The Congo River is 2,900 miles in length and could be the highway to the future for the 67 million Congolese and tens of millions in neighboring countries. But today it represents one of Earth’s last frontiers.
Only the most intrepid venture onto the river or into the interior of this impoverished wasteland known as the Democratic Republic of Congo, a land that has gone from shaky post-colonial state to a primitive, almost impassible jungle.
Henry Morton Stanley, the Welsh-born American journalist reporting for the New York Herald and London Telegraph, was the first to traverse the river through the heart of Africa in 1877, a 999-day journey in which two thirds of his 300 member party died en route.
Tim Butcher, the Telegraph’s Africa correspondent from earlier in this decade, decided to retrace his steps — with some assists from international charities, which made available motorbikes and drivers, and the U.N. mission, which let him hitch a ride on chartered vessels. He spent 44 days and lived to tell about it.
This is travelogue at its best, but so much more: Those who care about the fate of Africa, who want to see the continent prosper, should read this book to grasp the immensity of the problems of the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Fifty years ago, the journey would have been relatively easy, for Belgium, the colonial power, left a relatively efficient system of steamboats on the navigable stretches and rail transport where it was impassable. Today, the only way to follow the course of the river is by motorbike along rough and pitted dirt roads, pirogue or dugout canoe, and, if you’re lucky, on U.N. boats. Butcher calls it “ordeal travel”.
After traversing Katanga province, where Mai Mai tribesmen at the time were routinely sacking and burning villages, leaving devastation in their wake, he arrives in Kasongo, the first major stop on the journey, to receive an incredulous greeting from a Kenyan employed by Care International. “Well you must be as crazy as Stanley,” says aid worker Tom Nyamwaya. “God knows what they would have done to you if they caught you… I would not travel anywhere in this country except by plane. You would have to be mad to go out there into the bush.”
But like so many other aid workers, all of whom Butcher contacted in advance, Tom provides him motorbikes and drivers for the onward journey.
The Congo he crosses is a completely failed state. At the first village where they overnight, his driver tells him the village chief “welcomes us, and is sorry but there is no food to offer… he said the Mai Mai passed through here a few days ago and they took all the food before they left…”
There is no almost public transport, and often no private transport. Everywhere he goes, people live in abject poverty and fear of gunmen from unknown quarters. More than a few older Congolese are nostalgic for the Belgians.
This is astonishing when one recalls that King Leopold laid claim to the country in 1885 with the aid of the same Henry Stanley, then ran the country as a private property, until human rights campaigners in Europe and the United States shamed Belgium into taking control.
In Ubundu, at the top of Stanley Falls, where Butcher arrives via pirogue, a Roman Catholic priest provides lodging for a night but begs him to leave quickly, fearing the Mai Mai. “This is a terrible place where terrible things happen. You really must leave before they find you,” says Father Adalbert Mwehu Nzuzi.
In Kisangani, the L’hotel Pourquoi Pas — where Katherine Hepburn stayed when filming The African Queen in the ‘50s — is now “a broken ruin, home to scores of squatters who sleep on the bare floor next to walls stained with damp.”
A hawker jumps on the UN barge Butcher hitched a ride on for 600 miles from Kisangani towards Kinshasa. “A boat like this is our only chance to earn any money,” said Jerome Bilole, 36. “My village is like a community from the olden times, when people did not have clothes to wear. Your boat is our only lifeline.”
In a village of Mutshaliko, along the way, the local administrative secretary bemoans the gunmen who “come from time to time and take everything… we don’t know where they come from or who they are fighting for. They just take our chickens and our goats and cassava and then leave.”
Speaking of cassava, the staple of the jungle village, Butcher recalls toying “with a marble sized piece (of cassava), struggling to overcome a gag reflex brought on by the rotting cheese smell and wallpaper-paste texture.”
But for the “ordeal traveler”, the greater the challenge, the greater the reward. “High on the Congo there were no helicopters to summon, no rescue teams to call on. I felt very alone. But instead of being overwhelmed by helplessness, I found it liberating,” he writes.
That may be the zen of it for Butcher; for a reader, his tribulation illuminates the journey, the traveler, and most important the plight of that benighted land.