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The Congo River in literature



The Congo River which has a length of 2 900 miles (4 700km) is considered Africa’s second longest river, after the Nile. But I first heard about it through Joseph Conrad’s monstrous descriptions of it in his novel of 1899, Heart of Darkness.

With its many tributaries, the Congo forms the continent’s largest network of navigable waterways. It flows out of the African equatorial zone where heavy rainfall occurs throughout all or almost all of the year.

In Conrad’s novel, the river and its swampy terrain is a devilish place full of savage Africans who are the pathetic children of evil. It is a difficult novel to read when you are a conscious African.

That is probably why I have enjoyed Chinua Achebe’s Arrow of God in so far as it is a novel that counters Conrad’s novel. Contrary to Heart of Darkness, Arrow of God shows that Africans were always a decent and erudite people and not a primitive race.

But more recently a young African, a Zimbabwean soldier, Mashingaidze Gomo, has actually set his novel, A Fine Madness, in the same Congo River area. A Fine Madness contrasts even more directly with Heart of Darkness.

Heart of Darkness (1899) is a novella by Polish-English novelist, Joseph Conrad. It tells the story of Charles Marlow, a sailor who takes on an assignment from a Belgian trading company as a ferry-boat captain in the African interior.

Heart of Darkness begins on the deck of the Nellie, a British ship anchored on the coast of the Thames. An anonymous narrator, the Director of companies, the Accountant and Marlow sit in silence. Marlow begins by telling the three men about a time he journeyed in a steam boat up the Congo River.

Heart of Darkness centres around Marlow, an introspective sailor, and his journey up the Congo River to meet Kurtz, reputed to be an idealistic man of great abilities. Marlow takes a job as a riverboat captain with the Company, a Belgian concern organised to trade in the Congo.

As he travels to Africa and then up the Congo, apparently during the Scramble for Africa by Europeans, Marlow encounters widespread inefficiency and brutality in the Company’s stations. The native inhabitants of the region have been forced into the Company’s service and they suffer terribly from overwork and ill treatment at the hands of the Company’s agents.

Marlow arrives at the Central Station, run by the general manager, an unwholesome, conspiratorial character. He finds that his steamship has been sunk and spends several months waiting for parts to repair it. His interest in Kurtz grows during this period. Kurtz is rumoured to be ill in the interior, making the delays in repairing the ship all the more costly.

Marlow eventually gets the parts he needs to repair his ship, and he and the manager set out with a few agents (whom Marlow calls pilgrims because of their strange habit of carrying long, wooden staves wherever they go) and a crew of Africans described as cannibals on a long, difficult voyage up the river.

After many adventures, Marlow and his companions arrive at Kurtz’s Inner Station, expecting to find him dead. A half-crazed Russian trader, who meets them as they come ashore, assures them that everything is fine.

Apparently, Kurtz has established himself as a god with the natives and has gone on brutal raids in the surrounding territory in search of ivory. There is a collection of severed human heads adorning the fence posts around the station showing what Kurtz can do to disobedient natives.

The travellers bring Kurtz out of the station-house on a stretcher, and a large group of native warriors pour out of the forest and surrounds them. Kurtz speaks to them, and the natives disappear into the woods.

A savagely beautiful African woman, apparently Kurtz’s mistress, appears on the shore and stares out at the ship. The Russian implies that she is somehow involved with Kurtz and has caused trouble before through her influence over him.

The Russian reveals to Marlow, after swearing him to secrecy, that Kurtz had ordered the attack on the steamer to make them believe he was dead in order that they might turn back and leave him to his plans.

Kurtz disappears in the night, and Marlow goes out in search of him, finding him crawling on all fours toward the native camp. Marlow stops him and convinces him to return to the ship. They set off down the river the next morning, but Kurtz’s health is failing fast.

Marlow listens to Kurtz talk while he pilots the ship, and Kurtz entrusts Marlow with a packet of personal documents, including an eloquent pamphlet on civilising the savages which ends with a scrawled message that says, “Exterminate all the brutes!”

