Facing the Congo: A Modern-Day Journey Into the Heart of Darkness

Facing the Congo: A Modern-Day Journey Into the Heart of Darkness

by Jeffrey Tayler

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Faced with an identity crisis in his work and his life, seasoned traveler and journalist Jeffrey Tayler made a bold decision. He would leave behind his mundane existence in Moscow to re-create the legendary British explorer Henry Stanley’s trip down the Congo in a dugout canoe, stocked with food, medicine, and even a gun-toting guide. But once his tiny boat

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Faced with an identity crisis in his work and his life, seasoned traveler and journalist Jeffrey Tayler made a bold decision. He would leave behind his mundane existence in Moscow to re-create the legendary British explorer Henry Stanley’s trip down the Congo in a dugout canoe, stocked with food, medicine, and even a gun-toting guide. But once his tiny boat pushed off the banks of this mysterious river, Tayler realized he was in a place where maps and supplies would have no bearing on his survival. As Tayler navigates this immense waterway, he encounters a land of smothering heat and intense rains, wary villagers, corrupt officials and dead-eyed soldiers demanding bribes, jungle animals, mosquitoes, and, surprisingly, breathtaking natural beauty.

Filled with honesty and rich description, Facing the Congo is a sophisticated depiction of today’s Democratic Republic of the Congo, a country brought to its knees by a succession of despotic leaders. But most mportant, Tayler’s stunning narrative is a deeply satisfying personal journey of fear and awakening, with a message that will resonate with anyone who has ever felt compelled, whether in life or in fantasy, to truly explore and experience our world.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“One of the best travel books of 2000.”
The New York Times Book Review

“Heart-stopping, breathtaking adventure. Facing the Congo is a book worth reading and rereading.”
—Morning Edition, National Public Radio

Facing the Congo does what a travel book is supposed to do. It presents a vividly described world that brings the reader as close to the Congo as words can do, inspiring the type of wanderlust that can only be sated by one’s picking a spot on a map and just going.”

“Tayler goes off the beaten path to give us a much deeper version of the truth, and unlike so many other gonzo travel writers, he is not politically naïve.”
—Robert Kaplan, author of Balkan Ghosts

