Blood River by Tim Butcher

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Blood River by Tim Butcher

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Category: Travel
Rating: 5/5
Reviewer: Lesley Mason
Reviewed by Lesley Mason
Summary: Recreating Stanley's epic expedition through the Congo & along its eponymous river, Tim Butcher explores the modern country and its history. An enthralling rendition of what is effectively the rape of a nation. Buy it for everyone you know.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 272 Date: January 2008
Publisher: Vintage
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 978-0099494287

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Tim Butcher started working as a journalist in Africa in 2000... 15 years after Live Aid gave us all hope that maybe the continent's problems were solvable... and almost as long since we'd begun to realise that it wasn't going to be that easy.

Two years into the bloodiest war in the world, the Congo – at the very heart of Africa – was seeing 1,000 deaths a day to the violence. And the world wasn't even looking.

As a Telegraph journalist it was Butcher's job to look, but his interest in the area took, in his words, a quantum leap when he made a personal connection. Some two and a quarter centuries earlier the Daily Telegraph had sent another journalist to the Congo... one Henry Morton Stanley.

In the 1870s Stanley, having already coined THE most famous sound-bite in history (Dr Livingstone, I presume) was trying to find a way to capitalise on his fame. Playing his New York editor off against the British competition he managed to raise funds for an expedition to resolve one of the last geographical mysteries: the route of the Congo River.

Butcher conceived a passion to replicate the journey.

From the very get-go, the warnings were clear. Impossible. Suicidal. Sheer disbelief. These were the standard reactions to the plan. But this was no half-baked adventure. Butcher spent years planning. He read everything about Stanley's time and whatever might have happened since... and of course, as one does, he talked to his mother... who as a colonial daughter had crossed the country in the 1950s. He perused official journals and Kathryn Hepburn's diaries of the making of The African Queen. He rootled around on any website that might throw up contacts: missionaries, aid agencies, official and unofficial government bodies, mining companies, diplomats, mercenaries, 'terrorists' ...anyone who might help.

By 2004, it had got to the point where if he was going to go, it had to be now.

Using a combination of trail-bikes, jeeps, a helicopter, mechanised "pusher" and the local dugout canoe called a pirogue, Butcher manages his overland crossing from Lake Tanganyika to the headwaters of the river & downstream to the ocean in some 44 days – compared to the 999 it took Stanley – but it was no less of an adventure, no less dangerous or arduous for that. In his own words the trip was not 'adventure travel' – more 'ordeal travel'. Like all the best writers Tim waxes lyrical about the beauty of a place, when it strikes him; he conveys that ultimate sense of "well-being" that all travellers get when they suddenly realise they are moving purposefully onwards and for the time being all they need do is continue and observe; but unlike many he does not pretend to enjoy the rest of it. He talks of fear, and irritation, and boredom. He admits to loneliness, sickness, and confusion. He does not pretend to an intrepidness that he doesn't really feel – and freely confesses begging favours from anyone that would listen and might help.

Overland from Kalemie, with the aid workers, he has to contend with colonies of ants, unreliable bikes, contaminated fuel, rebel troops and government soldiers – surviving it all on the local diet of cassava (with the smell of rancid cheese, the consistency of wallpaper paste, and a taste that combines to two) and not enough water. On the river there is the heat, the vagaries of rapids and shallows, the crocodiles, and the insects. In the depths of forest that closes right down to the banks there are hidden villages with the promise of welcome or the threat of mai-mai. Above all there is isolation and poverty – and signs that it used to be different. Bicycles – no longer used as transport to be ridden, but as beasts of burden to be walked alongside as they carry goods the hundreds of kilometres between centres were a trade might be possible. Catholic missions from the days of the Poisonwood Bible. Graveyards that don't always date as far back as Conrad's days of Darkness.

It was one hell of journey. But that's not the point.

Blood River might have been conceived as a travelogue – what resulted is a history book. By making the connections between those earlier travellers' tales and his own experiences... Butcher finds himself considering The Congo's biography. From its original discovery by the Portuguese in 1482, through the Victorian explorations and the Belgian slaving empire, to the glory days of mineral extraction and European 'development' of the interior through the first half of the twentieth century to the disaster that has been subsequent independence – Butcher tries to understand the dark heart of the continent. Examining what has happened, and how, in talking to local people and considering their abilities and concerns, and by looking at the response of the wider world he paints a bloody picture indeed.

The phrase that stays in the mind long after closing the book is the concept that The Congo (by whatever name we choose to call it) is a country that is 'not just undeveloped but undeveloping'. The visions of railway lines being reclaimed by the jungle flora is a clear enough one for a country being reclaimed by the mores of an earlier age, a more violent age – an age when the world could not penetrate the depths or hope to influence what went on the remoteness. The question is: are we (the richer world) prepared to allow that to continue, or do the people that Butcher met on his travels deserve a better future?

Blood River is one of the few books that really should be "required reading". Fortunately, it's also a ripping yarn, superbly spun – so doing so will not be any kind of ordeal.

Supported by short fiction & non-fiction bibliography & a comprehensive index, this is a book that I will not only re-read in its entirety – but also one that will do honourable service as a reference point.

You might also like The Poisonwood Bible for a look back at how it used to be.

Booklists.jpg Blood River by Tim Butcher is in the Richard and Judy Shortlist 2008.

Booklists.jpg Blood River by Tim Butcher is in the Top Ten Books About Africa.

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Abeid wa Kalume Van said:

What a great masterpiece! -The grandfathers are more exposed to modernity than their grandchildren.Africa my continent!