Monday, August 01, 2011

Congo Holiday Column - Magan's World Aug 2008

Sat 08 Aug 2008 Why I love the Congo

MAGAN'S WORLD: Manchán Magan's tales of a travel addict

WHO'LL JOIN ME on a trip to Congo? I'm serious: I want to organise a holiday, to reclaim this beleaguered place from the grips of the pessimists and cynical African doomsayers.

. The Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) has been abused for too long – by H. M. Stanley, Belgian’s King Leopold II, slave traders, rubber barons and the dictator Mobutu Sese Seko amongst others. In 2006 the Congolese finally managed to hold the first democratic elections in the country’s history, and what has our main response been? Not to set up cultural links or start arranging holidays there, but instead to rush to the bookshops in droves to buy the latest patronising, self-serving account of the darkness and depravity of the place. Tim Butcher’s Blood River (Vintage, 2007), an account of his journey through the Congo, has been on the bestseller lists for months. From the moment I heard it was written by a Telegraph correspondent I was suspicious. This was the newspaper after all who funded Stanley’s destructive, duplicitous journey a hundred year ago and who first popularised the notion of deepest, darkest Africa.

Admittedly, Butcher’s book is a gripping read, but at significant points, in my opinion, he heavily over-emphasises the desolation and the dangers he encounters for the sake of his story. It is exactly what Stanley did in his accounts of the Congo, giving the reader a riveting, sensationalistic read, but providing an unfair impression about just how bad things are there.

So, what can we do about it? I’m suggesting we take a bold step and swap our usual summer holiday in Tuscany or Torremolinos for a two week vacation in the Congo - just to show the bigoted, small-minded naysayers that it can be done. I’m not saying it’ll be easy, or even completely safe – and neither Madame Editor nor this august publication are backing my proposal in any way, (and nor, most probably, will your insurance company); but how else can we begin to turn people’s perspectives on the heart of Africa around? The likelihood is we might get robbed, and it’s inevitable that will be asked for bribes and will have to face significant delays occasionally, but these will be as nothing compared to the welcome we receive from the people and the absolute beauty of the landscape we’ll encounter. It’s been 18 years since I’ve been to the DRC (it was still Zaire at the time), but in all my travels since I haven’t encountered anything to compare. I’ll never forget my first sight of the jungle stretching out towards the equator – the bottle-thick vines, sepulchral trees, cathedralesque canopies and coiling waterways, the very energy centre from which all human life first emerged.

As the roads have mostly been wiped out it’s probably best that we stick to the river on this trip – maybe fly into Kinshasa and take a boat or a local flight upriver to Kisangani (formerly Stanleyville). We’ll rent some pirogues (dugout canoes) there and take to the water – the Congo River - this strip of sliver-blue ribbon that flows through massive swathes of undulant greenness. If you’re brave and don’t mind risking the odd water-borne disease we can ask the helmsman to steer us out into mid-river, away from the crocodiles and hippos that congregate along the banks, and go for a swim. It’s well worth the risk: to become part of this great mass of water is an unforgettable experience, the same river that brought the slaves to the coast, and also the gold and the ivory and Kalashnikovs and mahogany. This ‘immense snake uncoiled,’ as Conrad described it. Perhaps we’ll visit some pygmy villages when we’re there and how about staying in a crumbling colonial mansion slowly rotting in the jungle? Maybe a side-trip too to see where the Irish UN Forces made their heroic stand against the Balubas in 1961. Are you with me or what?