Tim Butcher’s “Blood River” is a highly recommended read for anyone concerned with the story of Africa. The author takes a journey through the Congo (DRC) following the trail of H.M.Stanley, and in the process explores the troubled history of the country. Butcher is British, but displays an open-mindedness towards Africa that is comparable to Paul Theroux’s in Dark Star Safari.
Butcher makes the odd reference to “cruel acts of subjugation” (p270) under the Belgian colonial rulers, but provides very few examples of these acts. No doubt colonial rule was no walk in the park, but Butcher is honest enough not to blame the Western powers for all of Africa’s woes, as so many commentators do. His version of Congolese history makes fascinated reading, and is very well researched. He describes how the Belgians built a massive rail system throughout the huge country, and steamboats paddled up and down the thousands of kilometres of waterways, taking goods, soldiers, and even tourists on an epic journey through the jungle.
At every stage, Butcher describes the decay that has taken place since independence in 1960, and –strangely for a modern journalistic writer – pulls no punches when it comes to apportioning blame for the chaos. The vicious monster Mobutu, who led the country from 1965 until 1997, bled it dry, and created a culture of larceny on a grand scale, not unlike modern Zimbabwe. Hutu and Tutsi militias from neighbouring Rwanda mercilessly scavenge the countryside for anything they can lift. And amidst the lawlessness and chaos, grandfathers tell their grandchildren about things called “cars” that used to exist – for they have seen more of modernity that the youngest generation.
The Congolese, Butcher says, are so well used to massacres, lootings, and raids by competing militias; they lose count of how many there have been. The people are numb to their own suffering, and are familiar with frequently having to rebuild their towns after a passing army has stripped it bare. The hotel where the cast of “The African Queen” – Humphrey Bogart and Katherine Hepburn – stayed during the filming is now a squatter camp, and even the aid agencies struggle with basic supplies.
The UN is now a permanent presence in the country – but often they have become a target for local aggression. The author describes how, after some raid or another, the local people, encouraged by the Congo’s excuse for a government, often lay blame upon the UN for “not protecting the people” – with the resulting riots and looting of UN buildings and compounds.
The Congo is a microcosm of Africa, and shows how little colonialism can be blamed for the worst of Africa’s problems. The country was hardly “colonised” at all. Certain areas were built up for mining purposes, and cities were built, connected by an efficient transport system – but vast swathes of countryside were untouched by white hands in the Congo. “Colonisation” lasted around 70 years, not very long at all, and was geared towards extraction of resources, and not the settlement of Europeans.
In closing, Butcher provides an interesting tale which encapsulates the trouble with Africa. He tells how an aid worker tried to wean the local Congolese off the easy to grow but nutritionally questionable cassava plant, which is the staple diet throughout the country. He failed. Given the option of putting slightly more effort into producing better crops, and taking the easy road, the Congolese chose the latter. And that is what’s wrong with Africa, folks.
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