On June 5, 1978,
the Congolese dictator Joseph-Désiré Mobutu stood on a hot grassy bluff in the
south of his vast country — then named Zaire — and watched as the engines on a
space rocket ignited. “Slowly, the rocket rose from the launching pad. A
hundred kilometers into the atmosphere, that’s where it was headed, a new step
forward in African space travel.” After a few moments, though, “the rocket
listed, cut a neat arc to the left and landed a few hundred meters away, in the
valley of the Luvua, where it exploded.” For David Van Reybrouck the rocket
represents Mobutu’s regime: “A parabola of soot. . . . After the steep rise of
the first years, his Zaire toppled inexorably and plunged straight into the
Watching the failed rocket launch on YouTube is both Pythonesque and distressing. How did the West German space company Otrag get absolute control of an area of Congo the size of Iceland? Imagine if Mobutu’s state had been better run, not just that Congo had become a launchpad for interstellar travel, but that it had been able to project a stabilizing influence on neighboring Rwanda, heading off the 1994 genocide there. Imagine that the subsequent Congolese wars never happened, that five million Congolese never died; imagine that Congo’s minerals and timber were sold transparently and at fair market value. Imagine all the people. . . .
Van Reybrouck, a Belgian historian, spent years working on this overview of the Congolese people. Its translation from Dutch, by Sam Garrett, is a piece of luck for English-speaking readers. This is a magnificent account, intimately researched, and relevant for anyone interested in how the recent past may inform our near future. Van Reybrouck begins with a quotation from a Congolese writer: “Le Rêve et l’Ombre étaient de très grands camarades.” The Dream and the Shadow were the best of comrades. It is beautifully judged; dreams and shadows really are the way into Congo.
You are first of all overwhelmed by its immensity. If you placed the Democratic Republic of Congo on a map of Europe, its eastern border would sit at Moscow and its western border would be at Paris: 905,000 square miles. Few good roads. Van Reybrouck estimates that an hour of travel in the Belgian Congo would now take an entire day. In an age when connectivity is a definition of prosperity, Congo has been running backward.
Van Reybrouck’s bibliography alone is worth the cover price. But what distinguishes the book is its clearheadedness. He patiently reminds us that Congo will always be a case apart because of its wealth. From Congo have come the materials of modernity: rubber for tires, copper and iron for industry, diamonds, uranium for nuclear warheads, coltan for cellphones. No hacking at the rock in Congo, no freeway, no Hiroshima, no iPhone. Washington think tanks are obsessed with Afghanistan, that other plummeting state, but Afghanistan looks like a distraction in planetary terms compared with what Congo is and what it becomes, what is kept alive there and what is dug up there.
Scientists say the Congolese rain forest must survive if we are to temper our climate. Equally important is to preserve the genetic diversity of microbial, plant and animal life on which Congo’s future wealth will depend. Congo’s mineral resources are unmatched — China is in Africa for Congolese ore. The Congo River provides unceasing freshwater and hydroelectric potential. Then there is us. There were 15 million Congolese at independence from Belgium in 1960. There are 71 million now. There will be an estimated 150 million before the middle of the century. Kinshasa is projected by then to be bigger than New York and Chicago combined.
Van Reybrouck skips a smooth stone across the deepness of days that form Congolese prehistory. We fast-forward through seasonal expeditions for catfish on streams flowing into the Great Lakes to the capture of Pygmies in the rain forest by ancient Egyptians and their journey up the Nile to dance for the Pharaohs. Plantain was introduced, more plentiful than yams, and its greenery did not draw the malarial mosquito. At some point drumming was invented. Drummers were capable of sending complex messages 370 miles in a day. Most people died where they were born. Then the Portuguese incursions on the Atlantic coast began. They left Catholic kingdoms. Maize was introduced, intensifying farming and trade. Slaves were hauled out. Four million Congolese were shipped to the Americas — 30 percent of the Atlantic slave trade. Ivory from forest elephants went along as well, to be turned into billiard balls in the industrial north. The deep memory of the Congolese was powerful beyond words then, but it went unrecorded. We can track languages, music, genes and pathogens, but monuments were grass, and artifacts were skins; there was no writing.
The recorded history is short, dramatic and one-sided. Whatever Congo had was fed into the maw of the world — and the world was indifferent. In 1874, The New York Herald and The Daily Telegraph of London financed Henry Morton Stanley, a Welsh explorer and journalist, to travel the length of the Congo River. Stanley arrived at the Atlantic in 1877. He was taken on the payroll of King Leopold II of Belgium, whose ministate had been created in 1830 as a buffer between France and Prussia. Leopold wanted a large slice of Africa and got it the Belgian way: Congo would be a free trade buffer between other colonial interests. Some villagers rose against the whites because they were white as bones; they must have come from the land of the dead. (Echoes of that feeling persist.) Traders and missionaries followed in Stanley’s footsteps. A third of the early Baptist missionaries died in the field. It was the Catholics who mostly won out. Catholic schools, Scout troops and sports clubs provided the basis of the Congolese elite.