Tayler, a former Peace Corps worker, retraces Henry Morton Stanley's 1870s trip down the longest navigable stretch of the Congo, from Kisangani to Kinshasa, a distance of one-thousand-eighty-four miles. After arriving in Brazzaville, Tayler spends a week studying Lingala, the lingua franca of the area, and worrying about what he might encounter down the river. After taking a ferry to Kinshasa, a city so decrepit and filthy he's reminded of Hiroshima after the blast, he boards a crowded barge where all are suspicious of his motives, thinking he's there to find diamonds or other wealth. Amid all the poverty and hunger around him, Tayler begins to feel "obscene," with his stash of food and money. After twenty-one days on the barge, he hires a guide and begins his own journey, fending off ants, crocodiles, robbers and rainstorms in the process. Lush, vivid writing intensifies the tension created by both the physical demands on Tayler and the emotional conflict he feels as a rich white man in a country where history has left a mark between whites and blacks that's barely begun to fade.
—Ann Collette
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
In this Heart of Darkness-revisited tale, Tayler (Siberian Dawn) sets out to retrace the steps of British explorer Henry Morton Stanley, who in the 1870s, accompanied by a crew of hundreds of Africans and three Europeans, sailed the entire length of the Congo River in a pirogue. At 33, Tayler, an American ex-pat living in Moscow, finds himself wading into the murky waters of an existential crisis. Having traveled and lived in Europe, the Middle East and North Africa, and journeyed across Siberia, he is unable to shake off the wanderlust bug. But his personal crisis runs deeper than whether to find a job and settle down. "The imperative," he writes, "is to accept the frightening yet liberating fact of our finitude... not to succumb to the illusion, comforting though it may be, that our days will go on and on." He makes a final lunge in the hope that "facing the Congo" will create more meaning for him than simply a new adventure. Tayler arrives, however, not in Stanley's 19th-century Congo, but in Mobutu's corrupt and strife-ridden Zaire in the aftermath of the infamous pillaging that tore the country asunder in the early 1990s. Throughout his journey downriver, the author ruminates on the significance of his own life and the history of the Congo and its terrible legacy of colonialism and enslavement, asking what "right" he or any Westerner has to venture, pockets full of cash, into a foreign land stricken with poverty and misery. Eloquent and sincere, Tayler brings immense cultural sensitivity to his journey, fully conscious that the poverty and misery are in large part due to Western hegemony. His story, however, ends abruptly, and his questioning sinks deep into the jungle whence it came. (Sept.) Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.|
Transports readers into the jungles and crocodile-infested waters of sub-Saharan Africa. The author travels a river barge teeming with merchants, mothers, prostitutes, fishermen, and spiritual followers, then launches his quest to confront the Congo River by descending its longest navigational stretch in a hand-carved canoe. Includes b&w photos. Lacks a subject index. Tayler has written for magazines including Nast Traveler/>, , and , and is a commentator on NPR's . Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (booknews.com)
Kirkus Reviews
A dangerous and self-indulgent journey up and down the Congo River: thankfully, travel-writer Tayler (Siberian Dawn, 1999) comes in the end to understand it as such. Feeling a peckishness of the spirit for all the tried-and-true reasons-his job a corporate trap, his writing going nowhere, the need for a "defining achievement" at a "decisive moment," the fact that at his age Christ had already died-Tayler decides to hit the road. V. S. Naipaul's A Bend in the River struck the spark, and Stanley's 1870 expedition fanned it into a blaze: He would travel the Congo (Zaire at the time of his 1995 trip) River from Kinshasa to Kisangani, 1,100 miles in a pirogue. That ought to blow the gunk out of his carburetor, particularly since he knows that Mobutu's Zaire was one corrupt, murderous, uncomfortable-but impossibly romantic-place. The barge trip up the river to Kisangani drives home the discomfort and corruption, and the shroud of suspicion that rests on any white traveler to those parts-the whites are assumed to be after something, from diamonds to you-don't-want-to-know-but erases any romantic notions. Tayler isn't much of a place portraitist ("the sun died a vivid death in a violet sky"), but he does an ample job of conveying the dread of a nation still on its knees from the army looting sprees of 1991 and 1993. The "heat and crowd and hassle" of the barge trip is more than matched by the terror of the downriver paddle in the pirogue. Out of a land of parrots and butterflies would come strangers, saying to Tayler and his guide: "Ah, you have a gun. You win! We would have robbed and killed you both, and who would have ever known!" Ultimately, he realizes he is endangering not just his ownlife, but the lives of others in his company, and that the trip proves little but how scared one can become. A voyage fit only for lunatics. In terms of achievement, Tayler could as easily have played Russian roulette.

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Product Details

Crown Publishing Group
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5.22(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.63(d)

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Chapter 1


The squawks of parrots filtered down into the black well of sleep and slowly called me up into the lighter realms of wakefulness. There was a whir, as of an air conditioner, and the muffled, hollow echo of voices in the corridor. I opened my eyes and looked around me at the white room and its shutters, where the timid light of dawn was creeping in between the slats. Still exhausted from the flight and the hectic preparations of the previous week, I shut my eyes again and drifted back into memories of the past twenty-four hours.

There had been only a few people on the plane. Sometime during the night we crossed the equator into the Southern Hemisphere, and the captain announced our descent toward Brazzaville. Through my window I could discern no city, only stars in an indigo sky above the sweeping, pitch-black expanse of the earth. A minute before landing, dimples of yellow appeared below: lamps in house windows diffusing pale light onto nearby palms. The capital of the Republic of the Congo looked like a tiny settlement from the air.

Maya Maya Airport was dark and dank, with mosquitoes whining in warm mists and gaunt-cheeked soldiers loitering in unlit corridors. A woman in a banana-colored scarf sitting in an illuminated booth peered at my yellow fever vaccination certificate; a red-eyed official yawned and stamped my visa. Next, a man in sandals and a tan uniform stopped me abruptly, gave my passport a supercilious look, and asked me if I was a resident. No. "Ah. Attendez." But he occupied himself with other passengers, so I walked on down the corridor.

