Tuesday, September 02, 2008
Tim Butcher - Blood River
When I first looked at this book, I thought that it was a classic case of a journalist with a bit of knowledge about one part of the world, concocting an excuse to write a book about it. However, it does seem, that Tim Butcher's fascination with the Congo river and the country that surrounds it is absolutely genuine. As a journalist on the Daily Telegraph he takes the incredibly dangerous decision to follow in the footsteps of an earlier writer for that journal, Henry Stanley.
Stanley of course, famously found David Livingstone and made his fame bringing the story back to the world of the White European. Slightly less famously, Stanley then set in motion the processes that would allow many of those same white Europeans to take control of, and make fortunes from the people, country and mineral wealth of the Congo.
The Congo suffered greatly when the Europeans finally relinquished control. Butcher tells the story of the countries decline as it's initial post-colonial state was quickly consumed by coups, war and bloodletting. At the heart of much of this was the areas mineral wealth, desired by both superpowers. The Congo never really ceased to be anything but a pawn of outside interests, and the country that Butcher decides to cross is far from safe terrain for outsiders. In places the UN maintain a token presence, as do various NGOs, but this poor, internally divided country is difficult to travel in.
What I like about Tim Butcher's writing is that he starts from the fascinating history of the country and its people. He is openly honest when he views the relics of colonial rule and wonders how it is a country can regress so rapidly. He doesn't fall into the trap of thinking that Colonial rule was necessarily a better time, though he meets many who do think this.
But as he drives across former major roads and finds them little more than paths in the jungle, sees once mighty ships rusting on the shore, or sees railway stations were no train has arrived for years, he finds himself wondering why it is some former colonies threw off their masters and found fortune and others didn't. (I suspect that answer is that places like the Congo never really escaped the era of Colonial Rule and the Imperialism that followed it - the mineral wealth under the ground was too important, then and now).
He recognises though that the Congo had it worst;
"Those sniffy British Colonial types might not like to admit it but the Congo represents the quintessence of the entire continent's colonial experience. It might be extreme and it might be shocking, but what happened in the Congo is nothing but colonialism in its purest basest form."
His journey is full of fascinating people many of whom have little to give, but offer all the help they can. Often they do so with no thought of reward, though most of them clearly think he is insane for attempting the trek. His record of the history of the place, the damage done since independence and the exploitation taking place by major multinationals that leaves no wealth for the inhabitants today is an excellent introduction to this part of the world.
Pakenham - The Scramble For Africa