Blood River

Depiano – Gouvernement ya Congo
From Ngoma: Souvenir ya l’Indépendance [Buy]

Michael K. Nichols/National Geographic

Just finished Blood River by Tim Butcher – the story of his 2004 journey down the Congo River, retracing Stanley‘s 19th century expedition from Lake Tanganyika to the Atlantic.

Viewed from the developed world, Africa seems to have “trendy” crises, while other humanitarian disasters languish in obscurity and ignorance. The crisis of the present moment seems to be Darfur. In the 1980s it was Ethiopia. Zimbabwe, Rwanda and Somalia have sparked short-lived interest the western media, but these brief bursts of attention offer little lasting help to the people and nations concerned.

Africa’s problems are writ large in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Few people know (and I didn’t until I read this book) that the deadliest conflict since WW2 ended just 5 years ago – the Second Congo War killed 5.4 million between 1998 and 2003 through violence, disease and starvation. Butcher’s journey took place just a year after the war ended.


So Blood River is first of all classic story of adventurous (read: dangerous) travel. Given the war and steadily crumbling infrastructure of the Congo basin, Tim Butcher was very likely the first person to complete the trek overland across the DRC from East to West for a decade. Far more people have climbed Everest or reached the North Pole by foot in that time.

If Butcher had made his journey in the 1950s, it would have been a relatively comfortable trip via a network of riverboats and trains built by the Belgian colonial régime. But today the roads, railways and riverboats have virtually vanished. Kisangani, a city of half a million people is essentially cut off in middle of the rainforest, reliant on an airbridge and jungle footpaths for transport to the outside world.

Tim Butcher/Daily Telegraph

Butcher’s book also provides a good introduction to the often tragic history of the Congo, from Stanley’s barnstorming expedition, via rampant stripping of wealth and human lives by the Belgians and President Mobutu Sese Seko, through to the ethnic fighting and interference by neighbouring states that has marred the last decade.

Despite recent national elections and the presence of a UN mission, the quiet desperation continues for the DRC’s 60 million people, largely hidden from the eyes of the world. Average life expectancy is just 48, and while we buy iPods and surf the web, Congolese children are mining coltan by hand to support our technology habit.

Blood River pricked my conscience and made me want to learn more about this part of the world. Further excerpts and photos from the book are on the Daily Telegraph website.

Note on the music:
I discovered this track thanks to matt at benn loxo. It’s off a compilation of Congolese pop recorded in the early days of independence, before the nation imploded. The song mentions in respectful terms some of the early political leaders of the country, including President Joseph Kasa-Vubu, but not the first Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba, who was arrested, executed and buried in the jungle in an operation apparently involving Belgian troops and the CIA.

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