Congo in books (2)

(continued from Thursday January 5)

In the Footsteps of Mr Kurtz also takes us to more worrying examples of “muddling through”. Take the nuclear reactor on the outskirts of Kinshasa, the result of a deal struck between a Belgian priest and the United States, still grateful for the Congolese uranium that enabled them to produce the bombs that destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945. Michela Wrong describes a howling lack of security in and around the reactor, run by a professor who has lost all touch with reality and thinks nothing of running an ageing nuclear facility near a landfill on a hill that shows signs of serious erosion.

In the end, though, In the Footsteps of Mr Kurtz is also the chronicle of the chaotic end of the once-mighty Mobutu. He was already withdrawn and tired and ill when next-door Rwanda exploded once again in 1994, triggering a wave of violence that would prove fatal to the Old Leopard. Just three years later, he ended up as yet more historical debris. His successor, a little-known highwayman, drunkard and womaniser called Laurent Kabila simply carried on where Mobutu had left off. As long as “free access to the Congo Basin” was guaranteed, nobody outside the country really cared very much.


‘The trouble with us – is us.’ It’s a favoured saying of a Liberian friend of mine as he launches into yet another criticism of the failings of his fellow countrymen and women that have led his country so far astray. And he does have a point: Liberians have been living in their own independent republic since 1847 and since nobody in the whole wide world paid any attention they could have built paradise on their shores without anyone bothering to interfere. But to my friend’s chagrin and frustration, his fellow countrymen and women elected otherwise.

The Congolese, by contrast, would be entirely justified in saying “the trouble with us – is them.” Belgium, France, the United States and latterly Rwanda, Uganda, Angola, Zimbabwe, China… The list of those wanting “free access to the Congo Basin” and its riches keeps growing. They have all left the country poorer while they can show off back home. Flashy mobile phones all over the world. Zimbabwe’s fat cats, gorging on their mine concessions. And most of all, Belgium’s ostentatious if soulless capital. Michela Wrong describes the hallucinatory architecture of the Hotel van Eetvelde, built on Congolese riches, and, of course, the colonial museum at Tervuren, just outside Brussels. To be fair, Wrong’s description dates back to the late 20th century and the museum has since changed its shameless pro-colonial stance for something more realistic.

But the thing that strikes the author most is the almost complete absence of any sense of responsibility and guilt for the disaster the world has wrought in Congo. Hardly anyone shows any remorse, not in Belgium, or the United States, or in the spotless offices of the IMF and the World Bank, whose loans, issued from the sterile safety of the Washington bell jar kept the economically illiterate Mobutu afloat. Even in the Congo itself Wrong finds self-justification and the passing of bucks. Same old, same old. Hochschild reports in his book that King Leopold II took personal offence when reports started coming out about slave labour and the reign of terror of the “chicotte” the cruel and often deadly hippopotamus-hide whip in “his” Congo. Ludo De Witte’s book proved once and for all Belgian complicity in Africa’s premier political murder. It provoked a spluttering of debate in Belgium (he wrote it in Dutch) but apparently it was all too embarrassing.

All this unacknowledged history has a tendency to produce the kind of predatory political class whose fat bulk sits on the Congolese people’s collective necks today. Criticize them all you want – but don’t forget where they came from.

(There are many more excellent works on the Congo available in many languages, including the wonderfully evocative books from lifelong Congo traveller Lieve Joris and an enormous tome by David van Reijbrouck, simply called Congo, which became an unexpected bestseller in 2010.)

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2 Responses to “Congo in books (2)”

  1. Job Says:

    Interesting posts. I am now reading Stanley: The Impossible Life of Africa’s Greatest Explorer which is an interesting read for anybody who is interested in the history of the African continent. The book paints a different picture of Stanley and is skilfully done by Jim Teal, who also wrote the excellent book on Livingstone.

  2. The Congo in Books: Bram Posthumus’ Two-part Literary Postmortem | Books LIVE Says:

    […] read Part Two to the end and you’ll discover a second set of suggestions – Posthumus admits that […]

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