Jun 2, 2006

Understanding the Congo

The TIME magazine cover story this week, "Congo: The Hidden Toll of the World's Deadliest War," is recommended reading for anyone concerned about the future of the Democratic Republic of the Congo and the African continent itself.

The article, however, is light on the history of the former Belgian colony, and I take issue with the rather sanitized view of colonial history that reporters Simon Robinson and Vivienne Walt present. In particular, the Belgian and US roles in the assassination of Patrice Lumumba, the Congo's first postcolonial prime minister, were all but ignored by the writers. President Eisenhower personally ordered the "elimination" of Lumumba, and a CIA agent supposedly drove around with Lumumba's body in the trunk of his car after the killing.

For those seeking a fuller understanding of the colonial history of the region, I recommend the following books to general readers:

Heart of Darkness (1902) - Joseph Conrad's classic novel examines the exploitation of the Congo by Europeans. The author's characterizations of Africans are, at times, a bit demeaning, but his experiences as a captain of a river vessel on the Congo River bring an element of authenticity to the work. The book is perhaps the most important early critique of European colonialism. Trivia note: the novel was the basis for the 1979 Francis Ford Coppola film Apocalypse Now (re-set during the Vietnam War).

The Poisonwood Bible (1998) - This novel by Barbara Kingsolver is equal parts tragic travel narrative, social critique, and religious awakening. The book is written for the general reader, but is on solid factual ground.

King Leopold's Ghost (1998) - This work of non-fiction by Adam Hochschild - by training a journalist - has excellent historical research, and is very accesible to the general reader. The ugly truths of Belgian King Leopold II are not whitewashed, and his descriptions of the physical and metaphorical abuses by the Belgians are disturbing.


Anonymous said...

I enjoyed the Poisonwood Bible - are the other books usually available in local libraries?

historymike said...

Oh yes - any library that does not carry Heart of Darkness should be scorned, and there are four copies of King Leopold's Ghost in the Toledo -Lucas County Public Library system.

Anonymous said...

Mike, as a regular poster here, I second your kudos for King Leopold's Ghost. I read it as an undergraduate and was blown away by the gripping narrative structure as well as the first-rate historical research.

mehta said...

Don't normally comment here, but I was linked.

I think the bigger thing than U.S assasination of Lumumba (don't get me wrong, I agree that was a major incident) was how Belgium pretty much destroyed the Congolese ability to rule itself. I figure Mobuto and Lumumba would have created the same mess we see today because the Belgians destroyed all vestiges of a civil society. Plus, neither the US of the USSR particularly cared about a stable Congo and I think foreign intervention with a lack of capable government in so rich an area made these problems inevitable.

Kate said...

(making up my summer reading list :-)

This is good stuff Mike.

historymike said...

Good point, Mehta. There were seven - count 'em, seven - college graduates in the Congo at the time of independence.

The Belgians provided elementary schooling, but little in the way of secondary schooling.

The charge that is made is that the Belgians wanted to create a class of "worker bees," but that they would still be able to run the country due to a lack of skilled workers.

Many European countries had a larger colonial presence around the world than the Belgians, but I would argue that no European power screwed up a colony worse than the Belgians.

The biggest shame is that the Congo is potentially the wealthiest nation in Africa.

Hooda Thunkit said...

Gives a more sinister meaning to the phrase "The Dark Continent."

It should be no suprise that we had our fingers in there, mucking things up...

We just can't seem to resist, can we?

Black River Eagle said...

Mike, I discovered this post today via a blogger roundup at Slate online about the June 5th TIME Magazine cover story on the DR Congo. Your input is very much appreciated. There is quite an active blogger community working from within the DRC as well as members of the Congolese diaspora writing from Europe and the U.S. in both French and English. You can find some of these blogs over at Harvard's Global Voices Online project site or check my blogroll.

Here is the link to the Slate article in case you haven't seen it yet:

Here is a link to bloggers writing about the DR Congo featured at Global Voices: