Bryan Mealer: ‘War and Deliverance in Congo’

Travel Interviews: The former AP correspondent traveled up the Congo River. Frank Bures asks the author of "All Things Must Fight to Live" about following in the wake of Joseph Conrad.

06.11.08 | 10:43 AM ET

imageThere are few journeys more famous, and less taken, than the journey up the Congo River. In Bryan Mealer’s new book, All Things Must Fight To Live: Stories of War and Deliverance in Congo, he spends five weeks making the 1,077-mile journey on barges with the traders who are reviving commerce on the river now that the Second Congo War is mostly over. Mealer had covered the war for three years for the Associated Press, and when it ended, he decided he finally wanted to see the heart of the country he had been writing about. I spoke with the former Esquire editor and current Harper’s contributor by phone about the river, rough travel and how Congo changes those who know it.

World Hum: What is the current political situation in Congo?

Bryan Mealer: Now it seems pretty static. The government did a peace deal with this renegade soldier, Laurent Nkunda, at the end of January or early February and it seems to be kind of holding. But as is the nature of these things in that country, now there are separatists who want to turn Congo back into the Congo Kingdom. So if it’s not one thing, it’s another.

I really liked the first part of your book, about the war. But I wanted to ask you about the second section, the trip up the Congo River. It’s not a trip many non-Congolese make, is it?

imageI think a lot of journalists and travelers have made that trip before. It’s a classic “Heart of Darkness” journey from Kinshasa to Kisangani. It’s 1,700 kilometers, and it can take five weeks. It can take six weeks. It used to be, you could do it in two weeks, when the river was dredged, and you had a nice boat you could sleep on. But with the war, it just became kind of suicide. There were so many rebel groups moving to the jungles, and they used the river to transport themselves, their weapons and their men. It was pretty dangerous. But with the elections, it’s more possible now. There’s even a tour group called Go Congo Tours. And they’re offering pretty decent trips at a decent price, too.

How was it to travel in the footsteps of Joseph Conrad?

You know, I try to make it a point with Congo to try to move past the “Heart of Darkness” references. It’s so easy, you know, an instant association. And while I think I had an easier time going up the road [around Livingstone Falls] than Conrad did—I didn’t see the bodies chained to poles, or the skeletons on the road—it’s a really hard trip. It’s really hard, man. I guess it’s as hard as you want to make it. The first leg of my trip I took in kind of luxury with this Frenchman, but I felt that I wasn’t getting a real experience of the river. The whole point of it was to see how the Congolese travel. There are no roads there, and airfare is so out of reach for most people. The river is the only way to get across the country and through the jungle. The way people have to travel is really kind of perilous. They have to go on barges that have no timetables, with overcrowded and terrible conditions, and sometimes they sink. But I just wanted to see how you got across the country. And it is tough.

When you were working for AP, you saw things from above, flying in and out. Did your travels on the ground change the way you saw the country?

The whole reason I did the trip was that after the elections, I was in a pretty ebullient mood. I covered the elections from my old haunts where there was all that blood. And to see the election happen in that place really did something to me. For the first time, I was leaving eastern Congo without this heavy dread in my gut. I was just so sick of that shit. I covered the war for three years. That’s all I’ve ever covered when I worked for AP—that’s all there was time to do. I could’ve gone looking for more hopeful stories, but there just wasn’t time. So I needed to go out and find that little bit of reprieve I saw on election day. I said, “OK, I’m going to go out and travel on the river.” I didn’t want my legacy to that place to be just a bunch of stories about dead people.

You said you went on the train journey to remember what you loved about the Congo. What was it that you loved?

I do love the Congo. It’s one of those great places. It’s just so full of stories that aren’t being told. I think for a writer, that place is so fertile. There’s so much tragedy, and you have those stories. But also in terms of a traveler, just doing these raw journeys. There are no postcard stands in these places. You are alone, and that feeling is really heavy when you’re in the jungle. When I got out of there, I felt that I’d really accomplished something, though at the same time, I wasn’t really sure what I’d accomplished.

Not many Westerners go through that part of the world. You have to be able to tolerate a lot of disruption.

Yeah, I’ve never backpacked through Europe or been to India or paddled down a river in China. So I just sort of flung myself into one of the hardest trips you could ever take. It was fun, but, man, was it hard. 

After your time in Congo, you think you’ll ever see the world the same again?

No, not at all. Congo’s changed everything in my life. Just having seen how low a society can get, and how low we can let a society get, everything is going to look better. But the Congolese are an incredibly resilient people. They can suffer and suffer and suffer and still sing songs when they go down the road. And that, more than anything, has taught me something. If these people can survive it, I can certainly survive it.


Frank Bures is a contributing editor at World Hum, where his stories have won several awards. More of his work can be found at frankbures.com.


3 Comments for Bryan Mealer: ‘War and Deliverance in Congo’

Tim Patterson 06.12.08 | 1:48 PM ET

Excellent interview - the part about so many stories not being told reminds me of my own experiences in Cambodia, but the Congo takes it to a whole new level.  I’ll look forward to reading the book someday.

-Tim

Lola 06.12.08 | 9:02 PM ET

“They can suffer and suffer and suffer and still sing songs when they go down the road.”

That line paints a pretty accurate picture of life in most parts of Africa. Despite some of the most difficult situations, we still move with a deep sense of faith and hope.

Very nice interview.

Marian Hayes 06.19.08 | 4:14 PM ET

blessings,

I attended Mr.Mealer’s reading last night in Chicago.Like his trip to Africa, I did not know what to expect at the reading. I was moved and reminded of Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness”. Mealer’s details of death and destruction in the region makes me wonder if Africa regain stability.

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