Blood River – Tim Butcher

18 March 2011
Preface, Chapters 1-2
I’m listening to an audiobook read by Tim Butcher himself, and from the start you know it’s going to be harrowing. In all the time-lines that he has set running – I’ll come back to those – terrible things keep happening. And he hasn’t even started on his journey yet, the one that some old hand refers to in the subject box of an email as ‘Death Wish’. Butcher wants us to know exactly how dangerous/ brave/ foolhardy he is being even to contemplate the trip. He must have survived, so he has to turn on all the taps to fill us with enough admiration and dread.

I don’t know why I’m being sarcastic about it. Maybe because he does go on a bit… but hey. The Preface begins with him in the Democratic Republic of the Congo about to set off in August 2004. This is one of the time-lines, no doubt the one we’ll get used to being on once he actually gets moving. The country is all smashed up: nothing works, the corruption makes the awful practices in other African countries seem rather low-key, and even a taxi-ride across the capital leads to the driver being beaten up almost as a matter of course.

But then other time-lines are set running, and other stories. There are several personal connections which we indulge him in because, well, some of them are quite interesting. Best by far is the journey his mother made at the very end of the Belgian colonial period in the 1950s. In his description of it, based on her memories, postcards and souvenirs, West Africa at that time sounds like India: transport links were reliable, and it was as safe for young white women to travel as it would have been in Europe. In her words – Butcher is a journalist on the Telegraph, and his mother is no liberal – this was before all the ‘beastliness’ began after Independence. What she doesn’t mention – but Butcher does, briefly – is the beastliness of the colonial regime that kept the trains running on time. (I know from other sources that there was little attempt among the Belgians to pretend to be bringers of enlightenment to the benighted natives as there was with, say, the Brits in India. Butcher isn’t going into any details yet.)

We get the time-line of recent history. In Butcher’s presentation of it, it’s one disaster after another. He’s careful to distance himself from the white supremacist view of Africa as a collection of basket-cases, as though that is all that could be expected of ‘these people’. Zaire, as it was for a while, suffered from very specific problems in the 90s, from the dictatorship of Mobutu to the incursions, for different reasons, of thousands of people from Rwanda and Uganda. Butcher only sketches the complexities of the cross-border tribal allegiances and enmities, but it’s clear that the presence of thousands of Hutu militiamen, to say nothing of Ugandan interests in the country’s rich mineral resources, would have made orderly government impossible at the best of times. And these weren’t the best of times. (He also sketches in the working conditions in the mines, tantamount to slavery.)

We get his own story, as Africa correspondent. His first visit is a farce, but – and I’m not quite sure why – he gets hooked on this country that ought to be prosperous. It has something to do with the first exploration of the country by Henry Morton Stanley, nominally another Telegraph journalist, but It’s not massively interesting… so it’s a relief when he sets off on another time-line – right back to the first arrival of Europeans in the 15th Century. For a few brief decades, before Europe has discovered colonialism, there’s a kind of pretence of equality between the Portuguese and the Africans: there are diplomatic exchanges and ‘princes’ learning how to be gentlemen by spending years at the Portuguese court. It doesn’t last, because commerce raises its ugly head, in the form of slavery. At first the Portuguese buy slaves captured in tribal warfare but soon, as the market suddenly grows with the need for cheap labour in the Americas, traders from other countries arrive. They encourage the Africans to go on raids specifically to bring home slaves for sale, and it’s the start of three centuries of the transatlantic slave trade.

This is based around the mouth of the Congo, described in all its topographical grandeur. And Butcher is off on another line, following the explorers who began to map the interior. At the point I’ve reached it’s Stanley the self-publicist who’s getting in on the act. We already know that Butcher’s aim is to follow Stanley’s journey, so we’d better start paying attention…. In fact, we get Stanley’s first journey along the Arab slave-routes from Zanzibar, where he discovers David Livingstone, he presumes – an iconic Boys’ Own moment that was still legendary in post-colonial times – and sniffs the possibility of mapping the Congo east to west. (Evelyn Waugh must have had Stanley’s expeditions in mind when he sends William Boot off to the middle of nowhere in Scoop.)

