Books on Congo

Named one of the 100 best books on Africa, Life and a Half was Sony Labou Tansi’s response to the death of close friends during a bloody military and political crackdown in Congo. The novel takes place in an imaginary African country run by the latest in a series of cannibalistic dictators who has captured Martial, the leader of the opposition, and his family.

For those of us who already have much of everything else, there’s at least one good book every year testifying to the nobility, strength and “joie de vivre” of the Congolese people in their struggle. Books published by journalists and writers traveling up the Congo River have become a mini-genre in recent years. So Lokole ya Congo here publishes a wish list of recommended books for all Congophiles who have everything they need and don’t need already.

The journalist Tim Butcher published a list of his ten Congo favorites in The Guardian (U.K.) in 2008. He began his list not surprisingly with Henry Morton Stanley’s book that inspired Butcher’s own highly praised Blood River: The Terrifying Journey Through the World’s Most Dangerous Country. Butcher’s list is weak on the decolonization and post independence periods of Congo so I’ve added a few of my recommendations.

“1. Through The Dark Continent, Henry Morton Stanley (1878)
Stanley’s charting of the Congo was the high-water mark of 19th century African exploration. It took three years and cost the lives of hundreds of tribesmen slaughtered by Stanley’s heavily-armed bearers. All his white companions died. But it fired the starting gun for the Scramble for Africa, luring the European powers to claim the continent’s interior after centuries of nibbling round its edges. Like its author, this book, written in two volumes as a package with newspaper sponsors, is not trammelled by modesty.

2. Five Years With The Congo Cannibals, Herbert Ward (1890)
A more convincing account of the turbulent start to Congo colonialism. Ward was one of the foot soldiers hired by Stanley when he returned to claim the vast river basin, employed by the Belgian king, Leopold II. Ward learnt river languages to fluency, survived paddling thousands of miles up and down disease-ridden reaches and managed to retain some sense of humility throughout. (MY NOTE: WARD WAS A PRESBYTERIAN MISSIONARY AND CLOSE FRIEND OF THE BRITISH CONSUL IN CONGO ROGER CASEMENT WHOSE REPORT TO THE BRITISH PARLIAMENT ON KING LEOPOLD’S CONGO FREE STATE’S RUBBER COLLECTION METHODS HELPED BRING AN END TO HIS PERSONAL RULE OF THE VAST TERRITORY.)

3. Heart of Darkness, Joseph Conrad (1899)
What Conrad saw on the Congo in 1890 while serving briefly as a steamboat skipper burnt in his soul for eight years until, in a few hectic months, he ran off this most haunting of novellas. Is it a racist attack on the savagery of black Africa? Or, maybe, a lament for the evil that bursts from all of us when our moral compass starts to spin?

5. A Burnt-Out Case, by Graham Greene (1961)
Where would a troubled novelist go for solitude in the 1950s? A leper colony halfway up the Congo near the town of Mbandaka was Greene’s choice and the resulting fiction tells of a troubled individual – this time an architect – seeking time away from life’s pressures by escaping to a remote medical station. When I visited the ruins of Mbandaka a few years back, no trace was left of its once famous medical centre, the missionary nurses or the writer. (MY NOTE: IN FACT THE CATHOLIC MISSION IYONDA WHERE GREENE STAYED STILL OPERATES FIFTEEN KILOMETERS BETWEEN MBANDAKA AND WENDJI SECLI.)

7. The Poisonwood Bible, Barbara Kingsolver (1998)
Magical, multi-voiced account of a family’s spiralling doom at a remote mission station in the Congo around the time of independence in 1960. Narrated in turns by the mother and the daughters, it captures the singsong sound of Lingala, the language of the lower river, and the jungle’s hidden terrors. The day the ant column comes, consuming all before it, forcing the villagers to decide what – and whom – they can leave behind is unforgettable.

