Come Back, Colonialism, All is Forgiven

Alex Perry, Time, February 14, 2008

Le Blanc and I are into our 500th kilometer on the river when he turns my view of modern African history on its head. “We should just give it all back to the whites,” the riverboat captain says. “Even if you go 1,000 kilometers down this river, you won’t see a single sign of development. When the whites left, we didn’t just stay where we were. We went backwards.”

{snip} “The river is the artery of Congo’s economy,” he says. “When the Belgians and the Portuguese were here, there were farms and plantations—cashews, peanuts, rubber, palm oil. There was industry and factories employing 3,000 people, 5,000 people. But since independence, no Congolese has succeeded. The plantations are abandoned.” Using a French expression literally translated as “on the ground,” he adds: “Everything is par terre.

It’s true that our journey through 643 kilometers of rainforest to where the Maringa River joins the Congo at Mbandaka, has been an exploration of decline. {snip} There are no schools here, no clinics, no electricity, no roads. It can take a year for basic necessities ordered from the capital, Kinshasa, nearly 2,000 kilometers downstream, to make it here—if they make it at all. At one point we pass a cargo barge that has taken three months to travel the same distance we will cover in two days. We stop in the hope of buying some gasoline, but all we get from the vessel are rats.

{snip}

{snip} Around 45,000 people die each month in the DRC as a result of the social collapse brought on by civil war, according to a study released in January by the International Rescue Committee. It estimated the total loss of life between 1998 and April 2007 at 5.4 million. For many Congolese like Le Blanc, the difficulties of today blot out the cruelties of the past. “On this river, all that you see—the buildings, the boats—only whites did that. After the whites left, the Congolese did not work. We did not know how to. For the past 50 years, we’ve just declined.” He pauses. “They took this country by force,” he says, with more than a touch of admiration. “If they came back, this time we’d give them the country for free.”

Congo River

The Congo River in Western Central Africa.

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