Maps. The difference between the maps in Waugh’s novel and the maps in Blood River is that Waugh’s Ishmaelia has maps full of imaginary cities, roads and railways, whereas people in the Congo look at Butcher’s 1960 map with a kind of wistfulness: those places and transport links used to exist, but now most of them are ruined, or entirely gone. These chapters are full of what the Congo used to have – a working transport network, an education system that could produce a genuine vulcanologist – but has no longer.

I’m reading this in the same week as the Japanese earthquake and tsunami. In Japan, you know things will be repaired in a year or two; not so in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

20 March
Chapters 3-4
If I thought the time-lines were going to get any simpler, I was wrong. Butcher takes us back to the start of his own journey – further back, so now we get his experiences of the shambolic airline service from South Africa and the awful treatment of those passengers who haven’t the good fortune that Butcher has of an experienced Congo-wallah ready to greet him. And suddenly it’s 1960 again as Butcher describes the atrocity perpetrated by Belgium and the US in having the first elected president assassinated. Goodbye communist-supporting Patrice Lamumba, hello Joseph Mobutu and one-party rule. He’s simplifying the familiar post-colonial story, and the Congo’s misery begins, in this version, almost immediately.

In the Congo it wasn’t all about oil, it was diamonds, copper and all the other minerals of interest to the West. Even before the end of colonial rule, uranium from the Congo was being used in American and European bombs. Later it was cobalt, and later still it was coltan, a source of a metal used in computers and mobile phones: whatever the West needs, the Congo seems to have a supply – and plenty of people from Rwanda and Uganda prepared to elbow their way into the process of getting it out. In a properly governed country these resources would be of immediate benefit to the economy. Not in the DRC: Butcher uses the example of the cobalt trade to demonstrate how it is easier for middlemen to risk shipping out sacks of the mineral-rich rocks, bought at a knock-down price from whoever is digging it up, than to do the sensible thing and build a smelting plant locally. Self-employed miners receive next to nothing for their efforts; workers in bigger mines have a pitifully short life expectancy.

I’m doing what Butcher does, selecting details that end up giving the impression of a totally dysfunctional country. The details he presents of his first days in the DRC – starting with the Prologue some chapters back – reinforce this: paint is always peeling, steel is always rusting; in a clapped-out hotel the motionless ceiling fans are no more than quaint relics of when things used to work. And the thread that runs parallel to all this is the certainty expressed by most of the people he speaks to that the journey he is contemplating is an impossibility. It’s not only the infrastructure that’s screwed, it’s the society. Between here and there – it’s easy to lose track of where ‘there’ might be – there are some bad people about.

But our man isn’t about to give up. And he hasn’t really only arrived in the country with a rucksack and the old book based on Stanley’s account of that first journey: he’s made some advance contacts. First we get the man – a South African, I think, but it’s as easy to lose track of the good guys he meets as it is of the places they take him to – who oils the wheels of his dealings with staff at the airport. He meets UN officials, all friendly people who, he implies, do little real good beyond the limited range of their Jeeps. But he has contacts with aid workers, and these give him his first break.

A chartered plane has got him to Kalemie, the former Albertville, on Lake Tanganyika, but from now on he’s starting to get to the limits of where it’s safe to go. Enter Benoit the aid worker and the highly useful Georges, fighter for the rights of pygmies. Way back, Butcher had spoken to an aid manager but hadn’t expected his ‘I’ll see what I can do’ to come to anything. Well, it has, because sometimes, even in a smashed-up country, people do what they say they will. It might be a surprise when things come together – an email Butcher sent from England has also unexpectedly found its target earlier in the chapter – but he wouldn’t have got very far otherwise.

Anyway, Benoit and a colleague of his have motorbikes – they’re not going to get anywhere by any other means – and they are able to hire another so Georges can come along too. He’s used to talking to the local Mai-Mai people, feared by almost everyone because of the part they played in recent civil wars and for attacks that are still happening. After a day spent driving along the roads towards Terra Incognita there’s an interlude spent with a 70-something Belgian expat – surely the last in the country…. But now he’s got a choice to make. Carry on with his companions to the next Care International base – but with no real idea about how to go on from there, or go back to Kalemie? Since we’re only at the end of Chapter 4 it’s fairly clear he isn’t going back.

