Friday, October 31, 2008

Passages from African Silences

I borrowed this book from Cleve, hoping for some quiet distraction from my scientific papers in the night. What I found most amazing and slightly disturbing is that Matthiessen’s accounts of Kinshasa and Congo from 1978 seem no more improved today, thirty years later. If anything, constant civil war has made them worse.

Taken from African Silences, by Peter Matthiessen

“The city on the Zaire River (formerly the Congo) seems haunted by the corruption ad brutality of its days as Leopoldville, seat of power of the cruel and terrible King of the Belgians, whose ”Congo Free State,“ with its murderous abuse of conscripted labor (the Zairois estimate that ten million people died in the period between 1880 and 1910) continued the depopulation of this shadowed country that the terrible days of slaving had begun. The Belgian Congo colonial administration, though less brutal, continued the exploitation of the country while doing nothing to educate the people for the transition that was already inevitable, and when independence came at last, in 1960, there was no bureaucratic structure to maintain order. The consequence was anarchy and chaos, including the murder of the legitimate prime minister, Patrice Lumumba, the only leader with a national following, followed by installation of a puppet colonel who would dutifully endorse a further exploitation of the country’s resources.

The saying ”Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose“ is bitterly true in the former Belgian Congo. Some privileged blacks now share the booty with the whites (in 1972, Zaire imported more Mercedes automobiles than any country in the world) , but as in the colonial days the land is being ransacked by foreign investors, and whole forests will fall for the enrichment of a few, with no thought whatever for the people or the future. To a degree unusual even in modern Africa, graft and corruption are a way of life...

Certainly I have spent less time in Kinshasa itself, but I have spent enough time in Congo as a whole to feel like Matthiessen’s sentiments seem no less true today. Certainly my visits to various and plentiful officials have confirmed this to be true.

There are parts of this book that I do not like, especially the writer’s apparent disregard for certain species he has the privilege of meeting (such as the mountain gorilla) and his treatment of Dr. Dian Fossey (who he continually and derogatorily addresses as “Miss Fossey“) cannot be described as anything but harsh and cruel.

But some of his descriptions are spot on, and his adventures through the bush, so familiar to me, are still extremely amusing. I will definitely quote him more in the future, and his charming portrayal of John and Terese Hart (who I’ve linked to before at their blog Bonobos in Congo ) make me want to meet my southerly Mondele neighbours all the more!

Alright, I’m on laptop reserve power - back to work!


Diana said...

Laura - are you doing okay? Been worried b/c of all the news about Congo.

Laura Darby said...

Hi Diana!

I sent an email to both of your email accounts (Gmail and AMNH) to let you know that we're fine so far. Things in little Aketi are pretty quiet and everyone is listening intently to the news!