Pirogue on the Congo River
Long ago before Team Farrell was an entity, Team Leader Graham went on an overland trip. This six-month journey across Africa included a voyage on the Kinshasa-Kisangani ferry, which ever since has been a big source of envy for Nosy Writer. Out of sheer spite then, I have stolen some of Graham’s photographs for this post.
The slab-sided ferries that ply the thousand miles along this, the Democratic Republic of Congo’s super highway, provides motive power for all manner of other vessels which hitch a ride, lashing themselves alongside. The ferries have often been described as a floating cities or, more rudely, as floating slums. Along the route, traders from riverside villages paddle out to sell passengers their produce: monkey meat, crocodiles, fish and fruit, soap and palm oil.
But I’m afraid I have a more serious motive for posting these photos. Say the word Congo, and it inevitably invokes the overdone journalistic cliché that is used to “explain” every crisis on the African continent. Yes, hear it comes – the Heart of Darkness. Of course I would hope that when Joseph Conrad gave his novella this title in 1902, he was not meaning to cause further injury to the peoples of this afflicted region. Because the fact is, this trotted out phrase does injure them. It injures because it gives non-Africans a quick and dirty explanation for everything that goes wrong in African countries. It also casts the blame firmly on the inhabitants, and so distracts us from the grave assaults that outsiders inflict, and have inflicted, on Central Africa for the past four hundred years.
The problems in the Congo have always been about resources, the longstanding assumption held by the get-rich nations that the whole African continent is there purely for the purposes of pillage. Better still, what has been, and is still perpetrated there, largely goes unseen by citizens of the outside world. All is wrapped up in company names that have some very serious investors, people whose names you would not expect to see there.
So first, from the 16th century, there were the Atlantic slavers, in order of importance – the Portuguese, British, French, Spanish, Dutch, and Americans. Their human cargo was snatched from hearth and home in millions – and all so traders and plantation owners might grow rich from their captives’ labour.
Added to this was the elephant slaughter – the tusks hacked out for piano keys and billiard balls, or for some exotic display by the rich. Then there was the added advantage that slaves captured for sale could also be used to carry ivory out of the forest.
By the 1870s the Congo had become the private colony of King Leopold II of Belgium, this act of unbridled piracy courtesy of Welsh-born Henry Morton Stanley, whom the King then commissioned to secure the region for his sole exploitation and rapine. During Leopold’s rule, the world demand for rubber rocketed. Leopold’s private police force – Force Publique – was used to create terror among the Congo villages, beating, killing, cutting off limbs if the locals did not keep up their deliveries of wild rubber. (There are photographs). In an essay called Geography and Some Explorers, Conrad comments on what he himself saw in 1890 when he captained a company steamship; on what went on under the royal patronage of the so-called International Association for the Exploration and Civilisation of the Congo. He calls it
“the vilest scramble for loot that ever disfigured the history of human conscience and geographical exploration.”
In his book King Leopold’s Ghost, Adam Hochschild discusses evidence that suggests that around half the Congo Free State’s population died during Leopold’s rule, that is around 10 million people. Also it should be remembered that while the Atlantic Slave Trade had ended, the Congo was still being plundered from the east by the notorious Swahili-Omani slaver, Tippu Tib (see my post on the Swahili here). Slavery did not end in East Africa until the beginning of the 20th century.
Finally, though, the barbarity of Leopold’s regime was exposed. The campaign begun by American Civil War veteran, historian and minister, George Washington Williams in 1889 was taken up later by Irish born, British diplomat, Roger Casement and E.D. Morel, an activist and journalist who had first learned of the atrocities while working as a shipping clerk for a Liverpool company. In 1908, Leopold was forced to relinquish his money-making empire, and the Congo Free State became a Belgian colony.
That period of colonial history does not have a specially elevating history either. In 1961 it drew to a close with the assassination of the first Prime Minister of the newly independent state, Patrice Lumumba, this apparently with CIA support. There then followed the decades of unchecked resource looting, by the army officer who had captured Lumumba, and who was surprisingly promoted to President, a position that was backed thereafter by the US and Britain.
Today, the plunder for Congo’s resources goes on. Throughout Eastern Congo there has been fighting ever since the Rwanda’s Hutu massacres of the Tutsi in 1994. Several million Congolese have died during this last decade. The aftermath of the genocide that spilled over into DR Congo has simply gone from bad to worse, as one war lord succeeds another.
And it is still all about controlling country’s resources. The CIA fact book lists the following:
cobalt, copper, niobium, tantalum, petroleum, industrial and gem diamonds, gold, silver, zinc, manganese, tin, uranium, coal, hydropower, timber.
In its D R Congo profile, the BBC blandly observes alongside a photo of toiling Congolese miners:
“A contest for DR Congo’s vast mineral wealth has fuelled the fighting in the country.”
It does not observe that these resources are fuelling conflict solely because they are in huge demand outside Africa. Nor does it mention that the weapons and aircraft used in these conflicts are made outside Africa, and have been peddled in there by European arms dealers, for example, apparently by one Viktor Bout. This particular purveyor of death was convicted in the US in 2011, although not for the havoc he has probably wrought in DRC, but for endangering US citizens by arming Columbian fighters who might injure or kill US military.
It is also interesting that the CIA list of Congo’s resources does not include coltan (columbite-tantalite), the major conflict resource after diamonds. This is used to make capacitors, the essential components of mobile phones, laptop computers and play stations. Currently there is a ‘No blood in my cell phone’ campaign in the Democratic Republic of Congo, to persuade consumers to put pressure on cell phone manufacturers not to use resources from conflict zones. That is one approach, but also what the Congo needs is fair pay for all its resources, from international conglomerates downwards. In recent times, farmers in the Eastern Congo war zones have not been able to farm because of marauding militias. Their one way to make a living is to grub up coltan and sell it to middle men who then sell to western markets. The proceeds are used to buy more western arms.
And so when it comes down to it, whether we know it or not, we all risk being complicit in the Congo mayhem. You could argue that independent nation states should take responsibility for their own problems, but then the Congo has never, ever been independent – at least not from outside vested interests. Much of the country is still hugely impenetrable, with the capital Kinshasa a long way from most of it. So it is that the potentially richest state on earth, has the poorest people struggling there to make a living. And where there is endemic poverty, there will always be gross exploitation. It is also impossible to assess the traumatizing effects of centuries of people-theft, or of the atrocities wrought by other agencies on those left behind. It is also impossible to comprehend the full extent of the brutality that ordinary men, women and children have had to endure.
As the Congolese priest-activist, Abbé Jean Bosco, says in the Blood Coltan film cited at the end, it’s as if the Congo has been trapped by God’s gift of natural resources. Other people come and take them, and so instead of improving Congolese lives, the resources bring only unhappiness. He says stop the piracy, and let the world AND the Congo benefit from this mineral wealth.
So where then is the Heart of Darkness? I let you decide.
© 2013 Tish Farrell
For more on the Congo:
Tim Butcher Blood River
Adam Hochschild King Leopold’s Ghost
Lieve Joris Back to the Congo
Henry Morton Stanley In Darkest Africa
Michela Wrong In the Footsteps of Mr Kurtz
Barbara Kingsolver The Poisonwood Bible
Blood Coltan http://youtu.be/in0A8SFL3XM
Thierry Michel Congo River (in French and English)
Frank Piasecki Poulsen Blood in the Mobile