Towards the end of Michela Wrong's highly readable debut, she quotes a military analyst wryly observing that so many mercenaries live to write their memoirs. The same could be said of foreign correspondents. Wrong separates herself from the hack pack by hitting the ground running, to apply a military metaphor, with her absorbing history of the country currently known as the Democratic Republic of Congo. Colonised by King Leopold II of Belgium (the only European monarch to personally own an African country), durable foundations for kleptocratic rule paved the way for Mobutu's "authentic" Zaire, the Leopard following Leopold. Clad in his trademark leopardskin toque and Buddy Holly sunglasses (purest African dictator kitsch, thus the ironically tacky cover), Wrong uncovers all the qualities of an autocrat: formidable memory, demagogic charisma, chameleon-like pragmatism, and a disastrous disdain for economics. In one memorable incident, Mobutu agreed a price for a neo-classical French villa, before casually enquiring whether the currency was US dollars or Belgian francs--the 39-fold difference being of no consequence. Tales of hidden Mobutu fortunes are tantalising, but hide a more prosaic truth: the most significant legacy taken up by his rotund ouster, Laurent Kabila, is Mobutuism, exemplified by a strong security force, "divide and rule", and a strangulated economy.
Perhaps more modest of intent than Adam Hochschild's King Leopold's Ghost,Wrong's account excels at scrutinising a nation as abundant as the mineral and ore deposits beneath its troubled soil. Gently drawing out testimonies from a former Belgian administrator, a former CIA man, ex-pats, Mobutu'sex-son-in-law, the disabled peddlers of Kinshasa, and the immaculately costumed sapeurs with their Lingala music, her sympathetic manner belies a keen intelligence and sensitivity to environment, whether it's Mama Yemo hospital, with guards to protect against non-paying patients escaping, or a terrifying White Elephant of a nuclear reactor. "In the Footsteps of Mr Kurtz" teases out the nuances of a complicated, haunted country in a wonderfully clear, uncluttered manner, while remaining sympathetic to its entrancing, troubled rhythms. --David Vincent
‘Michela Wrong made the so-called 'Heart of Darkness' much less opaque to me when I visited the Congo. She can do the same for you if you read this brave and witty book.’
‘A brilliant account of Africa’s most extraordinary dictator told with wry wit and delicious irony… this book will become a classic.’
‘Michela Wrong nimbly balances absurdity and outrage in her portrait of Mobutu Sese Seko and the wreckage he visited – with steady Western sponsorship – on the country he called Zaire. Her book is charged with pity and terror, and with the sort of sustaining humour that she rightly admires in Mobutu’s former subjects.’
Philip Gourevitch, author of ‘We Wish to Inform You that Tomorrow We will be Killed with Our Families’