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East along the Equator: A Journey up the Congo and into Zaire (Traveler / Atlantic Monthly Press) Paperback – 12 Jan 1994
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Then a reporter for The Baltimore Sun, Helen Winternitz set out on her journey through Zaire in 1983 with two things clearly in mind. She loved Africa, having lived and traveled widely there, and had long been drawn as so many before her to this darkest, deepest part of it. She was also drawn, as she says at the outset, by ''the raw politics'' of the place. The details of the trip were not so clearly preconceived. Indeed, they couldn't have been, transportation and communication in Zaire being what they are. When Ms. Winternitz and her companion, Timothy Phelps, also a reporter at the time for The Sun, flew into Kinshasa they had one goal: to follow the Congo River (known in Zaire as the Zaire River) as far as possible into Central Africa. Little did they realize that their trip would end in the offices of Zaire's infamous security police.
As it happens, their trip begins on a riverboat, a phenomenon unto itself in Zaire, and one Ms. Winternitz brings wonderfully alive: there are the traders who set up shop amid the vehicles and freight on the barges lashed to the boat; the villagers who fight the currents to tie their dugouts to its sides, filling their empty beer bottles and trading smoked monkeys, fish, hippopotamus; the smoky bars and Zairean music that fill the long, hot nights. And, day after day, there is the rolling mass of shiny mud-brown river and the throbbing of the boat's old engines against it.
The boat deposits the travelers, days late of course, in Kisangani. There, the erratic schedule of a train that skirts upriver rapids thwarts their plans to continue along the river. At length they find a Land-Rover setting out on one of the undulating mudslides that passes for a road in Zaire's rainy season. Finally an assortment of rides takes the two through the Ituri forest, along the Ruwenzori Mountains and into the Great Rift Valley before they return by plane to Kinshasa. There they courageously seek out an opposition leader, Tshisekedi wa Mulumba, for an interview, only to be arrested immediately after visiting him. Finally, after eight days of detention and interrogation by Zaire's security police, the two head home for Baltimore.
''East Along the Equator'' is a travel book, then, but a most atypical one. It is surely no how-to book for the intrepid traveler. There are incomparable sights in Zaire, sights that these two skirt tantalizingly. They see the snowy 80-mile massif of the Ruwenzoris, Ptolemy's fabled Mountains of the Moon. But they never enter its wondrous environs, walk on its thick moss carpets of rust and ochre and forest green, see its giant fantastical plants or put their names in the climbing registry, a few pages after Lowell Thomas's. If ever an adventurer sought off-the-beaten-path travel, it is here.
Ms. Winternitz's intentions are more serious than pure adventuring. Her travelogue is interwoven with commentary on Zaire's rich and troubled history and politics. Handled less skillfully, this could be intrusive. Here it gives meaning and depth to the journey. The Belgian Congo's sordid colonial past, the bloody days of independence and President Mobutu Sese Seko's C.I.A.-assisted ascent to power are all included, told clearly and compellingly. She also offers stark testimony to the injustice and corruption under which Zaireans bear up today.
But her authorial purposefulness is, on occasion, perhaps too apparent. Far from letting Africa reveal itself in unexpected ways, ''East Along the Equator'' is almost relentlessly consistent. The division between the bad Government and the good people is clear and clean, the unhappiness with corruption remarkably articulate. Not that Ms. Winternitz has overstated the misery: it is endlessly appalling. But much of the Zairean reaction to it is sullen, much of it cynical. And much of the misery is mute. Zaire is a country where half of all babies die before the age of 2. People suffer horribly from treatable diseases: worms, malnutrition, malaria, measles. Somehow those human truths come through less prominently than do sophisticated denunciations of corruption and misgovernment.
Yet perhaps these denunciations will reach American readers, which is surely Ms. Winternitz's fervent hope. Early in the book one of the Zaireans with whom she becomes acquainted denounces President Mobutu. ''The day will come when God will reach down and take Mobutu to his rest,'' he says. ''When that happens the people will rejoice and they also will remember that Mobutu was the Americans' man. The Americans were for Mobutu and Mobutu was for the Americans, but they forgot about the people. The Americans are inheriting Mobutu's unpopularity.''
It's a chilling speech. Zaire is a huge and critical country, Africa's second largest, rich in resources, strategically situated - precisely the reasons that the United States holds Mr. Mobutu close in the face of his brutal rule and shameful self-enrichment. What are the costs of that policy?
Ms. Winternitz's remarkably resourceful and courageous reporting shows the policy's impact on the Zairean people. Her personal experience with Zaire's lawlessness and utter contempt for human rights shows its inconsistency with both American principles and America's long-term goals. Her own answer, clearly, is that the costs are unacceptable. Readers of ''East Along the Equator'' will be hard-pressed to disagree.
A DIRGE ON THE WATER
Pushing our way forward again, we saw that a board had been put down to the shore as a gangplank. Near the prow of the front barge, women of all sorts had gathered and were singing in Lingala, which is a mellifluous language that lends itself to the cadences of lament. They were singing dirges for a child.
The story we heard was that the child was a sickly boy who had been too thin for too long. Prolonged malnutrition had killed him. The rest of the passengers had no contagion to fear, other than the general epidemic of penury that has settled everywhere in the country. . . .
The singing women took the corpse and wrapped it in a blue cloth so that only the face showed up dark against the swaddling color. Some men found enough boards to nail together a simple coffin. Once this was accomplished, a stream of several hundred people balanced down the plank, bearing the body in the coffin, to the shore, on whose swampy edge water hyacinths bloomed in a tribute of purple.
From ''East Along the Equator.''
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Geneva Overholser is a member of the editorial board of The New York Times. She lived in Kinshasa, the capital of Zaire, from 1974 to 1976.