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March 17, 2008

Richard & Judy Book Club readers won't learn much about the Congo from Tim Butcher's own narrative - but they may learn from the people he quotes, argues Richard D. North: Blood River: a journey to Africa's broken heart - Tim Butcher

Posted by Richard D. North

Blood River: a journey to Africa's broken heart
by Tim Butcher
London: Vintage, 2007
Hardback, £12.99; Paperback, £7.99

There is very little that's nice to say about the Congo, river or country, past or present, and Tim Butcher is at best a patchy guide to finding it. He's too hung up with worrying about white guilt to be interesting on the "heart" of Africa, whether broken or dark. This matters partly because with a Richard & Judy Show Book Club endorsement, this book is about to be even more influential, and partly because with his Daily Telegraph credentials we might have hoped that the author was free of liberal cliché.

Following Stanley, I presume
This is a vivid story about a brave, even mad, 44-day journey to follow the Blood River 3000 kilometres from east to west across a strife-torn state which for nearly fifty years has know only disorder. It is also a retracing of the same journey much more extraordinarily made by (the Daily Telegraph's) Henry Morton Stanley across 999 days between 1874 and 1877 as he sought to build on his reputation as the man who had found Dr Livingstone three years earlier.

Mr Butcher has three good insights.

One is that the Congo is one of the sharpest - he thinks it is perhaps the only - example of a country which is "undeveloping". That's to say, for instance, that most of the infrastructure which appears on a 1950s map of the country is no longer there. Roads, railways, ports, phone lines, hospitals and schools - you name it - modernity has been swallowed up by the jungle.

Secondly, the towns are more dangerous than the countryside, and the bush - awful as it is - represents something as near to safety as people know when push comes to shove, which it often does.

Thirdly, the place has suffered and lost so much that it has no "institutional memory": that's to say, dreadful things often happen, but many of them are commemorated only by a heap of bones a village boy may show a visitor.

However, it is fair to say that for all but one or two of his pages, very late in the book, Mr Butcher avoids saying anything very interesting. The horror of what he sees is well conveyed. His own discomforts and fears are of obvious interest, though at their worst they are nothing compared to those of nearly everyone he comes across, so it is hard to share his absorption in them. He quotes nearly everyone who's ever penned a word on the country. His sources include Evelyn Waugh and Graham Greene, but he has picked up neither a saving arrogance nor an engaging world-weariness from the masters.

Missing the point
So be it. What really matters is that Mr Butcher doesn't give us anything like wisdom on why the Congo is so bloody. We get the obvious stuff which goes roughly like this. Congolese "tribesmen had survived in peace for generations" and then the Arabs and Portuguese came along (1482) and revved up their slave trade and set tribe against tribe and millions of Africans were shipped out.

Things went on like that until slavery was abolished but then various other commodities got valuable so Leopold, King of the Belgians, turned the whole place (1885) into a privately-owned estate and set tribe against tribe and then enough nice people complained so that Leopold had to hand the management over to the people of Belgium (1908) and things got a bit better.

But then the Congolese wanted and got independence (1960) and nasty African elites got manipulated by Washington and Brussels who set tribe against tribe and things went from bad to worse until now it's only the churches, the UN and the NGOs who bother with the place, and the latter two often get stitched up.

The writing and tales of nearly everyone can be used by Mr Butcher to support that story. But, as ever, it's Joseph Conrad who really has to be wrestled with. The Heart of Darkness describes a Congo which is physically very frightening. It is also a place in which disease, ignorance, superstition and violence are more deeply entrenched than anywhere else, even than in Africa where all these abound. That seems to have been the real history. The whites may have done harm in the Congo, but there weren't destroying Paradise.

To be fair to Mr Butcher, there are one or two sentences in which he lets us know that he knows that cannibalism and violence go very deep in the Congo. And yet he dwells at rather greater length on a sort of proto-democracy he says was also there. I'd say that the awful possibility is that the Congo will one day return to its ancient ways. Modernity - at least not modern society - did not take root there and when we have exploited the last of its minerals, the West may let the jungle and terror get back to their unfinished work. It'll be touch and go.

Order matters more than liberty
Very importantly, Mr Butcher does get it across how horrible it is to live in a country with a weak state. That is always worth saying in an age when lucky Westerners understand the merit of freedom but seldom grasp the prior importance of order. He wisely repeats that law is more important than money, though he does not note that good law turns into good business which turns into good society.

