I don’t do reveiws as such, such as the new and untried but I do enjoy reading many kinds of books, old and new. I am going to share some of what is usually posted on Alberta Reads on this blog as well as it is a largely different audience. I have just re-read Tim Butcher’s account of his travels across The Congo.
Blood River: a journey to Africa’s Broken Heart
I grew up in an era when the Congo was referred to as the Belgian Congo. I came to political awareness about the time that this country descended into its own particular hell. I was interested, when we were given this book, a couple of years ago to read at our local reading group, to find out more about this country. Another reading group I belong to has had it again this month so I have read it a second time, so this is now a reading group and reread!
I read it both times with a grim satisfaction, enjoy is not the correct word for what is at times an unbearably grim rendering of the country’s history, I would though recommend it to anyone interested in the many different worlds that make up the global whole.
For a moment just before this last grim episode, which started 50 years ago I suppose now, the Congo was kind of working. Tourists went there, businesses went there, there was a lot of corruption, apartheid and inequality it is true, but there was roads, railways, working infrastructures, education and worship. It was a country I had always wished to visit one day, but of course I never have. I knew people who had connections with the country, either through religion or trade but it had totally descended to being too dangerous by the time I was free to travel.
Butcher who seems to suffer from a mindset of sheer insanity, decided, on what appears to be a very fragile reason, to retrace Stanley’s footsteps. Stanley of Livingstone’s frame. Against all advice, and all common sense, he sets off to cross a country where a white man is definitely suspicious and stands out like the sorest of thumb. Across a country which is almost broken; no infrastructure, no working towns or villages, inhabited by petrified victims. Bandits, armies and insurgents prowl the land; inflicting unspeakable atrocities on those they happen to take a dislike against, or sometimes for no reason at all. To travel across a country where civil order has broken down, where there is an overall deprivation of the basic necessities of life seems, to me, to be insanity too far.
Maybe it’s the very insanity that made it successful! Along the way Butcher meets the ordinary and the extraordinary inhabitants of this poor country, those whose humanity still shines, as well as those who corruption has changed forever. Where he can he talks to them, his reporter’s instinct never failing him. Throughout the book, he narrates Congo’s history for us. These historical strands illuminate the endless repetitions of exploitation, violence, and political shenanigans which have plagued this most beautiful of countries. And, at times, these strands make you bow your head in despair and make you wonder how it is possible that the Congo will ever recover? But, we know with the right luck, and common good, countries can recover even from histories like this and you’re left at the end of the book hoping that this will be so for the Congo.
As I said it cannot be called an enjoyable book, but it is a fascinating and oddly satisfying book. I could read it again, there is so much information. And I’d highly recommend it to anyone interested in this part of the world. However, it is not a book for the faint hearted, there are many very distressing scenes within the pages, but life is full of the horrific and distressing and we do the people of the Congo a disservice if we are not prepared to face their reality, if we do not again repeat the old phrase ‘There but for the grace. . .’ If we do not remember the how fragile our security is, how swiftly civilization can unravel.