Many of us know very little about the Congo, apart from the fact that we have many educated refugees from there in the south peninsula and elsewhere in South Africa who are trying to make a living as car guards. It was no surprise therefore that the Fish Hoek Library hall was filled to capacity when author Tim Butcher was guest speaker at the May Literary Tea.
Tim Butcher is the author of the best selling travel-history books Blood River (2007) and Chasing the Devil (2010). From 1990 until 2009 he was a correspondent for Britain’s Daily Telegraph, ten years of which were spent in war zones. He now lives with his family in St James in the scenic south.
In his first book, Blood River, Tim Butcher narrates the story of his epic journey in the footsteps of Henry Morton Stanley from Lake Tanganyika in the centre of Africa to the mouth of the mighty Congo River way over on the Atlantic coast, a hazardous journey undertaken by motorcycle, bicycle and dug-out canoe.
Sent to Africa in 2000 as African Bureau Chief by his bosses at the Telegraph in the UK who “felt that after (his) stint as war correspondent in Sarajevo and Baghdad he was ready for Johannesburg”, Tim prepared for his new post reading up about the history of Africa. “The Congo loomed large in African history. Its own history was changed by one nuggetty little Welshman, HM Stanley of ‘Livingstone, I presume’ fame when he charted the river. But just as importantly, the modern history of Africa – decades of colonial exploitation and post-independence chaos- was begun after Stanley’s journey as he revealed a river that would be used as the spine for a Belgian colony. Stanley began the Scramble for Africa.”
Stanley’s trip was funded not by the British government or the Royal Geographical Society but by the same paper, the Telegraph, that sent Tim to Africa. But Tim had another even closer link to the Congo: his mother travelled the river in the late 1950s when the country was fully integrated with the rest of Africa. Tim was brought up on his mother’s stories of porters loading her trunks onto river steamers as she partied her way up Africa from Cape Town.
“Reading about this Stanley’s epoch-changing journey seeded an idea in my mind that soon grew into an obsession. To shed my complacency about modern Africa and to try to understand it properly, it was clear what I had to do: I would go back to where it all began, following Stanley’s original journey through the Congo.”
Although the outline of Africa had been known since Portuguese first rounded the Cape in the 15th century its interior was unknown. European and Arab slavers had plundered the Congo River basin, but it was Stanley who opened up the interior. Setting off from Zanzibar in 1874 with three Europeans, 315 Zanzibareans and several dogs, Stanley mapped the course of the Congo River over the next three years. Of the group only he and 109 Zanzibareans survived. En route to take the islanders home, he stopped over in Simon’s Town for twenty days during which time he was given Freedom of the City and gave lectures in Stellenbosch. Hailed as a hero by some, he was greatly criticized for his “brutality and brazenness”, both here and back in the UK.
Stanley returned to England from his exhausting journey claiming that the river could be used to break into the hinterland. The Belgian king, Leopold ll “seeing past the reporter’s colourful account of cannibals, man-eating snakes and river rapids so ferocious they devoured men by the canoe-load…envisaged the Congo River as the main artery of a huge Belgian colony”, grabbed the land, and ”within two decades the entire continent had been effectively carved up by the white man”.
After three years of plotting and planning, Tim Butcher set out on his epic journey in2004. Before reaching the banks of the Congo River, he had to traverse 500kms of land where terror stalked in the form of cannibals and rebels armed with poison arrows. On reaching the mighty river, a further 2500kms remained to be travelled before he would reach his goal. The going was tough.
Since the Congo obtained its independence from Belgium in 1960, its infrastructure has fallen apart. Trains, ships and motorized vehicles no longer move people and goods within the Congo and between the Congo and its neighbouring countries. Of the 110 000kms of road that had been built by the Belgians, only about 500kms remain. Nature has taken the land back.
“It was a journey back in time. In one community a grandfather was nonchalant about our arrival on our small motorbikes, but his grandchildren had never seen an internal combustion engine – a strange reversal. Communities have gone back to the subsistance survival mode of living of the last 1000 years, focused on finding water, shelter and food and fleeing from the enemy. The jungle is seen as a place of safety as it is in the towns that the violence is most rife. Owning animals makes you are target for the Mai Mai rebels who are thugs with guns. People don’t light fires as they do not wish to advertise their presence. There were many humbling moments. We came across a man pushing 80kgs of palm oil on his bike which had neither pedals nor brakes. On his is 800km round trip to sell his oil for perhaps 30 US dollars, he lived off the land. All he wanted from me was to know whether there were any bad guys on the way.”
“The Congo River is a force of nature. It drains an area larger than India. Some of its side streams are longer than the Rhine, the longest river in Europe. Once upon a time steam paddlers plied the river. In the 1920s there were boats on the river day and night. Now their rusting carcasses lie like the skeletons of beached whales. There is not a single functioning motorized boat on the river.” Tim paid local men to row him down the river in dugout canoes, which they took weeks to find. He gave them money but they had nothing to spend the money on. The navigable channels have gone.
Part of his journey took Tim through dense, tangled equatorial forest. There was no bird or animal life – these being the food source of the famished locals. Somewhere deep in the forest Tim felt a “clunking” under his foot. Kicking the soil aside he found a railway track – part of the same track that had carried the train of Katherine Hepburn and Humphrey Bogart and their Hollywood entourage when they were in the Congo filming “African Queen” in 1957.
“My journey only worked because of the incredible Congolese people who assisted me, people of such decency, honesty, integrity and willingness to help. Their voices are so seldom heard. Their spirit to survive is so terribly strong but the spirit to thrive is not.”
In Chasing the Devil, Tim Butcher describes his 540km journey through another combat zone as he retraced the steps taken through Sierra Leone and Liberia in 1935 by the then 30 year old Graham Greene in the company of his cousin Belinda. “Greene, wanting to go somewhere pure, forgot his medicine chest but took with him three boxes of whiskey!” The word ‘pure’ would now be seen as a misnomer, Tim encountering on this journey lawless militia, child soldiers, blood diamonds and all the violence that go along with them. “However, I saw the fighting spirit, the spirit to survive, in each village in Liberia. This is what kept me going.”
“These journeys have changed my life, “Tim concluded. “I have a greater feel for the magnetism of the great open space of Africa, of its intangible power. One can sense it. I am wondering when the spirit to survive will turn into the spirit to thrive. What an incredible journey Africa will be on then.”
Blood River: A Journey to Africa’s Broken Heart was top of the Sunday Times bestseller list in 2008. It was shortlisted for a number of British writing awards. Chasing the Devil: The Search for Africa’s Fighting Spirit, was longlisted for the 2011 Orwell Prize.
Viv vd Heyden
For more of interest to booklovers see http://scenicsouth.co.za//libraries/fish-hoek-library/