
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
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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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The young adult genre continues to lead literature in embracing new voices, championing all types of diversity, and, well, just really app...
96 likes · 48 comments
“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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