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Congo: The Epic History of a People Paperback – February 17, 2015
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Beyond the retelling of slave and ivory trading, Belgian colonialism, and unstable independence, Van Reybrouck offers the perspective of ordinary Congolese caught in the broad sweep of that nation’s turbulent history. The usual historical figures are here, from the adventurer Henry Morton Stanley to Belgian King Leopold II, from liberator Patrice Lumumba to the brutal ruler Mobotu Sese Seko, later overthrown by Laurent Kabila. But also present are elders, some in their hundreds or nineties, recalling their everyday lives in the midst of malaria outbreaks, missionaries, racial designations by colonial whites that exacerbated tribal differences, violence and oppression, economic instability and political upheaval, even the joy of hosting the fight between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman. Van Reybrouck draws on interviews and anthropological research to offer dense detail of dress, custom, diet, beliefs—all the ingredients of everyday life. This is a compelling mixture of literary and oral history that delivers an authentic story of how European colonialism, African resistance, and the endless exploitation of natural resources affected the lives of the Congolese. --Vanessa Bush --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.
“This is a magnificent account, intimately researched, and relevant for anyone interested in how the recent past may inform our near future… Van Reybrouck’s bibliography alone is worth the cover price. But what distinguishes the book is its clearheadedness.” (New York Times Book Review)
“Balancing research with personal testimonies, Van Reybrouck . . . presents a panoramic account of Congo’s turbulent past.” (New York Times Book Review: Paperback Row)
“A vivid panorama of one of the most tormented lands in the world… A valuable addition to the rich literature that Congo has inspired.” (Washington Post)
“Van Reybrouck’s carefully researched and elegantly written book takes in the reader with compelling portraits of ordinary people that enrich what would otherwise be a fairly conventional historical narrative.” (Foreign Affairs)
“A magnificent, epic look at the history of the region… A monumental contribution to the annals of Congo scholarship.” (The Christian Science Monitor)
“[A] detailed and well-researched biography, thoroughly rooted in the lived experience of the Congolese… It is clear that the author is not your typical historian dryly publishing his findings, but a literary artist with a pen almost as sharp as Lumumba’s tongue.” (ThinkAfricaPress.com)
“... a compelling mixture of literary and oral history that delivers an authentic story of how European colonialism, African resistance, and the endless exploitation of natural resources affected the lives of the Congolese.” (Booklist)
“Van Reybrouck’s extensive account reveals the depth and breadth of exploitation, particularly under Belgian colonial rule, and how Congo’s story is one fraught with the toxic cycle of ‘desire, frustration, revenge.’” (Publishers Weekly)
“Van Reybrouck makes a good case for the importance of Congo to world history and its ongoing centrality in a time of resurgent economic colonialism, this time on the part of China. (Kirkus Reviews)
“a monumental history . . . more exciting than any novel.” (NRC Handelsblad)
“An unbelievable tour de force.” (Humo)
“An absolute masterpiece!” (VPRO Radio)
“Van Reybrouck tells his story . . . through numerous astute and intelligent voices of the Congo citizens and storytellers. . . . [Van Reybrouck] is not just an historian but a significant ethnographer who deeply cares about the people whose history he is narrating.” (Rain Taxi)
“If you are looking to read one book on Congo this year, this is it. David Van Reybrouck combines deep historical investigation with extensive ethnography. The result is an illuminating narrative.” (Mahmood Mamdani, Director of the Makerere Institute of Social Research and author of Good Muslim, Bad Muslim)
“A well-documented and passionate narrative which reads like a novel. [..] As an eye, a judge, and a witness, a talented writer testifies.” (V.Y.M. Mudimbe, author of The Invention of Africa)
“Congo is a remarkable piece of work. Van Reybrouck [keeps] a panoramic history of a vast and complex nation accessible, intimate and particular.” (Michela Wrong, author of In the Footsteps of Mr. Kurtz)
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Top Customer Reviews
I read Van Reybrouck interviewed hundreds of people and it shows in the sheer detail. Supposedly he even interviewed a 126 year old which seems too incredible too believe but real or not his story is incredible. Starting from the early discovery by Europeans to present day Van Reybrouck has a nice blend of sensitivity with objectivity. You can tell he really cares about the Congo yet he avoids taking a good vs evil narrative. The first half of the book covering European discovery and colonisation overlaps with Hochschild's "King Leopold's Ghost" but much more detailed. The second half which covers Congo independence and the aftermath I thought was the best part of the book. Everyone knows vaguely about how many African countries after independence were taken over by military dictorships and plagued by civil wars and economic malaise but it was fascinating to read how it happened in the Congo in such detail. It gave me a completley different perspective of, not just the Congo, but Subsaharan Africa in general.
