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In the Footsteps of Mr. Kurtz: Living on the Brink of Disaster in Mobutu's Congo Paperback – May 28, 2002

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Editorial Reviews Review

During Mobutu Sese Seko's 30 years as president of Zaire (now the Congo), he managed to plunder his nation's economy and live a life of excess unparalleled in modern history. A foreign correspondent in Zaire for six years, Michela Wrong has plenty of titillating stories to tell about Mobutu's excesses, such as the Versailles-like palace he built in the jungle, or his insistence that he needed $10 million a month to live on. However, these are not the stories that most interest Wrong. Her aim is to understand all of the reasons behind the economic disintegration of the most mineral-rich country on the African continent; in so doing, she turns over the mammoth rock that was Mobutu and finds a seething underworld of parasites with names like the CIA, the World Bank and the IMF, the French and Belgian governments, mercenaries, and a host of fat cats who benefited from Mobutu's largesse and even exceeded his rapaciousness.

Wrong turns first to Belgian's King Leopold II, who instituted a brutal colonial regime in the Congo in order to extract the natural and mineral wealth for his personal gain. Mobutu, with the aid of a U.S. government determined to sabotage Soviet expansion, stepped easily into Leopold's footsteps, continuing a culture built on government-sanctioned sleaze and theft. Under the circumstances, it's hard not to feel some sympathy for the people who survived in the only ways they could--teachers trading passing grades for groceries, hospitals refusing to let patients leave until they paid up, cassava patches cultivated next to the frighteningly unsafe nuclear reactor. What is less comprehensible--and rightly due for an airing--are Wrong's revelations about foreign interventions. Why, for example, did the World Bank and IMF give Mobutu $9.3 billion in aid, knowing full well that he was pocketing most of it?

In the Footsteps of Mr. Kurtz is a brilliantly conceived and written work, sharply observant and richly described with a necessary sense of the absurd. Wrong paints a far more nuanced picture of the wily autocrat than we've seen before, and of the blatant greed and paranoia of the many players involved in the country's self-destruction. --Lesley Reed --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Publishers Weekly

The beauty of this book is that it makes sense of chaos. For the past few decades, the Congo, one of Africa's richest countries in natural resources, has been in an economic decline that has resulted in violence and lawlessness. Wrong, a British journalist who spent six years covering Africa as a reporter for European news agencies, skillfully balances history with nuanced reportage. She details the "discovery" of the Congo by the British explorer Lord Stanley, the land's subsequent exploitation by the Belgian King Leopold II for his own personal benefit and the role of the United States and other Western nations in propping up Joseph Mobutu. Without apologizing for his brutal regime, Wrong explains how the cold war dictator used a mixture of terror and charisma to maintain his hold on the country for three decades. But although the roots of the country's downfall are traced to Western policies the book's title comes from Joseph Conrad's famous anticolonialist novel this book is no anti-imperialist screed. What Wrong finds is a widespread refusal, among Westerners and Congolese alike, to accept responsibility for the country's deterioration, which has led to a situation in which "each man's aim is to leave Congo, acquire qualifications and build a life somewhere else." And when Wrong uses her keen eye to describe contemporary life in Congo as in her portrayal of the handicapped businessmen's association the streets of this now-wretched nation come alive. Illus. (Apr. 29)Forecast: Wrong will come to the States to do a three-city tour: New York, D.C. and Boston. This fine book should benefit from being one of several books on Africa coming out, including Ryszard Kapuscinski's (see above) and Bill Berkeley's The Graves Are Not Yet Full (Forecasts, Mar. 26).

Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information, Inc.

--This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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Product Details

  • Paperback: 368 pages
  • Publisher: Harper Perennial; Reprint edition (May 28, 2002)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0060934433
  • ISBN-13: 978-0060934439
  • Product Dimensions: 5.3 x 0.8 x 8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 10.4 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (71 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #303,260 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Half British, half Italian, Michela Wrong has spent nearly two decades writing about Africa. As a Reuters correspondent based in first Cote d'Ivoire and former Zaire, she covered the turbulent events of the mid 1990s, including the fall of Mobutu Sese Seko and Rwanda's post-genocide period. She then moved to Kenya, where she became Africa correspondent for the Financial Times. In 2000 she published her first non-fiction book, "In the Footsteps of Mr Kurtz", the story of Mobutu. Her second non-fiction work, "I didn't do it for you", focused on the Red Sea nation of Eritrea. Her third, "It's Our Turn to Eat", tracks the story of Kenyan whistleblower John Githongo. "Borderlines" is her first novel. She lives in London.

