Crossing the Congo Is Truly a Journey Across Hell on Earth
“Our hearts just broke – they just wanted to get out of their lives," but “we had to drive off with Charlie and me hanging off the car literally beating the guys away.” Those are the words of Mike Martin about midway through Crossing the Congo: Over Land and Water in a Hard Place, the fascinating book he wrote with Chloe Baker (introduction) and Charlie Hatch-Barnwell (photos) about the trio’s perilous 2013 drive across the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), from Kinshasa to South Sudan.
For those who think they know poverty, dysfunction, or basic corruption within government officialdom, they would be wise to pick up this essential book. Odds are they’ll never view – or discuss – the three in the same way again. What the authors of Crossing report from the DRC brings new meaning to all three, and much, much more.
Martin and Baker are both Londoners, and in 2013, before life, work, and marriage (Martin and Baker were engaged to be married to one another when the trip began) were set to intrude, they drove from London to the African continent, and back. Crossing is the (Hatch-Barnwell joined them in Kinshasa) account of their 60 day, 2,494 mile journey across the DRC.
There’s really no way to adequately retell what the authors witnessed, nor what they endured. Along those lines, it’s safe to say that the authors themselves would probably admit that their recall left much of what might animate their experiences, out of the book. That’s not a knock on the authors, as much as it’s to say that their journey into hell defies literary – or photographic - description.
Needless to say, readers would do best to simply try and imagine beginning a drive from Houston to Dallas only for I-45 to be mostly unpaved, and mostly undriveable due to massive potholes everywhere along the route. The travelers would have to endure regular interruptions in their journey thanks to I-45 intermittently ending; the lulls in what no westerner would describe as an “interstate” littered with massive trees and smaller rivers that need to be cleared, or crossed on manmade rafts sturdy enough to carry a four-wheel drive automobile. And that’s the just the beginning.
For the trip from Houston to Dallas to even passably resemble what the authors experienced in the DRC, there would have to be no signs indicating which direction to drive up north, and then if eager to attain guidance, every request would be met with outstretched hands from people loitering on the route, and who also treat the roadway as their personal toilet. There would be no internet or phone during the drive for GPS or calls for directions, access to mere buckets of water would have to be negotiated, food largely scarce, and then police, if at all helpful while most often drunk and stoned, would erect checkpoints throughout the route from which they’d try to shake down the well-to-do with bribes in return for free passage.
The above is a rather incomplete, G-rated description of what the authors endured over nearly 2,500 miles. While the average first-world driver can complete a 100-mile trip easily within two hours, in the DRC 100-miles traveled represents a very successful day. Figure that the authors’ 710 mile passage from Kinshasa to Kananga alone took place over 15 days. During one 5 mile stretch as they exited Kinshasa, they were stopped by government officials no less than four times.
So while even the cruel wouldn’t wish a drive across the DRC on their worst enemies (the authors did it, by choice, mostly because “people said that it could not be done. That it was impossible.”), to read Crossing is to wish that Paul Krugman would attempt the drive as a way of curing the Princeton professor of his silly belief that government spending powers growth. In truth, governments can only spend – and build paved roads inefficiently – insofar as the private sector is creating wealth. Government spending doesn’t drive economic growth as much as it’s mostly an economy-sapping effect of it.
Applied to the DRC, there are only 700 miles of mostly driveable roads there because the country’s economy is almost wholly non-existent. As Baker puts it in the book’s introduction, “Throughout the DRC there is relentless poverty, and little palpable sense of hope for the future.” Despite abundant natural resources, “the DRC remains 186th of 187 countries in the Human Development Report, with 84 per cent of the population suffering underemployment and up to two-thirds living below the poverty threshold.” Baker describes Congolese poverty as “beyond comparison.”
What also requires mention is that it wasn’t always this way. Though it’s easily one of Africa’s poorest countries today, Baker reports that the “DRC was the second most industrialized country in Africa at independence,” and Martin adds that the “DRC had been at its most ‘advanced’ state just before the Belgians left.” The once developed country even had paved roads, including the route that the authors took when they crossed the country. Alas, no more. As Martin pithily explains it, “The Congo was now free, but it was fucked.” Why the tragic decline? Readers doubtless know why. It’s government. Always government. Reading a book like Crossing caused this reviewer to wonder about before/after when it came to the authors’ political/economic views. What they witnessed had to have profoundly altered their views of government.
On a personal level, Martin acknowledges that by trip’s end the trio was “shattered.” While it’s possible the proverbial (or literal) journey into the heart of darkness merely brought forward what was inevitable, Martin ended his engagement to Baker fairly early on. Martin and Baker admit that this most maddening of ‘holidays’ understandably brought out the worst in them; particularly the mercurial Martin. He doesn't suffer fools well, and government is often a magnet for society's fools who crave power and wealth of the coercive and thieving variety, as opposed to the earned kind that springs from removing unease from the lives of others.
