Blood River: A Journey To Africa’s Broken Heart, by Tim Butcher
While in general reading books about the Congo or its neighbors is pretty depressing business , this book manages to combine that obviously depressing reading with some searching questions. Among the most poignant moments in this particular poignant book is when the author is talking to a Malaysian ship commander from the UN dealing with corrupt local crew and wondering why Malaysia was able to overcome its oppressive colonial past to be a nation where tourists go and that has at least some hope of advancement but that Congo has regressed terribly over the last half century or so. The moment is one of many where the author sees the brutal truth of life in Congo, in the fact that so many deaths occur without being noticed or cared about by many, about the lack of historical memory within institutions or the population at large, and in the way that a total absence of law and order cripples the hopes and aspirations of people to live a better life free of periodic violence and crippling poverty and privation. And it is this clear eyed view of Congo that makes this a worthwhile book even if it appears somewhat like a quixotic quest of immense risk and danger.
This book takes about 350 pages or so to cover the preparation and execution of a trip taken by the author in the mid 2000’s to follow the path of Stanley from Lake Tanganyika to the Atlantic Ocean along the course of the Congo River. The author begins his discussion with an appropriate touch of despair, including the doomsaying and negativity he got from the people he talked to about the plan and also including the diverse array of contacts he made with the UN, aid agencies, and some shady businessmen involved in Congo’s various mineral industries who provided him with assistance during his trip. The trip itself is a complicated one, full of gorgeous photos and harrowing discussions of dehydration, endemic corruption, a country whose infrastructure is in a state of near-total ruination without any prospects of improvement without an immense moral and cultural revival. The author travels by bike, pirogue, helicopter, and UN riverboat, spends days or weeks stranded in cities along the way that are nearly cut off from the rest of the world, and sees the ruin of buildings, trains, railroads, and nearly every other sign of civilization. He sees the efforts people make to earn meager livings and the hopelessness of many of the people and earns the grudging respect of those who thought his trip impossible, and finds that Congo’s ruling elites cease to be interested in talking to him once they know he has seen the broken heart of their fallen nation.
At the core of this book are questions of morality and history. Congo’s state appears to have a great deal to do with the fact that there is no sense of law and order, no sense of sovereignty for the people, and no hope to escape from cycles of violence from various militia and government groups. Without the establishment of a secure and just form of law and order that provides a chance for honest living and for development to benefit the great mass of the population of the country, there is little hope for progress in Congo. Likewise, without a knowledge of history, there seems to be little way for people to put their lives into a greater context that allows for hope and development. The author wonders in this book often about the lack of historical knowledge among many, while historical grudges seem to carry on, and wonders if history is a luxury that only the wealthy can afford. This is a question we would do well to remember, because if it takes a knowledge of the past and a vision of the future to move beyond the struggles of the present, then one must have the resources and courage to wrestle with that past to overcome it. The broken heart of Africa may be broken for a very long time.
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