“Congo: The Epic History of a People” by David Van Reybrouck (HarperCollins, 639 pages, in stores)
Not everyone can be a world traveler. Nor is time travel a reality. But with a book, one can travel to anywhere in the world, at any time conceivable, and if the book is especially good, one can become deeply immersed in that distant land and remote time.
“Congo: The Epic History of a People” by David Van Reybrouck, as translated from the Dutch by Sam Garrett, is one of those books.
“Congo” isn’t a dry recitation of dates and events. It is a lively, from the bottom up, in-depth look at changes in the African country’s status and how those changes affected participants on a personal basis. Indeed, the author tracked down Congolese and Belgians who had lived through the historical events and could tell their own stories about what happened.
Because a history book needs a starting point, and African history is so vast and, for the most part, documented mostly by anthropologists and archeologists until a little more than a century past, Van Reybrouck has chosen to begin with the first introduction of European interests to the region. That would be when Welsh journalist and explorer Henry Morton Stanley, after tracking down missionary and explorer David Livingstone (and supposedly saying the famous greeting, “Dr. Livingstone, I presume”), was financed by newspapers from 1874 to 1877 to trace the course of the Congo River from its source to the Atlantic Ocean.
In a stroke of luck that Van Reybrouck admits is hard to believe, he located and spoke with Etienne Nkasi, a man who claimed to have been born in the year 1882 and would have been, at the time of the interviews, 126 years old.
“That would mean we were talking about Henry Morton Stanley’s day, the establishment of Congo Free State, the arrival of the first missionaries,” Van Reybrouck writes. “Could I really be face-to-face with someone who not only remembered colonialism, but was in fact born in the precolonial era? ...
“And so I did what I would have done in any other situation: check and double check,” he writes. “I came to the conclusion that his year of birth just very well might be correct. He talked about events in the eighties and nineties of the nineteenth century that he could only have known about firsthand.”
Van Reybrouck does not base the entire book on Nkasi’s recollections, but he returns to him from time to time as events unfold.