The steamer breaks down, and they have to stop for repairs. Kurtz dies, uttering his last words—“The horror! The horror!”—in the presence of the confused Marlow.

One is quickly drawn to the historical point that Conrad set his story in the Belgian (king Leopold II’s) Congo of the 1890 when the Belgian colonial system was at its highest ebb, forcing the Congolese to extract ivory and rubber for the Empire.

Those who resisted got killed or got dismembered.

Heart of Darkness projects the image of Africa as “the other world, the antithesis of Europe.” The following description of non-whites in the novel has received endless citation as evidence that Conrad sets out on a pejorative or reductive portrayal of Africa and its people:

“…as we struggled round a bend, there would be a glimpse of rich walls, of peaked grass roofs, a burst of yells, a whirl of black limbs, a mass of hands clapping, of feet stamping, of bodies swaying, of eyes rolling…

The prehistoric man (the black man) was cursing us (white men), praying to us, welcoming us – who could tell”.

The following passage has further enraged many critics, from the green graduates to the retiring professors, because of its suggestions that Marlow’s revulsion is towards a shared humanity with blacks:

“It was unearthly and the men were – no, they were not inhuman. Well, you know that was the worst of it – this suspicion of their not being inhuman.

It would come slowly to one. They howled and leaped and spun and made horrid faces but what thrilled you was just the thought of their humanity – like yours – the thought of your remote kinship with this wild and passionate uproar.”

You will notice that the Thames River is shown as representation of modernity against the savage muddiness and hazardous Congo River of Africa. There is also the “wild and gorgeous apparition of an (African) woman” pitied against the serene civilised mood of the intended (white woman).

The “worst insult” is the pitying of the thoughtful life-like white men against the grunting men of Africa.

Now switch over to this century and modern Africa and see how an African author treats the same Congo River and its environs.

A Fine Madness is a book in which a Zimbabwean soldier is reflecting on African history from the point of view of Africa.

Whilst fighting in the Congo, when Zimbabwe, Angola and Namibia had intervened on the side of Kabila against the rebels in 1999, the soldier narrator is wondering why Africa is always having these conflicts and why each of the conflicts appear to involve, directly and indirectly the super powers of the world.

The soldier is a Pan Africanist thinker.

A Fine Madness is a collage of verse and prose narratives, memories, images, thoughts and characters against the background of the 1998 Congo war following the death of the Congolese dictator Mobutu Sese Seko and the senior Kabila coming to power.

Historically, Kabila, a Lumumbaist was a long time foe of the Mobutu dictatorship hence challenged by dissident guerillas seemingly backed by the West suspicious of Kabila’s links to the earlier Lumumba and his avowed leanings towards Marxism and Moism.

From the air and on the ground the soldier-narrator is able to observe and contemplate the chaos in the Congo and in his eyes becoming the story of an Africa that has seen so much blood and tragedy.

Unlike Conrad in Heart of Darkness, Mashingaidze Gomo looks at the Congo from inside.

This time the people of the Congo are not scary features. Gomo’s Africa is not dark but is home to the Africans, regardless of the war.

The women in Congo, or back in Zimbabwe, are not witches but extremely beautiful and can be held in one’s arms in order to be loved and understood.

This is a case of one Congo and two different authors from two different races and centuries.

So when an excited friend brought to me the manuscript of what later became published by Ayebia Clarke in London in 2010, as Mashingaidze Gomo’s A Fine Madness, I was in the office at the University of Zimbabwe’s Department of English.

When I first read that manuscript, I thought it was one of those scripts that new writers often bring to me just to satisfy themselves that they have given their story to someone.

Gomo, a Zimbabwean soldier in the army who had been to the Congo, had written this story just after his tour of duty in the Congo and I wondered if he was not suffering from the fevers related to the Congo area.

I was cautious and respectful, as usual.

