A major critical and popular success in Belgium, this sweeping history of Congo begins during the precolonial era and brings readers all the way up to the current era of warlords and civil war. Van Reybrouck’s carefully researched and elegantly written book takes in the reader with compelling portraits of ordinary people that enrich what would otherwise be a fairly conventional historical narrative. The book’s best chapters focus on Belgian colonialism and the decolonization process. Van Reybrouck eschews a Manichaean view and instead paints a nuanced portrait of the successes and dismal failures of the colonial period. Under Belgian rule, Congo achieved one of the highest literacy rates in Africa. Yet when the country finally won its independence, in 1960, its citizens included only 16 college graduates and not a single medical doctor. Van Reybrouck’s analysis of the political crises of the early 1960s focuses mostly on the power struggles among leading Congolese politicians and is too perfunctory when it comes to the international dimensions of the fight for control of the country. The engaging final chapters, which cover the period since the fall of the Mobutu regime in 1997, are built on highly personal accounts of Van Reybrouck’s travels through the war-torn country and are more impressionistic and less precise than the book’s historical chapters.
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