The smoked monkeys brought the point home. During my first day on a boat on the Congo River, I’d embraced the unfamiliar: how to bend under the rail to fill my wash bucket from the river, where to step around the tethered goat in the dark and the best way to prepare a pot of grubs. But when I saw the monkeys impaled on stakes, skulls picked clean of brains and teeth thrusting out, I looked otherness in the face — and saw myself mirrored back.
I was the real exotica: the only tourist to take this boat in nearly a decade, and the only white woman, as far as the crew knew, ever. Expect to be kidnapped, people had warned me. Expect to have everything stolen and expect every arrangement to go awry. Bring your own mosquito net, waterproof everything twice and strap your cash around your ankle.
The Democratic Republic of Congo, I read in my guidebook, was “a huge area of dark corners, both geographically and mentally,” where “man has fought continuously against his own demons and the elements of nature at large.” This, in other words, was the heart of darkness, which was why I had wanted to come.
More than 100 years ago, a Polish sailor named Jozef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski traveled to Congo to take a job as a steamboat captain on the river. The Congo Free State, as it was then called, had been founded in 1885 under the supervision of King Leopold II of Belgium with the self-declared mission of promoting progress and civilization, free trade and the abolition of slavery. Korzeniowski was supposed to stay for three years, but after just one round-trip on the river, from Kinshasa to Kisangani and back, he quit.
Behind all the high-minded ideals, he saw a colonial regime of appalling greed, violence and hypocrisy, and he left in despair. He kept a diary of his journey and almost a decade later, in 1899, when he’d settled in England and Anglicized his pen name to Joseph Conrad, he transformed those notes into a novel called “Heart of Darkness.”
The book describes a voyage up and down a river in Africa by a British sea captain named Charles Marlow, who is commissioned to fetch a renegade ivory collector called Kurtz. Marlow travels up the river enveloped by a sense of increasing mystery and encroaching danger. Kurtz, Marlow discovers, has become a tyrant in the jungle, his idealistic hopes for spreading European civilization in Africa perverted into a brutal injunction: “Exterminate all the brutes!”
The book has been read as many things, from an exploration of the individual psyche to a prophecy of genocide. Most of all, it’s a meditation on progress. Conrad indicted the European imperialists who plundered Congo in the name of progress even while he portrayed Africa, in terms that seem racist today, as irredeemably backward.
The Democratic Republic of Congo has now been independent for nearly 60 years, almost as long as it was a European colony. Yet it is by any measure one of the world’s most dysfunctional states. Congo’s modern-day Kurtz was the kleptocrat dictator Mobutu Sese Seko, whose ouster in 1997 led to a civil war and some five million deaths. It has one of the lowest per-capita incomes and is ravaged by continuing rebellions in the east, an escalating conflict in the central province of Kasai and a national political crisis: President Joseph Kabila has refused to leave office despite reaching months ago the end of his last term.
So what counts as progress? To try to answer that question, I went to Congo last December, to see the places Conrad had seen and take the measure of what has and hasn’t changed since his time.
In 1890, Conrad traveled on one of the first steamboats on the Congo River. The Roi des Belges had been constructed in 1887 out of parts imported from Europe, then carried up the rapids on the backs of 1,700 porters and assembled in Kinshasa, the capital then and today. Steamships were the engines of European civilization, bearing merchants, missionaries and militias into Africa’s uncolonized interior. Conrad hated them.
More than a century later, with hardly any roads or rails linking most of Congo’s cities and with flights too expensive for nearly all Congolese, boats — belching tugs that push open barges with no facilities — are still the primary way people use to travel between Kinshasa and Kisangani, a commercial hub a thousand miles upstream. If you’re lucky, you can make the upriver journey in four weeks and the downriver journey in two, the same amount of time it took Conrad.
I began my trip in Kisangani, the river’s uppermost navigable point and once a crossroads between eastern and central Africa, for the trade in ivory and slaves. In the city center were faded colonial bungalows and crumbling brick factories, interspersed with advertisements for diamond brokers. Not many boats venture so far these days: Fuel costs too much, and there aren’t enough goods to transport. The handful of vessels that were moored along the waterfront when I arrived weren’t leaving for another two weeks at best.
But upstream stood one vessel in stately isolation, moored in a private stretch of waterfront. It belonged to Bralima, Congo’s biggest brewery, and was emblazoned with “Primus,” the name of the company’s signature beer brand. Four barges were lashed to the boat, stacked with plastic cases piled into 12-foot-high cubes like crenelations on a castle wall. Primus I was going to pick up some rice in Bumba, deposit the beer in Mbandaka and deliver the rice to Kinshasa. Miraculously, it was leaving the next day.
Officially, Bralima doesn’t allow passengers — a dinged-up metal sign disavows company responsibility for any “unauthorized” travelers — so it took a day of negotiation (and a payment) to persuade the captain to take me and my guides, a white expat and a native Congolese. But the next morning at dawn, I scurried on board with at least 80 other people toting stools, sacks, sleeping mats, tarpaulins, buckets and stoves. The first mate showed me to a cabin on the boat proper, whose two tiny decks housed just five cabins, the engine room and the bridge.
… continued at New York Times