Not a dumb American: Congo edition

Onward with my Africa reading project! David van Reybrouck’s Congo: The Epic History of a People, translated from Dutch by Sam Garrett and published by Ecco, has received widespread critical acclaim, and very very well deserved too. If you happen to know anybody in the market for an enormously long history of a failed state, may I recommend pointing them towards Reybrouck? Congo reads nearly like a novel, and Reybrouck heavily privileges African voices in telling the story of the country’s modern history. It’s an excellent, excellent book.

So let’s get to it. Here’s the Democratic Republic of Congo:

I know, I know. It’s very confusing that there are two countries right next to each other, and one of them is called Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and the other one is called Republic of the Congo. Which one used to be Zaire? (The DRC.) What does “Brazzaville” even refer to? (The capital of Republic of the Congo. I’ll learn more about it soon.) I know. It’s confusing.

What I learned about the DRC from my book: Some new stuff about Rwanda and the genocide there and how Congo was involved in all that. When the colonial powers were dishing out Germany’s holdings after World War I, they gave Rwanda to Belgium to govern — probably because Belgium was doing such a bang-up job in the neighboring Congo.

Kidding. That’s not why. They weren’t; see below.

Belgium heightened ethnic tensions for most of its time governing Rwanda (they were all about concentrating power in the hands of the Tutsis, because they thought Tutsis were less black than Hutus); the independent Congo was a major player in the Rwandan genocide and its aftermath; and although Rwanda arguably put Laurent Kabila in power in the First Congo War, they did not remain such cozy close allies once Kabila was actually running the country.

Many Rwandans considered Congo to be a country of lazy, chaotic bunglers who cared more about music, dancing, and food than about work, infrastructure, and public order. Many Congolese saw Rwandans as a cold, authoritarian country where plastic bags were banned for reasons of public cleanliness and motorcycle helmets were mandatory, a country of arrogant, pretentious parvenus who looked down on them in contempt.

Wonder if that remains true still now. I am very interested in the stereotypes various countries have about each other.

Definitely true: The Belgian colonial administration was super racist.

The Congolese middle class that emerged in the mid-1900s wanted to have the same rights as the European population in the Congo, including jolly luxuries such as not being at risk of being flogged with a piece of hippopotamus hide if you got convicted of certain crimes. So the Belgian government introduced a thing called the carte d’immatriculation, which was supposedly to extend the same legal rights to Congolese card-holders that Europeans living in the Congo already held by default.

Extremely stringent requirements were posed for obtaining such a card. Those requirements were often humiliating as well. During the period of application, an inspector was allowed to pay surprise visits to the family home, to see whether the candidate and his family lived in a truly civilized fashion. The inspector would look to see that each child had a bed of its own, that the family ate with knives and forks, that the plates were uniform in size and type, and that the toilet was clean.

About two hundred people received these cards. The population of Congo at that time was around fourteen million. Great work, colonialism.

But the most important thing I learned, by far, is this: PAY YOUR ARMY. Never don’t pay your army. The Congolese government did not make the army a financial priority in the early years of independence, and the results were Not. Good. First, the army mutinied. Then, the Belgians freaked about Congolese army guys maybe raping their ladies, so they all left. Belgian civil servants. Belgian transportation workers. Belgian export company owners. Everyone.

(Not everyone. But sort of.)

To put it simply: after one week Congo was without an army; after two weeks it was without an administration. Or, to put it more accurately, it was without the top layers of an administration. Of the 4,878 higher-ranking positions, only three were occupied by Congolese in 1959. Suddenly, people with a simple education now had to assume important roes within the bureaucracy, roles that were often far beyond their ability.


David van Reybrouck’s marvelous book has spoiled me utterly for the future of my reading project. Does anyone have a particularly excellent history of an African nation to recommend? I can see an argument for doing Rwanda next, while this Congolese context is fresh in my mind. On the other hand, it might be neat to move on to some totally different African nation about which I know nothing. Like Mali. I know literally zero facts about Mali.

P.S. Sorry this post wasn’t funnier. Just, Congo has a sad and difficult history, and the country is in a bad way today. Corruption is everywhere, sexual violence ditto, and although Congo is the most resource-rich country in the world, its people are among the very poorest. It’s hard to make jokes about the history that led to these crappy, crappy outcomes.

  • I love this reading series! I don’t want to read all of the long history books (well, theoretically, maybe yeah), but I want to learn all the things. So thanks for making that happen with some of the things despite me not reading all the long histories.

    • Gin Jenny

      Yay, I’m glad you like it! I worry that it’s boring to people — I know that not everybody is as super-interested in African history as I am. (I also find that I get more interested in it the more I learn about it — because there’s somewhere to put that new information in my brain, I guess.)