A terrific book and a good example of how many good non-english books there are out there. Hopefully more get translated into english.
NY: HarperCollins, 2014.
David van Reybrouck has created an excellent history of Congo that is intimate, thorough, and accurate.
I. INTIMATE HISTORY
The many Congolese, whose words from interviews (mostly from 2008) are introduced in the appropriate historical events he is relating, give a great intimacy to the book. The author quite correctly calls this “bottom-up” history.
There are fascinating bits of information one doesn’t usually find in general histories of Congo, such as a description of the travels to Europe and back of Butungu, recorded in Boloki, his own language—the only known text by a Congolese from the nineteenth century.
The stories of the Congolese who accompanied the foreigners who dominate the pages of colonial histories give new insights into those happenings. For instance, Disasi Makulo was with George Grenfell when he set off with 400 soldiers of the colonial army to “chart and pacify the region.” (76) Martin Kabuya told about his grandfather who served in World War I, in a Belgian-led army fighting Germans in what is today Tanganyika. Albert Kudjabo, prisoner of the Germans during WW I, gave recordings that are of the only soldier from WW I whose voice we know is Congolese.
Even events known only from written documents are given an intimate twist. For example, concerning the creation of what became Congo: “No one knew exactly where the borders of Leopold’s empire lay….There was no natural entity, no historical inevitability, no metaphysical fate that predestined the inhabitants of this area to become compatriots. There were only two white men, one with a mustache [Stanley], the other with a beard [Leopold], meeting on a summer afternoon somewhere along the North Sea coast to connect in red pencil a few lines on a big piece of paper.” (38-39)
The author integrates visits to Congolese sites and interviews with Congolese with historical facts. For instance, on the section on Kimbanguism, he went himself to Nkamba, headquarters of the movement, and interviewed people there. And as usual, the author has a nuanced and insightful understanding of the growth of this movement.
Sometimes he wanders a bit far from strict history telling, as when he describes in long detail his visit to a popular music concert in Kinshasa.
He describes incredibly fascinating bits of intimate detail, such as that of Mobutu and Lumumba riding about Leopoldville on a motor scooter on Jan. 4, 1959, on their way to check out the ABAKO meeting that the Belgian mayor had cancelled with such grave consequences.
Van Reybrouck personalizes history: “My father was looking out the window. He saw a white Volkswagen Bug coming up the road…Suddenly, a volley of shots rang out…the Volkswagen careened to a stop….The two women—…Madeline and her friend Aline—did not get out. Across the fronts of their floral dresses, huge red spots were spreading…The Indian blue helmets had apparently taken them for white mercenaries…My father had been an eyewitness to the most famous photograph of the Katangan secession.” (317)
With great fortitude, he enters the horrendous and frightening Makala prison to interview a man associated with the murder of the former president Laurent Kabila.
II. THOROUGH HISTORY
Secondly, this is a thorough history. And as Van Reybrouck comes closer to the present, he becomes more detailed. After an introduction to the country and his methods of 16 pages, the prehistorical section is only 12 pages, the early explorations and the Congo Free State 72, the Belgian Congo 166, the First Republic 54, the Mobutu era 114, and Congo since then 162, Then there are notes of the sources, endnotes, an index, and a huge bibliography of 22 pages small print, all adding up to a massive 639 pages. There are nine clear and simple maps. He covers all aspects of the past—economic, political, religious, artistic, sociological, etc. There is even a section on pop music, and its relation to power politics.
The description and analysis of the Belgian Congo period, for example, is excellent. He presents the impact of Belgian concepts of “tribe” on the implementation of the control of the colonized population. The impact of ethnographers and medical personnel is explained. After detailed descriptions, the economic aspects are succinctly summarized: “There is no other country in the world as fortunate as Congo in terms of its natural wealth. During the last century and a half, whenever acute demand has arisen on the international market for a given raw material—ivory in the Victorian era; rubber after the invention of the inflatable tire; copper during full-out industrial and military expansion; uranium during the Cold War; alternative electrical energy during the oil crisis of the 1970s; coltan in the age of portable telephonics—Congo has turned out to contain huge supplies of the coveted commodity… As a rule, not a drop of fabulous profits trickled down to the larger part of the population…Nkasi, who once worked by the sweat of his brow to empty sacs of jewel-laden earth, profited very little indeed from the entire diamond business. Today he is poor as a pauper.” (119-120).
The list of people in the acknowledgment section covers many, many of the most illustrious names in the study of Congo, and in the sources and references (bibliography) sections one sees just about every possible credible book on Congo of use to his history of the nation from A to Z.