9. The African Dream – The Diaries of the Revolutionary War in the Congo, Che Guevara (2000)
Written in the mid-1960s but only published recently, this book reminds us of the heady days when lefties acted on their belief that revolution was to be exported. Guevara found himself fighting against white mercenaries in the eastern badlands of the Congo. Four decades later, and the fighting has still not really stopped.” (MY NOTE: GUEVARA’S COMMENTS ON THE INEFFECTUAL, OPPORTUNISTIC LEADERSHIP OF GUERRILLA CHIEF LAURENT KABILA, THE CURRENT PRESIDENT’S FATHER, IS NOTABLY PRESCIENT)

As you see, I’ve eliminated some of Butcher’s choices I either don’t recommend (Naipaul’s A Bend in the River) or haven’t read. I confess to not having read the first two which are essential sources for the story of Congo’s increased contacts with Europeans and Americans in the late 1800’s. For twentieth century developments, the Flemish writer David Van Reybrouck has published the highly readable The Congo: The Epic History of a People based on extended interviews with elderly Congolese who lived the history from a variety of viewpoints and social positions. The result surpasses anything Butcher suggests as an in-depth view of Congolese life in the pre and post independence era. For a more scholarly history of the twentieth century Congo I recommend the Congolese expatriate political scientist Georges Nzongola-Ntalaja’s book The Congo: From Leopold to Kabila. On King Leopold’s rule over the Congo and the campaign to free the country from his depredations, Adam Hochschild’s King Leopold’s Ghost can’t be beat. And Mark Twain contributed to bringing Leopold’s rule of Congo to an end with King Leopold’s Soliloquoy, a worthy satire.

In closing I will share some favorites that are less well known. One of the first Peace Corps volunteers in Congo wrote an account of his cultural mishaps, misunderstandings and mistakes in a remote village. Mike Tidwell’s The Ponds of Kalambayi is a delight. The anthropologist Colin Turnbull has stirred much controversy with his research and books on northern Uganda but his classic The Forest People remains a beautiful rendering of his love and admiration for the Pygmy inhabitants of the Ituri Forest. Finally, I have just finished Noble Prize winner Mario Vargas Llosa’s account of the life of Roger Casement in The Dream of the Celt. Already mentioned above as one of the first international human rights campaigners focused on Congo, Casement led a fascinating but very difficult life worthy of the great novelist Llosa’s nuanced account.

Finally, I want to encourage Lokole ya Congo readers to explore the writing of the Congolese poets, short story writers and novelists who have gained literary attention since 1960. From the DRC, the late, lamented Sony Labou Tansi stands out as does our contemporary Fiston Mwanza Mujila whose recent first novel Tram 83 has been highly praised. The Republic of Congo’s Alain Mabanckou and Emmanuel Dongala continue to garner attention and literary awards. After reading Dongala’s The Fire of Origins, I want to read more of his work in the coming year. It is regrettable that a brief internet search brings up no mention of Congolese women writers. We need their voice to balance the images, views and impressions of Barbara Kingsolver’s highly regarded novel, probably the most widely read book on Congo in the U.S. Kingsolver’s book is written from an American missionary family’s standpoint, her parents also lived in Congo as missionary doctors before independence, during and following the Congolese transition to self rule.

I close this wish list with the wisdom of Congo’s “article quinze” (referring to the non-existent fifteenth article of Congo’s first Constitution) or “debrouillez-vous” which loosely translated advises, “carry on with what you’ve got”.

3 thoughts on “Books on Congo

  1. Margaret Wente

    Barbara Kingsolver is a very skilled writer. I totally agree that her Poisonwood Bible is unforgettable as a novel. An expert on the Congo she is not. Her parents went to Congo to help hospitals needing doctors, when the Belgians evacuated at the time of Independence. They were there for nine months when Barbara was still in elementary school. (I got this information from Ben Hobgood who attended school in Kentucky with her parents. Ben grew up in Congo and went back as an adult.) Barbara’s parents were very disappointed in her portrayal of missionaries, I heard, as they had met only a different kind of compassionate, understanding servers. Please read and enjoy this book as fiction.

    I think THE CONGO by VAN Reybrouck is the best and fairest history of Congo that I have read, and I have read many.


    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks Margaret for the additional info on B. Kingsolver’s ties to Congo. During her Father’s medical training, her parents were members at Memorial Christian Church Ann Arbor while my Dad served as Pastor.


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