This is a review of Congo - the Epic History of a People by David van Reybrouck, Harper Collins, NY, 2014.
This book provides a fascinating look into the Congo’s turbulent history. Rather than an academic recitation of facts and faces, the author strove to piece together the fabric of the Congo’s past by linking together anecdotes and memories of people who were actually there. Imagine how enormous was the task to find and interview such persons - people who essentially constituted the oral repository of the last hundred years. Yet van Reybrouck found them, even a man who had encountered Henry Morton Stanley in the waning years of the 19th century. Other interlocutors remembered building the railroads, being the first person in school, fighting WWII in Ethiopia, laboring in the mines, organizing unions, being persecuted, or elevated, by colonial authorities and the nascent political awakenings of the post war era. Independence era memories of men in close proximity to Kasavubu, Lumumba and Mobutu provided insight into their motivations and foibles. Similarly, additional interviews moved the story forward in time through the Mobutu years to the coming of the Kabilas. The vibrancy of personal recollections gives this book a special aura. Moreover the aura is Congolese because the folks interviewed were/are Congolese. The author reported their perceptions of their history even as he wove those memories into the more sterile historical record. The sum then becomes more than the parts and the result is a definitive epic - just as the subtitle indicates.
Although political history is fully recounted, the social aspects of past times were elucidating. What did Congolese people think about Europeans? and vice versa? Van Reybrouck makes no apologies for Belgian’s colonial rule, but he does dissect the colonial era carefully; usefully adding recollections from Belgians - including his own father - which show a more human side to the stark version of authoritarianism that is standard historical fare.
The treatise elaborates on the roles that popular music, sports, i.e. soccer, and religion - Catholics, Protestants, Kimbanguists, Pentecostals and other syncretic sects played in the evolution of society, and of politics. Similarly, the book covers the rise of tribalism, the phenomenon that plagues the Congo today, but which grew from a number of factors including slavery, urbanism, modern politics and poverty.
Clearly any history of the Congo has to study political non-functionality and corruption. These themes pervade the book. Corruption began with Leopold’s Free State, continued with Belgian monopolies, was adapted by Congolese politicians who seized assets for their own use, was refined in Mobutu’s system of control via payoffs, and culminated in the more recent scramble for minerals by warlords and neighboring authorities from Rwanda and Uganda. Dysfunctional politics too track the same trajectory wherein the need to control, and survive, outweighed any responsibilities to the community or society at large. The Congo did not fall into an economic and political abyss overnight. Its leaders, with at minimum the acquiescence of the people, took it there. Van Reybrouck’s book is a history, so does not propose solutions, but it does give readers an appreciation for the complexities of the current situation and of the hurdles that the nation faces as it tries to move forward.
The sections about the fall of Mobutu, the Rwandan/Ugandan invasion, the coming of Laurent Kabila, succession by his son Joseph and conflict in Kivus provide background on recent events. By and large van Reybrouck gets the facts right, and he does produce some interesting anecdotes, but he does err in adopting assertions by fellow countrymen Reyntjens and Braeckman both regarding the number of Rwandan refugees that died in the conflagration (he uses the inflated number of 300,000 that was bandied about at the time, but that has been subsequently scrutinized closely) and the role of the U.S. government during that conflict (allegations that U.S. troops and equipment were involved are simply false). Knowing that van Reybrouck got his facts wrong on those issues, raises the question of credibility throughout the book. What else is misreported?
The book closes with a rather strange chapter that discusses the presence of Congolese traders in China, their puzzlement with that society and their efforts to buy goods wholesale for shipment home. Although it is good to know that entrepreneurs are out there, I suppose the relevance of the ending is that whatever the disaster of the homeland, some of the Congolese people remain vibrant and forward looking.