Focus on Africa: “Congo: The Epic History of a People”

Joke Van der Leeuw-Roord Reviews , , , ,

Last year I had the good fortune to be the guest of Baron Bernard Snoy et d'Oppuers at his Chateau de Seigneur-Bois-Isaac during the EuroClio Waterloo seminar in Belgium. In my room he had put some books from his beautiful library, among them Congo: The Epic History of a People written by the Belgium author David van Reybrouck. Snoy was very positive about the book and asked me if I had already read it. With shame I had to deny this, although the reviews in the Dutch language papers had been unison laudatory. My only excuse was that all my reading time had been devoted to the countries I had intensely been working in, and African countries were not amongst those. But my current situation is no longer an excuse and this year I dived into this impressive publication.

Congo: The Epic History of a People tries to tell the story of the Democratic Republic Congo since the arrival of Stanley and its position as personal territory of the Belgium King Leopold II. The author bases himself not only on documents and (academic) publications but also on countless interviews with Congolese citizens, some of them incredibly old. These personal stories allow the reader to reach a deeper understanding of the generally negative impact of the colonization, the decolonization but also the independence not only on the country and its citizens but also on the wider African continent. Van Reybrouck demonstrates also how big events in World History such as World War I and II have had a direct impact on the area. It was fascinating to learn that, despite the fact that Belgium was occupied by the Germans during World War II; the Italians in Abyssinia were defeated by a Belgium, predominantly black, army from Congo. New developments such as globalization and the growth of the new geopolitical power China in Africa are also leaving their imprint on the Congolese society and mercantile relations: in the big Chinese city Guangzhou there is currently a large Congolese commercial community. But Reybrouck does not only describe big history, the book gives insights in the countries’ culture and especially its pop music and pop musicians.

Why should you not read this book?

Congo: The Epic History of a People is not a quick read, and sometimes it becomes very detailed, especially about the many post-Independence wars and military operations. The rich panorama of personal experiences gets somewhat lost in the many political and war-related names and events. In this time of visual images it is regrettable that the book does only contain very good maps but further refrains from using images. Reybrouck explains this lack of photo materials due the fact that he understands ‘the medium of photo as an autonomous form of speech’, however for many of the readers, unfamiliar with the history of the African continent, visual materials would certainly have had great added value.

Why should you read this book?

Congo: The Epic History of a People pays tribute to the importance of the country Congo with a fascinating narrative of much and fast change and also some continuity, especially when it comes to the exploitation of the many natural resources of the country. This example of African past and presence forces the reader also to contemplate about the future of the African continent. The book gives also many ordinary people men and women a voice and offers insights in their everyday lives, due to the testimonies he acquired while traveling extensively through the country.

How can history, citizenship and heritage education benefit?

Congo: The Epic History of a People is a great resource to dive into the history of a continent, which does not generally feature in European history curricula, but is daily news for educators as well as their students. The book is also inspirational for European educators with many refugee and migrants children in their classrooms, as it offers elaborate insights why so many of their parents, and sometimes even their students on their own, left the continent in search for peace and a better life. An informing and elaborate bibliography supports further reading.

Have you read a book that you feel other history professionals should know about? Leave us a message and your book review might be next!

Congo: The Epic History of a People

 

Author David van Reybrouck
Year of publication 2010
Original language Dutch
Language read Dutch
Available in Danish, Dutch, English, French, German, Norwegian, Swedish. Under negotiation: Chinese, Finnish, Korean, Polish.
No. of pages Approx. 680
Genre History, literature (non-fiction)

 

Secondhand Time: A Book that Really Hurts

Joke Van der Leeuw-Roord Reviews , ,

This book review is written by Joke van der Leeuw-Roord, EuroClio Founder and Special Advisor.

I worked for more than 10 years in ex-Soviet States and had therefore the opportunity to experience the optimism of many ex-citizens, believing in better times. However I also observed from my Hotel room in Hotel MIR, opposite the White House in Moscow, the daily demonstrations of the Communists. With all sorts of Red paraphernalia they protested loudly against the new political realities. And despite all discussions, Lenin was still at the Red Square and there were many red flowers laid in front of the Square’s Wall. It was clear to me that the fall of the Soviet Union was assessed very differently by its former citizens. Belarusian Nobel Prize Winner Svetlana Alexievich’s Secondhand Time, The Last of the Soviets is a magnificent mirror of the wide specter of stories and emotions related to the Soviet Union, its ending and the emergence of a new Russia. In interviews spanning 1991 to 2012 people were asked to share their memories about recent events or their memories of the Soviet Past. The stories show immense confusion, shock about lost values, anger about own ignorance and the lies told by the Soviet authorities and many more. With this approach Svetlana Alexievich is giving us a panoramic portrait of ordinary people in Russia and Belarus with their black memories of violence, famine, oppression but also believes in a better world, although positive expectations diminish gradually in the course of the book. The mess of the sudden collapse of the country and the chaotic and uncontrolled developments afterwards have influenced all interviewees’ lives and left them with little expectations for a better future.

