Blood River

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Blood River: A Journey to Africa's Broken Heart By (author) Tim ButcherBlood River tells the story of Tim Butcher’s journey along the length of the Congo River, recreating the journey undertaken in 1874-1877 by Sir Henry Morton Stanley, a journalist and explorer. Stanley’s journey helped open up the Congo, as much as the interior of the Congo ever has been open.

The Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) was for many years the Belgian Congo. It has also been known as Zaire and the Congo Free State. Many of its towns and cities were renamed after independence to shake off the colonial past. But the country has suffered since independence, with dictators, militias and a horrific civil war virtually unknown of to the developed world. It is a dangerous place to travel to, where many people still live in isolated tribal villages, there is no law and order, and no transport infrastructure.

Butcher developed an obsession with the country, and after a long time trying to work out how to do it, set off on his journey in 2004. He travelled both overland and on the river itself, and some air travel – to get to the starting point and whilst ill.

The DRC is not a country I know a great deal about – because no one goes there and little is written about it. This was one of the reasons I was keen to read Blood River, to learn about this forgotten country at the heart of Africa.

The first thing I noticed about Butcher and his style were his endless comparisons of himself with the legendary explorers of the nineteenth century – Stanley in particular. For the simple reason that Butcher now works for the same paper Stanley once did, he sees himself as the same intrepid explorer as Stanley. Stanley being the man who mapped the Congo River. And found Livingstone when he disappeared.

I don’t want to belittle Butcher’s undertaking – travelling the Congo River even now is a dangerous and difficult task. But his view of himself was irritating. It eased off after a while. Additionally, as I read more of what Butcher was up against, my attitude towards him relaxed.

“I would recommend Blood River to anyone with an interest in Africa…”

The Congo is a mix of people, some who want to make profit at all times, and others who do not leave their bush villages, their way of life barely changed for hundreds of years. Butcher’s attitude towards them is hard to pin down, but he seems to genuinely care for their welfare, as well as almost pitying them for not living in the modern world. His thoughts on how to help Africa are spot on – throwing money does not help, Africa needs law and order, and help in rebuilding itself. Money goes straight into the pockets of the ruling elite.

One point in particular in relation to this element of the book stuck. At one point Butcher declares it is “horrible” that he has found evidence that the modern world tried to establish itself in the Congo, but clearly failed. Why is the lack of a modern world “horrible”? Modernity is not necessarily key for the Congo, and might not help solve its problems – law, order and stability are key. This statement irked somewhat, I think it is misguided and bordering on Western arrogance.

For all my misgivings about Butcher himself, I thoroughly enjoyed the insight that Blood River gave into this lost African nation. The landscape sounds incredible, perhaps not beautiful, but certainly breathtaking. Most of the people are polite and keen to talk about their country. I’ve come away feeling both a little more knowledgeable about the DRC, but also helpless, because there are so many problems and needless deaths, and I am powerless to do anything. I want to know more, about the history, the people and the landscape.

Blood River is difficult to sum up. I found it very powerful, but also rather irritating, or rather, I found the author’s view of himself rather irritating. However I was almost sad to finish it, as I was enjoying learning about this fascinating and slightly chilling nation.

I would recommend Blood River to anyone with an interest in Africa, but be warned, Butcher is a bit full of himself. This is the first I’ve read on the DRC, but once I find something with a more humble author, I’ll let you know!


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Blood River: A Journey to Africa's Broken Heart
by Tim Butcher

One Comment on "Blood River"

  1. Tim Butcher
    09/08/2010 at 08:04 Permalink

    Hi there

    Thank you for taking time to read and review my Congo book, Blood River. Sorry you found the style irritating but I was glad you at least got something from the book. You mentioned being interested in finding books on the Congo by more humble authors. You might consider:

    King Leopold’s Ghost by Adam Hochschild
    A Bend in the River by V S Naipaul
    In the Footsteps of Mr Kurtz by Michela Wrong

    Good luck and I hope you find what you are looking for

    Best wishes


    Tim Butcher

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Written by eilidhcatriona

A Scottish lass in her late twenties living in London. A prolific reader always interested in something new.

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