He was known as "the Leopard," and for the thirty-two years of his reign Mobutu Sese Seko, president of Zaire, showed all the cunning of his namesake, seducing Western powers, buying up the opposition, and dominating his people with a devastating combination of brutality and charm. While the population was pauperized, he plundered the country's copper and diamond resources, downing pink champagne in his jungle palace like some modern-day reincarnation of Joseph Conrad's crazed station manager.
Michela Wrong, a correspondent who witnessed firsthand Mobutu's last days, traces the rise and fall of the idealistic young journalist who became the stereotype of an African despot. Engrossing, highly readable, and as funny as it is tragic, her book assesses how Belgium's King Leopold, the CIA, and the World Bank all helped to bring about the disaster that is now the Democratic Republic of Congo. If, in this poignant account, the villains are the "Big Vegetables" (Les Grosses Légumes) -- the fat cats who benefited from Mobutu's largesse -- the heroes are the ordinary citizens trapped in a parody of a state. Living in the shadow of a disintegrating nuclear reactor, where banknotes are not worth the paper they are printed on, they have turned survival into an art form. For all its valuable insights into Africa's colonial heritage and the damage done by Western intervention, In the Footsteps of Mr. Kurtz is ultimately a celebration of the irrepressible human spirit.
There aren't many current affairs/history books that have kept me up late turning more and more pages - but this one did. Read this if you're interested in learning about the world past your own doorstep and, in particular, if you enjoyed Barbara Kingsolver's Poisonwood Bible (set in the Belgian Congo/Zaire between the 1960s and 1990s).
Washington Post Book World
Wholly unsentimental ... Wrong gets it right ... [a] chillingly amusing cautionary tale.
The New Yorker
[A] fascinating book ... a stinging portrait of the country's despair under Mobutu.
The beauty of this book is that it makes sense of chaos. Without apologizing for [Mobutu's] brutal regime, Wrong explains how the cold war dictator used a mixture of terror and charisma to maintain his hold on the country for three decades. [W]hen Wrong uses her keen eye to describe contemporary life in Congo as in her portrayal of the handicapped businessmen's association the streets of this now-wretched nation come alive.
This is a terrific if disheartening book. A foreign correspondent and eyewitness to the demise of Mobutu Sese Seko's Zaire in 1997, Wrong combines travelog with astute political analysis. In lively prose, she traces the country's dysfunction to its history of permitting outsiders to exploit its wealth of natural resources, including diamonds, timber, and oil.
[Wrong] draws parallels between Mobutu's oppressive regime and the colonialism of King Leopold II of Belgium. In Leopold and Mobutu alike, Wrong sees manifestations of the power-crazed Mr. Kurtz in Conrad's Heart of Darkness. A riveting inspection of the legacy of European colonialism in Africa.
A brilliant account of Africa's most extraordinary dictator ... This book will become a classic.
A superb book ... the absorbing, witty, and wryly observed account of Mobutu's reign and collapse.
Provocative, touching, and sensitively written ... an eloquent, brilliantly researched account and a remarkably sympathetic study of a tragic land.
A young woman follows her fiancé to war-torn Congo to study extremely endangered bonobo apes - who teach her a new truth about love and belonging.
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