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Congo: The Epic History Of A People by David…
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Congo: The Epic History Of A People (2009)

by David Van Reybrouck

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The Democratic Republic of Congo is about as fucked as a country can get, and one of the most defining examples of a failed state. It is also – and this is not a coincidence – a site of crucial importance for the resources of the modern world, from rubber and ivory in the nineteenth century, through uranium during the Cold War, to the coltan inside every iPhone and Playstation 4 – it's all been supplied from this vast country where life expectancy is 49 and three-quarters of the population have no access to clean drinking water.

This is a book to sap your reserves of hope; at every turn, when some appalling political status quo is finally brought to an end, it seems to be succeeded only by something even worse. A grotesquely oppressive colonial regime is followed by an independent republic of near-total anarchy; this in turn is superseded by a vicious dictatorship, which gives way only to the orgiastic violence that has been the First and Second Congo Wars. All the time DRC sits on a greater natural wealth than probably any other country on earth.

The exploitation started early. The cruelty of the Belgian overlordship has become proverbial, though van Reybrouck – a Belgian himself – takes a much more nuanced view than I had been expecting. Obviously discussion of this period has become dominated by the influence of Adam Hochschild's King Leopold's Ghost, and although van Reybrouck does not attack this work directly in the text, he does assert as part of his voluminous bibliography that it ‘depended more upon a talent for generating dismay than on any shades of subtlety; Hochschild's perspective is often very black and white’. Even so, it's not like the Belgians come off well here.

Their regime, under which ninety-nine percent of the country was effectively nationalised, was grossly abusive in its very structure, killing perhaps twenty percent of the population through institutionalised forced labour. But it wasn't all business – the system allowed plenty of leeway to individual sadists too. René de Parmentier, for instance, had the vegetation cleared around his house so that he could shoot at passers-by from his veranda, while Léon Fiévez, a model of efficiency, managed to murder 572 people in his first four months of public service. Perhaps even more sickening, though, was the psychological effect on generations of Congolese who were raised to have as few skills as possible and to think of themselves as inherently inferior beings. The training began early: kids at missionary schools had to sing in Swahili,

Once we were idiots
Sinning day by day
Sand fleas on our feet
Heads full of mould
Thank you, reverend fathers!


To have claimed such a huge colony at all seems like an act of considerable hubris – comparable, as Jean Stengers pointed out, to establishing a few stations along the Rhine from Rotterdam to Basel, and thereby claiming sovereignty over all of Western Europe. It could not hold – and when it did finally collapse, it all happened very quickly. In 1959 the prominent cleric Petrus Wijnants was still exclaiming, ‘Independence? Perhaps within seventy-five years, but certainly not within fifty!’ But the country would be independent by the following year.

Why so fast? Because the Belgians by this stage could see the writing on the wall, and they wanted above all to avoid a conflict scenario – they could see what was happening to France in Algeria. So the delegation of Congolese negotiators, all hopelessly inexperienced and trying to one-up each other in the intemperance of their demands, found to their amazement that their every request was being acceded to on the spot. ‘Independence in five years! – No, two years! – In twelve months!’ The Belgians simply signed on the dotted line, desperate, it seemed, to cut and run.

And they did run. Having gutted the place of rubber and ivory, they departed en masse, leaving Congo with zero administrators or even skilled workers at all: on the day of its independence, the country had a grand total of sixteen university graduates. One-six. Results were horrific. The first republic, van Reybrouck writes, was ‘total, inextricable chaos’, ‘an apocalyptic era in which everything that could go wrong did go wrong’. Thank you, reverend fathers!

The country simply broke. Independent statelets were declared in various places, most dramatically in the mineral-rich region of Katanga in the southeast, where secessionists were backed by – unbelievably – the Belgian military, which had only just left. They also had the help of such notorious and picturesquely-named mercenaries as Colonel ‘Mad Mike’ Hoare and Jean ‘Black Jack’ Schramme; even Che Guevara made a brief appearance before quite clearly deciding, ‘Fuck this.’ A four-way power-struggle between the major political figures, Kasavubu, Lumumba, Tshombe, and Mobutu, ‘was like one of Shakespeare's history plays’, and made worse by Cold War wrangling among the international community.

