The decision by the British journalist Butcher to retrace the steps of Sir Henry Stanley in his 1876-77 descent of the Congo River, from Lake Tanganyika to the Atlantic Ocean, was part marketing ploy and part pure folly, given the ongoing violence and lawlessness in today's Congo. But the book that resulted from his 44-day trip by motorbike, dugout canoe, UN motor boat, and helicopter provides a gripping story and an absorbing look at a country that has been moving backward for half a century. Particularly in the first half of the book, during which Butcher passes through areas of eastern Congo particularly devastated by the civil war of the last two decades, most vestiges of Western modernity have been ravaged by marauding armed groups and the decline of all but the most basic form of market economy. Armed youth make the occasional, terrifying appearance in the narrative, yet most people Butcher meets seem remarkably sane and are generous to him, despite the poverty and the uncertainty that dominate their lives. When he is not describing the hazards of his journey, Butcher ruminates on the legacy of Stanley and the Belgian colonialism that, however deeply flawed, had once started the process of taming this great river and linking the forest to the global economy. Butcher's book is a masterful description of a country moving backward.
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