I hate bad writing on Africa. And there is a lot of it. So when I come across a truly excellent book on Africa I feel I should share it.
Conrad’s phrase ‘The Heart of Darkness’ – that stock-in-trade phrase that seems to find its way into any writing on the Congo – is in fact a reference to the darkness of the European heart; the absence of understanding and humanity in European interactions with Africa. And certainly when one reflects on the dearth of decent literature on the Congo in English, one has to admit that there are lamentably few points of illumination disrupting the Cimmerian shade of our ignorance.
One of these points of light is undoubtedly Janet McGaffey and Remy Bazenguissa-Ganga’s Congo-Paris: Transnational Traders on the Margins of the Law. And I’ve just finished another – Michela Wrong’s In the Footsteps of Mr Kurtz – which I’d compare to a hunting lamp casting a stark bright illuminating beam over the landscape.
I’ve been aware of In the Footsteps of Mr Kurtz since it was published in 2000, but had never read a review and had, in all honestly, judged the book unfairly by its cover. It, and the fact the book seems to have found its way into the travel writing sections of bookstores, gave me the impression it was one of those ‘look I’m traveling through Africa on a motorcycle/elephant/golf buggie and aren’t the people poor/different/lovely’ kind of travelogues. Well I got that wrong. Not only was Michela Wrong in the DR Congo observing events in 1997 as the Mobutu era came to its dramatic and strange end, but she has also done an impressive amount of research on the personal history of Mobutu and the people around him, and on recent Congolese history.
The book offers the best account I’ve seen on Mobutu’s rise to power; on the scale of graft, nepotism, and decadence that characterized his regime; and of the events that led to his fall. And the book is infused with Wrong’s personal observations that make the characters and events come alive in the mind of the reader. Such as her description of the heavily-armed, sportswear-clad Mobutu supporters and their families gathered at the Intercontinental Hotel surrounded by their Louis Vuitton luggage waiting to make their escape as Kabila’s forces marched on Kinshasa.
I’d very much recommend this book if you’re interested in the history of the DR Congo- or the history of Belgium. And I’ll certainly be taking a close look at Michaela Wrong’s more recent books on Eritrea and Kenya.