A River That Is Congo: Of Rulers and Ruled
By Paul J. Stam
All Things That Matter Press
How much do we as Americans know about Africa? Precious little, as this book reveals. Paul Stam grew up in the Congo before World War II and heard the old timers’ stories. He has forged an unforgettable epic of one European’s life in that part of Africa. Pierre d’Entremont was born into a wealthy merchant-class family, but fortunes changed when their business failed. He signs up with the Belgium Force Publique and is sent to the Congo. Once there, he finds his role as a soldier is solely to protect King Leopold’s commercial ventures.
In poignant and chilling detail, Stam takes the reader through the mistreatment and enslavement of the native population. Pierre begins to break the rules: he treats the people as human beings and learns the native language. His report on the atrocities he has witnessed leads to some change. However, the forces aligned against him are overwhelming. He becomes part of the governing structure and does what he is able under adverse circumstances. Pierre’s dealings and relationships with the Congolese are the most interesting part of the story.
Pierre d’Entremont may be modeled after Pierre de Brazza, who was an early explorer and founder of the French Congo, now the neighboring Republic of the Congo. However, there is no making of a “hero” of Pierre d’Entremont in these pages. He is a decent human being in an untenable situation. The book ends in 1960 when the Democratic Republic of the Congo became independent.
The writing varies from refreshing to detail-oriented; some of the passages are memorable, some lines perfect, while others dwell on a step by step description or the mundane. Ultimately, the writing conveys a strong story. A River That Is Congo is fascinating and continues to resonate long after reading.
Among the reading Stam recommends are: King Leopold’s Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror and Heroism in Colonial Africa, by Adam Hochschild, 1998; and Roger Casement’s 1904 Report.