  • Ugh! So much I didn’t know about Congo. Yeah, it’s hard to be flippant about such stuff. Makes me so angry really.

    • Gin Jenny

      Yeah, there’s still a ton I don’t know about it! I have another book about Congo on my list, but my project is to read just one book about each African nation. After I have done that, I can go back and read more if I wish. RULES ARE RULES.

  • I wrote my MA about some of the peoples of that region, or rather their belife system. It’s fascinating but the colonial history is so infuriating. From there you can hop over to Haiti as so many of the slaves that landed there came from that region. I was very interested when I saw this book but not sure it bring anything new. But I think it does. Thanks for the post. You make me want to get it.

    • Gin Jenny

      Yeah, I mean, if this is your field, you may already know all the things about Congolese history. I did think the author did an excellent job of centering the voices of people who experienced these events, wherever possible. And it really is an exceedingly well-written book.

  • This is pretty much the saddest post I read today, but I needed to read it. Thanks for sharing your knowledge! Do you have a master post with a list of all your books for this challenge?

    • Gin Jenny

      Oo, I don’t but I should! I will make one!

  • Well it seems that by not paying their army they at least got the Belgians to leave which is something. So is the this Congo in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness or is it set in the other Congo next door?

    • Gin Jenny

      Wellllll, yes, but they didn’t actually want all the Belgians to leave. They’d already achieved independence, and at that point, they really needed the Belgians to stay and start training Congolese people for the various positions they’d been forbidden to hold up until then.

      This is the Conrad one!

  • I hate hate hate reading about the Congo; it makes me so mad and sad!!!

    • Gin Jenny

      It is really sad! But also really interesting…

  • Another great educational post. Don’t apologies for the lack of humour, as you said it’s a serious subject. Mali is a good one to do next, or maybe Chad?

    • Gin Jenny

      I’m leaning Kenya, just because I have a recommendation lined up for a good book about Kenya. But we’ll see — the Kenya book is checked out of the university library at the moment, and maybe another book recommendation will come my way while I’m waiting for it to be returned.

  • I have enjoyed long history books especially if they read like a novel, or at least have long stretches of reading like a novel. I’ll add this one to my to-read list, alongside of Adam Hochschild’s King Leopold’s Ghost which is also about the sad history of the Congo.

    Also, can I just say ugh about the carte d’immatriculation requirements. Not the worst detail about Congo’s history, but still just awful.

    I don’t necessarily have histories of African countries to share, but if you can find one about Ethiopia, that seems like an interesting country to learn about. Melissa Fay Greene’s book There is No Me Without You is about an Ethiopian woman, Haregewoin Tefarra, who opens up her home to AIDS orphans. In that book, Greene gave a brief history of Ethiopia, where I learned that it is one of the few countries on that continent which was never colonized.

    • Gin Jenny

      Ethiopia’s been one of the countries I’ve been considering reading about next. Except then I got worried that I was privileging the large-in-size countries, so I’m thinking of doing a smaller country next. While I’m waiting for the Kenya book to get back in at my university library, I’m going to give Lesotho a try. But I promise I will keep my eyes peeled for a good history of Ethiopia.

  • I am so bummed right now – I didn’t know Zaire changed its name. I have still been holding on to the name I learned in my History classes at class. Shucks! At least more reason to read books about countries I know very little about.

    • Gin Jenny

      Yep, it was Zaire when I first did geography as well. But no more! At least having read this book, I have a solid grip now on the country’s name. :p

  • Ohhh this sounds interesting. This sounds super, super interesting. I’m finding that the African continent is my most clearly underrepresented literary region (BY FAR), and I could definitely use some good introductory history for different countries as I try to wade deeper into actual African literature.

    • Gin Jenny

      I am finding that as I read more histories of African countries, I am also more interested in reading literature from those countries. I feel like I have at least part of a foundation for it. So I think it’s a solid strategy.

  • “If you happen to know anybody in the market for an enormously long history of a failed state”

    I mean, who isn’t.

    …is hippopotamus hide really painful?

    • Gin Jenny

      I’m imagining it being dried out like leather? So yes, I guess?

  • I really admire you for spending so much time and attention educating yourself on different countries and their histories. I say I want to do this, and then end up … not doing it. How do you find the right books that will be complete, mostly unbiased, and not too incredibly difficult to get through?

  • I do love your gifs. My husband wants to use them in business meetings, particularly to show the way he and the other directors respond to the CEO’s hysterical bullying. Perhaps you could have the job of supplying gifs to needy people? Sort of Queen of the Gif Universe job?

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  • Amanda

    This sounds fascinating! I think I’d have to build up to read it, but its going to go on my list.