Blood River

Tim Butcher describes his book Blood River as a journey to Africa’s broken heart. This book, together with an image that has been haunting me on facebook, make for an interesting discussion. At the time this book was written Tim Butcher was the chief war correspondent and African Bureau Chief for the Daily Telegraph. For a number of reasons he becomes obsessed with the goal of walking in the footsteps of the Welsh explorer Henry Morton Stanley, when he mapped the mighty Congo River in 1874. It took him a number of years, but Tim finally made it to the Democratic Republic of Congo in 2004 to start what many thought was a suicidal journey following Stanley’s route.

What does this have to do with the image that keeps being shared on facebook? Well the image shows an African child drinking from a puddle. It’s accompanied by text declaring the injustice of sending humans into space when we cannot solve our own problems here on earth. It’s not the image itself that haunts me, it is the message it’s attempting to convey. It implies that if we took all the money invested in space travel and ploughed it into Africa, their problems would be solved.

If we think about it though, Africa has a vast array of natural resources, diamonds, salt, gold, iron, cobalt, uranium, copper, bauxite, silver, petroleum, cocoa beans, woods, tropical fruits – all these things are in high demand and earn Africa money. The trouble is not money, it’s that often the money only makes its way into the pockets of a relatively small number, not to the country in general, and not to the people who need it. Tim see’s this first hand in the Cobalt mining town of Lubumbashi where only a few locals are benefiting from mining jobs. The rest of the income quickly leaves the Congo via a network of bribes and back handers, each official taking their cut.

Tim also describes life before colonial rule when the majority of Africa was ruled by local village chiefs, and above them paramount chiefs. During that time the local people had a level of sovereign power as they were able to oust chiefs who were not serving them well. Consequently, the chiefs had to act in the interests of the people. When colonial rule spread across Africa this sovereign power was taken away. The tribal system of chiefs still existed, and continues to today, but ultimately they are overruled by the government.

Of course it is not just Africa that was subjected to colonial rule. If we consider my two most recent homes as an example. Singapore gained independence 51 years ago, Ghana 59 years, both from the British. Both countries were in a similar state of development and now, in 2016 they are about the two most opposite countries I can think of. Yes you could argue Singapore is a small island and much easier to control and develop, but consider Malaysia instead. Why have some countries advanced much further than those in Africa despite similar circumstances when they gained independence?

Tim asks an interesting question. At the end of colonial rule, when power was surrendered, did it end up in the right place? In Congo he feels it certainly didn’t, that power was taken, not by the people, but by elites claiming to work in the interest of the people. These are the leaders that walk past the children drinking from puddles or dying of malnutrition but still continue to rule in their own self-interest.

Tim’s account of his journey is a fascinating insight into a massive African country, still in political unrest and perhaps largely forgotten about. He meets some wonderful and also unsavoury characters along the way. He had done a huge amount of research before undertaking this journey and whilst in the Congo he asked people what really happened. He was trying to understand why, in 2004, the Congo had less infrastructure, resources, and security that it did 70 years previously.

Ironically the situation is summed up by a diamond trader that Tim meets – “If you think you can solve Africa’s problems with money then you are a bloody fool. You solve Africa’s problems by creating a system of justice that actually works and by making the leaders accountable for their actions. If that happens, I guess things would get a lot more competitive in my business, but it would be good for Africa.

There are reasons why that facebook image bothers me, and a lot of them are discussed in this wonderful book. You can’t help but feel that until the right people, their own elite, want to change Africa, there is only so much help outsiders can provide, just money isn’t the answer.


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