Customs was a dimly lit green-and-blue chamber streaked with dirt and filled with the rustling shadows of greeters, taxi drivers, policemen, porters. White spots danced toward me out of the gloom: a lanky youth in a blue-white calico print jumpsuit sauntered up and pulled me toward the baggage conveyor belt. "How much will you give me?" he asked in French.

"For what? I don't have my bag. The conveyor belt isn't working yet."


He grabbed the belt and, throwing his weight into it, started pushing it along by hand, his sandals scuffing and sliding on the dusty floor. Other porters joined in, heaving and hoing, and the thing creaked to life. But an attendant in khaki shouted in Lingala and came running over to the calico fellow; grabbing my bag, he shoved him aside. He was an official porter, he said; the man I had hired was a hustler. Using my bag as a ram he forced a passage through the crowd, and I followed him to the customs desk, where officers sat slumped with their berets slanted low over half-closed eyes and waved us on toward the doors. The hustler skulked along behind us, pleading, "Monsieur! Monsieur!" I gave him a few francs. He nodded, and he and his white spots danced back into the dark of the terminal.

We walked out into the moonless night. There were no lights on the street, and the inky, close air rang with crickets and smelled of fruit and sweat. Moist palms landed on my forearms and pulled me in this direction and that; an incantation arose from figures bobbing faceless in the black: "Taxi . . . taxi . . . vous cherchez un bon hotel . . . eh, monsieur . . . taxi . . ." My porter pushed on. I followed the white address label on my bag, stumbling over an unseen curb, stomping flat-footed into a pothole, not knowing whether I was about to trip on a fender or step on a body. Then he halted and a driver was quoting me a fare to a hotel. D'accord. They hustled me into the car. The porter asked for five dollars. I pulled out a dollar, slapped it in his hand, and we were off.

In Brazzaville a couple of years before there had been contested elections followed by riots and looting, and a serious problem with crime remained. As my taxi trundled through the city's outskirts — pitch-black warrens overgrown with bush — I remembered this and found I could not help but be afraid. When the driver hit the brakes at bumps I worried he was stopping for robbers; when we crashed through branches hanging out into the road I thought he might be taking a detour and I was about to get my throat slit. Once we slowed to creep around a crater and people came running up to the car: there were white T-shirts in the dark, there were shouts, there were fists pounding on the hood. But we rolled on, unharmed, down more mud lanes, careened around a circle, bounced onto a boulevard, and turned off onto a side street.

Ahead of us a bare lightbulb dangled on a wire over a hand-painted sign: Hotel Les Bougainvilles. As we drove up, a gray-haired man with a goatee and a bow tie popped his head out of the receptionist's window and swatted at a mosquito on his neck. I got out.

"You want a room?" he asked.


"Well, pas de chambre! We're full!"

I reluctantly started to turn back to the taxi, sinking inside at the thought of more cruising in the dark.

He swatted his neck again. "Okay, okay. We have a room."

I set down my bag and filled out a registration form.


The light outside my window was getting stronger, the parrots were bickering more and more raucously. I did not want to get up. I was still nervous, so I stayed in bed for a long time more. But eventually music with a salsa beat-drums and tinny electric pianos and guitars-percolated in and set me at ease. I arose, dressed, and headed out, my destination the Peace Corps office.

How silly and irrational my fears seemed now! Palms shot up like geysers of emerald green into drifting layers of cottony mist; winding tar roads were flanked by shoulders of cream-colored sand; old French colonial homes sat placidly behind whitewashed walls, the foliage of the broad trees above them forming a dark canopy splashed here and there with the flitting red and gray plumage of parrots. My hotel was in the high part of town; the rest of Brazzaville sloped downward in lazy tiers laced with lanes that ended in a sea of fog. Now and then a battered taxi would putt by. Crowds ambled along the shoulders: crowds of young people dressed in navy slacks and gray skirts, laughing, relaxed kids carrying the floppy checkered cahiers of students in France; they mixed French and Lingala and headed on down the road. The fear of the night having dissipated, I fell in with them and strolled along as though seeing the world for the first time. Gradually I found myself lower and lower on the hillside, nearing the more modern buildings of the center. I was fresh, ready for anything.

