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.