IN A VILLAGE in southern Togo in 2001, I met a man who claimed to have attended primary school during the days when the country was a German colony. This was remarkable, considering that Germany’s colonial administration of Togo had ended in 1914. But apparently even that didn’t convey his true age: According to his nephew, who introduced us, he was 116 years old. The nephew, a traditional healer who marketed an herbal remedy for aids, explained that theirs was a long-lived family. His own mother had made it to 101, and indeed had given birth to him at age fifty-eight. Such astounding maternal health was surprisingly widespread in Togo, where the mother of the country’s military dictator at the time, the sixty-five-year-old General Gnassingbé Eyadéma, had recently passed away at the ripe old age of 168, according to official media.
When I was living in Africa, I used to enjoy the sensation of half believing these sorts of stories—but only half. Obviously, several of the numbers were hugely exaggerated. West Africans tend to fudge their ages upward rather than downward because their cultures valorize seniority. And, of course, my interlocutor was a charlatan. In all likelihood, every age he had cited to me was inflated by 50 percent. But the fact that you can never be entirely sure is part of the joy of the thing.
The reader of David Van Reybrouck’s wonderful history Congo is in a similar position. The Belgian archaeologist and cultural historian opens with an account of a 2008 meeting in a Kinshasa slum with a man named Etienne Nkasi, who says he was born in 1882. Over the course of repeated interviews, Van Reybrouck tries to verify this claim. The names of obscure European missionaries and officials Nkasi says he encountered in his youth seem to check out. Nkasi provides apparently accurate accounts of accompanying his father to work building the country’s first railway in the 1890s. He and his brothers insist that he is some years older than the Congolese religious visionary Simon Kimbangu, born in 1887, whom they met and whose religion they adopted in the 1920s. Van Reybrouck soon tells us he has concluded that the year of birth Nkasi gives “very well might be correct”; later in the book he drops the qualifiers.
One’s assessment of Van Reybrouck’s book does not actually depend on whether or not one accepts his claim to have met a 126-year-old man. Congo is a compelling, startlingly beautiful book that covers its vast story with as much empathy and sophistication as does any work of popular history I’ve read. Nevertheless, opening with such a big-fish story is a direct challenge to readers, snipping some of the cables that keep our disbelief suspended. Right there in the introduction, where most histories assert their unimpeachable authority to represent how things really happened, Van Reybrouck jolts the reader into asking: Can I trust this guy?
Children collect pieces of metal scrap to sell while a backhoe clears boulders from a construction site, Goma, Congo, 2013.
READERS WILL HAVE some reason to think they can’t. In the original, Dutch-language version of Congo, published in 2010, Van Reybrouck claimed to have found the man who famously stole the saber of Belgium’s King Baudouin as he drove in an open car through the streets of Léopoldville (now Kinshasa) on June 30, 1960, on his way to Congo’s official independence ceremony. He claimed the culprit was an eighty-year-old eccentric named Longin Ngwadi, whom he had tracked down living in the provincial city of Kikwit. This claim turned out to be wrong. Two Belgian documentary filmmakers who had undertaken an exhaustive search for the sword stealer a few years earlier had already ruled out the self-promoting Ngwadi, and instead fingered a mentally ill man who died in 1980. In the new English edition of the book, Van Reybrouck acknowledges that Ngwadi duped him, but says such testimony is still useful: “Stories, even if they are only that, form a rich source of information about the memories of decolonization.”
It is clear why Van Reybrouck doesn’t want to cut Nkasi’s story. The first-person testimony from an elderly Congolese who witnessed, or claimed to witness, critical events in the Congo’s colonial period as well as the country’s dramatic era of decolonization is key to Van Reybrouck’s central ambition of giving an epic narrative sweep to Congolese history. This extensive use of unverifiable oral history may end up producing a few Forrest Gump moments that were, in essence, too good to check. But it also gives his book a truly African-centered point of view that other histories too often lack.
Throughout the book, Van Reybrouck does everything he can to relay history through African voices—even when those voices cannot deliver the objectivity of Western sources he consults for the same events. His accounts of the exploratory missions of Henry Morton Stanley and of the Western missionaries and merchants who laid the foundations for the Congo Free State in the 1880s are usually depicted through the eyes of those few educated Congolese who later covered those years in their autobiographies. Wherever possible, he seeks out aging witnesses to history. We see the late colonial years, and the exciting early independence period, when Joseph-Désiré Mobutu was plotting his ascent to power, through the eyes of the évolué socialite Jamais Kolonga, who shows off snapshots of himself with the future dictator and the early stars of Congolese rumba and soukous. Mobutu’s efforts to build a national ideology and military are seasoned with the recollections of the first female Congolese paratrooper, who recalls being trained to jump in Israel. Broadcaster Zizi Kabongo watches Muhammad Ali hug the ropes at the Rumble in the Jungle—the historic Kinshasa bout for the heavyweight boxing crown in 1974.
Where Van Reybrouck lacks the first-person testimony to evoke atmospheric narrative from the Congolese point of view, he conjures it himself. He movingly sketches the intensely local world of young villagers along the Congo River as the first European trading boats arrived in the late nineteenth century. Seventy years later, in 1959, he imagines Mobutu giving Patrice Lumumba—who would be elected the first prime minister of the independent Republic of the Congo the following year—a ride home on his motor scooter from the dinner party where we know they first met:
Mobutu and Lumumba, together on the scooter, two new friends, the journalist and the beer marketer; one is twenty-eight, the other thirty-three. Lumumba is sitting on the back. They ride together in the muggy afternoon air and talk loudly, to be heard above the sputtering of the exhaust. Two years later, one of them will help to murder the other.
This gift for narrative vignettes, combined with the book’s steady stream of enthusiastic oral histories, allows Van Reybrouck to achieve something that eludes most chroniclers of the African past. He escapes the constant need to treat Africa as a problem, the tedious compulsion to explain what has gone wrong or to prescribe how to fix it, that plagues so much writing about the continent.
It’s helpful, for example, to compare Van Reybrouck’s approach to that of another excellent Congolese history, Adam Hochschild’s King Leopold’s Ghost (1998). Hochschild focuses on the period from 1884 to 1906, when the Belgian king’s personal reign over the Congo essentially transformed it into a vast, homicidal forced-labor camp for rubber production. One obvious difference between the authors is that Hochschild ruthlessly upbraids Belgian brutality, racism, and greed, while Van Reybrouck treats the story as a complicated, temporary tragedy often driven by incompetence and competing incentives. Like Philip Gourevitch’s history of the Rwanda genocide, We Wish to Inform You that Tomorrow We Will Be Killed with Our Families (published in the same year), Hochschild’s book tacitly embodies the 1990s consensus that the international community can and must intervene to end gross human rights abuses. Van Reybrouck’s depictions of the ineffectual track records of the United Nations and the aid efforts captained by Western nongovernmental organizations cast doubt on this view.
But the more surprising difference is that, on close inspection, Hochschild’s history is told largely from a European point of view. For Hochschild, the story pits the colonialist greed of King Leopold and white-owned rubber-trading firms against the daring altruism of Western activists like Edmund Morel and Roger Casement. His description of the 1880s focuses entirely on Stanley’s explorations and Leopold’s diplomatic maneuvers. Van Reybrouck, meanwhile, gives us much of that period through the eyes of Disasi Makulo, a boy born in a village on the upper Congo around 1870 who was kidnapped, first by Arab slavers and then by Stanley, and ultimately received a Christian education and became a missionary. For Van Reybrouck, the story of the early Congo is one not just of European conquest and oppression, but of the staggering and often liberating modernization of African society. And this version of events, more than Hochschild’s, shows us Africans having, and exercising, historical agency.
In the fraught battle over how African history gets shaped for contemporary political purposes, this refusal to paint black-and-white moral pictures has earned Van Reybrouck a fair amount of criticism. The most controversial sections of Congo are his complimentary portraits of several aspects of colonialism. He has some especially harsh words for Lumumba, the firebrand nationalist, blaming him for driving the less anti-Belgian region of Katanga into secession. Belgian agents were involved in Lumumba’s murder, but Van Reybrouck pins the decision to kill him on the Katangan government. However, he stipulates here that he is following the testimony of many of his Congolese informants, who still despise Lumumba for botching the country’s transition to independence. And his warm depictions of the relationship of much of Belgium’s colonial class to their colony, especially in the peaceful 1950s, simply echo the words of many of his older Congolese interviewees, who, stubbornly and uncomfortably, say those were the best years the country ever saw.
While such accounts may well prove partial or otherwise imbalanced, in other respects they, too, place African testimony at the center of the colonial past, and permit us to more fully engage with some aspects of Congolese history that have eluded other Western chronicles. The net effect of this shift in perspective enlarges our sense of the country’s historical present. Even toward the end of the book, when Van Reybrouck is tracing the devolution of eastern Congo into a morass of horrific violence and the grinding failure of the country’s efforts to democratize, I found it an oddly cheerful read. I realized that this was because Van Reybrouck’s layered and complex narrative of even these dismal events was providing a model of how to take a genuine interest in a failing state without imagining that one can try to rescue it, or that things will necessarily get any better in the future. Van Reybrouck does not treat the Congo as a victim of political disaster requiring outside rescue or intervention; one lesson of his history is that such intervention is unlikely to happen and less likely to work. Instead, he allows us to see the Congo for what it actually is: a huge, fascinating country with its own historical consciousness and momentum. In his final chapter, on the Congolese turn toward China, he contemplates with perfect equanimity a future where Chinese copper factories in Katanga and Congolese traders in Guangzhou render the country’s relationships with Europe and the United States less and less important.
DAYO OLOPADE, too, wants to move Westerners away from regarding Africa as a disaster zone in need of outside rescue. Olopade, a Nigerian-American journalist, writes in The Bright Continent that the “demeaning development efforts” that have failed to kick-start African economies over the past fifty years have suffered from the same sorts of biases that led nineteenth-century European explorers to mismap Africa. Outside agencies lack an understanding of Africans’ informal economies, which form the main structure of business life on the continent but often hover on the border between legitimate business and organized crime (as with Nigeria’s famous e-mail scam artists). Since postcolonial Africa has chosen to retain the irrational national borders instituted by European colonial powers, the continent is stuck with what Olopade wittily calls “fail states”: incompetent, weak, often kleptocratic governments that do not represent real constituencies and are thus incapable of effective governance. Meanwhile, much major development aid ignores the needs and incentives in African economies—and thus ends up sending them goods and services they don’t want, often doing more harm than good.
Nonetheless, Olopade thinks the time for pessimism is over. Africans have already begun taking control of their own social and economic destinies. Tech businesses adapted to African realities have leapfrogged those in the developed world, the most famous example being Kenya’s mobile-phone-based payment system, M-Pesa. Seven of the ten fastest-growing economies in the world last year, she notes, were African. To bring the rest of the world up to date with these trends, she proposes five new “maps” to elicit the real contours of the continent’s economic and social potential: the family map, the technology map, the commercial map, the nature map, and the youth map. Outsiders need to understand how Africa actually works if they want to play a role in its future, whether in business, aid, or diplomacy.
Olopade has a slew of insights that will feel spot-on to anyone familiar with Africa—or, for that matter, with almost any developing economy. The most important part of her analysis revolves around the symbiotic relationship between weak or corrupt states and the informal economy. Outsiders underestimate the great power of Africans’ ability to improvise jury-rigged solutions to social and economic problems: From gypsy taxi-van service to siphoned electricity to petty trade during traffic jams to unlicensed private schools, Africans have a talent for what Olopade calls kanju, a Yoruba word meaning “hustle.”
Crucially, though, the talent for creating informal arrangements springs from the failure of formal ones—and often abets their ongoing breakdown. Like many analysts, Olopade thinks outsiders do not understand how completely most African states are failing, or what the consequences of these failures are. At the same time, however, her own modular, entrepreneurial vision of Africa’s future presents more than a few unintended consequences of its own.
When institutions are broken, playing by their rules becomes a laughable proposition. Where political freedom, social protections, and economic opportunities have failed to materialize, ordinary people have taken ownership of their fate—tearing down the assumption that states matter more than their citizens’ alternative arrangements. In short, the fail state has created millions of libertarians.
It would be futile, in other words, for Kenyans to expect the state ever to provide decent public education, so the future lies in cheap private schools. It is absurd to expect Uganda to provide public health care, so the future lies in cheap prepaid private health insurance. The Nigerian state will never enforce copyright law, so Lagos’s massive “Nollywood” movie industry is based on ultracheap production and self-enforced distribution networks. As for development aid, it needs to shift to social entrepreneurship, or become small-scale, locally aware, experimentally evaluated, and funded with small donations on a Kickstarter model.
You might say that if the big Africa books of the ’90s, like King Leopold’s Ghost and We Wish to Inform You . . ., encapsulated that decade’s liberal-interventionist consensus, Olopade’s ideas reflect a new libertarian-interventionist consensus. It is an optimistic vision, and one that’s steadily gaining traction in policy debates. The smartest minds in development have long recognized that the efforts of the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, and international aid agencies and NGOs to pretend that most African states can behave like European ones are generally a waste of time and money; at worst, insufficiently monitored Western aid gives predatory states a license to plunder.
But if you try to lay Olopade’s new maps of Africa over, say, Van Reybrouck’s map of the Congo, you come up with a lot of lines that don’t match. The African state may be a failure at many things, but as the history of the Mobutu regime shows, it is usually pretty good at employing violence to extract rents. It’s not clear why most of the exciting new kanju-driven commercial ventures Olopade describes in her book would do better at resisting extortion by men with guns than businesses did under Mobutu. (Indeed, illegal coltan mining in the warlord-torn eastern half of the Congo is itself a good example of a kanju response to a fail state.)
What troubles me in Olopade’s attitude to Africa is precisely its boundless optimism. Van Reybrouck’s attitude of celebrating whatever comes along, without nurturing too many expectations, seems a safer bet. People are always trying to sell you one story or another in Africa. I enjoy the sensation of half believing them, but only half.
Matt Steinglass is the Netherlands correspondent for The Economist.