There was a promontory. I left the crowd and walked out onto it, feeling compelled, for some reason, to keep my eyes on the sea of fog below. I stared into the fog: two dark stick figures in the white resolved themselves into men, then a pirogue sifted into view beneath them. Fishermen on water. One man was hurling a net while the other rowed against the current, putting his back into his strokes. The Congo River. Here at Malebo Pool the Congo's waters, glistening expanses of pearl only a shade darker than the fog, were wide, but they poured with a powerful hiss out of a hazy realm of islands and trees to the northeast, carrying toward the Atlantic sheets of water hyacinth, chunks of chartreuse plant matter that looked like it had been vomited up by a great jungle, a jungle sickly fertile and spilling out of itself. Across the water there was no trace of Kinshasa — only a mat of fog and water speckled in its lower reaches with the green of the water hyacinth. My gaze returned to the pirogue. The current was strong; the paddler was leaning into his strokes, struggling to keep his craft from being swept downriver.

I remembered where I was going. I returned to the street and rejoined the crowds.


Tom Crubaugh, the director of the Peace Corps mission in Brazzaville, sat behind his desk listening to me explain my plan to study Lingala and travel the river. He had a frank face and his hair was long and pulled back in a ponytail. He wore a tie, it seemed, as a concession to convention. He had spent years in Lower Zaire as a Peace Corps volunteer and had left only with the evacuation during the revolt of 1991.

After I finished telling him my plans, he drummed a pencil on his desk and leaned back, smiling. "Going to Kisangani, eh? The heart of darkness!"

"Isn't that a bit of an exaggeration?"

"Well, Zaire's always been the Wild West. People have to work hard there to make ends meet. They haven't been softened by socialism like the Congolese here."

"What do you think my chances are of making it?"

"Don't know, really. Bad idea to go alone, though. You'll need a guide if only to keep from getting lost in all the islands. And the people upriver — they could be another problem. We didn't put volunteers up there. Alone, you'll be quite a target. Life's tough in Zaire, a lot tougher than in Brazzaville, where people have retained their humanity. You'll see this at the Beach."

"The Beach?"

"The Kinshasa port. Ngobila Beach. It's hell. All police and soldiers demanding bribes. You'll see. But let me introduce you to Simon. He's one of our Lingala instructors. You can talk to him about your lessons."


Simon had humorous eyes, a soft demeanor, and an even softer handshake. He was self-assured in a calm, egoless way. He agreed to give me an eight-hour-a-day, weeklong intensive course in Lingala through French. We sat under a twirling fan in a second-floor classroom of the Peace Corps office. When I got something right he would exclaim, "Ah-haa!" and lean back, his eyes smiling. But he lowered his eyes when I raised mine to his-a courtesy in this part of Africa.

Lingala is the Bantu langue de passage, the lingua franca of both Congo and Zaire. Besides Lingala there are 220 languages in use in Zaire by 250 different ethnic groups; only Lingala and, to a lesser extent, French unite them. With so little time, we concentrated on basic grammar and vocabulary I would need to know on the river. Although its nouns had no gender or case and its sounds were open and easy to imitate, the grammar was formidable. My head ached at the end of each of our sessions. As with any language, the vocabulary of Lingala told a lot about the life of those who spoke it: for example, animals were referred to as banyama, the plural of nyama, or "meat," for almost all wildlife in the forest could be turned into a meal. Interestingly, Simon did not fully understand me when I asked him for the Lingala for soir; in Lingala there is no word for "evening," only words for "day" (moi, which is synonymous with "sun") and "night" (butu), because there is no evening in Central Africa-a characteristic of the equatorial latitude I was only later to appreciate.