I thought I could read a few pages as a way of snooping into this war.

Suddenly I thought that there was something unfinished (and spooky too) about Gomo’s manuscript as the jagged lines of this novel in prose ran and ran seemingly incongruous:
“ African history must be made in African constitutions
that do not accord human rights to oppressors who do
not have respect for black human rights…
African history must be made by hard old men who can
Withstand colonialist arrogance and demonization if
posterity requires it of them…”

I began to sense that the script was deceptive and that I could have been fooled into dropping it.

I started reading it in the middle of the night and I was alone and I never went to sleep afterwards.

I felt that the room was peopled by all the heroes and traitors we read about in African History.

With such works of art, the act of reading becomes a long and wide dream in which you are taken through the paths of human joy and agony, ending in a whirlpool of emotions.

You want to curse.

You want to laugh. You want to revenge.

You want to walk about the room. You want to go away and be mad. You want to forgive and be forgiven.

Immediately after, I asked to see the author because I had been told that he was a gunner with the Air Force of Zimbabwe.

I wanted to see him in order to believe that he had indeed written A Fine Madness.

Then the man I saw was a soft spoken gentleman. It was really an anticlimax!

Then I gave the script to a colleague, a professor of African literature.

He threw the script among his old papers saying, ‘We will see.’ He was used to many pretenders over the years that showed him things they called stories.

Things that ended up eating up one’s time for nothing.

Then one day the professor came to me in the morning with red eyes and said, ‘I didn’t sleep, last night’.

It was because he had made the mistake of reading the first pages of A Fine Madness. He was not able to stop!

We both agreed that this script should be published because A Fine Madness is a charmed, mad and maddening prose poetry in which an armed man snoops into Africa’s history of deprivation and strife to do the painful arithmetic.

At the centre of this story is the anger and the question why the West is always at the centre of African conflicts, siding with one side and arming it against the other, as in the 1998 civil war in the Congo.

The narrator who is out at Boende in Congo sometimes reflects on his relationship with Tinyarei, an African beauty back home in Zimbabwe:

“The woman I am missing now is a beautiful woman
An older woman aged in beauty
A beauty that hangs on even as age takes its toll
Lingering on like a summer sunset… reluctant to go
A beauty digging in…making a last stand around the
eyes where her smile is disarming.
I missed Tinyarei with a wretchedness that was like
A very fine and enjoyable madness
And it always feels pleasant to miss a woman
Sometimes it is even better to miss than to be with her
And at Boende, it felt nice to miss Tinyarei…”


But, Tinyarei is a lover, a mother, a trophy to be won and sometimes she stands for mother Africa herself.

Sometimes the narrator watches the Congolese men, women and children dance to Ndombolo and wonders why poverty sucks and stinks and erodes self confidence.

The Congo war which pitied brother against brother and neighbour against neighbour, gives Mashingaidze Gomo an opportunity to listen to human voices and messages from the Congolese flora and fauna and come up with multifaceted pan African philosophies.

He also wonders why we often give in easily, why we think less about our dignity, why we are turned against the real substance and asked to take in abstract values, why we don’t wonder why we are considered ‘the whiteman’s younger brother’… and why… and why?

I agree with Ngugi Wathiongo when he says (in the preface to this book) that this prose poetry book is not only about ‘the horror and loneliness of war; but also the beauty of resistance’ and that Mashingaidze ‘can yoke the most contradictory into a searing insight.’

And yet I do not agree with Ngugi when he says that the emergence of postcolonial dictatorships and their actual relationship to the Western corporate bourgeoisie’ can always be explained better by always taking a class perspective.

This book’s forte surely transcends explaining the emergence of postcolonial dictatorship in Africa.

A Fine Madness dwells on the varied patterns of the relationship between the North and the South from before colonialism to date.

In order to understand any book, the reader has to understand at least two things: the historical context in which the story is set and the historical context in which it was written. No story or poem is neutral. All stories are written from an ideological position.

Memory Chirere

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