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Paperback In the Footsteps of Mr. Kurtz : Living on the Brink of Disaster in Mobutu's Congo Book

ISBN: 0060934433

ISBN13: 9780060934439

In the Footsteps of Mr. Kurtz : Living on the Brink of Disaster in Mobutu's Congo

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Known as "the Leopard," the president of Zaire for thirty-two years, Mobutu Sese Seko, showed all the cunning of his namesake -- seducing Western powers, buying up the opposition, and dominating his people with a devastating combination of brutality and charm. While the population was pauperized, he plundered the country's copper and diamond resources, downing pink champagne in his jungle palace like some modern-day reincarnation of Joseph Conrad's...

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The Second Half Of A Bloody Century

Anyone who wants to understand the Congo should read two books, Michela Wrong's In The Footsteps of Mr. Kurtz and King Leopold's Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism in Colonial Africa by Adam Hochschild. I also heartily recommend both books to anyone studying Conrad's Heart of Darkness, which is too seldom seen as an historic account as well as a literary novel. Wrong and Hochschild explain why the last 100 years of bloody tyranny in possibly the most mineral-rich country on earth has laid the groundwork for 100 more. Hochschild gives us the first half of the century, when King Leopold II of Belgium, a man whose inferiority complex knows no bottom and whose greed no limits, jumps into the feeding frenzy for colonies and comes up gripping the very heart of Africa, the vast area around the Congo River and it's tributaries that would later become the Belgian Congo, then Zaire, and today is the Democratic Republic of Congo. This is also the setting for my novel, Heart of Diamonds: A Novel of Scandal, Love and Death in the Congo. Wrong covers this era also, but in less depth, helpfully referring readers to Hochschild for the full story. Where she picks up steam, though, is with Joseph Desire Mobutu, better known as Mobutu Sese Seko, who became the archetype African strongman dictator. She paints a remarkably nuanced portrait of the man, exposing not just his brutality but his cunning; his charm as well as his lust for power. Wrong witnessed Mobutu's last days and tells us how he ultimately lost control of the nation he ruled for over thirty years. Mobutu didn't rise to office on his good looks and winning personality--he was essentially put there by the CIA. He also didn't retain power simply because he was good at exercising it; France, Belgium, and the United States, not to mention the World Bank, kept him there with military support and an endless stream of dollars. The tale of how he played the First World like a violin is fascinating. Mobutu's nationalization of foreign-owned assets and his machinations with the White House sparked several plot elements in Heart of Diamonds: A Novel of Scandal, Love and Death in the Congo. Wrong gives us a highly readable account of Mobutu's demise. "The Leopard" as he was known, had grown increasingly distracted and detached from his power base. In the last years, he spent most of his time in the Xanadu he constructed in Gbadolite in the middle of the equatorial forest, leaving the country's affairs to a network of cronies and relatives who plundered the nation in his name. The Rwandan genocide of 1994 set the stage for his downfall. Mobutu sided with the Hutus, and when he ordered the Tutsi refugees who had fled into Zaire to leave under pain of death in 1996, Rwanda, Uganda, and Burundi joined forces to drive him from office. Wrong also explains how Laurent Kabila picked up where Mobutu left off as ruler and manipulating despot. Unfortuantely for the reader, her account was publish

The Reverberating Effects of Colonialism

Michela Wrong's In the Footsteps of Mr. Kurtz is the perfect companion piece for the amazing and horrifying King Leopold's Ghost by Adam Hochschild (itself a historical look at the setting of Joseph Conrad's The Heart of Darkness). Wrong takes the story into the present by covering the recent years in the Congo after the Belgians abruptly leave their colony, after providing a brief, succint look at its colonial background, to show the rise and fall of Mobutu Sese Seko, taking down the rich natural resources and the economy of his country with him through his time in government. The author is very effective at showing the Congo as a piece on the Cold War checkerboard using this position to gain support from the United States and money from the IMF and the World Bank allowing a corrupt system to remain in place and the corruption to grow to enormous scale. The complete absurdity of this situation is made quite clear in the journalistic approach the author takes to this book. The end of the Cold War ended this system and helped bring down Mobutu, too late to help his country. The author is quite good at placing the blame and the Western nations come in for their fair share as colonialism left the Congo only to be replaced by a Western backed form of economic imperialism. A horrifying and often sadly humourous read that opens one's eyes to the situation in Africa.

Greed with a human face

The title seems to me all wrong, but that's about the only complaint I have about this informative, fascinating peek into the last forty or so years of Congo's history. Mobutu was no Kurtz, even if he might have been something worse, and the few parallels drawn do not advance the themes of the book itself. This is a minor complaint, since the book itself is remarkably engaging. By combining a first person perspective on many of the events surrounding Mobutu's last days in office with interviews of the significant players in the Mobutu regime, Wrong is able to paint a broad canvass of those factors that led both to the creation of Mobutu the president and the myths and realities that surround him. It's a fascinating job, and an enlightening one. I, for one, am less enamored of being a dictator than I once was, and certainly more appreciative of those factors, both within a country and without that contribute to their existence.I think however the true glory of this book comes not from the sweeping sociopolitical account of Mobutu's years in powers, but rather from the delicate handling of the details which define life under a totalitarian third world regime. Wrong has a wonderful eye for these things, both within her own experience but also how they manifest themselves in the lives of the downtrodden and impoverished. As the book moves into its final third Wrong's attention to these details fades under the pressure for a resolution that, at least for the people of Congo, never comes.

Wrong Gets It Right

I sepnt too much of my life living in Kinshasa. Don't make the mistake I made -- read this book instead. Ms. Wrong has written a book that captures the Congo Conundrum: serious chapters about the IMF/ World Bank/ Western "policy" toward Congo and Africa are interspersed with zany episodes of life in a country that is no country. I've read the book twice, all my friends with Congo experience who've read it love it. Well done.

A three dimensional portrait of a tinpot klepto thug!

Much like some of Robert Kaplan's best writings about sweaty, Third World climes, this work provides a street urchin's eye view of Kinshasa during the Mobutu years. Included here are memorable portraits of cripples running cross-river smuggling rackets, bizarre black-Jesus cults, and over-the-top pink champange swilling elites who robbed the country blind in their never-ending efforts to acquire tacky Euro-fashions and German luxury cars. Also present in this book are numerous laugh-out-loud postcards from the edge that was Zaire -- for instance, the 500,000Z hyperinflated note locals referred to as the "prostate" in honor of their leader's cancerous organ. Through it all, however, shines a nuanced portrait of "President" Mobutu. A thief, certainly. A thug, yup. A man who bears some responsibility for turning a potentially wealthy country into a cesspool, sure. But the Mobutu that emerges here is also a talented politician who brought a measure of order to Congo's post-colonial chaos. Once on top, however, he had to loot the national treasury in order to pay off rapacious underlings who would settle for nothing less than chartered Concordes and Mirage fighters. As she relates how Mobutu's obscenely opulant Versailles-in-the-jungle is rapidly being reabsorbed by the forest, one truly grasps the meaning of Ozymandius. All in all, one hell of a lesson in the perils of being a strongman.
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