Congo: The Epic History of a People, by David van Reybrouck

While I actually have an MA in Global History, I have to admit that I mostly focused on Eastern European history (Central Europe, the Balkans, and Russia), and woefully neglected the entire rest of the world. There’s no shame in admitting ignorance, though, if you’re ready to widen your horizons! Phil’s dad gave us, amongst other books, David van Reybrouck’s “Congo: The Epic History of a People”. It’s the first from this pile of books I picked up to read.

It’s inherently problematic if a white European man writes a book about African history, and van Reybrouck is a Belgian writing about the Congo to boot. Van Reybrouck somewhat counteracts this by using oral history as his main methodology instead of only relying on written sources, which would inevitably present a mostly Eurocentric view on the country and its peoples during the colonial period. He has extensively traveled the country to interview contemporary witnesses, some who were actively part of historical developments, and some who simply lived these histories and their consequences. This works very well especially for the past couple of decades, but I side-eyed him using this method for the end of the 19th century.

Oral history of course has its drawbacks in that you have to be careful to not see one person’s story as the Ultimate Truth of What Really Happened. As far as I can tell, van Reybrouck overall succeeded in the balancing act between talking to the interviewee with an open mind while nevertheless keeping a critical distance. (Although the tired trope of “look at these ignorants marvel at the white man’s technology, and describe it in childish terms!” did creep in a few times.)

Personally, I was a bit disappointed that everything before the 19th century was only briefly dealt with in a short overview in the first chapter. Of course you’d have to rely solely on oral traditions and archaeology, and the Congo as a country with defined borders didn’t exist yet, so I can see how it’d be a challenge. I just found myself wishing for more information while I was reading these paragraphs!

On another note, it’s commendable that van Reybrouck made a point to tie Congolese history back to global history. It counteracts the attitude that what happens “there” has nothing to do with “us”. When in fact the rich resources of the Congo, be it uranium for the atom bomb or cobalt for smart phones, have always been instrumental in technological development, and in turn have caused outside powers to take an interest in the country, for better or worse. (Honestly, mostly for worse.) I also didn’t know that Congolese troops played a vital part in defeating the Axis powers on African soil!

Despite some misgivings, I’m really glad I read this book and would recommend it to everyone who wants to learn more about the Congo. It’s a great introductory work! Consider my horizons widened.

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