REVIEW: Congo – The Epic History of a People

CCongo – The Epic History of a People

David van Reybrouck

Fourth Estate

ISBN: 9780062200112

REVIEW: Sue Townsend

A potted history of the largest country in Africa would read thus: the 15th century Kingdom of the Kongo at the mouth of the great Congo River is “discovered” in the 1870s and proclaimed as the personal possession of King Leopold 11 of Belgium. It is “set free” when it becomes a colony in 1908. In 1960, under Patrice Lumumba and Joseph Kasavubu, it gains sudden independence. The two factions start fighting and murder and mayhem ensures. In 1971, Mobutu Sese Seko africanised the Republic of Congo to Zaire, and in May 1997, Laurent Kabila renamed it the Democractic Republic of Congo.

But there is so much more to the history of this fascinating, complex country which straddles the middle of the continent from the west coast to the borders of Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi and Tanzania to the east; Angola and Zambia to the south and ‘French’ equatorial countries (Congo-Brazzaville, Cameroon, and Central African Republic) to the north. And Van Reborouck has done this story proud.

Van Reybrouck is a Belgian cultural historianarchaeologist and writer, holding a doctorate from Leiden University. His father spent five years in the Democratic Republic of the Congo as a railway engineer immediately after independence and the Congo inveigled itself into Van Reybrouck’s blood as a child and suffused his dreams, just as it did with millions of his fellow countrymen. His love for the country runs through the book, breaking through the horror and regret in passages about music or forgotten heroism or simple humanity.

Van Reybrouck chooses to tell this story in his own phrase,  from “the bottom up”.

The majority of the book comprises the testimony of ordinary Congolese, dramatically brought to life by his masterful prose. Opening with 128-year old Nkasi who was alive when the first white traders and missionaries trudged into that immense forest, through Jamais Kolonga the man who dared to ask a white woman for a dance, Zizi Kabongo the cameraman who captured Muhammad Ali and George Foreman’s ‘Rumble in the Jungle’, Ruffin the child soldier, Masika Katsua the rape-victim and many more tell their country’s story. A few “good” Belgians also contribute, most memorably the personal tailor of dictator Mobutu Sese Seko talking of his former employer as “a nice person”(!). Van Reybrouck weaves his way through the dark comedy with poetic agility. Personal stories, memory and philosophy are intercut with breathless factual narrative – lyrical and at the same time authoritative.

The previously recorded history is short, dramatic and one-sided. In 1874, The New York Herald and The Daily Telegraph of London financed Henry Morton Stanley, a Welsh explorer and journalist, to travel the length of the Congo River from the source to the coast. Stanley finally arrived at the river’s mouth on the Atlantic coast in 1877. He was subsequently financed by King Leopold II of Belgium who wanted a large slice of Africa and got it the Belgian way: Congo would be a free trade buffer between other colonial interests. Some villagers rose against the whites because they were white as bones therefore they must have come from the land of the dead. Suspicion of Europeans persists to this day. Traders and missionaries followed in Stanley’s footsteps. A third of the early Baptist missionaries died in the field and it was the Catholics who mostly won out. Catholic schools, Scout troops and sports clubs provided the basis of the Congolese elite and French became the operating language.

Leopold got it right – Congo was a treasure trove of raw ingredients for the rapidly industrialising world. For example: Dunlop’s invention of the inflatable rubber tire created a demand for Congolese rubber. The profits went to build Belgium at the cost of Congolese lives. Murder was casual. Since bullets were in short supply, there was a habit of cutting off the hands of those who had been shot as proof that a bullet had been used to shoot a person and not been wasted on an animal. It was worse than slavery: not quite genocide or a holocaust Van Reybrouck says, “but it was definitely a hecatomb.” And then there were the horrors of the first and second Congolese wars, and, more recently, the entry of China into Congo.

Along the way, we learn that “Belgian colonialism contributed to the spiritual dimension of reggae” by helping to return Ethiopia to Haile Selassie in 1941, and that Mobutu’s pathetic attempt to launch Africa’s first ever space rocket in 1978 produced only a “parabola of soot”.

The depth of research; the passion; and the inventiveness in Van Reybrouck’s writing are a perfect delight to all who care about Africa. Seamlessly translated from the Dutch by Sam Garrett this is a masterful work.



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