23 March
Chapters 5-6
Up early to ride through the drenching pre-dawn dew – so that’s why his companions dress like Ninja North Sea trawlermen – and slow progress. Like thousands of kilometres of Congo tracks, the one they are on used to be a proper road with real traffic. Butcher tells us this more than once, including the statistic that a 130,000 km road network – did I hear that right? – is down to a thousand, and one of the main themes of these chapters is what he sees all around him: the reverse of the normal development process. Every old person he meets, in whatever context, remembers when things used to work. Now, village people move away from the signs of progress and back into the forest because it’s the only place they know to be safe.

In the two former colonial towns they reach, the story is the same. Instead of being an undeveloped country, in his bleak joke the Congo is undeveloping, and Butcher reinforces the point with the frequent sudden appearance of archaeological relics. A road-sign mostly hidden by the encroaching forest tells them exactly which road this once was, the shapes on the rain-blackened concrete of a ruined building spell, faintly, ‘Post Office’ in metre-high letters. In the town it’s the colonial villas that leave the eeriest trace: nothing is left of them beyond, at regular intervals, the ‘flamboyants’, ornamental flame-trees brought in from Asia.

The state of the road is another theme. The effect of its ruts and pot-holes on Butcher, who describes himself as a big man, is awful: every minute is misery after the first day and – another theme – he is full of admiration for the strength and stamina of his companions. The effect of the track on the third motorbike is even worse: within a few kilometres it gets two punctures, and there’s nothing even the two uber-resourceful aid workers can do about the inner-tube that already has more patches visible than original tubing.

This means that Georges, the nearest thing they have to a guide, has to return with his driver – which means they’re going through the most dangerous country on their own. Benoit is ok about it: he’s going that way anyway, and his chosen technique of accelerating past anyone who looks as though they might make trouble is clearly the right one. And they’re lucky: they don’t meet the Mai-Mai, and it sounds that it wouldn’t have been good if they had done. A band of them have recently been at one of the villages the travellers stop at, so there’s absolutely nothing to eat.

I suppose it’s down to Butcher’s skill as a writer that It doesn’t feel schematic as you read. (Ok, now and again it does, as he feels he has to make yet another remark about his experience of the people he meets disproving the view of ‘lazy Africans’ described by Stanley or the colonialists. Well, duh.) We get several threads. There’s Stanley’s original journey (1876, in case you were wondering) and the attempts by others, notably a certain Cameron, who might have claimed the territory for Britain and changed the course of African colonial history had he been able to persuade his bearers to descend the cataracts of the river. There’s the relentlessness of the mutating, overlapping wars combined with Mobutu’s gifting of important administrative jobs to cronies that have brought about the Congo’s reverse development.

And there’s the nostalgia. Even old Africans, whose lives at best must have been like those of the Blacks under apartheid in South Africa, describe ‘the good old days’. Then there was real trade, schools were open and it was possible to go to other places by public transport. One man, who worked at the hospital for tropical diseases, describes journeys around the world to buy the most modern equipment. The description of roads that are now mere tracks impassable to vehicles and railway lines are just straight footpaths takes a reader like me to the world of post-Apocalyptic literature and films. When the ‘mayor’ of the town sits in his office containing the relics of colonial bureaucracy, ready for use ‘when things get back to normal,’ not even Butcher feels the need to make any comment. (Or maybe he does, now I think of it.)

23 March
Chapters 7-8
Then there were two: Butcher and Benoit’s proud, taciturn colleague – is he self-conscious, or does he simply not like this helpless, overweight white man? – who has been with them since Kalemie and is now taking him to the next town, Kindu. There’s more archaeology: a railway station whose stationmaster seems ready for the next arrival although there hasn’t been one for six years. There’s a shape almost hidden by the forest ahead: it’s a ruined armoured vehicle dating from the 1960s, when most of the fighting was carried out by white mercenaries. We hear from Bob Hoare’s memoir of the hideous violence of those early years of the post-colonial era when the bodies of men you’ve just machine-gunned are crushed to pulp under your tracks, and you ensure payment by breaking into the local bank. Jesus.

