The Water Is Wide
Travel Books: Bronwen Dickey considers Tim Butcher's "Blood River: A Journey to Africa's Broken Heart," which takes readers deep into the Congo
10.07.08 | 4:55 PM ET
Shortly before Tim Butcher arrived in Johannesburg in 2000 to begin his work as Africa correspondent for Britain’s The Daily Telegraph, a veteran journalist took him aside and told him solemnly, “Just two things to remember in Africa—which tribe and how many dead.” At first that may seem wildly reductive. There are more than 40 countries in sub-Saharan Africa, so which ones did he mean? But its pragmatism also says something important about how little the Western world knows—or wants to know—about the troubles of the region.
And no country in Africa is more troubled than the Democratic Republic of Congo (formerly Zaire, formerly the Belgian Congo, formerly—in what must be the most mind-boggling, inaccurate appellation of all time—the Congo Free State). From the horrifying reign of Belgium’s Leopold II to the crisis after independence to the kleptocratic dictatorship of Mobutu Sese Seko, the country has been consistently unable to shake its haunted past. The Second Congo War, which burned through central Africa from 1998 to 2003, claimed more than 5 million lives; many of those who survived the Kalashnikovs and machetes and gang rapes of the conflict later succumbed to its attendant starvation and disease. It was the largest loss of human life since World War II—and much of the West knew nothing about it. The war “barely registered in the outside world,” Butcher writes in Blood River: A Journey to Africa’s Broken Heart, his book about venturing deep into the Congo. “Like so many other places in Africa, the Congo had come to be seen as a lost cause.”
When Butcher read that the explorer Henry Morton Stanley, often credited as the first white man to map the Congo River, had accomplished the feat on an 1874 expedition jointly commissioned by The New York Herald and his own paper, the Telegraph, he saw the coincidence as an opportunity to discard, as he says, his “complacency about modern Africa” and “try to understand it properly” by retracing Stanley’s journey. “I wanted to leave the journalistic herd,” Butcher writes of his 2004 trip, “to find a project that would both daunt and inspire me. Facing down the Congo was just such a project.”
I’ll admit that I found these motives a bit troublesome at first, probably because of a point made by Jeffrey Tayler in Facing the Congo, his own story of taking on the legendary river (by dugout canoe, no less) in 1994. Looking back on the motives for his trip, Tayler wrote, “The alien in Zaire had seduced me; the threatening had challenged me; and I had pictured its wilderness as a bourn where I could rejuvenate myself through suffering and achievement and the conquest of my fear. But my drama of self-actualization proved obscenely trivial beside the suffering of the Zaireans and the injustices of their past.” Today thousands of Congolese don’t have any choice but to travel the river for trade, and many of them don’t survive its perils.
Fortunately, Butcher’s courage and fortitude during his almost 2,000-mile expedition, his obvious compassion for the Congolese, and his careful research into the blood-soaked history of the country combine into an engrossing adventure story. It makes the place, its people and its problems very real, far removed from the “which tribe, how many dead” convention of modern journalism. He travels overland from Lake Tanganyika to the river’s headwaters on the back of a motorbike, dodging mai-mai soldiers armed with machine guns, then downriver by UN patrol boat, dugout canoe and overcrowded barge. Along the way he talks to villagers, aid workers, UN personnel, missionaries and even elite businessmen in search of some kind of answer as to how things went so incredibly wrong.
On the surface of things, Butcher points out, the Congo should be the most successful country in Africa: It has more gold, diamond and mineral deposits, more arable land for farming, more fellable timber, and more navigable rivers than any other place on the continent. Yet everywhere Butcher travels, he finds a place plagued by stagnation and decay. Train tracks are choked with jungle vines, modern buildings crumble into dust, and people die by the thousands from diseases that were all but eradicated in the country 50 years ago. Even the river itself is greatly diminished—the crocodiles and hippos that once populated it were long ago shot and eaten by starving villagers.
“The failure of the Congo is so complete,” Butcher remarks, doing little to hide his anger, “that its silent majority—tens of millions of people with no connections to the gangster government or the corrupt state machinery—are trapped in a fight to stay where they are and not become worse off. Thoughts of development, advancement, or improvement are irrelevant when the fabric of your country is slipping backwards around you.”
It is a place that was, ironically, far more developed and connected to the outside world in the 1950s—when the Congo’s colonial capital boasted one of Africa’s largest airlines, ocean liners docked at its ports and tourism was a thriving industry. The book’s thematic refrain is the author struggling to come to terms with this, with what he sees as the Congo’s persistent “triumph of disappointment over potential.” Its abundant resources proved to be more of a curse than a blessing, because they made the country vulnerable to greed and plunder, first at the hands of invading colonial powers during the Scramble for Africa and then from its own people. “The conquest of the earth,” Marlow observes in Joseph Conrad’s famous “Heart of Darkness,” inspired by Conrad’s tenure as a steamboat captain on the Congo River in the late 19th century, “is not a pretty thing when you look into it too much.”
Walking around the capital of Kinshasa at the end of his journey, Butcher can’t quite make the signs of modernity he sees there (the stadium where the “Rumble in the Jungle” took place in 1974, for one) compute with the realities of life in the Congolese hinterlands. “I could not connect these places with the Congo I had traveled through,” he writes, “a country where I had seen human bones lying too thick on the ground to be given a decent burial; where a stranger like me was implored to adopt a child to save him from a life of disease, hunger, and misery; and where some people were so desperate they actually pined for the old and brutal order of Belgian colonial life.”
As brave a man as he was, Henry Morton Stanley’s expedition to map the Congo River, which ultimately made the country a target for colonization, had devastating consequences for the entire region, consequences from which it has never fully recovered. Over a century later it is up to those who travel there—like Tim Butcher, Jeffrey Tayler and Bryan Mealer—to report back on what they see and once again bring the world’s attention to a place it seems to have forgotten or given up on. This time around, maybe something good can come of it.