In 1992, I sat on the banks of the great Zaire River and watched Congolese cannibalise their capital, Kinshasa, looting shops, destroying buildings and ripping copper wire from telephone lines. As drunken looters drove brand new cars out of showrooms straight into the nearest walls, one had scrawled on the last remaining unbroken plate glass window, Merci pour La Fete – “Thanks for the Party.”
The ability of Africans to destroy their fragile nations in an orgy of blood-letting has interested Europeans since colonial times. Tim Butcher’s overland trip through the Congo follows H. M. Stanley’s controversial 1870s footsteps into Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. And dark, the Congo is indeed. Where Stanley had porters, firearms and a specially made boat, Butcher uses a brace of Yamaha 100cc trail bikes, a UN gunboat and, for the final miles, a chopper. Stanley engaged in more than thirty pitched battles with understandably hostile Congolese tribes. Butcher has the sense to keep his head down.
At times Butcher seems entranced by the danger he has put himself into – describing his plan as “suicidal,” saying he “must be as crazy as Stanley.” Nevertheless, travelling across Africa unscathed is something that millions of Africans do every day. Butcher makes it home with no more than a dose of fever and eighty thousand words on the depressing devastation of the Congo.
Weaving travelogue and history, Butcher uses wit and humour to describe the difficulties of travel aboard Maybe Airlines (Maybe you get there, maybe you don’t); repairing punctures in the bush; and running road blocks. He writes intelligently about lost opportunities, vividly portrayed through people like the chief who last saw a car in 1985 and the mayor who has no telephone contact with the capital and no funds to pay his workers. “When were things last normal?” Butcher asks. “The 1950s,” the Mayor replies.
Few have demonstrated their commitment to travel across the Congo with as much zeal and determination as Butcher. He treads well-worn territory and too often slides into travel’s day-to-day mechanics. An obsession with completing the trip, coupled to a less worthy fascination with Stanley, a murky and deeply disturbed figure at best, exposes the book’s flaw – the central premise that “by comparing Congo today with Stanley’s Congo… I could fathom the extent of Africa’s problems.” Understanding contemporary Africa via Stanley’s eyes is about as helpful as understanding the Middle East through George Bush.
Reviewer: Julian Ozanne, former Financial Times Africa correspondent, runs an environmental business in Africa.