Friday, August 5, 2011

Learning about the Congo

If you're a newcomer and want to know more about the Congo, the best place to start is with Jason Stearns' recently published Dancing in the Glory of Monsters. It provides a clear, well-written account of the wars that took place in 199697 and 19982003 and of the Congo's breakdown in their aftermath. Stearns manages to streamline the story without making it simplistic; he conveys the episodic horror of those years without dehumanizing the victims or the victimizers; and his prose is lively and detailed. While Rwanda and Uganda emerge as the book's primary antagonists--their plunder-driven invasions left the eastern half of Congo in chaos--Stearns makes it clear that it is ultimately the Congo's own lack of political leadership that accounts for the country's continuing problems. A more detailed study is Gerard Prunier's Africa's World War. Prunier is the author of an outstanding account of the Rwandan genocide, but in this book he sometimes loses the narrative thread as he exhaustively details the alliances and divisions of the country's mitotic rebel groups.

OF course, before the wars there was Mobutu, African Machiavel, kleptocrat, and American Cold War ally. An excellent journalistic account of his excesses and ultimate downfall is Michaela Wrong's In the Footsteps of Mr. Kurtz. A shoutout is due as well to Howard French's A Continent for the Taking, although only a couple of the book's chapters focus on Congo. The best documentary is Thierry Michel's Roi du Zaire--only in French, unfortunately. Still the best scholarly treatment of Mobutu's reign is Crawford Young and Thomas Turner's Rise and Decline of the Zairian State. Unfortunately, it was published in the mid-1980s and so doesn't cover the last decade of the regime.

And before Mobutu, there was Lumumba. What Malcolm X was to America, Lumumba was to the rest of the world. A brilliant orator, he could "walk into any gathering of Congolese politicians as the waiter and come out as their leader," as the American ambassador at the time fretted. Like Malcolm, Lumumba gave to those for whom pride was an act of defiance the courage to become defiant; like Malcolm, he aroused an almost frenetic fear among whites; and martyred, like Malcolm,  he became a symbol of Third World self-determination. Ludo de Witte's account of Lumumba's assassination is widely regarded as definitive (although questions still remain about the role of the Americans, as Stephen Weissmen notes). Raoul Peck's biopic of Lumumba is excellent, and Ronan Bennett's novel The Catastrophist conveys better than any work of nonfiction what it must have been like to live in Kinshasa at the time of Congolese Independence.

I can't close without mentioning two documentary films that have come out recently. The first is Kinshasa Symphony, which is about the only symphonic orchestra in sub-Saharan Africa. The other is about a quite different group of  musicians--in this case, a group of handicapped street performers from Kinshasa who make it to the big time. If these movies don't break your heart, then you have a heart of stone.


  1. Hey, I'm looking for a way to reach you to organize a meeting with a US Senator to discuss your op-ed in the NYT please reach me at

  2. Georges Nzongola, From Leopold to Kabila
    Jean Chretien Recurring Crisis In the Great Lakes
    Thomas Turner Congo Wars, Myht and Reality
    The Trouble with Congo
    Reinvention of Order in the Congo
    Adam Hochschild King Leopold's Ghost

    A big weakness in Jason Stearns and the books mentioned above that deal with the wars (with the exception of Chretien) is that they ignore Ituri.
    The story of the miracle 2006 election has yet to be told.
    Loved Ronan Bennett. Very interesting addition to a pretty vanilla list.