It was Katangan forces and their international accomplices who eventually murdered the country's first prime minister, Patrice Lumumba. Lumumba has traditionally been seen as something of a tragic hero, fêted in the West as the great lost hope of Congolese politics – this was certainly the received wisdom when I worked in newsrooms. But van Reybrouck argues convincingly that he was irreparably weak and inexperienced, flailing wildly on international assignments and offending the State Department by asking them to arrange him a blonde call-girl during his stay. Five years and as many governments after independence, the whole system was swept aside in a military coup led by Lieutenant-General Mobutu with backing from the CIA.

Mobutu brought stability, but it was the stability of totalitarianism. He Africanised everything: European ‘Christian’ names were out, replaced by ancestral ‘postnoms’ (so his own name changed from Joseph-Désiré Mobutu to Mobutu Sese Seko Kuku Ngbendu Wa Za Banga), while all the placenames changed too – including that of the country, which now became Zaïre after a cartographer's error (the Portuguese who first landed at the Congo estuary had asked locals what the mass of water was called; Nzadi, they replied, ‘River’! It was written down as ‘Zaïre’. I couldn't help being reminded of the mountain in the Terry Pratchett novel which translates to ‘your finger you fool’, the idea being that explorers simply grabbed the first native, pointed at a landmark, and asked, ‘What's that?’)

Part of Mobutu's nation-building was a crackdown on tribalism: from now on, everyone was simply a Zaïrian. So obsessed was he with national unity that a popular joke went round about how, during lovemaking, he would not cry out Ça va jaillir! ‘I'm going to come!’, but instead, Ça va zaïre! But all of this was predicated on a monumentally strong centre, a dictatorship which arrogated all the country's resources and riches to one central figure plus a few family and friends. While most people saw spending power vanish and lived in complete deprivation, Mobutu kicked back in luxury in Gbadolite, an astonishing palace-complex hidden in the jungle. This Brobdingnagian extravagance featured an international airport big enough to land a Concorde, three palaces covered in jewels and marble, banks, a hypermodern hotel, a new hospital, and even ‘a Chinese village with pagodas and imported Chinese people’. Here Mobutu indulged himself with his ministers' wives and the two identical twins he was sleeping with (one of whom he hastily married ahead of an official visit from the Pope).

As so often in this book, you find yourself desperate to see someone get rid of this revolting ogre, only to be schooled yet again in the need to be careful what you wish for. Again the trouble started in the east. Following the Rwandan genocide, when the Tutsi-dominated RPF took power in Kigali, thousands of Hutus fled over the border into eastern Zaïre, fearing reprisals. Subsequent events would show how right their instincts were. In fact, many of the Hutus that entered Zaïre had had nothing to do with the genocide, though some elements of the Hutu armies were among them and were able to organise themselves near the border. This was the reason – or, if you prefer, the pretext – for Rwanda to launch a full invasion of Zaïre, supported by Uganda and with the longtime Congolese rebel leader Laurent-Désiré Kabila as the figurehead.

Kabila marched through the country, pausing at every Hutu refugee camp to chop everybody to death with machetes, until he reached Kinshasa, where, to make a long story short, he deposed Mobutu and became president in May 1997. Curtain. This is what's known as the First Congo War.

The Second Congo War picks up immediately from its prequel. Kabila, desperate to show that he was not in thrall to his foreign backers, promptly ordered all Rwandan and Ugandan troops out of the country (which was now renamed the Democratic Republic of Congo). In response, invoking the need to protect Tutsi groups in eastern DRC, they simply invaded again, only this time against Kabila instead of with him. Having massacred thousands of Hutu refugees during his own march to power, Kabila now – with jaw-dropping expediency – armed these same groups to fight against Rwanda.

