Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Non-Fiction Review: Blood River

Ever since Stanley first charted its mighty river in the 1870s, the Congo has epitomized the dark and turbulent history of a failed continent. However, its troubles only served to increase the interest of Daily Telegraph correspondent Tim Butcher, who was sent to cover Africa in 2000. Before long he became obsessed with the idea of recreating Stanley’s original expedition — but travelling alone.

Despite warnings Butcher spent years poring over colonial-era maps and wooing rebel leaders before making his will and venturing to the Congo’s eastern border. He passed through once thriving cities of this country and saw the marks left behind by years of abuse and misrule. Almost, 2,500 harrowing miles later, he reached the Atlantic Ocean, a thinner and a wiser man.

Blood River: A Journey to Africa's Broken Heart

Butcher, Tim. 2007 [Genre: Travel/History/Investigative Journalism]

Do you ever have a book that you struggle to get through, but find it hard to pinpoint why? Blood River was like that for me. I've read multiple books about the colonial history of Africa and the Congo before (King Leopold's Ghost is one of my favourite popular history books of all time) and thought Butcher's book would give interesting context as to what the Congo is like today.

In some respects, it hit the mark. Butcher's writing is dry, but engaging. He presents really quite horrific figures and stories in a matter of fact way that often made me do a double take - surely one could not talk about rape and murder in such an everyday way? It truly makes one pause to consider that for the population of the modern Congo, rape and murder is the everyday and has been now for generations. Butcher also pulls no punches with asking the questions that more P.C writers skip around - the passage that stood out for me was a conversation with a Malaysian U.N boat captain:

Captain Ali : “I don’t know what it is about these Congolese people, or Africa in general, but look at this wasted opportunity… In Malaysia [which has a comparable colonial past to the Congo and gained independence at the same time] people make millions from palm oil. It is one of the most valuable commodities in the world right now… [and the plants from which it comes grow all over the Congo:]. But the Congo people. They don’t want to make money for themselves. They just wait to take money from others.” …he had distilled the quintessential problem of Africa that generations of academics, intellectuals and observers have danced around since the colonial powers withdrew. Why are Africans so bad at running Africa?”

Having put such a tough question out into the open, it's also refreshing that Butcher refrains from answering it, leaving the reader to do their own investigation, while also dismissing many of the stock answers (the West's continual meddling etc) as far to simplistic. In terms of presenting the Congo's continuing problems in an open, accessible and honest way, Blood River is a triumph. 

On the other hand, with much respect to Butcher's achievement (crossing the Congo alone overland), something about Blood River raised my hackles. Perhaps it was the way that every character Butcher met was very quickly put in 'good' or 'bad' boxes, where the natives of the Congo were either helpful and kind or corrupt and evil, a division that jars with the complex narrative Butcher presents. Perhaps it was Butchers slightly pompous and whiny tone, echoing Stanley's own in a rather uncomfortable way; he talks of the villagers in a small jungle town having their homes repeatedly burnt down by rebels (causing them to flee into the jungle until it is safe to return) and being to tired to put up his mosquito net properly in the same breath. His reliance on native help at every turn is no doubt necessary, but stinks gently of white power as he throws money around to get his way. Butcher concludes that 'he touched the heart of Africa and found it broken,' but I found myself questioning whether it was his right to touch the heart of Africa and find in broken in the first place. That being said, I suppose someone has too. 

Overall? a slightly begrudging 3/5 stars.

Blood River crosses a book off my 2014 TBR challenge pile list


  1. I think I had a much better experience with this than you did - I didn't like it as much as King Leopold's Ghost, but I still very much enjoyed it.

    1. I think maybe it's because I come from an academic background in anthropology (several of my undergraduate professors had done long term fieldwork in Rwanda, Uganda and the Congo, so it was a focus of my studies) and Butcher's approach is definately not anthropologically sound?? . . I don't know. . struggling to pinpoint why it raised my hackles so much. My husband loved it too, so maybe it's just me!

  2. I've had a few books like that, where I struggled with it and had a hard time putting my finger on why. Recently I had a hard time getting through a YA book and I think I was just burnt out on the genre. This sounds a bit too dark to me so given that you didn't like it, I think I'll pass on this one.