Leopold’s bet paid off. John Boyd Dunlop’s invention of the inflatable rubber tire created a demand for Congolese rubber. The profits went to build Belgium at the cost of Congolese lives. Murder was casual. Since bullets were in short supply, there was a habit of cutting off the hands of those who had been shot as proof a bullet had been used to shoot a person and not an animal. It was worse than slavery: “For while an owner took care of his slave, . . . Leopold’s rubber policies by definition had no regard for the individual.” It would be absurd to talk of genocide or a holocaust, Van Reybrouck says, “but it was definitely a hecatomb.”
Leopold’s dynastic rule could not last. In 1908 Belgium assumed full responsibility. The Belgian Congo was racist, objectionable in its inequity and plunder. Colonial officers and particularly commercial officers were skittish; tiny numbers held the enterprise together. Yet many older Congolese today remain wistful for it. Compared with what followed, the colony was in some ways admirable. Mortality fell, education rose. A large chunk of the colonial budget was locally raised. Working conditions became better than in most other places in Africa. A gold miner in the Kilo-Moto mines, for instance, received a daily ration of meat or fish, beans, rice, bananas, salt and oil — a diet many Congolese today can only dream of.
Congo had a good Second World War. The colony was manful where the mother country folded. Congolese troops helped liberate Abyssinia (now Ethiopia). The managing director of the state mining concern flooded the uranium mines at Shinkolobwe and shipped 1,375 tons of uranium to New York, a stockpile that enabled the Manhattan Project. The postwar period was curiously calm. Whites and a very few educated Congolese lived sunny lives in the highly socially engineered campuses around the country’s larger enterprises. In 1955, King Baudouin was rapturously received right across Congo. But back in Belgium an obscure article in a Flemish Catholic workers’ magazine suggested Congo should become independent in the year 1985. The article was a sensation in Congo. It was the first time a date had been mentioned: Independence was suddenly not a matter of if, but when.
As late as 1959, the handover still looked years away: “Of the 4,878 higher-¬ranking positions, only three were occupied by Congolese in 1959.” That explained the desire for independence, but also showed how unprepared the country was. Independence came on June 30, 1960 — so fast, like a craft careening over a waterfall. The Congolese Army under the command of Gen. Émile Janssens, “the most Prussian of all Belgian officers,” collapsed after only a few days. If it had remained under external command for another four years or so, while Congolese staff officers were trained in Belgium, it might have been of service to the country. As it was, angry corporals became greedy colonels overnight. Most of the Belgians left within weeks.
There were four Congolese leaders — Joseph Kasavubu, Moïse Tshombe, Patrice Lumumba and Mobutu — who triumphed. Lumumba was canonized as a peerless anticolonialist by Pan-¬Africanists after being executed by Tshombe, with Mobutu’s connivance. Van Rey-brouck quotes Congolese and Belgians as saying that Lumumba was vain, weak and empty-headed. His possible turn toward the Soviet Union and determination to keep Congo as a centralized unitary state meant there was C.I.A., MI6 and Belgian intelligence collusion in his death.
Alas, there is no space here to go into Van Reybrouck’s treatment of the presidency of Kasavubu, the early Mobutu years, the rotting out of the state, the horrors of the first and second Congolese wars, the entry of China into Congo. Nor can justice be done to the numerous personal stories of Congolese that Van Reybrouck tells. I will pick out just two.
Simon Kimbangu was born in 1889. He believed himself to be a divine messenger of Christ. He saw visions. Kimbanguists to this day believe he raised the dead. He said, “The whites shall be black and the black shall be whites.” The Belgians did not like that. Kimbangu was sent to prison in 1921 and died there in 1951. He’s important because he pioneered the mix of populism and Pentecostalist fervor that is arguably the strongest social force in Africa. With its large numbers of unemployed youth, new divines are sure to rise up in Congo. These Kimbangus will most likely be more violent and explosive — a kind of counterreformation against secularism, science and individualism.
Finally, Van Reybrouck offers one of the most extraordinary African stories I have come across in recent years. He sought out elderly Congolese to get their memories. That was how he met Étienne Nkasi in a shack in Kinshasa. Van Reybrouck went into the dimness and was greeted with a Roald Dahl scene. Nkasi sat up in bed. “His glasses were attached to his head with a rubber band. Behind the thick and badly scratched lenses I made out a pair of watery eyes.” How old was he? “Je suis né en mille-huit cent quatre-vingt deux.” I was born in 1882. A 126-year-old man, one of the oldest men who ever lived? Born three years before King Leopold took control of Congo? Van Reybrouck checked and double-checked. Nkasi knew the names of missionaries apparently held only on records in Belgium. He personally knew Kimbangu, who was born in a nearby village. “Kimbangu was greater than me in pouvoir de Dieu, but I was greater in years.” Nkasi died in 2010, aged 128. Van Reybrouck says he met Nkasi for the first time right after Barack Obama won the presidency. “Is it true,” Nkasi asked in wonderment, “that a black man has been elected president of the United States?”
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