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.