Danger on the river that swallows all others

Reviews | published in Real Change on May. 13th, 2009
Subject: Tim Butcher

Blood River: A Journey to Africa’s Broken Heart By Tim Butcher, Grove Press, 2008, 363 pages, $25

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In 1999, I took a two-month trip to Uganda, in eastern Africa. My second day there, I met a man named Pima Galihamatumwe. Not only was his name oversized, but so was his physique: Standing at least six-foot-four and weighing close to 250 pounds, Pima was massive, the kind of person you wanted on your side. Pima also spoke numerous languages — including Lugandan, the local Bantu dialect, along with Swahili, French and English — which allowed him to act as tour guide, translator and door opener for me. For this, I was eternally grateful, except … well, sometimes, I sensed Pima was up to something, something illegal or dangerous. Or both.

One day, while standing in the heat of Uganda’s capital, Kampala, Pima mentioned, sort of off the cuff, that, sometimes, he worked in the Democratic Republic of Congo, as a driver. This didn’t seem so strange at first. After all, the Congo sits on Uganda’s western border. But when I asked him what type of goods he drove, he wouldn’t answer. He acted as if he didn’t know what I was talking about.

About a week later, he told me he would be leaving the country for a few days: He had a driving gig in the Congo. Again, I asked about it and again, no answer. Two days later, he left. When he returned, five days after that, his eyes were so bloodshot and his face so swollen and his demeanor so tense, it looked as if he’d escaped after some nasty fight. How was the Congo? I asked, cautious. Pima glared at me, shook his head, No, then changed the subject. What in the hell happened?

Ten years later, I still have no idea. But now that I’ve read Tim Butcher’s “Blood River,” I have a guess: Pima had just come back from one of the most dangerous places on earth.

That Tim Butcher ventured into the Congo alone and made it out — alive — is nothing short of a miracle. That he made it out and then wrote about his experience — so majestically, so honestly — practically demands a literary celebration. Of course, this might sound like hyperbole if you don’t know about the Congo.

Africa’s third largest country, the Congo sits practically in the center of the continent. A place rich in natural resources — diamonds, cobalt, copper, zinc — its most prized possession, in the 16th century, when Portuguese traders discovered the mouth of the river rushed into the Atlantic, was humans, or more accurately, slaves. Close on Portugal’s maritime heels, other nations — Britain, Holland — arrived, all to feed the hydra of the Atlantic Slave Trade. An all-out plunder of the Congolese people continued until the late 19th century. “The best estimate is twelve million Africans were forced on board ships and the Congo River mouth was, throughout that entire period, one of the principal sources of slaves.”

Belgium’s King Leopold placed his colonial stamp on the area in 1885. The Belgian government grabbed control from him in 1908. Africans gained independence in 1960, resulting in a decades-long roster of native leaders who were either assassinated — Patrice Lumumba, in 1961 — or ousted — the dictators Mobutu Sese Seko and Laurent Kabila — leaving the country with little direction. These factors, along with the aftermath of the Rwandan genocide in 1994, led to a massive civil war in the Congo that began in 1998. That ongoing war, with its attendant violence, disease, famine and chaos, has claimed more than five million lives.

For Butcher, his knowledge of the country stems from having been the chief war correspondent and Africa Bureau Chief for the British newspaper the Daily Telegraph. It was an interesting post to have held because another, more famous person worked for the same paper: Sir Henry Morton Stanley. Does that name ring a bell? Maybe. If not, just know that Stanley’s remembered for two things: He’s the person who issued the famous quote, “Dr. Livingstone, I presume?” when he found the lost explorer; and he was the first white man to chart the entire Congo River, from 1874-77.

Knowing this, Butcher gets a crazy notion: What if he, more than a hundred years after Stanley, were to travel the Congo River, too? Wouldn’t that be great? Perhaps. But practically everyone he encounters tells him how suicidal it would be. And besides, how would he do it? He tells one person that, for part of the route, he’ll travel overland on a motorbike. That, and a little luck, should be all he needs. “You are a white man,” the person replies. “You will need something more than luck.” Yet Butcher refuses to give up his dream.

