Near the end of All Things Must Fight to Live: Stories of War and Deliverance in Congo, author and journalist Bryan Mealer describes breakfast in a train’s dining carriage as “one of my happiest moments. Because it was the first time out on the road where, for a brief moment, I felt I could’ve been anywhere in the world.”
It’s a curious observation, one that unintentionally exposes the divide between travel writing and journalism. Travel writing seeks to describe the experience of engaging a unique “somewhere,” whereas journalism’s aim is simply to report it. All Things Fight to Live meanders between these two frames of reference, meanwhile recounting Mealer’s harrowing experiences as a reporter in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Mealer moved from New York to Africa in early 2003 to work freelance. Why he chose African conflicts to cover, instead of the sexier Middle Eastern ones, is never made clear. However, if size matters in such things, Mealer chose well. According to him, the death toll from Congo’s wars over the past decade exceeds 5 million, “surpass[ing] that of any other conflict since World War II.” News of Congo’s bloodbath rarely makes headlines beyond African shores, but a recently estimated death rate of 45,000 per month in an area the size of Texas certainly earns Congo a nomination as the world’s most dangerous country.
The first three chapters of All Things Must Fight are war reportage from the northeastern corner of Congo as well as its capital, Kinshasa. During these forays, Mealer encounters a surreal blend: brutal, and at times cannibalistic, tribal conflict; Kalashnikov-toting fighters dressed in sequined ball gowns and clear plastic fright masks, thought to protect against bullets in battle; Dutch filmmaker Renzo Martens in the middle of the wilderness holding a neon sign that reads “PLEASE ENJOY POVERTY”; and a charismatic pastor, converted by Swedish missionaries and trained in the gospel by Texas evangelists.
Chapters four and five, constructed around two journeys Mealer and several friends undertake, find Mealer in travelogue mode. The first trip is planned as a steamship journey 1,100 miles up the Congo River from Kinshasa to Kinsangani, where “civilization appears almost temporary against the jungle.” The second, an 800-mile express train ride from the southern city of Lubumbashi. If the former bleakly recalls Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (“the jungle had broken me in half and given nothing”), the latter contains a sliver of optimism that the country one day might reunite.
It isn’t entirely clear what Mealer means with these five narratives. The divided point of view throughout clouds the intention of the book overall. Nevertheless, the reader gets a vivid view of expatriate journalism in Africa during the first decade of the 21st century.
All Things Must Fight acknowledges Tim Jeal’s recently published Stanley: The Impossible Life of Africa’s Greatest Explorer among its sources for Congo’s colonial history. Like his biography of the famed missionary David Livingstone, Jeal’s Stanley is the definitive work on its subject. In this volume, Jeal seeks to rehabilitate the notorious explorer, whose name and footprint are still evident, and perhaps rued, in Congo 100 years since he left the continent.
Stanley first went to Africa in the 1870s to locate Livingstone, who was feared dead (giving rise to the meme “Dr. Livingstone, I presume,” which Jeal maintains is most likely a fictional quote). Later, Stanley revealed the Congo to the West, writing about his expeditions down the Congo River while traversing the African continent. Several years later, he returned to the territory to secure it through tribal agreements for the benefit of Belgium’s King Leopold. In his writings, Stanley claimed to be Congo’s advocate, ardently anti-slavery, and looking out for Congo’s interests. Jeal convincingly argues that Stanley was unaware of the Mephistophelean bargain he’d made with Leopold, who proceeded to exploit the ivory and rubber in the “magnificent African cake” Stanley had delivered to him.
Ultimately, Stanley’s naivete, Leopold’s actions, and the consequences of Belgium’s paternalism and hasty exodus in 1960 have combined to produce the Congo that Mealer finds today, what the UN has described as “the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.”