Years ago one of the first reading challenged I joined was the Africa Reading Challenge hosted by Ghanian book blogger Kinna on her blog Kinna Reads. She invited participants to read at least five books by “African writers, or take place in Africa, or are concerned with Africans and with historical and contemporary African issues”, with at least three of those books by African authors. She also suggested we read books representing at least two regions of the continent: North Africa, Southern Africa, East Africa, West Africa and Central Africa. It was a fun challenge, inspiring me to read books set in, or about a number of African countries including Egypt, Djibouti, and Ivory Coast. Sadly though after Kinna stopped hosting the challenge I read fewer and fewer books about Africa.
Fast forward to the present and I found myself wanting to read about Africa. Not knowing where to start I recently borrowed a library copy of Robert B. Edgerton’s 2002 The Troubled Heart of Africa: A History of the Congo, figuring it would also make a good follow-up read to Adam Hochschild’s 1998 King Leopold’s Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism in Colonial Africa. After finishing The Troubled Heart of Africa early yesterday morning I’m willing to say this book probably won’t go down as one of my favorite nonfiction works of 2023. But I’m pleased to day thanks to Edgerton I now know more about Congo.
A massive county the size of Western Europe, Congo boasts an embarrassment of riches. Despite its near landlocked status it nevertheless possesses a narrow accesses to the sea. While not completely navigable its namesake mighty river provides unfettered access to at least some of the country. But most of all, as far as natural resources go Congo is awash in diamonds, uranium, copper, cobalt and coltan and even boasts significant petroleum reserves. Upon achieving independence in 1960 the Central African nation was the second most industrialized nation on the continent after South Africa.
But being so blessed can also be a curse. For over 500 years powerful nations have coveted Congo’s wealth and taken what they’ve wanted. In the late 15th century Europeans, beginning with the Portuguese enslaved countless Congolese shipping them across the seas to Europe and later the Americas to toil as slaves. A few centuries later the Arabs were doing much the same thing, capturing Congolese from the eastern part of the country and selling them into slavery throughout the Muslim world.
But the worst was yet to come. Feeling his relatively small, newly independent Kingdom of Belgium needed a colony King Leopold cast his eyes towards Africa, ultimately choosing a barely explored interior section of continent still uncolonized by any European power. Promising to bring Christianity and the glories of Western civilization to the benighted peoples of Central Africa Leopold utilized a mix of skillful diplomacy and centrifuge to stake his claim. For the next several decades he ruled the Congo like his private slave plantation, forcing the population to supply his murderous agents with ivory, and later rubber. The result was the deaths of millions of Congolese from overwork, malnutrition and murder. (Countless more were whipped, tortured and dismembered if deemed uncooperative.) Only after a global crusade brought these atrocities to light was Leopold forced to transfer ownership of the Congo to Belgium.
Although Belgium granted Congo independence in 1960 because of a half century of Belgian misrule the young African nation was doomed to fail from the beginning. As a result of Belgium’s refusal to provide higher education opportunities to its Black colonial subjects there were no native Congolese doctors, engineers or veterinarians. Likewise, only white Belgians served as military officers or police chiefs. Of the native Congolese vying to lead the newly independent nation virtually none were college educated, the only schooling they received came from lackluster Catholic mission schools. On top of all of this Congo encompassed a bewildering number of diverse ethnic groups, with at least several of these having independence aspirations of their own. Naturally, this would frustrate any attempts to forge a cohesive nation, leading to decades of intermittent civil wars and foreign interventions.
Up to the present day Congo’s abundance of natural resources, far from enriching the country would lead to instability and strife. Vast uranium deposits in Katanga province would attract attention from the world’s powers, spark bloody separatist movements and with nations around the to taking different sides. With the country broken and impoverished after decades of Mubuto’s megalomaniacal misrule the cancer-addled dictator was finally overthrown by a Rwandan and Uganda led army of Congolese rebels. Sadly, instead of this being a promising opportunity for a fresh start a half dozen or so of Congo’s neighbors soon took advantage of the country’s weakened state to invade and pillage Congo’s diamonds and coltan.
In addition to the previously mentioned King Leopold’s Ghost, The Troubled Heart of Africa also makes a good follow-up read to Michela Wrong’s 2001 In the Footsteps of Mr. Kurtz: Living on the Brink of Disaster in Mobutu’s Congo, not to mention Barbara Kingsolver’s 1998 modern classic of a novel The Poisonwood Bible. I’d encourage you to give all four books a shot.