A book that seeks to, and then succeeds in addressing the immense task of the entire history of a nation is a truly rare feat. A book that in doing so provides invaluable human perspective to all who read it is an even rarer one.
For the last week, I have spent hours a day reading David Van Reybrouck’s Congo: The Epic History of a People. It has been a while since a book captured me the way that Congo has. While I’ve thoroughly enjoyed some of my recent reading projects, Congo is a book so gripping I felt guilty walking away from it. I made plans in ways that would specifically free up time to read it, I filled my copy with some 30 tabs to keep hold of special moments, many of which I couldn’t fit into this review. I sat enthralled in the history of a people I have not once met in real life, but, as I would soon discover, whose history is deeply interwoven with the rest of the world, including mine.
What is there to say when you are whisked through such a book? It was an incredible roller coaster ride in the diversity of the human experience. The first thing I would say I suppose, is that I beg you to read it. It offers even more than simply the fact it is great entertainment. We in the west know so little about Africa, Australians especially. For one thing, my university, the ANU, has recently stepped from offering exactly zero courses in African history to exactly one. In fact, as I’m studying a history minor, I’ve been hoping for some time for a course in African history, and I’m looking forward to taking it, but I decided that before then, I could at the very least do some research of my own, so I picked up what I considered to be ‘a book about Africa’.
And while I was technically right, and in many ways, Congo is a book about Africa, it is about so much more. It is about colonialism, it is about genocide, it is about democracy, it is about culture, it is about religion, it is about greed, it is about compassion, it is about capitalism, it is about communism, it’s about the First and Second World Wars and the Cold War and the Korean War and the Vietnam War, it is about children and grandparents, students, shopkeepers and politicians and footballers. I could go on and on. The success Van Reybrouck achieves here is not only by documenting a wonderful history of the Congo. What makes this a masterpiece is the way that he weaves it together with the history of the world, bringing to light the enormous importance and influence of a nation that before reading this book, I knew not a single thing about, and the intensity of perspective that even a cursory understanding Congo’s history can offer us all.
With the integrity of an academic and poise of a great novelist, Van Reybrouck charts the experience of countless memorable Congolese people over the course of 125 years. The book begins in the fashion it will continue, with an account of a human story. It’s that of old Ngasi, who claimed to be born in 1882, who recalled meeting the first white men to set foot in the Congo.
Over the course of Congo, Van Reybrouck then introduces us to a huge and diverse group of people. He excels in providing a cross section of the Congolese experience, across all of its history. He teaches us of groups of men who had been the ‘boys’ of the earliest governor generals, young Congolese who studied in Belgium in the colonial period, soldiers who walked across the Sahara to Egypt in the Second World War, trade union leaders murdered for their activism in the 1960s. He interviews the women who started the first women’s leagues in Congo, and discusses the experience of his own father, who worked in Katanga, the southernmost province of Congo dedicated to mining during the long Mobutu regime. He speaks candidly with child soldiers who fought in both the Congo Wars of the turn of the twentieth century, and Congolese exchange students who came close to the riots at Tiananmen in China. I am not even halfway through the most memorable of these characters, you will have to read it to meet the rest, although I will say that Che Guevara even makes an amusing and little-known personal cameo.
Tracing Congo’s timeline from the first European contact all the way to an expat Congolese community in Guangzhou 125 years later, Van Reybrouck covers simply too much for me to reflect on it all. As usual, I’ll selectively reflect on a few of the insights that struck me the most.
The book (perhaps reflecting the nation’s history) is built around the ruckus of liberation. Belgium, only 2 years earlier having zero plans to leave Congo, abruptly pulled the pin on its former colonial holding in 1960. The murder of Prime Minister Lumumba and move to military dictatorship between 1960 and 1965 represented a soap opera of enormous scale and consequence in Congolese history, and has much to teach us about the problems of forging a future for nation’s living in the post-colonial world. In general a great deal of the value I took from Congo rests with its indispensable insights into the post-colonial experience. For a nation and people that had spent so many years under the colonial thumb, a sudden and poorly prepared liberation proved disastrous. Completely unacquainted with the tasks of government, and souped up on Pan-African and Congolese nationalism, the Congolese people descended rapidly into chaos.
The brave activism of those Congolese who had hope for a better future led me to reflect on what I’ve learned this year about democratic movements, and about the post-colonial world generally. The world is brimming with people who care deeply about free and fair elections, the right to be safe in their own homes, about the public provision of basic services, just as I do, but the persecution they often face is immense, both in history and today. In a memorable moment, Congo paints the moving picture of electoral commission officials sleeping by the ballot box they were entrusted in the 2006 elections. They were insistent on never letting it out of their sight lest it be meddled with. The box contained just one province’s votes.
