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.
From The Introduction
The feeling struck home within seconds of disembarking.
When the motor-launch deposited me in the cacophony of the quayside, engine churning mats of water hyacinth as it turned to head back across the brown expanse of oily water that was the River Zaire, I was hit by the sensation that so unnerves first-time visitors to Africa. It is that revelatory moment when white, middle-class Westerners finally understand what the rest of humanity has always known--that there are places in this world where the safety net they have spent so much of their lives erecting is suddenly whipped away, where the right accent, education, health insurance and a foreign passport --all the trappings that spell 'It Can't Happen to Me'--no longer apply, and their well-being depends on the condescension of strangers......
You can check out any time you like,
but you can never leave
Kinshasa, 17 May 1997
Due to the events that have ...
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).
If you liked In The Footsteps of Mr Kurtz, try these:
An utterly absorbing narrative that chronicles Tim Butchers forty-four-day journey along the Congo River, Blood River is an unforgettable story of exploration and survival.
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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