The Congo is a place where everything is fine — until it isn’t
“Whispering, come and find out.”
“Going up that river was like traveling back to the earliest beginnings of the world, when vegetation rioted on the earth and the big trees were kings.”
“Even extreme grief may ultimately vent itself in violence—but more generally takes the form of apathy.”
— Joseph Conrad, “Heart of Darkness”
It is the most relentlessly f***ed-over nation in the world, yet it has long been my dream to see Congo. And for my sins, I got my wish.
No show I’ve ever made has been more difficult, more frustrating, more uncertain, maddening or dangerous. It is a country, a subject, so large, so complicated as to defy explanation or any summing up in a sentence, a volume, an hour of television or even 10 hours of television.
Occupying an ungovernable mass of land the size of all Western Europe combined, the Democratic Republic of Congo should be the richest country in Africa. It possesses the equivalent of trillions of dollars in resources: diamonds, gold, coltan (which the whole world requires for cell phones), minerals, timber, probably oil, uranium and hydroelectric power. In short, it has everything that the first world needs and desires. This is its curse.
But from before its beginnings, it has been ravaged by greed.
Stripped of its population by Arab and Portuguese slavers, its tribal societies were devastated. Handed outright to Belgium’s King Leopold II for his personal exploitation, nearly half its population were worked to death, whipped, dismembered, executed outright or sent running into the bush to die of starvation and disease in a pitiless quest for first ivory and then rubber.
The Belgians who followed left behind a deliberately uneducated governing class and a few sergeants. The Congolese people then made the very untimely tactical mistake of democratically electing a socialist president in the midst of the nuclear arms race between East and West.
The CIA and MI-6 conspired to assassinate him (whether they succeeded directly is open to debate; what certainly is very clear is that he was killed), eventually installing in his place Joseph Mobutu, a man of spectacular rapaciousness, brutality and megalomania.
At one point, having looted the country of billions and having allowed what infrastructure remained to largely rot into the forest, Mobutu’s army complained of not being paid.
The president-for-life’s response was to point out that they had guns and to suggest that they take what they needed from the already desperate population. This is an attitude that prevails today.
War in Rwanda, next door, left Congo with hundreds of thousands of refugees, many of them genocidal Hutus, living within its borders — and a neighboring Tutsi government uninclined towards either sympathy or good behavior (as Mobutu had been a staunch supporter of the Hutu, who had enthusiastically slaughtered up to 800,000 of their Tutsi neighbors in a period of only a few short weeks).
Ensuing civil wars have cost the country millions of lives.
At the time my crew and I drove across the border into Goma, there were nearly 30 rebel groups and militias, many of them aligned with the Congo’s neighboring countries, fighting it out across the country. One of them, M-23, were fighting amongst themselves only 10 miles away. The federal troops, the official armed forces of Congo, the FARDC, were said to be on their way, an outcome generally considered to be a worst-case scenario as they are widely regarded as professionals at the business of extortion, murder, mass rape and robbery rather than simply amateurs.
We were, during our shoot, extremely fortunate. Relative to most, we had a luxuriously unmolested, violence-free time of it. We were extorted, detained, threatened daily. But such is life in Congo.
Congo is a place where everything is fine — until it isn’t.
And yet, there they were: the Congolese people themselves. Fighting to get by. To feed themselves. To keep themselves clean — and proud in the middle of circumstances of almost unimaginable difficulty and the constant threat of near-psychedelic violence and instability.
Across the river from Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness” (present day Kisangani), we visited the train station, a transportation hub for a system that once extended all the way to the Southern tip of the continent. At one point, Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall and Katharine Hepburn would have seen it from their windows at the Pourquoi Pas Hotel, where they stayed during the shooting of “The African Queen.” The hotel is now a shambolic squat, devoid, as most of Kisangani, of plumbing or electricity.
The station is now a ruin, the tracks overgrown with grass and weeds. The magnificent engines and passenger cars sit rusting under bullet-pocked roofs.
But a skeleton staff of railroad employees, unpaid for who knows how long, put on their jackets and ties, their coveralls, and show up to work every day. They fill out their paperwork, grease wheels, hammer at metal, do their best to maintain locomotives that haven’t run in decades and almost certainly will never run again. They are proud of what they do.
At the remote Yangambi Research Station, a hundred kilometers downriver, the chief librarian and his clerks also show up to work every day at the powerless library, the showpiece of a once-massive complex of modernist buildings — now without electricity or running water, of course — and do their best to fight the ravages of moisture, mold and age on the thousands of volumes of botanical and agricultural knowledge.
They too are proud and living in some kind of hope. Waiting for something.
The conventional wisdom seems to be that the Congo is “too black and too sad” and certainly too complicated to ever attract the attention of the world, much less television audiences.
Yet it is also magnificently beautiful.
It is — gorgeously — like “going back to the earliest beginnings of the world” and just as gorgeously (if tragically) post-apocalyptic, whole cities, once-grand hotels, lovely buildings, a whole society (albeit a cruel, exclusive and oppressive one) receding into nature.
On the way downriver, we stopped all too briefly at a village to visit the chief of a once-mighty tribe. He appeared at the river bank resplendent in a suit, wearing a medal given to him by the Belgians. We said hello, gave him a goat as our best available form of tribute and respect. He gave me a simple, hand-hammered bracelet of copper.
It was only later, miles downriver, that I was told what the bracelet was. It had been given to the chief by his father sometime in the ’30s, passed down, as bracelets of this kind were, from generation to generation. It was a tradition going back to the earliest Arab slavers and traders who had, it is said, taught the tribe how to make and craft these things
This thing in my hand went back a long time. Represented something far more significant than I’d realized. It was an old thing. Very old. It dated back a long time. To when the big trees were kings.