In turn, Congo led me to think about the state, what it is, and why we have it. The reason this felt new to me was that until now, I had supposed that the monopoly on violence was really very hypothetical. You know, most of the time it’s a sort of contingency for the worst case scenarios. I had not yet realised how closed minded that assumption was, nor how manifestly inaccurate.
Congo led me to reflect deeply on violence.
Some of the violence recounted in Congo is sickening. It’s traumatic, terrifying, and in many cases simply too much to comprehend. The First and Second Congo wars had many leftover actors from the Rwandan genocide, another event I had never taken the time to truly think about. The numbers of people killed violently in preventable circumstances in central Africa represents perhaps the greatest collection of tragedy and misery I have ever taken the time to truly understand. The stories of families traumatised forever after horrific plundering, rape, and murder from rebels, or in as many cases, their own ‘government forces’, appear repeatedly throughout this book. It was eye opening to say the least. It seemed that every page carried a story which, despite being detailed in a couple of sentences, will never be erased from the minds of countless of the Congolese directly or indirectly affected by it.
I think this is the biggest thing I took from Congo.
Again and again it dragged me out of the bubble I have grown up in, and showed me the enormous opportunity that sheer chance has provided me, if nothing else, the opportunity to live. There is so much to be grateful for about my life and my country, and the deep detail of the suffering endured by my fellow human beings in Congo brought this to the fore in a way no book has ever done for me before. The depth and scale of Van Reybrouck’s project is staggering, and I can barely do it justice in a review like this.
As always, and to reinforce that perspective, I’ll recall the one moment in this book that struck me most. In this case, I think it’s unlikely I’ll ever forget.
At the dawn of the first Congo War the Rwandan backed rebel organisation the AFDL, led by Tutsi general James Kabarebe, sent a child soldier named Ruffin (later interviewed by Van Reybrouck) to provide recon on the movements of the FAZ (the Congolese [Zaire at the time] national army). On return, his kadogo (child soldier) reported to Kabarebe significant plundering, the troops were scattered and poorly organised. The general took the opportunity to begin an invasion of Eastern Congo, with his kadogos on the front line. Here is an excerpt of the events that followed:
My first fight was with the Mai-mai who were guarding the offices … A Mai-mai came up running to me with his red kerchief. I put a bullet through his head. I had never killed anyone before and it felt terrible. Let me go back to the third section, I begged the officers. You have no choice, they told me, they gave me a hundred lashes.
He was eventually kidnapped. He goes on:
The Hutus had new machetes, they glistened: they were like mirrors. My friend looked the other way when they raised the machete. He screamed. I saw his hand, still moving, even though it was already lying on the ground. They kept on chopping, they ran their blades through his body, until he was dead. They they did the same to the second one, and the third. My friends were slaughtered one by one while I watched.
He was spared, and returned to Kabarebe, who took this as a supernatural sign, assigning Ruffin to be a personal bodyguard of his, and they pushed on into Congo to ‘neutralise’ the Hutu presence in the refugee camps in Congo.
In terms of gaining perspective, this is the event that struck me the most,
At the Kashusa (Hutu refugee) camp, close to Bukavu, I went into a tent. (His comrades) had just killed a grandmother, there was a heavily pregnant woman, and a toddler. I was forced to kill them. The toddler held my gun, he didn’t even know what it was.
The rebels took Uvira on the 28th of October 1996, the day I was born, and Bukavu two days later. This could very well have happened that same day.
Perhaps these stories should have been galling enough to trigger a deep empathy for the victims of these horrible events regardless, but that little coincidence brought it all to the fore for me. At that time, my own mother was a heavily pregnant woman in a hospital thousands of miles away, my sister a toddler too.
All I could think was “What’s the difference, in the loss of humanity, or the depth of pain, between what happened that day in Kashusa, and a child coming into my mothers room at the Woden hospital that day and being forced to kill her and my sister, leaving me never to be born?”
Nothing. It could have been us.
Still, there is hope, since after all, life must go on. As the Congolese apparently often say in the midst of it all, “ça va comme ça”.
In the most difficult of times and places there is always joy to be found, it’s just not possible to be miserable all the time. Leaving no stone unturned, I took enjoyment in the fact that Van Reybrouck is sure to explore Congolese street culture, dancing, football, and music, sharing with me a nation in its total depth, in its good times and bad.
Congo was so much more than just a lesson in the miserable, it was the chance to learn about a nation that yes, has suffered, but more than that, is representative of the great diversity of the human experience, at both its best and its worst.
You can buy the book here: