I felt compelled to write a response to John Tamny’s recent book review of Crossing the Congo: over Land and Water in a Hard a Place published in RealClearMarkets on 18 May 2017 (http://www.realclearmarkets.com/articles/2017/05/18/crossing_the_congo_is_truly_a_journey_across_hell_on_earth_102668.html). My reaction to Tamny’s review, which he used as an opportunity to voice his personal point of view about the place he refers to as “hell on earth”, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), left me feeling alarmed that a person of his stature (economist and editor) would write and publish such a poorly researched piece, full of stereotypical and potentially harmful conclusions, and remain unchecked by African readers. I advise that the purpose of my response is not to address the validity of Tamny’s examination of the DRC’s economy. I am rather concerned with the lazy approach with which both Tamny and the authors of the book chose to shape their prose, their clear misunderstanding of the DRC’s history, and the confidence with which they feel they can defame an entire country (and by extension, a continent) without Africans themselves shedding some light on the deliberate ignorance of the facts. I think Africa has had enough of such hegemonic behavior, especially from the media and those who have the power to shape modern discourse about our continent. An unbalanced, ill-researched narrative of Africa is dangerous, and perpetuates racism and misunderstanding of what is a very complex continent with a complex history. This is an invitation to fellow Africans to object when the facts about our continent are misconstrued or debauched, and an opportunity to start a dialogue- a two-way conversation with those of our Western counterparts who insist on getting it wrong.
The main characters of the story, the authors of the book, are Londoners who decide to go on a road trip across the DRC before they tie the knot. The trip apparently brought out the worst in the couple and by the time it was done, they had decided to no longer get married. I asked myself whether they had ever been to Africa before. If not, what informed their expectations of the DRC? I wonder if these were already poisoned by the unrealistic images often circulated in the Western media about Africa. If one believes in the adage that we see what it is our intention to see, then I am not surprised that the only thing the authors could report on, according to Tamny, is the worst that the DRC has to offer. Perhaps an equivalent metaphor would be me taking a trip to New York City and writing a book about the rat infestation in the city’s subways, the poverty and gang violence in the projects, rummaging through police dockets to point out cases of racial profiling, and taking notes on the low literacy rates of black children in certain public schools, and then using this as a basis to convince readers that New York City is one of the world’s worst cities in which to raise children, especially if they’re black. The lack of critical thinking displayed in Tamny’s review is unbelievable.
Tamny does say that “the authors themselves would probably admit that their recall left much of what might animate their experiences, out of the book… their journey into hell defies literary – or photographic – description.” I would advance that what made it into the book was what they ultimately wanted to show and not their full experience: the picture of “hell on earth”, with no varieties of shades and colors, no complexities, and no positivity. Their lens was set to feed sensationalist and poorly informed mindsets. Tamny, Martin, Baker and Hatch-Barnwell’s description of the DRC as “hell” was an indication earlier on in the article that their point of view is unbalanced at best but mostly weak. Tamny does speak of the terrible lack of infrastructure in the country, unarguably a major obstacle to development. But when he uses this as a proof point to describe the entire country as “hell”, I have to ask, relative to what? What is his understanding of what makes up heaven on earth? Is it London, Brussels, Washington, D.C.? Does having paved roads automatically qualify a country as developed? What metrics is Tamny basing his argument on and do Africans generally agree with these standards? And if we do, why?
One of the issues Tamny spends quite a bit of time on is corruption. I don’t deny that there is widespread corruption in the DRC, as in many countries in Africa and around the world. What I didn’t quite understand is whether he was talking about police corruption or ineptitude, or both. If it is the latter, can we please address racial profiling in the U.S. or racism in Europe, perpetrated by the very people who are sworn in to protect all citizens – crimes that are swept under the carpet to shelter the police and maintain the status quo? Is Tammy aware of the Black Lives Matter movement at all? And since he insists on including a few words in his review about the NGO’s which litter the “good” neighborhoods of Kinshasa, can we talk about the fact that, even though most of them are mandated with improving the living standards of ordinary Congolese people, the grocery bills accrued by their representatives on a monthly basis alone could probably buy a poor Congolese family of five enough to eat for a year? Tamny thankfully admits that these NGO’s have no interest in effecting any real social impact in the DRC because this would put them out of a job. However, when they are operating with donor funds from the West and spending this money year after year knowing they won’t make a sustainable difference to Congolese lives, should we not regard their actions as corrupt as well?
Finally, I believe that any African who understands their history and takes pride in being African should vehemently protest at Tamny, Martin, Baker and Hatch-Barnwell’s daring conclusion that the DRC was in better shape before it became independent from Belgium. The travelers state: “The DRC was now free, but it was fucked.” Tamny insists that before independence, the Belgian Congo was prosperous. However, he avoids any intelligent investigation as to why, while neglecting to attribute the same corrupt attributes he generously hands out to the Congolese, “the most corrupt people on earth”, to their colonizers. I think it would be fair to say that killing, looting, cutting off human limbs and taking people’s land by force to fulfill King Leopold’s dreams of extreme riches could be classified as corrupt. Hatch-Barnwell conveniently refers to archeological aspects of the country which prove his theory that the Belgian Congo was better off than present day DRC. What else does archeology show us about the Belgian Congo? Well, there is the looted art one can find in Belgian museums which the former colonizers took and refuse to return to the DRC even to this day. Basic research will show that the rape and plunder of the DRC under Leopold II is one of history’s greatest crimes against humanity. With over 10 million Congolese people killed, countless maimed and a population left traumatized by his brutal regime, the man-slaughtering Leopold II features nowhere near Tamny and the authors’ account of how the Congo may have come to be what they regard as “hell.” A convenient oversight, I suppose. Instead, Tamny focuses his blame on government. Fair enough, albeit confusing when he refers to Mobutu and his regime as people who “took what was not theirs”. There seems to be little doubt in the reviewer’s mind that Mobutu was much worse than the Belgian colonizers of whom he speaks so gloriously.
Why does it matter that Africans respond to accounts of the continent that are biased, unbalanced and in some cases, utterly untrue? It is important because narrative shapes perception and the latter shapes behavior. Whether the behavior is applied to diplomatic relations, the treatment of Africans abroad or trade negotiations, the perceptions that are created of Africans in the Western media and, more importantly, in the minds of Africans themselves, directly impact how Africans are treated across the board. Therefore, articles such as Tamny’s and the depiction of an entire country as done by Martin, Baker and Hatch-Barnwell should not be left unquestioned. We, as Africans, should ask: “Yes, you may have seen that, but what else did you see?”, “Why did you choose only to tell that part of the story when it is incomplete?” and “On what basis are you making these claims?”. The goal of questioning is not necessarily to prove the other party wrong, but to clarify a point with the intention of engaging in a constructive conversation that does not leave citizens of a country or continent feeling insulted and disregarded. It also curbs the tendency, such as that displayed in the comments section of Tamny’s article, for unfortunate racist rants.