Warning: some gruesome details and pictures. Also my language isn’t the prettiest it’s ever been, so pardon me in advance.
I recently finished a book called Facing the Congo, by Jeffrey Tayler. Minor spoilers are ahead, but this post is not really about the book itself, so much as the discoveries I made as a result of reading it.
Despite having briefly met a couple refugees from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, I didn’t know much about the country or its history. That was part of what motivated me to buy the book. I also didn’t know anything about the author, but I found myself relating to him heavily in the prologue. He was an American who had lived in Russia for a long time at this point, and less than content.
“Time was passing, which my Russian friends reminded me at every opportunity. “You’re thirty-three already! That’s voszrast Khrista [the age of Christ]!” Allusions to Golgotha notwithstanding, I understood what they meant: at thirty-three one’s direction in life should be clear, and mine was not. If anything, it was growing murkier. As I slipped out of youth and into adulthood, doors were slamming shut before me as paths back to what I had grown up with were being cut off. In the preceding eight years all my grandparents, to whom I had been very close, had passed away; letters from friends in the States yellowed and then many of the friends had drifted away. The wanderlust that had impelled me to travel happily throughout my twenties made me a miserable misfit in my thirties. And then there was was my writing, which was going nowhere. More and more, with no prospect of a satisfying vocation, and feeling ever more alone, the romantic notions that had led me abroad – that one must write one’s own life and never settle for solutions scripted by others; that one must pursue a destiny based on one’s unique talents and never surrender to convention – prompted me to get up and take action, but I could not conceive of what action.“
However, as much as I identified with his discontent and frustration with himself, his solution to it was insane to me. I can’t imagine going somewhere as dangerous and poverty-stricken as the Congo river to “find yourself.” He was a former Peace Corps volunteer, so I think he understood some of that going in, but since the only thing I had heard about the DRC before I read this book was that it is the “rape capital of the world.” Obviously traveling the world is very different depending on your gender.
Before he even got to the river, he spent some time in Brazzaville and Kinshasa, where from his descriptions there were so many people missing limbs, with piles of burning garbage on the street. He kept going, but I don’t think I could have after seeing that. Especially when I’m not there to help, just to “find myself”…
In the book, he gives a brief explanation of some of the history of the DRC (known as Zaire at the time of his trip), but I’m guessing he was scared of bogging down his audience with historical facts.The one thing he did mention in more detail was the exploration done in the 1870’s by the British explorer Henry Morton Stanley.
“Stanley, accompanied by a crew of hundreds of Africans and three Europeans, […] sailed downriver in pirogues, or dugout canoes, fighting cannibal tribes all the way. By the time he reached the Atlantic, half of the Africans and all of his European companions had perished in battles or died of disease, drowning, or starvation.
Stanley’s expedition opened up Central Africa for European exploitation, slaving, and despoilment.”
Needless to say, neither Tayler or I were fans of the guy. How selfish and horrible. Still, after reading about Stanley, I couldn’t help but begin drawing uncomfortable parallels between Stanley’s expedition and Tayler’s proposed adventure…
Pushing down these thoughts, I read on. He talked briefly about the exploitation of the Congo, but it wasn’t really enough explanation for me, so I started looking up incidents he mentioned.
First off, if there is a Hell, King Leopold II of Belgium has his own suite.
Under his rule of the area, renamed the “Congo Free State,” collecting hands of the Congolese was a thing. From the living or dead. Didn’t produce enough rubber or gold? Cut off his hand. Still didn’t? Cut off his wife’s hand. Still not sufficient? Cut off the hands of his children. Village disobeyed an order? Burn it to the ground, then cut off everyone’s hands.
I read that some Congelese people would pretend to be dead after their village was razed to the ground, even while their hand was being cut off. I read that soldiers who collected enough hands could finish their tour early.
That is fucking disgusting.
Here is a picture of a father staring at his own severed hand and the severed foot of his murdered 5-year-old daughter.
The whole time, King Leopold II covered it up by creating fake organizations to look like he was helping the Congolese, when in actuality, he was doing this:
Do you want to know something even more messed up? After hearing about some of these atrocities, apparently Europe was so appalled they forced King Leopold II to give up his reign over the country. Any guesses to who ended up in charge?
If you’re thinking it was the Congolese themselves, you are charmingly optimistic.
That’s who got it. Belgium…the country ruled by the King they took it away from because of horrible human rights abuses.
History is so fucked up.
