Academic journal article Strategic Review for Southern Africa

Van Reybrouck, David, Congo-The Epic History of a People

Academic journal article Strategic Review for Southern Africa

Van Reybrouck, David, Congo-The Epic History of a People

Article excerpt

Van Reybrouck, David, Congo--The Epic History of a People, translated from the Dutch by Sam Garrett. London: Fourth Estate 2014,639pp.

Belgian author David van Reybrouck's history of the Congolese people is epic and heroic indeed. It is not the history of a country but of a people and therefore, people's voices take the lead all through the narrative. Many books have been written about Congo but only a few have been as comprehensive and human as this epic history. Through 639 pages of solid information and abundant research, divided into an introduction and fifteen chapters, rounded off with an extensive presentation of the different sources per chapter, this book takes the reader through Congo's history from pre-colonial times to the present day. Van Reybrouck writes in a very pleasant and compelling narrative style, contextualising facts and figures with the stories as they are told by the Congolese, ordinary people, rebel leaders and child soldiers alike, young and old, some of them so old that they have lived through most of the drama discussed in the book. Van Reybrouck has travelled extensively through Africa and has worked regularly with playwrights in Kinshasa and Goma.

It is precisely his narrative style which sets Van Reybrouck's history apart because it makes the reader aware of the human face behind historic events. He makes history more accessible, vibrant and personable. One must admit, Congo--The Epic History of a People is indeed another history of Africa told by a European. It is, however, different from other history books in that it has been written from an African perspective with ordinary Congolese in the driving seat. This book offers a comprehensive picture of Congolese history and should, therefore, be read as a complement to more political and academic analyses. One is struck by the sheer gravity of Congolese history and one wonders how a people can survive, often in one single lifetime, the humiliation of colonialism, a failed independence, dictatorship, economic collapse, an African war, endless civil war, blood diamonds, massacres, the rape of women and children, child soldiers and so on. Name a horror story and Congo has lived it or is still living it, while at the same time being one of the richest countries in the world, with the potential to guarantee food security, natural resources and clean energy for the whole Africa. One tends to forget, however (and this emerges here and there in the book) that despite the destabilising effects of colonialism, Congo managed during the colonial period and after independence to develop its own cultural brand when Kinshasa, the former Leopoldville, became a trendsetter in Africa for vibrant music, fashion flair and urban 'cool'. Deep into the decaying Mobutu era, and to a certain extent even now, the 'cite' in Kinshasa still had it.

The Congolese themselves put it so well when they jokingly refer to an imaginary article 15 in the Constitution which would read: just cope --debrouillez-vous.

Congo--The Epic History of a People takes the reader through the major periods in Congolese history, from before the 1884-1885 Conference of Berlin up to the civil war in Eastern Congo at the beginning of the 21st century from the early European and Arab traders in ivory, slaves and rubber to the arrival of the Chinese in trade and infrastructure projects in recent times. Contrary to other books on the subject, Van Reybrouck goes one step further and follows the Congolese to China where they set up their own businesses to trade with the home country.

The added value of Van Reybrouck's book is that he does not make an issue out of a few events such as the excesses of Leopold II's Congo Free State--irrespective of how ghastly and excessive that period may have been--or the assassination of Patrice Lumumba--widely written about as a world changing event in Congolese history. …

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