I've always found reading books—not dry, unintelligible history-style books, mind you, but gripping novels—to be the best way of understanding complicated issues and backgrounds on a subject. We humans are dramatic, intelligent beings, and with us, nothing is simple. Thus books are the only reliable tool of information-gathering—they rapidly draw you into the plot but linger with you for a long while, drawing out explanations and perspectives and woes. In terms of understanding the modern Democratic Republic of Congo, Tim Butcher’s Blood River: A Journey to Africa's Broken Heart, serves as a great jumping-off point towards gaining a richer understanding of the region and its troubles.
Butcher centers his novel around his goal to travel through the Congo taking the same route as that of Henry Morton Stanley, the first (white) man to penetrate into the depths of the Congo. Stanley later collaborated with the king of Belgium, Leopold, to get European control of the region, and committed atrocities against many innocent Congolese in order to get control of their land. Butcher realizes the cruelty of many of Stanley’s actions, and criticizes him harshly in the novel for it. Yet Butcher still admires Stanley for the arduous three-year journey he took, and longs to take this journey for himself. At this point (August 2004), the situation in the Eastern Congo is particularly volatile and the dangers of rebels looms large in Butcher’s mind as he sets out for his trip.In a witty, straightforward, analytic, and sometimes fearful voice, Butcher seamlessly carries the story forward, detailing the trials of his journey while comparing them to Stanley’s.
“My journey through the Congo had its own unique category It did not do it justice to call it adventure travel, and certainly was not pleasure travel. My Congo journey deserved its own category: ordeal travel.”
In between recapping his travel experience, Butcher outlines the history and struggles of the Congolese people. Butcher’s analysis spares no one, not the European imperialists, not the corrupt African leaders, nor the corrupt officials he encounters throughout his journey.
The novel is heart-rending in how real Butcher’s details are. He is clearly not exaggerating anything. He doesn't have to. Yet despite the fear and insecurity the reader feels throughout the whole book, Butcher threads a theme of hope throughout the novel. Yes, it’s true that when the rebels approach, most villagers have to respond by fleeing into the bush. Yes, the Congo has actually become more technologically-backward in the last 50 years. Yes, corruption is rampant in the region. Yet despite all that, there is a hope that things can change. The land is beautiful, and many of the people are kind and honest. Butcher emphasizes the idea that for things to change, the people have to push for change. And in his novel, there is the sense that push they will.