Martin writes that “The Democratic Republic of Congo really is one of the most bureaucratic, officious and corrupt countries in the world.” He quotes a guidebook which says ‘They [the Congolese] are the most corrupt people on earth.’ Interesting there is that at least before independence, what was the Belgian Congo was as previously mentioned, relatively prosperous. Indeed, at varying times Martin refers to the “archeological” aspects of the country whereby a tour of it reveals what once was, including legible road signs, government offices and buildings, and other effects of normal economic activity.
Nowadays it’s mostly gone. As opposed to bustling businesses, the “economy” in the DRC amounts to the various NGOs naively working to fix what is broken. Gombe is the upmarket (by Congo standards) part of Kinshasa where the city’s “industrialists” (think NGO workers) live and work, but after at least a decade of international intervention, Martin describes what is relatively prosperous as rather primitive. He indicates that the area’s police “did not even have proper electricity, any computers or appropriate offices.” It’s safe to say this will be the norm so long as the NGOs remain. Their very existence in the DRC parodoxically ensures that the DRC will remain devastated.
What’s important about all of the above is that the DRC’s civilian population is well aware of what’s going on, as is Martin. The people know the DRC’s leaders use international aid to “accumulate further wealth at the expense of the people,” while Martin describes western aid programs as “a lot more stupid than they looked…” Well, of course they are. Hard as it is for do-gooders to acknowledge, countries never fail due to a lack of money or resources. They implode because the investors whose intrepid capital commitments power real economic activity choose to direct their funds elsewhere; nearly always thanks to corrupt governments scaring them off.
Getting right to the point, non-corrupt countries lightly run by leaders beholden to the rule of law don’t need foreign aid. That the DRC is a foreign-aid recipient is all the evidence one would need that the country’s leadership is pocketing what’s flowing in. If they weren’t, as in if they weren’t corrupt, return-obsessed investors would populate Gombe rather than its NGO industry that is anything but. So yes, the problem in the DRC is appalling government. It goes back to what is a most false version of independence, and its horrid aftermath.
At risk of being repetitive, the former Belgian Congo was relatively well-to-do. It reached its economic apex only for Joseph-Desire Mobutu to destroy it at independence. Mobutu foisted on the country “Zairianisation,” which “saw the expropriation of all small business, farms and factories that belonged to the remaining foreigners in the country.” Those who took what was not theirs predictably oversaw collapse of those same assets in concert with an outflow of the people who actually knew how to run the businesses taken from them by force. With the economy in freefall, Mobutu partially ripped a page from Krugman’s book and encouraged his impoverished subjects to “steal cleverly, little by little.” It sounds like taxes; the only difference being that the force is explicit. Readers can doubtless imagine how things unfolded.
Notable about Krugman is that he's historically been a free trade advocate while seemingly forgetting that imports are the reward for the production that he thinks should be endlessly taxed. This rates mention because quite unlike the developed world in which workers are showered with goods and services in return for their toil, imports into the DRC are near non-existent to reflect the almost total lack of remunerative work in the country, along with theft of what does make it in. For those who decry imports and open trade, they would be wise to read about Martin's four-day nightmare in pursuit of something as prosaic as a steering box for the Land Rover that transported them across the Congo. Those who equate imports with being taken advantage of have plainly never lived where they're non-existent, nor witnessed the end result of excessive government power.
The problem is that no book, and no review of a book can adequately describe just how awful life is in countries defined by absolute government corruption. Still, Martin, Baker and Hatch-Barnwell do a great job of giving the reader a sense.
At this review’s beginning, reference was made to Martin and Hatch-Barnwell “literally beating the guys away.” What Martin described as heartbreaking took place as the trio left Lomela in order to continue their drive across the DRC. Having paid some locals to help them move trees so that they could continue their trek (for some compensated “it was their first ever pay day"), some of the workers held onto the westerners’ Land Rover because they hoped for more pay days, and even better, eventual passage into Europe.
Indeed, as Baker puts it early on, “The people we met all shared the same dream, a dream of reaching Europe, where they felt hard work would translate into a safe and secure future for their families.” As Martin later explains, those who live in the hell that is the DRC view the West as “a paradise with endless luxuries and wealth.” For American commentators prone to mocking slow-growth Europe, realities in Africa reveal their haughty critiques as the droolings of people who are both unwise and spoiled.
And for the Americans who proclaimed loudly that the U.S. was on the verge of being a “Banana Republic” if either Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump were elected president, Crossing the Congo exposes them as truly mindless, and similarly spoiled. The truth is that we younger people in the West, whether in Europe or the U.S., have no real sense of suffering. A read of this essential book will open many eyes, and perhaps foster a greater desire among us all to open our doors to the world’s strivers who are presently having their talents suffocated in the cruelest of ways.