But the overland leg of his journey is ending at last, and sees the Congo river for the first time. Unlike Stanley, who claimed to feel a great spiritual uplift, Butcher doesn’t. Ah well. But they’ve reached Kindu by way of a huge pirogue, one of the dugout canoes that confirm the river as returning to its pre-colonial state. It’s the only way for Africans to get around the river; rusting hulks are all that’s left of the steam-ferries that used to make timetabled stops on the Upper Congo. He talks to a man who used to… etc. Kindu is the busiest place he’s seen since he got on the damn’ motorbike, and there’s enough traffic to give a picturesquely white-gloved traffic cop some work to do. It’s almost all UN vehicles; the Africans get about on foot on bicycle. Butcher sees more of the traders he’s told us about In an earlier chapter: they load their bicycles so heavily they have to be pushed – and they’ll push them 300 km if they need to. Jesus, again.

One UN woman in Kindu refers to him as an adventurer, a description he doesn’t like, and she obviously thinks he’s a self-indulgent fool to contemplate a trip down the Congo river. She doesn’t try to stop him cadging a lift on a UN launch, but only a few kilometres. Soon he has to do that thing again where everybody around him is looking sceptical about his chances of survival if he carries on and he has to do what we know he’s going to do. He tells us he’ll remember for the rest of his life the sound of the launch fading away and leaving him behind. We tell him, get on with it.

He gets on with it. He obviously knew perfectly well that he wasn’t on his own, that there would be Africans with their pirogues to take him to the next town, above where the rapids begin. He hasn’t told us yet, but using his satellite phone he’s made an appointment to hook up with some American aid workers on motorbikes if he can reach the town in two days. By chucking his money around he’s able to make it – but on the way he has enough time to sound a bit rueful about how useless he is compared to the Africans who live in this godforsaken region. The four men paddling him 300 km downstream subsist on whatever basic food they can get from villages on the way; if they have a fever they lie down, have a sleep and get over it; if they need to piss they just stand on the prow and do it, whereas for the useless white man it’s a whole embarrassing performance…. It’s hard not to be on the Africans’ side.

This is a thread that has been going for some chapters now: the white man’s embarrassment. For some reason, Butcher feels he has to keep apologising for the unfairness of the white colonialists’ assessment of the Africans. I’ve lost count of the times he’s described the honesty, or resourcefulness, or sheer willingness to work of the Africans he meets as though he’s somehow redressing the balance of two centuries of prejudice. And alongside that we now have him comparing himself either with the Africans – just look at how adept they are at this, that or the other compared to his cack-handed efforts – or with those colonialists who lorded it over them. In his dugout on his little wicker stool, isn’t he just like that big-game hunter in his suit and tie being carried in a hammock between two natives? Well, if you want to think so, Tim, I’m not going to try to stop you.

24 March
Chapters 9-11
At the beginning of Chapter 9 we’re two-thirds of the way through he book, but Butcher has completed less than a third of his journey. So things speed up, yes? Nope. Sure, he by-passes the seven great stretches of rapids that took Stanley weeks to negotiate one by one. But then, for the whole of Chapter 10, he’s stuck for two weeks in Kisangani.

To get past the rapids to where Butcher now stands, Stanley had to get his men to hack a way through the forest until they could reach the next navigable stretch overland; Butcher hitches a ride with another aid worker on another motorbike, and it takes him a day or two. We get one vivid archaeology moment: he puts his foot down on something hard and man-made during a stop in the middle of nowhere. It’s a railway tie, and he realises the 140 miles of the railway between the two towns has been entirely absorbed back into the forest. We get a less vivid tourism moment: in a clearing his satellite positioning device comes to life and, yes, the nearby village precisely straddles the equator. Don’t ask me why he thinks that’s interesting.

Anyway, Kisangani, the former Stanleyville, looking like a modern city. There’s an airport nearby, there are vehicles, he can see rows of cranes at the dockside. But, guess what? It’s all an illusion.

