Sunday, January 28, 2018

The Congo


Olga and I took a long walk to Gladstone Park yesterday morning, just for a change of pace. Olga was excited because she got to look for discarded snacks on Cricklewood Broadway -- she did wolf down some moldy bread and something else from a wrapper before I could stop her, to no apparent ill effect -- and she got to hunt squirrels amid the clustered trees of the park.

I took her earlier in the day because it was supposed to rain yesterday afternoon. But whatever rain we got turned out to be pretty mild.

Otherwise, I would be hard-pressed to tell you where yesterday went. I did some journal transcribing. I Skyped with my mom, and told her how I'd deposited her check electronically and how remarkable that seemed. I did laundry.


I just finished the most amazing book, "Blood River: A Journey into Africa's Broken Heart" by Tim Butcher. It's a non-fiction account of Butcher's attempt in 2004 to retrace the trail of African explorer Henry Morton Stanley through the Congo river basin. That may not sound very remarkable in the modern world, but the Congo -- racked by decades of war, neglect, corruption and violence -- no longer is the modern world. While acknowledging the ravages of colonialism, Butcher shows how the infrastructure that in 1958 enabled his mother to travel from Rhodesia to the Atlantic Coast of the Congo by train and boat has so thoroughly disappeared that towns in the Congolese forest are now stranded islands with little contact with the outside world.

Arriving in one village by motorbike on a rutted, narrow jungle track, Butcher spoke to a tribal elder who remembered cars coming through his village once every few days, decades ago. Now the village is continually pillaged by marauding soldiers, forcing villagers to flee repeatedly into the jungle before returning to rebuild.
"Over the years, things have got worse and worse. We have lost the things we once had. Apart from what we can carry into the bush, we have nothing. I think the last time I saw a vehicle near here was in 1985, but I cannot be sure. All these children you see around you now are staring because I have told them about cars and motorbikes that I saw as a child, but they have never seen one before you arrived." 
He carried on talking, but I was still computing what he had just said. The normal laws of development are inverted here in the Congo. The forest, not the town, offers the safest sanctuary and it is grandfathers who have been more exposed to modernity than their grandchildren. I can think of nowhere else on the planet where the same can be true.
I've always been interested in that part of the world -- ever since I was a child and heard the "Dr. Livingstone, I presume?" stories about Stanley and his expeditions. When I collected stamps, I was entranced by those showing the African wildlife, the distant cities with their colonial architecture, the great lakes of the Rift Valley. As a senior in high school in 1984 I wrote a lengthy footnoted paper about history and political conditions in the Congo, then known as Zaire. I called it "a nation in the dark" and "on the edge of total collapse." I still have the paper -- I got a 96, and since then, the collapse has pretty much occurred.

I used to dream of visiting the Congo, taking a steamer on the river and a safari through its vast forests. I've had to get used to the fact that it's just not possible. I'm never going to see it with my own eyes. Butcher is lucky he survived his own journey and was able to write his book.

13 comments:

John Gray said...

HM Stanley comes from st Asaph which is where I was born only 5 miles from Trelawnyd in fact I was born at the HM STANLEY hospital

Yorkshire Pudding said...

That book sounds fascinating. Africa seems like a continent filled with so much possibility, possibility that is generally unrealised because of graft, ambition, disorganisation and disunity - though of course some African countries appear more successful than others. You may not get to ride a steamboat on The River Congo but last week you had your own River Congo right outside your door!

e said...

I'd like to read that, sounds compelling and not a part of the world I'll ever see, either...

Linda Sue said...

Maybe it is true, that every child dreams of adventure in the Congo. Something we have in common. The events that ruined the Congo/ it's present state, are utterly heart breaking, not sure I would like to read the book- dashed dreams at this age seem a bit harsh! Thank you for the review, you may have saved me!
Olga looks so tiny!

Ms. Moon said...

Okay. That makes two things in the past few days that I've read that have blown my mind. They are of completely different subjects but once again it makes me ponder the fact that I really do not know shit.
I can still remember seeing maps of Africa as a child where parts were absolutely blank because they were still parts unknown. And now...still? Unknown to the outside world, anyway.
I think I'm going to go back to bed now.

Marty Damon said...

Incredible. In our insulated world, we always assume that "progress" is always marching forward. This is also a reminder of something that crosses my mind now and then - how fortunate many of us are due to mere accident of birth.

robin andrea said...

You just made me wonder if what is happening in the Congo is what will eventually happen to the planet. Thinking about how our human species evolved there, and now it is devolving culturally there. Will we return to our hunter/gatherer days after the cataclysm of wars, I wonder?

Sharon Anck said...

What a fascinating and sad story. His point about marching backwards is worth thinking about. Children who've never seen a vehicle is so very hard to imagine these days when 4 year olds have cell phones and iPads. I can't imagine living life in a place where "marauding soldiers" can sweep in at any time and take anything they want from people who have very little to start with. I agree with Marty, it makes us think about our "accident of birth" that put us where we are.
Gladstone Park looks like another great green space in the heart of the city.

Red said...

As a kind you had a very clear idea of what Africa was like. How many other places are going to suffer the same fate with political changes and climate change?

ellen abbott said...

the world is definitely going through an upheaval. perhaps civilization has once again made it to the point where is collapses.

Catalyst said...

I recall reading Joseph Conrad's "Heart of Darkness" in my young days and being fascinated by the very dark side of the Congo.

jenny_o said...

A very sobering book to read, I would think. It's interesting that you could see what was coming when you were in high school.

I have been suffering from Olga withdrawal the last while - nice to see her again although she is dwarfed by those trees!

The Bug said...

I wonder, if there weren't soldiers, would those villages be better off without the outside world. Probably an over romantic view.