A Word A Week: Boat (Up the Congo)


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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.

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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 forceForce 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


16 thoughts on “A Word A Week: Boat (Up the Congo)

  1. Interesting read a little more about the Congo, and very interesting to learn about the conflict over the minerals there. Always good to learn about new areas and the background to them


  2. Your husband’s trip up the Congo looks fascinating and I too am jealous of it :-). The photos are priceless. Your essay on the history of the Congo told me more about the DR Congo that I’d ever seen and I am a well-educated, well-read college graduate. The sad fact is that we don’t worry about places that are so far from us unless they impact us directly. Very, very well done Tish – thanks for taking the time and making the effort.

  3. thank you, Tish, for stealing some of Graham’s photographs for this post!
    “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…”

    1. For some reason, Frizz, I can no longer enter comments on your and most other blogs. So it’s not that I have nothing to say. Just that I can’t. I can still do the ‘like’ bit though. Any ideas/ You seem to be more technically adept than I am?

  4. As usual this is an excellent post, Tish, depicting a sad tragedy.

    Yes, the issue of Congo is a big and unfortunate tragedy and as you intimated we are all to blame. For me, I put the blame squarely on the shoulders of Africans. Let’s start with the slave trade. Sometimes it might seem simplistic to just say that Africans should not have sold their fellow Africans into slavery. But it’s a fact, Tish. We went on slave raids , hauling off those we deemed lower than us and captured, selling them as slaves to the Europeans. Had we all united against the Europeans fighting them with all the crude weapons we had, it might have been a different story. Granted that they came with then sophisticated weapons,; guns, that we hadn’t seen before, there is might and strength in unity.

    Fast forward to the present. Even in so called democratic governments like Ghana the educated African who has been given much over the uneducated person in terms of wealth, knowledge and privilege would not help to develop his country. The African man thinks of himself first, his stomach, his mistresses and how to acquire more wealth. Go to the villages and there you will see the suffering of the people. We all expect the govt to do something when we can easily pull resources or even use our connections to help the poor but no. Democracy men that we can only oppose govts, wear big suits and ride in latest gas-guzzling monsters of a machines. Am I ranting? probably!

    Take Nigeria. To further our own selfish aims, we are fanning fires of religious conflict between Christians and Muslims; the same big men secretly fund the Boko Haram in the perpetuation murders and mayhem. why would we do this to our own people? Are we not one?

    The case of the Congo is truly mind boggling. It would take a dedicated, committed and patriotic leader to pull Congo out of this predicament. Take Liberia. It took Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf to get Charles Taylor out. Taylor was in a position to fast forward the development of Liberia. The lure of glittering stones got this head and he plunged his country into years of civil war.

    Yes, the West must also get some of the blame I concede or admit but Tish, no one and I mean no one can break a front, not even CIA, if Africans leaders are not selfish and misguided in their motives. When Kwame Nkrumah wanted to found the OAU, he was accused of being ambitious and egoistic. Today the AU is quite toothless.

    I never knew about the Col-tan. But you see, the multinational corporations have seen how weak and malleable we are and they rightly exploit it us.

    Another example that comes to mind is the Equatorial Guinea with a population less than that of the capital city of Ghana. And yet they wallow in abject poverty while the president ans his children amass and profligate all the resources.

    I could go on and on Tish. But let me end here 🙂 So sorry for all this long rhetoric! 🙂

  5. Celestine, you are most welcome to rant here as much as you like. It is good to have other views, and I understand precisely what you are saying. My own feeling is that western democratic systems have failed in Africa because they are largely imported systems that bear no relation to indigenous forms of democracy. Also the notion of statehood is pretty alien. In Kenya, the incoming independence government merely took over institutions that were placed there by the British to benefit the upper class settler minority. Nothing much has changed. You’ve just exchanged rule for and by British gentry for African lawyers with apparently much the same attitude to those less educated and well off than they are. A complete disconnection between governance and a sense of collective responsibility. But yes, this is such a BIG topic. On all sides there’s just so much bad behaviour to unravel.

  6. Truly excellent article.
    I have no clue as to how one would even begin to resolve such conflict, and any outside involvement would likely smack of some sort of ”colonialist” style interference.

    I look at the legacy of Ian Smiths regime and what will Mugabe leave in his wake?
    Malawi, where my sister is voluntarily nursing – has dreadful levels of poverty and even smaller countries such as Swaziland are rife with corruption.

    Maybe only time will resolve these issues? Perhaps there is an inevitable ”road” that has to be travelled?

    Again, another engrossing read and superbly written.

    1. Thanks so much for your very appreciative comments, Ark. Glad you found the piece interesting. As you say, time may be the answer. I am mostly optimistic, but we do need Western big business operations to trade fairly over resources, and stop exploiting conflict zones to get their raw materials on the cheap. They also need to pay their taxes to African countries for mineral extraction e.g. Zambia. DRCongo could be one of the richest countries on the planet, instead of one of the poorest. The country’s potential in hydro-power alone is apparently phenomenal.

      1. All said and done, to truly ignite ”Western” ( or more likely, Chinese) interest will depend solely on its dollar value against the trouble and effort to get a return.

        If you have seen Lord of War, Tish with Nick Cage you will know what I mean.

        Once upon a time South Africa was the only source of certain rare earth minerals that the Yanks needed for their military/space program. ( so I read somewhere)
        The were frightened to death that SA might fall into communist hands.
        Hence, while people thought that the end of Cold War ( and everything else) would only come about via someone pushing a red button, the Yanks played a very cagey political game during the days of Apartheid.
        Self-interest first and ”we feel sorry for the poor African” a very distant second.

        Remember the saying:
        Where does the big gorilla sit?
        Wherever he likes.

        All about the money,Honey.

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