Blood River

Thoughts on Tim Butcher's Blood River

I suppose my imagination wrote the adventure I thought I was going to read as I stood in line at my bookstore with Blood River tucked under my arm. When I had read the description printed on the leaf of the front cover, I imagined the author battling his way through the African landscape with a rucksack on his back, a machete in his hand and a mixture of excitement and fear in his heart.

While Blood River, being a story of a man largely using modern transportation methods instead of hoofing it the way the explorer Stanley did, was not what I was expecting, it was still an interesting tale of a man's journey across a country in decline juxtaposed with historical excerpts either discovered through the author's own research or gleaned from the stories told by the locals he met along the way.

I was fascinated by the descriptions of the ruined cities he passed through as once-thriving boom towns of a promising time. I was disappointed, as was the author, to discover that towns that had once been the home of many thousands of people, with paved roads, running water, electricity and the rule of law had degraded into derelict ruins of miserable poverty and hardship. Butcher does a nice job of painting a mental picture of former modern buildings reclaimed by the Congolese wilderness, of a nation with great potential regressing to despotic ways and largely rejected the influences of the modern world.

What struck me as I read through the book was how provisionally unprepared the author seemed to be for his adventure. Surely, he did not expect it to be easy, as his years of pre-journey preparations revealed to him a country at war with itself, with lawless armies of rebels ravaging the countryside, murdering the Congolese and corrupt politicians extorting money from everyone they could intimidate. Even as he set out on the first leg of his trip from the town of Kalemie on the shores of Lake Tanganyika, he had only a few bottles of water and no food save for a handful of energy sweets. I found it staggering that someone intending to cross a country lacking in modern comforts and amenities would decide not to bring any food at all. By his own admission, he intended to rely on the villages he passed along the way for his meals. These are villages whose people are already starving, "skeletal" victims of murderous rampages of the rebels who sweep through an area to kill, rape and plunder and the author thought it would be a good idea to just take his meals from them? One of the frustrations he shares when discussing the history of the explorer Stanley's initial journey in the 1870s was that it jump-started a European policy of white men taking complete advantage of the Congolese people, the Congolese land and all the raw resources it had to offer. For someone who regretted the fact that the white man profited from and savagely mistreated the people of the Congo, it is ridiculous and thoughtless of him to decide he was going to leech his own travel resources from the impoverished people unlucky enough to be in his way.  He also seemed mentally unprepared for what lay before him. Only a day and a half into his journey and already "I no longer had the wits to deal with anything".

Those criticisms aside, Tim Butcher was massively appreciative of the people who helped him along his way. The pygmy Georges Mbuyu, Care International operatives Benoit and Odimba and several others all received their due appreciation and respect from the author.

By the end of the book, I was left feeling sad for the people of the Congo. During the Belgian colonial period, the Congo showed promise. It is a country rich in economic potential with large quantities of diamonds, cobalt, tin and rubber available, if only someone would get organized and responsibly harvest them. Instead, as one UN officer told the author, "[T]he Congo people. They don't want to make money for themselves. They just wait to take money from others." The author's own concern was similarly grim: "The world seems to view the Congo as a lost cause without hope of ever being put right."

While offering a good look at the situation the country is in now, Blood River did not leave me optimistic about its future. I knew little about the Congo before I read this book and while I know I can't take one author's word as law, I at least feel I have a better understanding of a country that I knew only by name a few days ago.