Why should you not read this book?

Second-hand Time, The Last of the Soviets is a book that really hurts, it shows unmercifully the negative sides of humankind, how cruel, unhand, unreliable and evil it can be. There is very little to laugh about, it is a black book. I was reading it while I was ill and I literally wept loudly several times. The book offers no consolation and shows how hard the live was and is for many of the interviewees.

Why should you read this book?

This is a must read book, as it offers an unbelievable deep insight in contemporary Russian society, far from the mainly political, and often rather mono-perspective, news we receive almost daily through the media. Here we meet people of flesh and blood who have to cope with so many, often negative memories and big and generally difficult changes in their lives. They lost their certainties and believes, from whatever background they came, and rarely found positive alternatives. It is not possible to come more near to what people in Russia and Belarus have experienced and thought over the last twenty years, than through reading this book. It is a monument for everyday life history.

How can history, citizenship and heritage education benefit?

Second-hand Time, the Last of the Soviets is composed of longer and shorter ego documents and is therefore a multi-perspective evidence treasure of personal reflections on a multitude of issues such as the World War II, the political oppression, the financial problems of ex-Soviet citizens and the violence after the collapse of the Soviet Union. These different experiences and perspectives can also very well be used as basis for citizenship discussions about the benefits and drawbacks of political and economic systems.

Have you read a book that you feel other history professionals should know about? Leave us a message and your book review might be next!

Secondhand Time, The Last of the Soviets

 

Author Svetlana Alexievich
Publisher Penguin Random House (2013)
Original language Russian
Language read Dutch
No. of pages Approx. 500
Genre Literature (non-fiction)

 

Secondhand Time: A Book that Really Hurts

Agustin De Julio Reviews , ,

This book review was written by Joke van der Leeuw-Roord, EuroClio Founder and Special Advisor.

I worked for more than 10 years in ex-Soviet States and had therefore the opportunity to experience the optimism of many ex-citizens, believing in better times. However I also observed from my Hotel room in Hotel MIR, opposite the White House in Moscow, the daily demonstrations of the Communists. With all sorts of Red paraphernalia they protested loudly against the new political realities. And despite all discussions, Lenin was still at the Red Square and there were many red flowers laid in front of the Square’s Wall. It was clear to me that the fall of the Soviet Union was assessed very differently by its former citizens. Belarusian Nobel Prize Winner Svetlana Alexievich’s Secondhand Time, The Last of the Soviets is a magnificent mirror of the wide specter of stories and emotions related to the Soviet Union, its ending and the emergence of a new Russia. In interviews spanning 1991 to 2012 people were asked to share their memories about recent events or their memories of the Soviet Past. The stories show immense confusion, shock about lost values, anger about own ignorance and the lies told by the Soviet authorities and many more. With this approach Svetlana Alexievich is giving us a panoramic portrait of ordinary people in Russia and Belarus with their black memories of violence, famine, oppression but also believes in a better world, although positive expectations diminish gradually in the course of the book. The mess of the sudden collapse of the country and the chaotic and uncontrolled developments afterwards have influenced all interviewees’ lives and left them with little expectations for a better future.

Why should you not read this book?

Second-hand Time, The Last of the Soviets is a book that really hurts, it shows unmercifully the negative sides of humankind, how cruel, unhand, unreliable and evil it can be. There is very little to laugh about, it is a black book. I was reading it while I was ill and I literally wept loudly several times. The book offers no consolation and shows how hard the live was and is for many of the interviewees.

Why should you read this book?

This is a must read book, as it offers an unbelievable deep insight in contemporary Russian society, far from the mainly political, and often rather mono-perspective, news we receive almost daily through the media. Here we meet people of flesh and blood who have to cope with so many, often negative memories and big and generally difficult changes in their lives. They lost their certainties and believes, from whatever background they came, and rarely found positive alternatives. It is not possible to come more near to what people in Russia and Belarus have experienced and thought over the last twenty years, than through reading this book. It is a monument for everyday life history.

How can history, citizenship and heritage education benefit?

Second-hand Time, the Last of the Soviets is composed of longer and shorter ego documents and is therefore a multi-perspective evidence treasure of personal reflections on a multitude of issues such as the World War II, the political oppression, the financial problems of ex-Soviet citizens and the violence after the collapse of the Soviet Union. These different experiences and perspectives can also very well be used as basis for citizenship discussions about the benefits and drawbacks of political and economic systems.

 

Have you read a book that you feel other history professionals should know about? Leave us a message and your book review might be next!
Author Svetlana Alexievich
Publisher Penguin Random House (2013)
Original language Russian
Language read Dutch
No. of pages Approx. 500
Genre Literature (non-fiction)