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

27 of 27 people found the following review helpful By Charlotte from Boston on May 25, 2001
Format: Hardcover
I sepnt too much of my life living in Kinshasa. Don't make the mistake I made -- read this book instead. Ms. Wrong has written a book that captures the Congo Conundrum: serious chapters about the IMF/ World Bank/ Western "policy" toward Congo and Africa are interspersed with zany episodes of life in a country that is no country. I've read the book twice, all my friends with Congo experience who've read it love it. Well done.
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32 of 35 people found the following review helpful By Christopher Griffith on May 8, 2001
Format: Hardcover
Much like some of Robert Kaplan's best writings about sweaty, Third World climes, this work provides a street urchin's eye view of Kinshasa during the Mobutu years. Included here are memorable portraits of cripples running cross-river smuggling rackets, bizarre black-Jesus cults, and over-the-top pink champange swilling elites who robbed the country blind in their never-ending efforts to acquire tacky Euro-fashions and German luxury cars. Also present in this book are numerous laugh-out-loud postcards from the edge that was Zaire -- for instance, the 500,000Z hyperinflated note locals referred to as the "prostate" in honor of their leader's cancerous organ.
Through it all, however, shines a nuanced portrait of "President" Mobutu. A thief, certainly. A thug, yup. A man who bears some responsibility for turning a potentially wealthy country into a cesspool, sure. But the Mobutu that emerges here is also a talented politician who brought a measure of order to Congo's post-colonial chaos. Once on top, however, he had to loot the national treasury in order to pay off rapacious underlings who would settle for nothing less than chartered Concordes and Mirage fighters. As she relates how Mobutu's obscenely opulant Versailles-in-the-jungle is rapidly being reabsorbed by the forest, one truly grasps the meaning of Ozymandius.
All in all, one hell of a lesson in the perils of being a strongman.
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22 of 23 people found the following review helpful By Ricky Hunter on September 21, 2001
Format: Hardcover
Michela Wrong's In the Footsteps of Mr. Kurtz is the perfect companion piece for the amazing and horrifying King Leopold's Ghost by Adam Hochschild (itself a historical look at the setting of Joseph Conrad's The Heart of Darkness). Wrong takes the story into the present by covering the recent years in the Congo after the Belgians abruptly leave their colony, after providing a brief, succint look at its colonial background, to show the rise and fall of Mobutu Sese Seko, taking down the rich natural resources and the economy of his country with him through his time in government. The author is very effective at showing the Congo as a piece on the Cold War checkerboard using this position to gain support from the United States and money from the IMF and the World Bank allowing a corrupt system to remain in place and the corruption to grow to enormous scale. The complete absurdity of this situation is made quite clear in the journalistic approach the author takes to this book. The end of the Cold War ended this system and helped bring down Mobutu, too late to help his country. The author is quite good at placing the blame and the Western nations come in for their fair share as colonialism left the Congo only to be replaced by a Western backed form of economic imperialism. A horrifying and often sadly humourous read that opens one's eyes to the situation in Africa.
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13 of 13 people found the following review helpful By not me VINE VOICE on October 19, 2005
Format: Paperback
A small library of books has been written about the political grotesqueries of post-colonial Africa. "In the Footsteps of Mr. Kurtz" is a worthy addition to the genre: it tells the story of Joseph Mobutu, an obscure soldier who became President of the Congo (later Zaire) and wrecked the country over the course of his 30+ years in office. One of history's great kleptocrats, Mobutu nationalized the mining industry and systematically looted the economy in order to buy homes in France, build palaces in the jungle, and grease his patronage machine. He chartered Concorde jets to fly his family on European vacations while Congo's economy whithered and collapsed.

Written by a British journalist, the book conforms to the conventions of the "Screwed Up African Nation" genre: it quotes Conrad, tells colorful stories about venal politicians, offers self-flattering journalistic details (the author was on assignment in Kinshasa when the regime fell), and salutes plucky, long-suffering, ordinary Congolese making their way in a ruined economic environment. To the extent that the book rises above the genre, it is by placing the anecdotes and vignettes in political and economic context. It explains, for example, how Mobutu's despostism was enabled by patrons like the IMF and the CIA. It also spreads the blame around by tracing the continuities between Mobutu's larcenies and Belgium's barbaric colonial policies.

Unfortunately, the book is not scholarly: the bibliography is scanty, there are no footnotes, and the chronology is jumbled and riddled with gaps. Certain sections are clearly recycled journalism, going on at unnecessary length about minor figures who happened to be interviewed by the author during the course of her newspaper duties. But overall, the book can be recommended to anyone interested in the story of how one great African nation was undone by the greed of its rulers and the connivance of the international system.
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8 of 8 people found the following review helpful By David Donelson on May 5, 2008
Format: Paperback
Anyone who wants to understand the Congo should read two books, Michela Wrong's In The Footsteps of Mr. Kurtz and King Leopold's Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism in Colonial Africa by Adam Hochschild. I also heartily recommend both books to anyone studying Conrad's Heart of Darkness, which is too seldom seen as an historic account as well as a literary novel. Wrong and Hochschild explain why the last 100 years of bloody tyranny in possibly the most mineral-rich country on earth has laid the groundwork for 100 more.

Hochschild gives us the first half of the century, when King Leopold II of Belgium, a man whose inferiority complex knows no bottom and whose greed no limits, jumps into the feeding frenzy for colonies and comes up gripping the very heart of Africa, the vast area around the Congo River and it's tributaries that would later become the Belgian Congo, then Zaire, and today is the Democratic Republic of Congo. This is also the setting for my novel, Heart of Diamonds: A Novel of Scandal, Love and Death in the Congo. Wrong covers this era also, but in less depth, helpfully referring readers to Hochschild for the full story.

Where she picks up steam, though, is with Joseph Desire Mobutu, better known as Mobutu Sese Seko, who became the archetype African strongman dictator. She paints a remarkably nuanced portrait of the man, exposing not just his brutality but his cunning; his charm as well as his lust for power. Wrong witnessed Mobutu's last days and tells us how he ultimately lost control of the nation he ruled for over thirty years.
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