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Book Review: Blood River – A Journey to Africa’s Broken Heart by Tim Butcher

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The Democratic Republic of Congo has been in the news of late — although certainly still much less than it deserves to be given its unfortunate status as the site of "Africa's first world war", and the place where 45,000 people continue to die every month from violence, disease and starvation. It can seem, from the quick news wrap-up, a bewilderingly exotic, violent, terrifying, inexplicable place.

If you want a basic introduction to its history and current circumstances, one that will gently take you through this 20th-century horror ride, you could do far worse than with Blood River, as Tim Butcher, a foreign correspondent for the London Telegraph plans, and then executes, a journey down the length of the great river from which the country takes its (current) name. (Formerly, for decades under the U.S.-backed dictator Mobutu Sese Seko, it was Zaire.)

It does, as a book, have its annoying moments, its "white man striding through the dark continent" tinges, but overall Butcher is self-aware and prepared to criticise himself and his own motives. And one of his driving forces does have a quaint sentimentalism. He explains how his mother in 1958 had caught a train across the Congo: "two young, middle-class English girls, lugging trunks full of souvenirs and party frocks … for them, the Congo was imply another log in a rich travel adventure … sent to colonial Africa as a sort of unofficial finishing school". The other relates to a professional tie – Henry Morton Stanley was a Telegraph journalist when he slogged along the route that Butcher follows – not that the modern author is a fan, regarding him as a "cocky chancer… a man from a wretched background who sought wealth and status through one of the most high-profile, lucrative but risky career paths of his time".

Butcher starts out in Lubumbashi, in the mineral-rich "panhandle" of Congo, Katanga. I doubt many Americans know that the uranium for the atom bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki came from Katanga. And the region's copper mines brought great wealth, mostly to the Belgians, after the Second World War. But when Belgium granted independence on 30 June 1960, it was already backing a secessionist movement in the area, financing and protecting the pro-Belgian Moise Tshombe.

Our writer lands at the site of the first great independence atrocity, which saw soldiers loyal to Tshombe bundling Patrice Lumumba, the elected president, on to a plane in the middle of January 1961, after which he was killed and his body destroyed. Butcher's arrival is less dramatic, but still far from pleasant:

A crowd of people had gathered, all claiming to be an official of some sort and all demanding payment. I watched as the Asian lady I had spotted at Johannesburg airport stepped gingerly into the melee, only to be tossed and spun like a piece of flotsam, blasted by loud demands for payment. The last I saw of her was an unedifying spectacle. She was fighting back tears, bidding for her own luggage that was being auctioned back to her.

Butcher has the journalists' knack of meeting people who explain how things really work. So one miner explains how a cobalt boom is failing to help the million-strong population of Lubumbashi, let alone the rest of the country. He reports that the raw ore, grubbed from the earth by what are rather inaccurately known as "artisan-miners" (a hardworking man — or child — with a shovel or pick) is simply bagged up and shipped out of the country. A basic processing plant would convert it to concentrated cobalt salts, of hundred-fold value, but not that profit goes to South Africa or China. But collecting bribes off bags of rock at the border is much simpler.

By motorcycle, by riverboat, sometimes on foot, Butcher completes his journey – finding a Congo of incredible deprivation. In Mukumbo, a village by the river, reached by an epic motorcycle ride, where the chief apologises for being unable to offer any food, Butcher reports on the people's lives:

The normal laws of development are inverted … the forest, not the town, offers the safest sanctuary, and it is grandfathers who have been more exposed to modernity than their grandchildren. (The chief had been school in Kalemie, and he could remember when cars used to pass through every few days. Now only bush tracks remain.)

During the colonial era, the Belgian administration paid cantonniers, workmen, responsible for every kilometre of the roads, keeping them free from jungle, the culverts cleared of debris and the bridges maintained. In 1949 there were reportedy 111,971km. Butcher doubts from his experience that there are now 1,000. Reaching Mukumbo took Butcher and his two guides 211 km, 16 hours of bone-shaking travel.

Butcher delivers this difficult brew in reader-friendly style, noting for example that cassava is the dominant crop, despite its very limited nutritional value. But because it is exceedingly easy to grow, the fact that an armed man could forcibly take it from you at any time constitutes a definite bonus. Pounded into a bread called fufu, he notes: "It looked like wallpaper paste, smelled of cheese, and tasted of a nasty blend of both."

In the middle of the jungle near Kindu he finds the remains of a '50s armoured car dating from the Mulele Mai rebellion of 1964, with mercenaries led by Mike Hoare. Butcher explains: "It became routine on operations when entering a Congolese town for the mercenary forces to hurry to the local bank, blow the safe with dynamite and take whatever was inside. This was not small-scale stuff, or the work of just a few psychos and hotheads. Without a functioning army of its own, the government of the Congo came to rely on men like Hoare … for several years the Congo's combat troops were all foreign mercenaries."

Butcher hears from Louise Wright, 61, the last English missionary. Her account of how the legacy of the infamous Belgian colonial period played out: "The Belgians ran their colony on almost military lines. Black Congolese were only allowed to travel if they had passes from the Belgian authorities, and nothing could be done with the blessing of what was effectively the local Belgian commander … under Mobutu, everything was run along exactly the same lines. Nothing had really changed.

Butcher is blunt and quick to draw conclusions, but they are usually pretty reasonable. Riding a UN barge down the river, he muses about UN missions: "yes the missions are sloppy and poorly focused, but that is precisely because the international community's attitude to complicated problems … is sloppy and poorly focused. When the United Nations Security Council addresses these international problems, the question it ends up addressing is not 'What is the right thing to do' but 'What is the least we can do?'"

I've focused here on the analytical and historical aspects of Blood River, because that is what interests me most, but there's also plenty of derring-do, and some pretty serious adventure in places well beyond much hope of rescue. If you wanted to read the book simply as an account of that, you'd also enjoy it, and still probably pick up a little knowledge of a region of the world that really deserves every bit as much attention — on political and humanitarian grounds — as the Middle East.

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About Natalie Bennett

Natalie blogs at Philobiblon, on books, history and all things feminist. In her public life she's the leader of the Green Party of England and Wales.
  • Eminpasha

    Hey, good review. One quibble–only the Hiroshima bomb was made from Congolese uranium. The Nagasaki bomb was made of plutonium, refined in Hnaford, Washington (state).

  • http://philobiblon.co.uk Natalie Bennett

    Thanks for the correction.

  • http://philobiblon.co.uk Natalie Bennett

    The author of the book sent me the following note about the uranisum: I noticed a message on your site about the plutonium used in the Nagasaki bomb. While that is true that it was a plutonium bomb, the detonator was made of uranium that came from the Congo so it remains fair to say uranium from the Congo was used in both devices.