(Sigh.) I suspect that Butcher was getting a bit bored by the whole project by now. I know I am, so I’ll be quick. He mooches around in Kisangani. A portrait of Mobutu gives him the opportunity to fill in some of the blanks about his rise to power in the 1960s and the way he only had to tweak the hierarchical bureaucratic systems put in place by the Belgians in order to keep everybody in their place. That and a lot of killing which, as even Butcher admits, merges into one long catalogue of civil wars, murders and reprisals. Anyway, can he get a lift on an oil company’s tanker? No, too much bureaucracy in the way. Can he get a lift with…? Etc. No.

In the end it’s the good old UN again: one of their ‘pushers’ – like tug-boats, but not quite – is providing the power for a barge going 1000-odd km down-river. So Butcher hops on that, complains a lot about how bored he is, eventually arrives at some town or other. Bumba? No, it’s Mbandaka, but it doesn’t matter by now because it strikes Butcher as being just like all the others – he lists Kalemie, Kindu, Kisangani – and he’s become ill on the UN boat and is close to giving up anyway. But to leave his project after following Stanley’s route so closely up to now? (Well, Tim, not quite – but who’s arguing?) He could be stuck in Mbandaka ‘for weeks, or longer’ – he quotes the person in charge as though to add weight to what he’s going to say next. ‘Reluctantly’ – yeh, yeh – he decides to hitch a lift with the UN, again. This time it’s a helicopter shuttle going to the capital, Kinshasa. Alleluia.

25 March
Chapter 12, Epilogue
Yep. As I suspected, Butcher has been winding this down since not long after the mid-way point. And most of the memorable things in the book have come a long time before that. In the final chapter he doesn’t have a lot to say about Kinshasa, and the way its prosperous-looking façade bears no relation to what he quaintly begins to call ‘my’ Congo. There’s some touristy stuff about the joys of proper showers and beds, and then he’s on the 400 km journey to Boma. He describes it almost perfunctorily. He’s in an actual four-wheeled vehicle, the first, he reminds us, since this all began six weeks ago. (We think, six weeks? This recreation of Stanley’s epic 999-day journey – that’s 142 weeks, in case you were wondering – has taken only six weeks?) There’s the odd bit of local colour: Hippolyte; the first no-good African Butcher has had to travel with; the hideous aftermath of a jack-knifed truck whose passengers, hanging on in the way of the locals along this road, are first dislodged, then mangled under the wheels; the endless bureaucracy proving Butcher’s mantra: cities bad, open spaces good.

Most of Chapter 12 is dedicated to Stanley. He was a horrible imperialist, sure, but Butcher has a kinda soft spot for him. The feisty Welshman’s default technique for dealing with the locals might have been to shoot them, but at least he was good to his own employees. What? What? All through the book Butcher has taken pride in the fact that he works for the same right-wing newspaper as Stanley, and now here he is having a good word for the man he has earlier described as the bringer of all the Congo’s woes. Go figure.

Butcher isn’t wonderful at describing topography – his description of the rainforest slipping past them on the UN boat in Chapter 11 is as monotonous as the unreeling green canopy itself – but even he manages to get some shock and awe into the descriptions of the cataracts before Boma on the mouth of the river. Sure, he resorts to a comparison with Norwegian fjords – if there were pine trees, and the temperature was 30 degrees lower – but it does sound impressive. And it reminds him – and us – of how impressive those pesky colonialists were to get ships overland to the navigable sections upriver. (There’s an almost absurd echo of this in the cast-iron cathedral in one of the cities, shipped out from Belgium in kit form.) Before you know it, it’s over.

Except there’s an Epilogue, telling us how tiny the steps towards any kind of better future have been between 2004-6, and what the real problem with Africa is. I’ll spare you the details, but it’s to do with the way colonial system tore down systems of autonomous tribal self-government that worked, however cruelly to Western eyes. The ‘handing over’ of power in the 1960s was no such thing, and led to autocracies – and kleptocracies, and who knows how many other -ocracies – that nobody had any power to end.

And it’s over, again.


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