I was travelling through a country with more past than future, a place where the hands of the clock spin not forwards, but backwards.
It doesn’t happen very often to me to mumble “No shit” at an audible level on a busy Tube car on a Tuesday afternoon (well, it doesn’t happen on any day of the week to be honest), but I just couldn’t help myself as I read page 249 of my edition of Blood River last Tuesday. A few lines before the passage I cited above, in facts, the author was wading through some pristine African bush, as his small convoy of two off-road motorbikes had stopped. Everything was silent, for anything that moved had long since been shot and eaten by desperate locals. Scrubs, vines and pervasive undergrowth all competed to get to the light, whatever filtered down from a tree canopy that felt bulletproof. Right there, in the middle of such a seemingly unspoilt scenery, Tim Butcher stumbled upon an old cast-iron sleeper, “perfectly preserved and still connected to a piece of track”.
It felt like the end of the first Planet of the Apes, but it wasn’t a 1960s Hollywood film set. This was 2004, this was the Congo and, much like Charlton Heston, Butcher had turned a corner and stumbled upon something that told him that, yes, this indeed is Planet Earth and that, yes, there had been a time where things were better. Or were they?
The beauty of Blood River is that it sets off trying to be many things – travelogue, investigative journalism, history, critique – and actually succeeds in all of them. Sure, the main story revolves around the epic attempt made by Tim Butcher, a Daily Telegraph correspondent, to emulate his predecessor and colleague Stanley in following the Congo river’s course from head to toe, but it’s also a pitiless report of the country’s rape at the hand of foreign powers, kleptocratic elites and of the often less-than-useful foreign aid groups or of the UN.
Butcher’s journey is nothing short of extraordinary. Setting of for a journey of thousands of kilometres, overland and by river, in a country that is the definition of a failed state, a few years from the official end of Africa’s first continental war, with ravaging militias still on the war path – and with a government not that far behind when it comes to looting and pillaging – means to have either a set of balls carved out of brass or to be on a death wish.
What I really appreciated is how this correspondent for the Torygraph doesn’t feel the need to embellish his prose with details of how badass he is, much to the contrary; he’s the first to admit what are his symptoms – physical ones– of fear (a throbbing in his throat and pain in the back of his knees) and he’s ready to praise his motorbike companions after a 500-km-ride leaves him pretty much toasted but doesn’t seem to be affecting them as much.
Throughout his journey, Butcher is quick to draw parallels between what he sees with his own eyes – the crumbling infrastructure, abject poverty, chronic insecurity – and what his extensive research and few witnesses can share with him about a past when the Congo was criss-crossed by steamers, where trains were running on schedule and where goods were readily available.
It’d be easy to fall in the old adage of ‘Africa was a lot better when it was managed by us lot’, with us lot being Europeans, but Butcher is quick to steer clear of that because yes, Belgian Congo might’ve had good railways and paddle steamers by the bucketful, but it was also the place where blacks needed a permit to walk along the public road, where only a handful of Africans had a degree and where the success of pacification missions was judged by the amount of chopped hands that the ‘pacifiers’ were returning home.
What emerges is a heart-breaking narrative, the story of a journey where everyone interviewed inevitably end their description of an event with the sentence “And then we fled to the bush”, where killing fields are so thick that burying bodies has long lost purpose, where the government has long given up any desire to provide welfare to the people and aid groups, few and far inbetween, are trying to fill the gap.
Throughout the book a question raged through my head: How can we fix this? I looked for answers in the aid industry, in the UN, in the Chinese boom that’s fuelling demand for the rare earths of which the Congo is so rich, but I should’ve just waited ‘til page 325, where an old African hand, a white Zimbabwean named Johnny, says to Tim “If you think you can solve Africa’s problems with money, then you are a bloody fool. You solve Africa’s problems by creating a system of justice that actually works and by making the leaders accountable for their actions”.
This, I thought while reclining my head against the glass pane of the Tube train, was the solution. With a government that is accountable for its acts, with a justice system that replaces the rule of the strongest with the rule of law, many of the issues witnessed by Tim Butcher as he descended the Congo would stand a chance to be solved, and most of the raiders, domestic or foreign, such as the mining company Johnny was working for, would be packing up.
Unfortunately, though, the same man went on to say “If that happens, I guess things would get a lot more competitive for my business”.