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TraveLit--A blog about travel literature. 

     Even with the best of maps and instruments, we can never fully chart our journeys.

Review: Blood River: A Journey to Africa's Broken Heart

Blood River: A Journey to Africa’s Broken Heart
By Tim Butcher. Grove Press, 2007, 2008, 363 pp.

After Tim Butcher, a war correspondent, was appointed Africa Correspondent for The Daily Telegraph, he became obsessed with Henry Morton Stanley, the great explorer—and not-so-great human being—who was also sent to Africa by The Telegraph more than a hundred years before. Although most famous for finding David Livingstone in 1871 (“Dr. Livingstone, I presume”), Stanley achieved something more significant: on his 3000-kilometer journey between 1874 and 1877, he mapped the Congo River, opening the country to brutal Belgian colonization that has been followed by years of war and chaos.

Determined to “go back to where it all began” and to “draw together the Congo’s fractious whole,” Butcher decided to follow Stanley’s route from the east side of the country to the west. Although warned by everyone he spoke to that, amidst the deterioration of the Congo and the various wars, it couldn’t be done, he nonetheless prepared. And when, in 2004, warring factions agreed to a peace treaty, he saw his chance and set out.

In Blood River, Butcher provides a compelling account of his dangerous journey, interweaving historical background with a vivid recreation of his ordeal. Helped by UN workers and Congolese, he travels by motorbike or pirogue, eats more cassava than he can stand, is generally uncomfortable, exhausted, and fearing for his life.

As he travels, he reflects on Stanley, the colonial past, post-independence, and the corruption, misery, hunger, and hardship he encounters everywhere. Although the Congo is rich in natural resources, the people do not benefit. Wandering fighters destroy the possibility of normal life; repeatedly, the people he meets describe how one group or another have invaded and ruined their village, taking everything they have, and taking lives. Over and over, he hears, “And we fled into the bush.”

What Butcher also finds everywhere he goes are remnants of a colonial society that functioned. At one time, there were roads and railways, boats navigated the river routinely, towns had hotels and restaurants. He describes his mother’s journey to the Congo as a young woman in 1958, on a pleasure trip. All that now remains of that old world are pieces of railway track, ruins of buildings. “I was travelling through a country with more past than future,” he says, “a place where the hands of the clock spin not forwards, but backwards.”

I find it painful to think of nostalgia for the trappings of “civilization” in view of the price of colonization, but Butcher says that “some people were so desperate they actually pined for the old and brutal order of Belgian colonial life.” What they miss, he hears from everyone, is any sense of lawfulness. Above all what is needed in the Congo, he says, “above aid shipments or charitable donations is a sense of law and order.”

Why Africa has not recovered from its colonial past, what the Congo was like before the slave traders arrived, what part of the current corruption is played by economic imperialism today are among the questions raised by this book. But though he touches upon them, it isn’t Tim Butcher’s aim to answer them. Though it contains a wealth of information, this is neither a history nor an anthropological work. Blood River is a personal adventure. As Butcher says at the end, “I had faced down the Congo, the most dangerous, chaotic, backward country in Africa.” Equally, this excellent book is a powerful testimony bearing witness to human suffering.

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