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Blood River – DR Congo & China

March 24, 2009

Ah, the wonders of Twitter! I was, like most, skeptical at first of this new social networking site, but have rapidly come round to it, merely because there are millions of sources of interesting information.

 

As I searched Twitter yesterday, I came across David Mountain’s announcement that he was about to attend a lecture with Tim Butcher, author of Blood River.  I instantly lit up at the sight of this.

 

I read Blood River as I sat on a 2 day train journey between Beijing and Hanoi.  How different the world outside that cabin to the world inside the novel.  Butcher’s account of his journey ignited my interest, and outrage, in the story of DR Congo and set me on the path I currently tread. 

 

David Mountain was kind enough to send me an email outlining what he heard from Tim Butcher:

 

Tim Butcher gave a great talk last night. The structure for his talk

came from his Blood River book and all of the images he used are

available on his website  (http://www.bloodriver.co.uk/). His aim was

to recreate the journey of Stanley down the length of the Congo 130

yrs ago. 50yrs ago under Belgian Colonialist rule this would have been

simple: Congo had extensive infrastructure – roads, rail, navigable

rivers – but this has now all been lost to war or the jungle. His

journey was undertaken on motorbikes thru unpaved jungle tracks and

downriver on pirogues (hollowed out tree trunks) and finally, a UN

boat. His journey took 4 years of planning, and 7 weeks to complete.

 

Some of the details of the conflict were fascinating. Everywhere he

went, he heard evidence of conflict. The various sides in this

conflict often lack any organisation or structure. Often the battles

were small armed militias attacking undefended villages. He made the

point that these killings lack any institutional memory: when shown

human remains (bones) he asked he was responsible for the attacks, and

the villager he was with was unsure when this has occurred, or who the

group was. They had suffered frequent attacks from many different

militias. A phrase he heard again and again from people was “we fled

to the bush”. The locals find it hard to invest in crops, livestock or

any form of industry since it makes them a target, and they are so

likely to have it taken from them forcefully.

 

Most of these deaths are going unreported. He estimates 1500 people

dying due to Conflict in DR Congo everyday but this is happening in

remote cutoff places, and few reports emerge. Even in the well

connected capital Kinsasha, when in 2004 hundreds were killed in

rioting, but it barely justified a paragraph in Western newspapers.

 

He gave some hope. He says it is a crime by a tiny minority.

Investment may help, but resources have been a curse for the Congolese

(Belgian colonial rule was brutal). Even the current round of Chinese

investment is focused on building infrastructure to get natural

resources out, rather than in schools or hospitals. Holding the

leaders of Congolese militia to account in the International Criminal

Court also shows some hope.

 

The war officially finished in 2003 but for the majority of Congolese,

nothing has changed.”

 

 

Indeed, the Chinese investment is interesting.  The Chinese describe the $9 billion investment as win-win: DR Congo gains major infrastructure, China gains access to the awesome mineral wealth.  But as I traveled on the train throughout the wilder areas of China, it did not seem as if the wealth I saw in its capital Beijing was spreading so far.  How then, can this wealth spread to Africa?  At these times of financial crisis, why would China want to source work from abroad? 

“Most of the infrastructure construction will be carried out by Chinese companies and labour with very little benefit to the Congolese workforce or to the wider economy.” Inteldaily.com

In all fairness, China has offered DR Congo an ambitious plan, and you cannot blame them for taking it as they still harbour $10 billion in debt sourced during Mobutu’s dictatorship.  But the plans to build infrastructure for a country the size of Eastern Europe appear limited. 

It has been highly documented that China’s rapid rise to power has been on part due to their short-termism.  I noted this as I walked around Beijing and looked at the scattered and messy sky line of mismatched office and apartment blocks. 

This deal appears to take any benefit that may have been had by DR Congo’s future generations out of their hands and into the hands of the wealthy elite.

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5 Comments leave one →
  1. March 24, 2009 5:51 pm

    I just stopped by your blog and thought I would say hello. I like your site design. Looking forward to reading more down the road.

  2. March 25, 2009 12:24 am

    Nicely written, like your descriptions of being in China. Really should get over there at some point.

  3. March 25, 2009 2:50 pm

    If you or your readers liked that book (which I haven’t read), you should check out “All Things Must Fight To Live,” if you haven’t read it yet. It, too, is not flawless, but it does a good job of weaving adventure (the author also does a Congo river trip, which turns into a bicycling-through-the-jungle trip) and the context of conflict. It’s a good read, a short-ish book so not a big commitment. I did a review of it back in the day, which you can peruse if you want a better idea what I’m telling you to get into, but I think it’s a must in contemporary Congo reading.

  4. fidele casto permalink
    May 17, 2009 5:30 pm

    that’is a good desl for congo we need people who can invest and help us to build the infrastructure ruther than evil people from west who want to ruined our country , they have been ruthless this western countries .let give china chance is your time babe come on in congo doors are opened

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