And in presenting a description of sources in the “sources” section, he demonstrates a fine ability to distinguish the strengths and weaknesses of sources concerning the same subject. For instance, of the many books on the subject, he states “No one out to make a serious study of the [Mobutu] era should omit the bulky study by Crawford Young and Thomas Turner, The Rise and Decline of the Zairean [Zairian] State.” (p. 575)
III. ACCURATE HISTORY
Thirdly, this is accurate history. The author pointed out the key reality of the Belgian Congo: that in spite of some reforms of the CFS regime, “Belgium was not answerable to the people of the country. The government was not elected by them, nor did it consult them in any way.” (106) There is a thorough presentation of both the bad and the better parts of life in the Belgian Congo, the Belgian colony. .
Of the leaders at the time of independence, Kasavubu, Lumumba, Tshombe, and Mobutu: “none of these men had ever lived under a democracy in their own country…The colonial regime itself was an executive administration.”(283) The following pages read like a murder mystery, as one by one these men are killed or dying, leaving only Mobutu. There is a delicate fine-tuning of how things were going in Congo, contrasting for instance the first decade of Mobutu’s presidency to later years. We lived through those years 1964-1993, and Van Reybrouck’s assessment is right on. It is not only accurate about events, but he captures the atmosphere of the period, and its evolution, with all the nuances.
Concerning the devastating impact of structural adjustment programs of the IMF, “The IMF was out to reorganize the country, but in fact dismantled it.” (379) The excessive spending on himself by Mobutu is detailed. “Mobutu was a political schemer par excellence….He could be charming, friendly, and funny, but also manipulative, treacherous, and vicious.” (384)
Van Reybrouck has a good handle on the broad picture and its essential ingredients. For example, of the 2nd Congo War starting in 1998: “the conflict was characterized by the aftershocks of the Rwandan genocide, the weakness of the Congolese state, the military vitality of the new Rwanda, the overpopulation of the area around the Great Lakes, the permeability of the former colonial borders, the growth of ethnic tension due to poverty, the presence of natural riches, the militarization of the informal economy, the world demand for mineral raw materials, the local availability of arms, the impotence of the United Nations, and so on…” (442)
There is a fascinating portrait of Kinshasa up until 2010 in the latter sections of the book.
For example, on buying off police: “Call it extortion or a form of ultradirect taxation, as long as the government doesn’t pay the policeman’s wages it won’t stop…A police uniform…guarantees its wearer a regular income, not from on high, but from the bottom up.” (487)
There are all sorts of interesting insights, such as the rivalries between the various musical groups, and their supportive relation with the beer companies, and to the powerful politicians, including Mobutu and Kabila. And too, there are insights on the many churches, including those started or influenced by American evangelists, including Jimmy Swaggart. “At l’Armée de l’Eternel, young women paid ten, twenty or fifty dollars to have the preacher, Général Sony Katua ‘Rockman,’ perform the laying on of hands and so help them to find a husband, become pregnant, or get a visa for Europe. Wasn’t that brazen money-grubbing at the expense of desperate people?” (492) The leader of one Pentecostal church urged his members: “Let everyone who loves Jesus and Kabila stand up and clap…The Catholic Church watched it all from a distance and shook its head.” (496) “The ‘post-colonial trinity’ consisted of a corrupt political caste that entered an alliance with newfangled religions and pop stars raised on high by the business world.” (494)
He described how Kabila, since 2006 election has followed the path of Mobutu, using violence and repression. In the final sections, Van Reybrouck visited the war zone of eastern Congo, and the Congo community in China, where a constant going and coming of merchants takes place. He compares the Lower Congo of yesterday with its current influx of Chinese and their impact.
The tremendous amount of Chinese involvement in Congo is detailed. And the final chapter actually takes place in China, in the town of Guangzhou. There the huge Congolese population, estimated at two or three thousand, is involved mainly in trade with Congo in ways picturesquely outlined by the author.
In all this, Van Reybrouck is an unchauvinistic Belgian. For instance, “Leopold had sworn to put an end to the Swahilo-Arab slave trade, but in essence there was no difference between the life of a Central African domestic slave on the Arab peninsula and a boy in the household of a European official in Congo.” (62) After heart-wrenching descriptions of the atrocities of the Congo Free State, the author states “Leopold II had, at least nominally, set out to eradicate Afro-Arabic slave trading, but had replaced it with an even more horrendous system.” (94)
The terrible work conditions in the mines and in the fields of Congo in the earlier colonial period are described (as well as better conditions later). On the disorder right after independence: “Belgium had granted Congo independence in order to avoid a colonial war, but it got one anyway. And it was its own stupid fault.” (296)
The writing of this book
Van Reybrouck’s father arrived in Congo the first time in 1961, to work on the railroad in Katanga (Likasi). The author’s first trip to Congo was in 2003. He eventually took ten trips to Congo. He finished writing and had the book published in the original Flemish in 2010, so unfortunately does not cover the 2011 elections and events since then. The excellent English translation (by Sam Garrett) was published in 2014.