Although Simon said that only "les imprudents" get eaten by crocodiles, he was reticent about Zaire and grew concerned when I told him of my plans to pirogue the Congo alone from Kisangani to Kinshasa. I would need a local with me to smooth the way, he thought, or people along the remote reaches of the river might greet me, a mondele ("white person"), with suspicion or even hostility. At least this was what he thought. He, like all the other Congolese I was to speak to during my stay in Brazzaville, had never been on the river except to travel, in better times, across Malebo Pool to Kinshasa.

Our lessons proceeded apace. Under Simon's tutelage, I found myself beginning to adapt to the unfamiliar language, although the concept of my expedition, especially after seeing the river surging out of the jungle beyond the town, became no less intimidating than it had been before my arrival.

I studied and studied; one day flowed into the next. At night, however, I found myself lurching awake in a cold sweat, unable to remember my dreams.


"Halt! Eh, monsieur! Halt!"

On my way back to the hotel one afternoon a man called out to me from a café. He got up, his sandals scraping the dirt, his mud-splattered blue trousers baggy around his ankles, and started toward me, teetering, correcting his steps, and teetering again. His eyes were red. When he made it to me he stopped and paused. His pause suggested some sort of authority: he was too important to be concerned with my time. Then I noticed he wore the top half of a tan uniform.

Slitting his eyes, he raised his chin. "You remember me, monsieur?"

"No, I don't."

He smirked and swayed; his cheeks puffed out slightly with a restrained belch. "Well, monsieur, my name is Jean Claude. I settled the matter of your papers."

"What matter?"

"I examined your passport, monsieur, at the airport. I stamped your visa, monsieur. I verified your accommodation certificate" — here he burped again — "monsieur." He bared his teeth and leaned toward me. "I helped you, monsieur."

I vaguely recognized him from Maya Maya.

He leaned into me and steadied himself, then stood erect. "I'm hungry, monsieur. I have no money to eat."

He had money to get drunk though, but I could think of nothing to say to his words about hunger, which caught me off guard. Reflexively, I handed him a few francs. He examined them, said "Merci, monsieur," turned, and teetered back to his café.

As I watched him walk away it dawned on me who he was. At Maya Maya he had done nothing except ask me if I was a resident, and he had not collected a bribe for letting me pass, as I now surmised must have been his custom. I had overreacted to his declaration of hunger: he showed me I was vulnerable to a ruse based on pity. I felt I should not have given him anything.

I started across the street. An explosion of honking and shouting startled me, and I jumped back. Four or five open-back trucks shot by, filled with scowling, helmeted soldiers in navy-blue uniforms, holding their guns high in the air.

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What People are saying about this

Don George
In Facing the Congo Tayler portrays the people, landscapes, and dilemmas he encounters with a vividness that has stayed with me long after I put the book down. The life-and-death challenges he confronts and overcomes--and the stripped-to-the bone humanity with which he confronts them--are epic and epically moving. (Don George, travel editor, Salon.com)
Bill Bryson
Immensely Gripping
Alison Humes
Captivating and wonderfully suspenseful. (Alison Humes, Features Editor, Condé Nast Traveler)
Toby Lester
On his travels through the world's little-visited and poorly understood regions, Tayler picks up all sorts of crucial trace elements and then brings them home in his writing with eloquence and wit. (Toby Lester, executive editor of nonfiction for DoubleTake)
Roger Coassack
Reminiscent of Paul Theroux, adventurer-writer Tayler [has] a style that is both exciting and humorous. His subject, the Congo River, soon becomes a metaphor for his own personal search. A great effort and a highly enjoyable read. (Roger Coassack, CNN legal analyst)
Robert D. Kaplan
Tayler goes off the beaten path to give us a much deeper version of the truth, whether along the Congo River or in Siberian flophouses. And unlike so many other gonzo travel writers, he is not politically naive. (Robert D. Kaplan, correspondent for the Atlantic Monthly and author of An Empire Wilderness and Balkan Ghosts)

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