This account of the author’s journey in the early 2000s up the Congo River is educative but fast-paced and genuinely gripping.
I had read King Leopold’s Ghost by Adam Hochshild and In the Footsteps of Mr Kurtz by Michela Wrong so I had some familiarity with the terrible, terrible history and current state of what is now the Democratic Republic of Congo but was for a few years called Zaire by the murderous nutcase then in charge, Mobutu Sese Seko.
Tim Butcher is a journalist and his style reflects that. It is workmanlike rather than artistic or poetic but this is really a documentary account of his journey with brief but well-timed and instructive digressions on history and culture. The framework of the book is based on the notion that he is following the journey made by Henry Morton Stanley in the 1870s, when he became the first white man to travel overland from east to west Africa. following the Congo from Lake Tanganyika to its outlet to the Atlantic Ocean.
The most fascinating thing about the book is its contemporariness. The author made this journey in 2004 and his description of how life is, in today’s Congo, is profoundly, heart-rendingly bleak. He describes sharply how times have changed from the Belgian colonial era in a material sense, finding regularly bits of old infrastructure that used to be part of a comfortable western European civilisation transported to the heart of Africa. Of course, it was only comfortable for white people and the crimes against humanity of the Belgians are well documented in Hochshild’s book.
But Butcher’s central conclusion, depressing though it is, is that Congo is actually one of the very few places in the world that is going backwards, not forwards. People are becoming poorer and more disconnected from the rest of humanity while a criminal elite extract wealth from one of the most fertile and richly-endowed countries in the world.
In the face of such overwhelmingly negative evidence, the author does his best to sound positive. But I was left with the feeling that he concluded his journey with a sense of despair. We should be grateful to him for carrying out this demanding and horrible journey (‘ordeal travel’, he calls it) and reporting it so well and so clearly. But God knows what the solution to Congo’s troubles is or can be. The final word is best left with Conrad’s Mr Kurtz: “The horror! The horror!”.