And looking at the Congo River on a map, you get the sense it is a ridiculous dream. Shaped like a giant sickle, “the river that swallows all rivers” courses nearly 3,000 miles, its source beginning in the continent’s central rainforest before arcing north and then west to the Atlantic, “where it pumps out more fresh water into the ocean than any other river in the world except the Amazon.” Unable to hear “No” after nearly four years of planning, Butcher, in August 2004, starts his journey. Not surprisingly, things don’t go so well.

He flies into the Congo on a rickety plane, on an airline a fellow passenger describes as “a Maybe Airline — Maybe You Get There, Maybe You Don’t.” Luck proves an ally and he arrives with a “green rucksack packed with clothing, bedding and a mosquito net, and two shoulder bags for [his] notebooks, camera, laptop computer and satellite phone.” Still, he’s nowhere close to the Congo River. To reach its head, he’s got to conjure up a ride, and so, practicing the virtue of patience, he finally finds and hires a squadron of motorbikes, complete with drivers. Too bad one shows up on the day he’s to depart “stinking of booze.” They set off… and in short order, experience a flat tire. Then another. Soon after, they have a run in with the mai-mai, local militia historically known for “their violence, cruelty, even cannibalism.” Butcher and crew bribe their way to freedom with cigarettes. Further along, he meets a boy who takes him, silently, to a village bearing a pile of human skulls.

Eventually, Butcher reaches the river’s head, which his imagination has told him will be astounding, beautiful. Instead, “in the flat light, the river appeared viscous and still.” He hires four paddlers to take him up the river in a pirogue, a wooden canoe. The sun exhausts him. Rusted paddle-steamers, nautical detritus from the Congo’s past as a tourist destination, lay scuttled in the water and on the shores. His crew drops him off in a backwater town where he secures passage on a UN boat. But it’s a short-lived jaunt and, once again, he’s back on a pirogue, which has to navigate the Stanley Falls, seven dangerous cataracts that require leaving the water and hiring another motorbike.

By the time he reaches the famed, though now decrepit — city of Kisangani, where Katherine Hepburn stayed while filming parts of the “African Queen,” he’s lost 14 pounds. There, he witnesses a boy steal a woman’s handbag and, after someone trips up the youth, a crowd surrounds him. “I could hear blows landing on the boy and a scream that started loud and clear, but then became faint and gurgling.”

Can he continue? He’s not so sure. The helpful people he meets — a missionary, newspaper contacts — suggest he’s given himself an admirable, though perhaps insurmountable, challenge. Ready to give up, he lands a space on a UN patrolboat, heading downstream. But it’s a heat-soaked, soul-defeating, mosquito-ridden slog. As he approaches the Atlantic, he develops a high fever. Is it malaria? Does he need medical attention? Should he abandon ship?
As if there wasn’t enough tension in “Blood River” already, by the time you’ve reached this point in the book, some six weeks and five-sixths of the way down a 3,000-mile river, you find yourself in your own moral dilemma: You want Butcher to be safe, but you hope he won’t give up. Stick with it, you want to shout. And he… well, you’ll have to read the book to find out what he does.

But, as some people say, it’s not the destination, but the journey. And this is one amazing journey, filled with such sadness and awe and grief and despair balanced by acts of humanity, it makes you lament that “the world seems to view the Congo as a lost cause without hope of ever being put right.” If anything, Butcher makes you wish for a time-travel machine, some device that would return you to the region’s not-so-distant past in the hopes of redirecting the events that have set it upon such a heartrending course. But would it work? And wouldn’t that smack of imperialism?

Maybe my friend Pima would jump on board. I’d ask him, if only I knew where he was. Another Ugandan friend, who visited the slum where Pima lived, told me that Pima and his family are gone. He’s disappeared. None of his neighbors know what happened to him. I wonder if he undertook another trip to the Congo, one from which he never returned. I wonder if Africa’s broken heart spelled the end of Pima, like it has for so many other Africans.

Truth be told, I don’t think I’ll ever know.

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