I had to wonder when researching this, how did we not learn about this school? I remember having to memorize the definitions of colonialism and brief talks about India with a dash of Africa thrown in, but I do not remember anything about what any of it actually meant. We must have had such an incredibly sanitized version of colonialism and what it means. I actually felt a little betrayed, thinking back on my education. Maybe I just wasn’t paying attention…but I doubt it. World History was one of my favorite subjects. While we didn’t necessarily learn that colonialism is a good thing, we certainly didn’t learn the human cost or what it truly meant for the lives of those who lived there.
It makes me so terribly sad.
Another thing Tayler sort of drifted over was a group of Italians that were killed in the Congo. In the book they mention that it was horrible, but they didn’t say why it was horrible, or why it happened. Unfortunately, I decided to try and find out. If you want to, you can read more about it here.
I also found this post as a result of my search, and I’m not sure what to make of it.
I haven’t read too much about the history of what happened after colonialism, though Tayler does given another short summary in the book. The thing that stood out to me was that Mobutu, the then-leader of the DRC (and who renamed it Zaire) by all accounts an self-edifying murderer, was invited to the White House as a guest of honor.
Again, and I hope I’m stating this clearly enough: What the fuck.
Apparently it’s because he was also against the Soviet Union. We certainly have our principles straight.
As for the book itself, I enjoyed it, and am glad I read it. I was most interested not in his mission of traversing the river, but in the glimpse of life in the cities and villages. It didn’t go into any of the details I mentioned above, but it was a good peek at life in the DRC (at least in the mid- 90’s, as he went on this trip in 1995). I shared his frustrations and his joy with guide, Desi. I really enjoyed his pictures at the beginning of each chapter. Unfortunately I couldn’t find any of them online.
After reading the history above, you’ll no doubt be unsurprised that most people they met on the river who saw Jeffrey Tayler thought that as a mondele, a white man, he was either a priest or in search of diamonds. No one believed his only mission was to travel. I identified with his reasoning for setting off on the adventure, and I still couldn’t believe that was his solution, so I don’t blame them.
It also made me sad to hear the sexism (though expected) expressed by many of the local men, usually backed by passages from the Bible. It’s bizarre to me how many were Christian, and how strongly they believed in this faith, brought to them by the very people who were so horrible to them. But many of them, including Desi, insist that God’s holy command is to multiply, so a man’s job is to create as many babies as possible, while a woman’s job is to give birth to as many as possible. Hence, more than one wife is a-okay. Tayler tries talking to Desi at one point about how he (Tayler) believes if you have children, you should be able to provide them, and asked Desi if he didn’t worry about feeding his children. Desi sort of threw out more religious reasons, saying,
“To be alive is enough. By the grace of Jesus we live, by the grace of Jesus we die. Your prophet Branam says this. We should not complain as long as we have a single grub to eat, a single banana, a single root to chew. We must thank Jesus and multiply. Always be thankful and multiply.”
That also made me sad. I don’t understand why some would cling to this faith, when it’s also been used as an excuse to destroy so much of their world.
As the book goes on, with all the dangers lurking about, you really feel the discomfort of all the dangers, and as Tayler asks himself why he went on this crazy mission, you find yourself wanting to shake him. Constant mosquitoes, never-ending heat, heart-wrenching poverty, crocodiles, cannibal tribes, drunken military officials, and everyone demanding something more from him (though you can’t really blame them for it).
I read some reviews of the book, and they seem split down the middle. Some felt as I felt, that he has a unique story to tell, and it’s an interesting tale of a part of the world we don’t get a peek at too often. Others felt as I implied earlier, that what he did was childish and exploitative.
I did too for awhile, but in my mind he redeemed himself by admitting he was wrong, and giving up on his hard-fought mission to reach Kinshasa for the sake of Desi.
He even says,
“I had exploited Zaire as a playground on which to solve my own rich-boy existential dilemmas.”
“My drama of self-actualization proved obscenely trivial beside the suffering of the Zaireans and the injustices of their past. That it should have seems obvious to me now, but I learned this only by buying a pirogue and attempting the descent.”
He briefly toys with the idea of returning in order to finish the descent, but to his credit he decides not to. Some reviewers claimed there was no real resolution to the book, but I was actually a bit inspired by the last words he gave the book.
“The best we can do is exorcise our demons through action, for time will always be short, and there is always much to be learned from living – even when the lessons prove to be deeply painful.”
Unfortunately, due to the subject matter itself being painful to talk about and easily ignored, and that this book is no longer the “modern-day journey” it claims to be (the hard part of naming anything “modern” is that it only takes a few years for it to be untrue), it is difficult to to find people to discuss it with.
So if you have read it, or are interested in the Congo, or just managed to read this entire post, please comment.