Journey into the heart of darkness

#23: Facing the Congo: A Modern-Day Journey Into the Heart of Darkness by Jeffrey Tayler (2000)

I’ve written before about my fascination with the Congo and Africa’s mythical “dark heart.” Conrad. Tarzan. Mkele-Mbembe. Stanley and Livingston and Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner. “Mistah Kurtz. He dead.” Oh, the horror, the horror.

Beyond all the myth is a country torn by war, wracked by poverty and tainted by the overexploitation of colonialism. It might hold allure as an exotic place to go for adventure, but really, it’s a place to die—or nearly so, as Jeffrey Tayler chronicled in his book Facing the Congo: A Modern-Day Journey in the Heart of Darkness.

“With its sonorous o’s, the word Congo resonated with the power of a village drum to conjure up visions of jungles and thrashing crocodiles along a great African river,” Tayler thought, falling for the romance of it much the way I always have. He was living in Moscow and, entering his thirties, facing an existential crisis. “I needed to know who I was and what I was good for. I did not,” he said.

Tayler decides to make a descent by pirogue—a kind of dugout canoe—from the upper reaches of the river to the capital of Kinshasa. The route would in part, recreate Henry Morton Stanley’s journey in the 1870s. “[O]ur days are numbered and our time runs out,” Tayler wrote. “I hoped that the expedition would settle once and for all my doubts about who I was and what I could accomplish.”

If the premise sounds vaguely familiar, it’s similar to (but more exciting than) Julian Smith’s Crossing the Heart of Africa. Smith traverses the continent south to north, following the route of explorer Ewart Grogan. Smith’s book, published in 2010, ties together his own adventures, written as a travelogue, with Grogan’s story, and he weaves in a whole bunch of the continent’s history and natural history, too.

Tayler’s book, published in 2000, is almost pure plot. Yes, he weaves in some of the Congo’s recent history—in fact, one of the themes of the book is that he cannot escape the recent history—and he uses Stanley’s experience as a sort of touchstone that he comes back to now and again (nothing like Smith does with Grogan’s story, though). But overall, Facing the Congo is gripping narrative, written like an adventure story. And what an adventure.

Tayler considers his plight as it unfolds—and “plight” is probably an understatement because, it turns out, his life is in almost constant danger from bullying soldiers, hostile tribes people, civil war, the weather, crocodiles and hippos, and the river itself. “It’s very dangerous,” one tribesman tells him, “We Bangala don’t care for life. If we see a mondele [a white foreigner] many of us think only to kill him and take his things.”

Even sleeping becomes an ordeal along the danger-fraught river. “The moon hung a giant pale orange orb,” he writes,

the forest echoed with hoots from monkeys, with the tumultuous splashings of hippos in the shallows somewhere behind us. We had bivouacked early in a malodorous and desolate blight of palm and rubber vines. Biting ants, fat and black, infested our camp, scuttling over our legs, chomping away before we could scrape them off….

Compounding his travails is his inability to understand his guide, Desi—not linguistically but, rather, psychologically. “For me, everything here was new and urgent and unique,” Tayler writes; “for Desi the Congo was a harsh and ancient waterway out of which to wrest a meager living while he battled constant fatigue from worms or fevers or whatever it was that was afflicting him. He would not hurry because, danger or no, this river was his home and he lived by rhythms that allowed him to conserve his strength, enjoy himself when he could, and go on.

Only later does he realize “that I had exploited [the Congo] as a playground on which to solve my own rich-boy existential dilemmas.” He adds that his “drama of self-actualization proved obscenely trivial beside the suffering of the [people] and the injustices of the past.” Ah, to follow in the well-worn footsteps created by a hundred years of European exploitation….

Tayler comes to nothing more profound—or less powerfully obvious—than “time will always be show, and there is always much to be learned from living.” Oh, and “value what I have and…strive to preserve it.” I’m not really giving away the ending because, honestly, his flashes of genius felt underwhelming and anticlimactic following his journey.

It’s an excellent book overall, though. It truly is an adventure through the dark heart of the continent—one I’m glad I can take on the page and not in the pirogue.