The real world can be filled with as much wonder as any fantasy creation—you just have to know where to look. In Tim Butcher's Blood River, we are taken to somewhere you think can't exist, shouldn't exist. But it does, and it is shocking.
Journalist Tim Butcher trails the great explorer Henry Morton Stanley ("Dr Livingstone, I presume?") on one of his legendary trails that stretched across the mighty Congo river on a 2,500 mile journey into the heart of darkness. Butcher relates his journey to Stanley's, providing us with a fascinating history to the region from 1870 to the present day. You normally think that civilization progresses forward over time, but Butcher reveals a very sad state of affairs in the current Democratic Republic of Congo. The region has gone backwards, to a standard of living pre-1950s for Central Africa. Having been plundered by the Belgians in colonial days, suffering from the worst of effects the slave trade, the region has never really known much stability and peace. There were 'glory days', of thriving jungle cities, supported by an active mineral industry. Today, the region is practically impenetrable to outsiders (Butcher is the first foreigner for decades to travel some of these regions). War is daily life. The shocks we see in our newspapers happen so often that locals appear indifferent. There is no stability. Thousands die every week—every week!—from war and disease. Rebels from neighbouring countries and tribes raid helpless villages, burning them to the ground, raping and plundering where they go. Law does not exist. You can see the decay of history, abandoned ferryboats that once carried film stars in the 1950s, fallen buildings and hotels. This heartbreaking travel book tells of a country that has known only war and corruption, death and decay. Why so? Diamonds. Gold. An era of a corrupt dictatorship.
In this type of non-fiction you normally see the author's relation to the landscape come to front of stage, and Butcher has an understanding and compassion, and also a wonderful self-consciousness. From his meetings with a campaigning pygmy to UN aid workers (in the regions they dare to travel) it is a brave story.
A humbling story, and from one of the most dangerous countries on Earth. A rare report indeed.
You can see samples and photographs of this story here.
The story of the Congo is frustrating and deeply saddening, and this book is highly recommended.
— Mark N
Posted by Mark Newton at 6/05/2007