Has anyone ever told you that you’re ‘crazy’ for visiting a developing country that falls out of the sphere of first world comfort? I know I’ve had my fair share of such dire warnings (mixed with people praising me for my ‘bravery’), and the chances are you have too. And the thing is, in most cases, these so-called developing countries are every bit as safe as your home country most likely is. I for one found, say, Uganda safer than quite a few areas of London.
But sometimes, just sometimes, plans for off the beaten track adventure really are downright dangerous, and even seemingly wrong-headed. Tim Butcher, formerly a journalist for The Daily Telegraph, undertook a trip that could be described exactly that – he traversed the Congo River, which took him through large swathes of the Democratic Republic of Congo.
The DRC is, without doubt, one of the most volatile and unstable countries in the world. Decades – centuries, even – of corruption, civil wars and both colonial and post-colonial brutality have resulted in large swathes of this vast country being rendered lawless. The stats are truly appalling – over five million people have been killed by the recent civil wars, and a 2011 report found that 400,000 women had been raped in the country that year. Seen as a no-go country for decades, you might well be wondering why on earth Butcher decided to visit there.
The answer is that he had a personal obsession with the explorer H.M. Stanley’s (he of “Dr. Livingstone I presume?” fame), famous expedition down the Congo River from 1874-77, and wished to follow in Stanley’s footsteps. Whilst he would be doing so with the benefits of some 21st century technology (much of what we take for granted is simply not available in the DRC), he would be doing it alone. Needless to say, this is something of a red rag to a bull in such a fractious country.
That he not only actually finds a way to make the trip happen, but to also, well, survive is no small achievement. He is genuinely risking his life on this trip, and this ever-present uncertainty about what might be lurking around the next dirt-track corner gives the narrative much of its pulse-quickening, page-turning appeal. That he lives to tell the tale is in no small part down to his wit, ingenuity and resilience; but a lot of credit must be given to those who give him a helping hand on the way, ranging from UN peacekeepers to Georges, a scooter-riding Pygmy…
Butcher does somewhat lionise Georges and many of the locals he meets, but you can understand why. The narrative tone throughout the book is one of perpetual unease, and you know that Butcher’s mission was one to be endured rather than enjoyed (it has to be said that Blood River is not a barrel of laughs). The anecdotes of those he comes across confirm that the DRC is indeed the most extreme example of Africa being the ‘open sore’ of the world: they are haunted stories of haunted souls who have seen and endured too much.
The story of Stanley’s original expedition is deftly told alongside Butcher’s own adventure, illuminated with extracts and pictures lifted directly from primary source materials, including Stanley’s own journal. Whilst Butcher clearly admires Stanley’s accomplishment, he is also condemning of his own contribution (unwitting or otherwise) to the system that directly led to the perpetual decline of the DRC that is still being felt to this day.
Blood River is a chilling, gripping and compulsive read, casting light on the state of affairs in a country that is little-reported on by mainstream media, despite being a place that seems to be increasingly left behind as the world hurtles ever forward. It is this tragic state of affairs that does, indeed, make the Congo ‘Africa’s Broken Heart’. It is also what makes Blood River a hugely important read that, among other things, proves that genuinely intrepid travel is still possible in today’s day and age…for those who are brave enough, of course!
The image at the top of this post is provided courtesy of Oxfam East Africa, and depicts the local community burning waste in the corner of Kibati Camp, which many people fled to in the midst of the 2012 crisis.