30 day book challenge – day 16 – Most thought-provoking book.

I don’t tend to read a lot of non-fiction work, but for my answer to this question, I am turning to one of the few works on non-fiction on my bookshelves.

Blood River by Tim Butcher.

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This book recounts the experiences of Daily Telegraph journalist, Tim Butcher, as he attempts to recreate Stanley’s journey along the length of the Congo river.  It is a dangerous journey – the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) is a country that has been absolutely ravaged by civil war.  At the time of his journey, there was no basic infrastructure so the fact of travelling presented a challenge in itself.  It was also still lawless, with groups of soldiers and armed gangs patrolling around.

Along the way, he meets a host of interesting characters who really bring the journey to life.  But the book is not just about his physical journey.  It provides a really well-written and interesting history of the Congo from the days of Belgian colonialism to independence to civil war.  The common view seems to be that the life has not improved in the Congo since the days of Belgian colonialism, and the high point where Hollywood arrived – The African Queen starring Katherine Hepburn was filmed in the Congo.

Coming from a country which had an empire spanning a quarter of the globe upon which the sun never set, this book really makes you think about the harm that imperialism has caused.  The European superpowers sat down together in the 19th century and figured out how best to carve up Africa for their own interests, with no regard to the tensions between the different tribes and ethnic groups, arbitrarily creating borders and sewing the seeds of conflict which have endured through the generations.

This book is extremely well written, it is entertaining and informative.  In parts it is upsetting and harrowing.  Two parts of this book really stayed with me after reading it.  The first was his journey into the jungle, where he discovered that there were no animals.  He asked his guide about this and he was told that there were no animals because they had been trapped and killed for food by starving locals during the conflict.  Anything that hadn’t been eaten had fled.

The second was his meeting with some aid workers.  They told him how the village in which they were working had been raided by a renegade band of soldiers.  They hid in their office, but they were connected to a neighbouring office via radios.  Over the radio, they heard an 18 year old aid worker being raped by the soldiers but they could not do anything to help her without being killed.

War, rape, starvation, murder.  That is what Tim Butcher found, but it was not the whole story.  He also met very warm locals who were interested in and assisted him with his journey.  He also saw the seeds of a country trying to grow and change and the first democratic elections since 1960 were held in the country shortly after his visit.  It is not the end of the story though and the Congo is a country which is still struggling to this day.

I would recommend anyone who is interested in the Congo, anyone who has never heard of the Congo and everyone else in between to read this excellent book.  It is a real eye opener and you will be thinking about it long after the final page.

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Posted on September 13, 2013, in Reading and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.

  1. Wow. That won’t be an easy read, but I would like to give it a go. I lived and worked in Rwanda for three years, and met many Congolese, all but one of whom I warmed to at once. A friend of mine worked there for an NGO, I forger the name, and found it both very rewarding, and painfully frustrating and challenging. I love Africa. Thanks for sharing – I’m going to find a copy…

    • I’m really glad you’re going to give this book a go – let me know what you think when you’ve finished (though if your to read pile is anything like mine it might be a while before you get to it!). Your work in Rwanda sounds amazing – it must have been an incredible experience to live there. In a previous job I worked with refugees and asylum seekers here in the UK and met people from all over Africa, primarily Nigerians and Congolese. They had fled their homes with nothing but the clothes on their backs, often leaving behind their partners, loved ones and even their children. They all had very harrowing stories, but in spite of all that they had been through I found the vast majority of people that I met from these countries to be incredibly warm, full of humour and so very grateful for the help of the people they had met in the UK.

  2. I’ve managed to order it from my local library so I’ll have it very soon! I do have quite a ‘to read’ list, but this will be my priority. In case you’re interested, I wrote a blog while i was in Rwandan again earlier this year, visiting friends. http://beathaandherboys.wordpress.com/ Thanks again for this recommendation. Blessings, H xxx

    • Thanks for the link to your blog, I really enjoyed reading about your time with Beatha and her sons – you have really brought your time there to life with your words. I hope you enjoy Blood River when it arrives. X

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