If you liked King Leopold’s Ghost, Adam Hochschild’s tale of the carving up of Congo by King Leopold of Belgium, you will definitely appreciate this anecdotal historical take (albeit at 600-plus pages!) on the history of the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Congo is a noble attempt to tell the story of the Congolese people starting with pre-Belgian colonization from the perspective of “the people.” Author David Van Reybrouck follows the story of Disasi Makulo, who was born in the country sometime around 1870, tracing the arc of his life over the last part of the nineteenth century. During that time, the country transitioned leadership four times, suffered through severe oppression followed by independence and revolution, and experienced the rule of perhaps the most notorious dictator in Africa, Mobutu Sese Seko.
Van Reybrouck is an excellent storyteller, drawing us in as he personifies the great Congo River, depicting the first violent rebellion against the oppressive white presence in 1895 and the brutal rubber harvesting in Equateur Province. Images of the revolutionary martyr Patrice Lumumba riding a motorcycle around the dusty roads of 1950s Kinshasa with none other than Mobutu as his passenger are striking when we consider Lumumba’s betrayal and murder at the hands of Mobutu within in a few short years.
Post-Mobutu, Van Reybrouck briefly tackles the complex and media-neglected Second Congo War, including a haunting encounter with rebel leader Laurent Nkunda as a man who kidnaps boy soldiers and orders the mass rape of women—while at the same time eerily convincing the international community of his innocence and desired mandate for peace. One thought-provoking chapter on music as religion details the influence of popular Congolese musical artists on the psyche of the young generation. We learn that the music is not purely the voice of the young—artists are routinely sponsored by government parties and European conglomerates to promote their political and economic agendas.
Van Reybrouck makes a concerted effort to tell a Congolese story from a Congolese perspective through the lens of individuals who lived through various turning point events in history—but not always with success. Many of the interviews rely heavily on power players, those in proximity to power players, or expatriates. (For example, it was disappointing to see Lumumba’s role in the revolution of social consciousness downplayed.) Western journalists struggle to get the “real” story due to the long history of mistrust and oppression. Only when we read a Congolese history as written by the Congolese might we glimpse the true depths of this complex and beautiful nation whose borders were drawn by kings in northern Europe who had never set foot in Congo. Although Congo falls short, it does important work in telling history from the perspective of the people. And it brings to life this mysterious culture, its past, and current events that paint the horrific and miraculous history of the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Reviewed by Christine Buettgen