The conflict drew in nine different African countries and an alphabet-soup of related militias – the MLC, the RCD-G, the RCD-K, the RCD-N, the RCD-ML…. ‘Since 1998 at least three million and perhaps as many as five million people have been killed in hostilities in Congo alone, more than in the media-saturated conflicts in Bosnia, Iraq and Afghanistan put together.’ Officially it was brought to an end by a treaty in 2003, but in reality the east of the country is still a haze of uncontrol.

Under cover of this haze, the country's mineral riches have simply been removed on a massive scale. By the turn of the millennium, Congo's resource-rich eastern areas were being stripped in bulk by the occupying forces. Rwanda, for instance, a country with minimal gold deposits, was exporting $29 million worth of the metal annually; it has no diamonds at all, but exported up to $40 million of them a year. Between 1998 and 2004 Rwanda produced 2,200 metric tons of tin ore, but somehow exported 6,800 metric tons of it. Neighbouring countries were literally driving truckloads of minerals out of DRC and back to their own capitals to be sold on the international market.

Congo became a ‘self-service country’. The scramble for Africa was now being organised by the Africans themselves.

Economic exploitation is, of course, only one part of the story – the other is the myriad personal miseries that the ethnic violence has brought about. The individual stories that van Reybrouck alights on to illustrate this chaos are sobering, indeed sick-making. (Sensitive readers may wish to skim ahead a little.) To pick just one illustrative case – Masika Katsua, for instance, a forty-one-year-old Nande woman, had to watch as Tutsi soldiers hacked her husband's arm off in front of her, then removed his intestines and heart and chopped the rest of him into small pieces; sobbing, she was then made to gather the chunks together on the floor and lie down on them, while twelve men raped her. Her daughters in the next room were also raped and impregnated; now Masika is raising their children, and when they ask her about her scars she can't bring herself to tell them that it was their fathers who did it.

I mean I can write down the English words to convey these facts. But understanding what really happened in rooms like Masika's hut, and in the minds of victims and perpetrators of a thousand similar scenes, requires greater acts of comprehension and sympathy than I am capable of making without losing my grip on sanity. This, among other things, is the challenge of reading about the Congo.

And in case you are tempted to write the whole situation off as some kind of unsophisticated, pre-modern mess that could only happen far away, van Reybrouck is having none of it. This ethnic violence, he argues, is

no atavism, no primitive reflex, but the logical result of the scarcity of land in a wartime economy in the service of globalization – and, in that sense, a foreshadowing of what is in store for an overpopulated planet. Congo does not lag behind the course of history, but runs out in front.

I hasten to point out that this is not just a political history. Van Reybrouck has compiled his book from a great deal of personal research, oral histories and interviews, and he does spend time on the country's social movements and popular culture, from the wild local religious efflorescence to the Rumble in the Jungle; so much attention is paid to Congolese music, in particular, that I was able to compile a whole accompanying playlist. The last chapter, which examines the Congolese expat community in Guangzhou, China, is a virtuoso and eye-opening essay on globalisation in its own right.

But it's certainly the political ironies and their human cost that stay with you. This is a country whose natural resources are the bedrock of the modern world, and yet many people eat only once every two days and healthcare is so basic that, in some areas, cuts are treated with brake fluid and burns with vaginal mucus. It's an incredible story with a determinedly un-Eurocentric sensibility; English-language readers are lucky to have Sam Garrett's very comfortable translation from the original Flemish. It's fiercely relevant and contains multitudes – and should infinitely repay the attention from anyone who can stand to take a good long look. ( )
1 vote Widsith | Dec 15, 2015 |
Recommended for anyone trying to understand a bit the situation in Congo today and in the past and how it is possible that a rich area is in such a terrible state. I would compare it with the books of Leon Uris on the Palestine - Israeli situation. ( )
  HendrikSteyaert | Jan 24, 2015 |
For someone like me, who knew virtually nothing about Congo, this book is a goldmine. Van Reybrouck manages to take the reader on a journey through more than 120 years of history, not only by giving information and numbers, but also, and mainly, by telling stories and describing personal experiences. He understands the art to summarize his thoughts whenever necessary, so that you never lose track of what's happening, despite the myriad of protagonists and places.