I could have wished that he had explained what he only hints at: that Congolese resources are bound to be exploited in the worst possible way when the state is weak. (As usual, it is a smuggler - someone he disapproves of - who really articulates this truth.)

The core of the problem I have with Mr Butcher's account hinges on his glossing over the ordered modernity which the Belgians brought to parts of the Congo in the middle years of the 20th Century. This is on a par with his belief that the Brits were "not fundamentally different from" the Belgians, and his general sense that Africa would have been better off without the whites, period.

Actually, there are two good reasons why he should wonder at his own words.
Firstly, he meets middle aged and elderly Congolese and ex-pat whites who tell him of their own sadness that Congo has gone backwards from its relatively lucky late-colonial period. They are not misty-eyed, but they know that a civilised colony wasn't the worst place to be.

Secondly, Butcher's own journey is made possible entirely on Western gear, on the remains of Western infrastructure and usually at the generosity of Western institutions and quite often of Westerners. What's more, his story is of interest because it is a quest to discover what bits of the West are still to be found in the Congo. In a way, the West is the only interesting bit about the Congo.

You get the feeling that Mr Butcher would like this story to be a guilt trip into the horrors that the West has visited on the Congo. But it is just as reasonable to read it as a sad memorial to the dreams which many people - Westerners and Congolese - nurtured before primordial Africa revisited its customary ghastliness on them.

Being rude about Africa
Indeed, nearly everything in this book which is worth saying about Africa - everything which isn't blandly appropriate to the School of Oriental and African Studies or The Guardian - is told to Mr Butcher by people who are experienced and aren't tainted by his near-complete inability to be rude about the place.

Ali, the Malaysian Navy officer who gives Mr Butcher a crucial UN boat-ride, nails it. He remarks that Malaysia was colonised and came right, so what's holding Africa back? When I wearied of Mr Butcher's authorial voice I thrilled to the words of the antique Belgian school mistress; the wizened chief who had distant memory of going to school (and of there having been schools); the old missionaries keeping themselves smart for daily Mass. They all spoke of the order that once had been, and of which they remained a shard.

And I warmed to the corporatised diamond smuggler straight out of the movie Blood Diamonds. I am pretty sure that it'll take such white Zimbabwean tough-nuts to make Africa work. I can even imagine that some of them would prefer some decent government to their present high-risk exploitation of chaos.

All this matters because there are many things which hold Africa back, and some of them are very intractable. Such things as geography aren't easily overthrown. But one thing we could shift quite quickly is the dangerous set of Westophobic tropes which black and white intellectuals peddle. Africa suffers from victimhood and an inferiority complex which badly need fixing.

Survival vs Civilisation
Mr Butcher's book is full of characters, some of whom make you want to weep. We meet kindness and incredible fortitude and courage. Mr Butcher is helped by Congolese of every rank and condition, and many are dogged and generous.
But even African merit may be dangerous. The problem is that "survivalism" is at odds with civilisation. The tough narrow-minded orientation toward family and tribe which is invaluable in the Stone Age is not conducive to success in the Satellite Age.

So Africa is full of intelligent, wily, funny, tough, resilient and focussed people - but in lots of countries on the continent, too few of them are good at doing pro bono publicum. Those that do it, are all the more remarkable. They are bucking their own cultures. These things are no-one's fault, and everyone's. It's always been a matter of critical mass. And of virtuous circles.

The West didn't get clever and nice and rich because it had to deal with better human stock. It got lucky in all kinds of cumulative ways. Africa didn't. That may change, and it may not. Nigeria, South Africa, Kenya, Botswana and Ghana are amongst the African countries where it's tempting to hope. Congo is one where one's tempted to shrug one's shoulders. Who really knows?

I suppose we ought to be glad that Mr Butcher has produced a book which will get hundreds of thousands of people to take an interest in Africa. Perhaps people will read it and understand things about Africa which Mr Butcher hasn't bothered or wanted or dared to say or endorse but has at least printed.

Richard D. North is the author of Rich is Beautiful: A Very Personal Defence of Mass Affluence and Scrap the BBC!: Ten Years to Set Broadcasters Free.


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A long time ago I read 'Mad' Mike Hoare's book on being a Congo mercenary in the 60s. The place doesn't seem to have changed much since then.

Posted by: Laban Tall at March 18, 2008 10:58 PM
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