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.


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