Africa's Broken Heart
(Grove Press)For dozens of centuries, the heart of Africa consisted of 200 small fiefdoms, ruled by local chiefs. Then King Leopold of Belgium moved in. His agents murdered all resistance, ran the Congo as an autocracy --- better, a kleptocracy: extracting gold and diamonds, building huge rubber plantations, keeping the population under control through terror. Vide, The Heart of Darkness.
With the upwelling of anti-colonialist feeling after WWII, the Belgians reluctantly turned control over to a small group of Congolese in 1960, leaving behind no trained government, endless blood-spillings, along with an infrastructure of highways, railways, utilities, and river transportation.
The rule of the Belgians was nothing compared to what came after the access of Mobutu Sese Soko. He pretended to be anti-Communist so, according to Butcher, the United States poured millions of dollars into his country and into his pockets. He lasted on these riches until well into the 1990s.
The Congo has countless natural resources. Outside of natural rubber (the source of Leopold's wealth and power), there are rich deposits of lead, uranium, gold, and diamonds. Despite this, the Congo has come to be one of the poorest countries in the world. Further, it is a mass of terror, anarchy, disease, poverty, and warring tribes. As one of the few Anglican bishops to remain in Kindu told our author, "We have had so many rebellions and wars it is difficult to remember them all."
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Butcher, a foreign correspondent for The Daily Telegraph, decided to go through the whole of what is now Zaire, making a journey from west to east, following the trail of the first white man to explore the entire Congo, Henry Morton Stanley.
It was a loony idea, as deranged as Stanley's own (most who went with him died). Butcher's friends, and those familiar with Central African history told him (and, now after reading Blood River, this reader agrees) that it was an idiotic idea. In a country of no laws, there is no one to protect you.
In the 1950s, Butcher's mother made a pleasant journey up the Congo in comfort and safety. His return journey fifty years later was an impossible one (on foot, on motor-bike, or in pirogue ... a narrow boat powered by natives, or at the last, in U.N. vehicles), for he was constantly threatened by the local bureaucrats and he omnipresent rebel or state soldiers, most of whom were, apparently, fourteen-years-old, equipped with kalashnikov rifles.
Everywhere he is met by the rotting infrastructure left by the Belgians: unused railway tracks, falling-apart factories, destroyed colonial homes, and on the now scarcely navigable river itself, abandoned boats. Some of the ancient vessels are still there, rotting, "with chimney stacks that reached up through four rotten decks."
I struggled to imagine the planning, effort and expense involved in bringing the ships' components all the way here for assembly in the early twentieth century. But all of that effort lay in ruins, flotsam from a forgotten age.
Other remnants of colonialism include a few scattered priests (Anglican, Catholic), a couple of nuns, a few ancient colonials, and Primus beer. In Kisangani (formerly Stanleyville), the beer factory was the only thing that remained open, "churning out Primus lager in large, brown, litre bottles that bore the name not on a paper label, but on a stencil of white letters glazed directly onto the glass.
While every other factory in Kisangani collapsed, the Primus brewery plodded on, filling, recycling, and refilling the bottles, time after time, year after year, crisis after crisis.
The theme of Blood River is one of brutal waste: King Leopold, the Nazi of 19th Century Europe, moving into a wonderfully rich area with his mercenaries and agents; the take-over by the Belgians; their departure and, under local rule, the virulent decline. In Albertville, there was the Hotel Du Lac, "the largest hotel for hundreds of kilometres:"
I stood back on the other side of the road and tried to picture it with cars parked outside, music coming out of the dining room, fans spinning in the rooms to keep down the heat and the mosquitoes.
"It took quite a leap of imagination. Fifty years after it was built, the hotel had no electricity or water and the rooms were mostly empty shells. Some people sat on chairs on what was once a terrace in front of the hotel, but when I asked about rooms they shook their heads."
The most grisly part of Blood River tells of the coming of Mobutu and the aftermath of his kleptocracy. It can make one uneasy, no matter where we live, in whatever luxury. Here we are now, in our comfortable rooms, with our computers, lights, telephones, cell-phones, e-mail. Is it possible that all this infrastructure could melt away? We could be like those people Butcher came across in what had been once the elegant, palatial, civilized Stanleyville, just before the Grands Pillages. "These were the episodes of anarchy sparked by the growing sense that Mobuto's corrupt rule was spiraling towards collapse, when the army and police followed the example of the country's leader and simply helped themselves to whatever could be pillaged."
Local people in Kisangani cannot agree on how many Mass Lootings took place there. Some say three, others four. And no one agrees on how many bodies, yet again, were collected from the streets of Kiksangani and cast into the river.
It's hard to leave this one alone. The facts are there, about an unpleasant journey across a once-palatial colony. Yet throughout Blood River, there is a funny undertone, conveyed by many of the people that Butcher interviews, even somewhat by the author himself. It is a profound longing for the old, tyrannical order represented by the heirs of Leopold II.
No matter how brutal and vicious the Belgians were, they created an ordered brutality, a selective viciousness, a rule of the "chicotte," (the whip used by them to control the "natives.")
And although Butcher praises those foolhardy enough to assist him on his foolhardy journey, he repeatedly comments on the loss of infrastructure. And, like all of us from the West, when he is threatened with serious illness on the last leg of his journey, what does he do? He puts himself into the hands of a "contact" who has connections to the Kabila regime. And he ends up being flown to a "swanky" hotel in Kinshasa, where he bathes and medicates himself behind "locked doors."
Hair of the dog. His journey to follow in the footsteps of Stanley may have been madness itself, but there was a method to it ... the knowledge that if he ever got himself into hot water, there is, just a cell-phone call away, instant relief.