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Facing the Congo

A Modern Day Adventure Story

Jeffrey Tayler is an intrepid journalist who decided to face his mid-life existential identity crisis by re-creating Henry Mortan Stanley’s epic 1870 trip down the Congo River. The result is Facing The Congo. Stanley took hundreds of native porters and three white men and came back alone with half the surviving natives that had not succumbed to disease, cannibals or starvation.

In nothing but a native dugout canoe with a local river guide and a few supplies Tayler first journeyed up the massive Congo river by barge then floated back down in a perogue, capturing in his memoir the teaming life on and along the riverbank, the changing landscape and tribes, post-colonial politics and his own emotional responses to the gap between his home and this third world of poverty and fatalism. His confrontation of the modern heart of darkness is fascinating.

What impels someone to do this? With the grand age of exploration over, and most corners of the world already touricized by members of The Lonely Planet, there are few places one can travel and experience such raw unknown. Tayler was questioned about his journey by people closer to the reality of this place; missionaries and local officials, businessmen and merchants in the capital cities on the Congo River in Brazzaville (Capital of the French Congo) and Kinshasa (Capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo) who warned him of the dangers: corrupt military, hostiles and cannibals; man-eating hippos and crocodiles, and disease from malaria and tsetse flies. He returned with this incredible story.

“Many people around here in the villages have never seen a white man. If you’re alone they will take you for a mercenary… In their eyes, either you’re a mercenary or in search of diamonds. No white has ever reached Kinshasa after starting out from Kisangani. Not one.” Pg 107

One of my favorite characters in the book is the barge captain, Colonel Ebeya. I picture his satirical humor like Eddy Murphy in “Coming to America” with every statement ending in a loud, “Ha-ha ha HAAAAA,” as he describes the dangers that “Taayy – lor” is about to face.

“This is a dangerous area for robbers and murders. The deep jungle is wild in people as well as beasts. You must have one soldier with you, or maybe two. Or else they will cut you into pieces and smoke you like a monkey. Ha-ha-haaa!” Pg 126

The Congo gained independence from Belgium in 1960. Colonial rule left a crippling legacy of mistrust. People had been enslaved and mutilated by soldiers enforcing King Leopold II’s rape of the country. Upon independence, CIA and US interference in democratic rule led to the mysterious death of the people’s democratically elected leader, Patrice Lumumba. A corrupt regime took over under Mobutu who renamed the Congo to Zaire and indoctrinated the people with rights they would never realize while he pillaged the country’s mineral resources to western companies and
stashed billions in foreign accounts worldwide.

Between the whites coming to convert the natives to Christianity and the whites coming to get rich on diamonds, Jeffrey was labeled either a “mondele” which translates simply to white guy, or the more sinister “mechant,” meaning an enslaving mercenary. The first would invite begging the second would insite mistrust.

Jeffrey had to learn how to barter for the things he needed, how to tactfully fend-off people demanding handouts – not out of insensitivity – but to preserve his own supplies, and how to deal with each successive province’s security; scary men in uniforms with red rimmed eyes and guns who often smell of beer or palm wine.

His river guide Desi is a soft-mannered native with who speaks French and Lingala, and is respected by the barge staff. For example when the barge propeller breaks, Desi is the only man who volunteers to dive under the boat – risking crocodiles. He seems to represent the hopes and contradictions of Africa, whose people view Westerners as the catalyst for change, and yet resent and suspect their motives.

Each day the routine is the same. Wake-up before dawn, break camp, load the perogue, fix a breakfast of fish and rice on their portable cooker, barter for fresh fish with passing fishermen who keep their catch dangling alive on lines beside their canoes, avoid villages and navigate the river. The latitude of the equator means that day falls to night with no evening. They must search for a suitable camp before six p.m. or be descended upon by hoards of mosquitos as night falls. They quickly wash, eat and take refuge in their netting, listening to the jungle noises, constantly aware of potential danger. Having said that, each routine day brings new challenges, new vistas, new emotions. Philosophical questions of determinism and fatalism abound.

Desi falls into long conversations about religion, trying to extract from the largely agnostic Jeffery his views about the differences between African customs of polygamy and the inequities of such basic rights as freedom from disease, living wages, and education. All around are people dealing with unclean drinking water, malaria and malnutrition.

In the end, reading Facing the Congo is a reminder that it takes many generations to repair an injustice, and that until a stable, uncorrupt government – which we hope the present DRC President Joseph Kabila can provide, along with ethnic peace between neighbors in Sudan and Ethiopia, is the best hope for the region’s economy and the future welfare of its people.