Skip to main content

Review: Blood River by Tim Butcher



Full title: Blood River: A Journey to Africa’s Broken Heart
Genre: Travel
Subjects: Africa, the Congo river, Democratic Republic of the Congo, colonialism, history, adventure, exploitation, war.
Reading challenge:  The 2016 Nonfiction Reading Challenge, hosted by The Introverted Reader
Challenge tally: 3 books.

“I was travelling through a country with more past than future, a place where the hands of the clock spin not forwards, but backwards.”

This is the realisation that came to author Tim Butcher when he was about halfway through his foolhardy mission to follow the Congo river from it’s source all the way to the sea. Butcher had became fascinated with the Congo, especially the part played by Henry Morton Stanley in opening it up to European exploration and exploitation, and decided to follow Stanley’s route along the river as best he could. On the way he met all sorts of people: officials, both corrupt and otherwise, missionaries, aid workers and their African helpers, and Congolese people who were just trying to scrape a living in this dangerous country.

“‘But the Congo people. They don’t want to make money for themselves. They just want to take money from others.’”

This quotation came from an outsider whom Butcher believes put his finger on the Congo’s biggest problem: greed. The Democratic Republic of the Congo is a country rich in both minerals and natural resources, but the harsh conditions of the Belgian colonial rule broke down the age-old tribal system and when the Belgians left, the country was taken over by people who just wanted to exploit it for their own gain. Butcher calls it a kleptocracy. The result was that the good things that came from the Belgian rule, such as roads, railways, electrical systems, hospitals, schools, and other infrastructure, were left to moulder through lack of funds which all got skimmed into various pockets, while parts of the unfair bureaucracy system seem to have been retained.

He reports grinding poverty, formerly grand towns in ruins, roads and railway tracks being eaten by the jungle, decimated wildlife because the people have to rely on bush meat in the absence of domestic animals, malnutrition because the only crop people are interested in growing is fast-growing and belly-filling but nutrition-poor cassava, and the constant threat to towns and villages of raids by various militias and rebel groups. He draws a clear and unflinching picture of a society that has descended into lawlessness, anomy and anarchy.

While Butcher lays out the possible reasons for the situation, he offers no solutions, just lays out the facts, allowing the readers to draw their own conclusions. This is perhaps wise, since the problems of Africa are so vast that one single solution doesn't exist. He also carefully avoids criticising anyone too much. I suppose it’s not a good idea for a journalist on the Africa beat to be too critical of the regimes he writes about - it might make it impossible for him to visit the country again and do his job, but I would have liked to have seen some opinions from him.

The book is well written and it's good to be able to read about the things they don’t tell you in the news reports, but one can’t help but wonder about Butcher’s motivations for doing the trip.

But then why does anyone make a trip like this? He calls it ordeal travel, and he’s right: this is not a trip one makes for fun or for the adventure. He faced scorching heat and the attendant risks of hyperthermia and dehydration, the threat of malaria and other tropical diseases, danger of accidents during road travel, and the constant danger from bad people kept him moving as fast as he could. He may not have travelled armed and with hundreds of bearers like Stanley, but he had the help of natives, missionaries and aid-workers he encountered on the way, which is, in my mind, much more sensible than trying to struggle it alone.

This is a dark book about bad things, but it does explain, even if it’s only in passing, some of the problems faced by this war-torn country. It is also, despite Butcher’s assertion that it was ordeal travel and not an adventure, a cracking adventure read.
If you have read it and liked it for the travel aspect, I’d like to recommend The Places in Between by Rory Stewart, which is about another of those journeys that make one question the sanity and motives of the person who did them. It describes a walk across Afghanistan in winter. Like Blood River, it also describes a war-torn country where there has been a breakdown of law and order.


Final thoughts:
This is a book that makes one angry and sad. Angry at the colonial powers for their exploitation and terrible treatment of the native people in the past, and even angrier at the natives who then took charge and treated their own people even more atrociously. Sad for knowing that it is a helpless anger because it doesn’t matter how much effort and money outsiders like the UN and various NGOs pour into the country - it’s like putting tiny sticking plasters on a gaping wound and hoping they will heal it. Nothing is going to happen for the better until there is willingness among the majority of the people themselves to fins solutions to the problems. 

Right now, it looks like there is a tenuous peace in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and I hope it will hold and develop into something good.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Reading report for January 2014

Here it is, finally: the reading report for January. (February‘s report is in the works: I have it entered into Excel and I just need to transfer it into Word, edit the layout and write the preface. It will either take a couple of days or a couple of months).

I finished 26 books in January, although admittedly a number of them were novellas. As I mentioned in my previous post, I delved into a new(ish) type of genre: gay (or M/M) romance. I found everything from genuinely sweet romance to hardcore BDSM, in sub-genres like fantasy, suspense and mystery and even a quartet of entertaining (and unlikely) rock star romances. Other books I read in January include the highly enjoyable memoir of cooking doyenne Julia Child, two straight romances, and Jennifer Worth‘s trilogy of memoirs about her experiences as a midwife in a London slum in the 1950s. I also watched the first season of the TV series based on these books and may (I say 'may') write something about this when I have finis…

How to make a simple origami bookmark

Here are some instructions on how to make a simple origami (paper folding) bookmark:

Take a square of paper. It can be patterned origami paper, gift paper or even office paper, just as long as it’s easy to fold. The square should not be much bigger than 10 cm/4 inches across, unless you intend to use the mark for a big book. The images show what the paper should look like after you follow each step of the instructions. The two sides of the paper are shown in different colours to make things easier, and the edges and fold lines are shown as black lines.


Fold the paper in half diagonally (corner to corner), and then unfold. Repeat with the other two corners. This is to find the middle and to make the rest of the folding easier. If the paper is thick or stiff it can help to reverse the folds.



Fold three of the corners in so that they meet in the middle. You now have a piece of paper resembling an open envelope. For the next two steps, ignore the flap.



Fold the square diagonally in two. You…

List love: A growing list of recommended books with elderly protagonists or significant elderly characters

I think it's about time I posted this, as I have been working on it for a couple of months.
I feel there isn’t enough fiction written about the elderly, or at least about the elderly as protagonists. The elderly in fiction tend to be supporting characters, often wise elders (such as  Dumbledore in the Harry Potter books) or cranky old neighbour types (e.g. the faculty of Unseen University in the Discworld series) or helpless oldsters (any number of books, especially children’s books) for the protagonist to either help or abuse (depending on whether they’re a hero or not).
Terry Pratchett has written several of my favourite elderly protagonists and they always kick ass in one way or another, so you will see several of his books on this list, either as listed items or ‘also’ mentions.
Without further ado: Here is a list of books with elderly protagonists or significant, important elderly characters. I leave it up to you to decide if you’re interested or not, but I certainly enjoyed…