No book can avoid an occasional slip-up, but in these 639 pages errors of either content or typos are almost impossible to find.
He does use some passé vocabulary: native, Pygmy, tribe, and jungle. That may be the fault of his translator, though not necessarily so.
This is the first time to hear Mt. Ruwenzori called Mt. Stanley (12). A vestige of the Belgian educational system?
It is doubtful that manioc was “more nutritious” than plantain or yams. (23)
The Lualaba is not “unnavigable” except in certain parts (34)
The Belgian Congo shared no border with Cameroon. That was Congo (RC). (130)
The Kwilu revolt lasted until 1965, not 1964 (321).
The analysis of Tutsi/Hutu sociology is a bit old school (p. 350 ff), and could be refined by the studies of Vansina and Newbury among others.
I think the Air Zaïre joke on p. 390 was a play on the word “vole” as steal and fly.
Using the initial rather than the full first name of the author in the bibliography led to some possible mistaken identities. For example, I doubt that Janssens, E 1905 and 1979 are the same. (606) He confounds Stengers and Stearns (613)
Minor typos/errors (page/paragraph)
Resume should be recourse (351/5)
Tshisekedi was (434/2)
Lyrical, dramatic, colorful history
Van Reybrouck is gifted with descriptive charm in the recounting of his adventures: “The jeep rattles its way through the demilitarized zone…We see more people out on the road. Women carrying yellow water tubs on their back, men leading reddish-brown cattle, boys with wooden bicycles loaded with sugarcane, bananas, or charcoal…” (518)
He waxes lyrical at the end, summarizing centuries of Congolese culture and history: “It is no longer the sound of the slit drum that spread the news from village to village, no longer the dull thump of the tom-tom, no longer the crack of the whip, not the pealing of the mission bells, not the thunder of the train or the rattling of the drill in the mineshaft, no, it is no longer the ticking of the telegraph, the crackle of the radio or the cheering of the people that sounds the nation’s heartbeat today. It is not in the stamping of manioc in the mortar, not in the slap of water against the canoe’s hull. The heart of this country is not in the rattle of weapons in the jungle, not in the table pounding against the wall while a woman screams that she never wanted this, no….The new Congo reverberates to a different tone, the new Congo sings in the arrival hall of an airport thrumming with noise. It is the sound of tape, brown rolls of tape around packages and boxes, tape that screams as it is unrolled and grunts as it is torn….” (554)
As Van Reybrouck returns at the end to Congo from China, he underlines the importance of Congo in world history: “In the early twentieth century the rubber policies gave rise to one of history’s first major humanitarian campaigns. During both world wars Congolese soldiers contributed to crucial victories on the African continent. In the 1960s it was in Congo that the Cold War in Africa began, and that the first large-scale UN operation was held…Congolese history has helped to determine and form the history of the world. The wars of 1998 and 2003 prompted the biggest and most costly peacekeeping mission ever, as well as the first joint military effort by the European Union…the 2006 elections were the most complex ever organized by the international community. The International Criminal Court is currently establishing invaluable jurisprudence with the prosecution of its first defendants—three men from Congo. Clearly, the history of Congo has on any number of occasions played a crucially important role in the tentative definition of an international world order. The contract with China, accordingly, is a major milestone in a restless world in motion.” (555-6)
Thus David Van Reybrouck ends a book on Congo’s history with flourish, a history that is intimate, thorough, and accurate.
As a follow-up to KLG, for me, this book was HIGHLY informative, filled in huge blocks of curiosity, and opened up new avenues for me to think about. The author does an excellent job of keeping the reader interested, even though there is a lot of 'stuff' being thrown at you, in the way of names, places and points in time. Some of the names which are in different languages can get a little confusing but the book flows well, and one should not get too mired down because of his writing style. Mr. Reybrouck should be commended for the amount of research and notation put into the book.
Of particular interest was the coverage given in the book to the subject of China's development and inroads being made in Africa. I wont say too much so as not to spoil the story, but that part of it was very interesting, and I would like to know more, and once reading it you will too.
I would dare to wager that there is something in the book for everybody, as the topic is a land where a lot of things have happened, and are happening now, almost hidden from view.
I particularly enjoyed reading on my Kindle because of the ability to hover over words to get the definition, and origin.