Unfortunately, when reaching the end of Mobutu's reign, the quality of the book drops significantly when Van Reybrouck tries to describe everything that's happened during the traumatic years 1990-2006. He sometimes gets lost in the acronyms of all the different rebel alliances, and the names of all the different rebel leaders. Maybe this should have been kept for a different book entirely. Although I must add, the final chapters, about the years following 2006, are captivating again. In all, a very mind-broadening experience from the first until the very last page! ( )
3 vote Differenti | Jan 24, 2014 |
Recommended for anyone trying to understand a bit the situation in Congo today and in the past and how it is possible that a rich area is in such a terrible state. I would compare it with the books of Leon Uris on the Palestine - Israeli situation. ( )
1 vote hste2011 | Dec 1, 2011 |
Showing 4 of 4
The research, the devotion, the inventiveness in Van Reybrouck's writing are a gift to everyone, not just fans of African history. This book not only deserves the description "epic", in its true sense, but the term "masterpiece" as well.
added by Widsith | editThe Independent, Andy Morgan (Apr 3, 2014)
 
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Epigraph
Information from the Dutch Common Knowledge. Edit to localize it to your language.
'Le Rêve et l'Ombre étaient de très grands camarades.'
Badibanga, L'éléphant qui marche sur des oeufs
Bruxelles, 1931
Dedication
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Het is nog steeds de zee, uiteraard, maar je ziet dat er iets is veranderd, iets aan de kleur.
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(Click to show. Warning: May contain spoilers.)
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original title: Congo, subtitle Een geschiedenis
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Bij vlagen briljant boek over treurige geschiedenis van het Congo. Mengeling serieuze geschiedschrijving (notenapparaat), oral history en journalistiek. Jammer dat er geen foto's in het boek zijn opgenomen (is bewuste keuze, maar toch).
Het zojuist verschenen boek Congo van David van Reybrouck heeft veel lof ontvangen in de pers. Van Reybrouck beschrijft hierin voor het eerst de verbijsterende geschiedenis van Congo, van ruim voor de komst van de ontdekkingsreiziger Stanley tot en met de invloed van China in de laatste tien jaar en de recente economische crisis. Van Reybrouck baseert zich niet alleen op zeldzaam archiefmateriaal en baanbrekend onderzoek, maar vooral ook op honderden gesprekken die hij met Congolezen voerde. Zijn ooggetuigen gaan van eeuwlingen tot kindsoldaten, van rebellenleiders tot smokkelaars, van ministers tot maniokverkoopsters. Hun verhalen heeft de auteur in zijn grote geschiedenis geïntegreerd.
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Epic in scope and deeply moving, CONGO traces the fate of one of the world's most critical, failed nation-states, second only to war-torn Somalia: the Democratic Republic of Congo. David Van Reybrouck takes us through several hundred years of history, bringing some of the most dramatic episodes in Congolese history. Here are the people and events that have impinged the Congo's development - from the slave trade to the ivory and rubber booms; from the arrival of Henry Morton Stanley to the tragic regime of King Leopold II; from global indignation to Belgian colonialism; from the struggle for independence to Mobutu's brutal rule; and from the world famous Rumble in the Jungle to the civil war over natural resources that began in 1996 and still rages today. Van Reybrouck interweaves his own family's history with the voices of a diverse range of individuals - charismatic dictators, feuding warlords, child-soldiers, the elderly, female merchant smugglers, and many in the African diaspora of Europe and China - to offer a deeply humane approach to political history, focusing squarely on the Congolese perspective and returning a nation's history to its people.… (more)

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