Category Archives: nairobi bookshops

Book Review – King Leopold’s Ghost

A quick reading of a fascinating book, by Adam Hochschild, about the history of the Congo between the years 1885 and 1908 when it was controlled by King Leopold II of Belgium.

Starting Out: The Berlin conference did not partition Africa, the spoils were too large at that point it took many more treaties. At the time of the conference, Europeans thought of African wealth in terms of coastlines, not the interior. Leopold got the centre of Africa while other nations focused on the coast as they did not realize how vast the Congo was.

Revenue: Etat indépendant du Congo (the Congo Free State) was a very profitable venture for Leopold thanks to ivory and rubber. The Congo was a private state of the King and got half the profits from concession companies. Records from one of them, the Anglo Belgian Indian Rubber Exploration Company, showed that ABIR spent 1.35 Francs per kilo to harvest rubber in the Congo and ship it to their headquarters in Antwerp where it sold for up to 10 Francs per kilo – and in six years to 1898 rubber prices had gone up thirty times. Transportation costs aside, harvesting wild rubber required no cultivation, no fertilizer and no capital investment, only labour, for which the concession companies brutally used the people of the Congo as slave labour.

Leopold kept the Congo profits as secret as possible so as not to stir up demands that he pay back sums owed to the Belgian government. To achieve this the Congo state did not publish a budget and it presented understated revenue reports.

Bonds: With time, Leopold was able to issue bonds that brought in as much revenue as rubber. He issued bonds worth 100 million Francs (half a billion in today’s currency). Some were for as long as 99 years and he knew paying back the principal would be someone else’s problems. He even wrote to the Pope, urging the Catholic Church to buy Congo bonds as that would promote the spread of religion.

Use of Funds The money raised with bonds was for development in the Congo but little of it was spent there. The funds went to build monuments, new palace wings, museums including at the seaside resort of Ostend, a golf course at Klemskerke, renovations to a luxurious home at Laeken etc. many of which he gave back to the country with great fanfare. There was also an incomplete World School of Colonialism in Belgium.

Negotiations Out: Once the extent of the atrocities done to the people in the Congo were exposed by authors, organizations and leaders in the UK and US, there was pressure for Leopold to sell. He argued that if Belgium did not take it soon, some powerful country might, such as France and Germany who were jealous of the rubber profits from Congo.

Negotiation began in 1906 but got bogged down as the Belgian Government could not get a full accounting of the state of finances in the Congo, and included some entities that had been incorporated in Belgium, Germany and France.

The End: Finally, it was agreed Leopold would give the Congo up to the Government of Belgium in exchange for them assuming 110 million Francs of debt. This comprised bonds that he had dispensed over the year to his friends and also included 32 million of bonds that he himself never paid back. They also agreed to pay 45 million Francs towards completing building projects of the King, with a third going to complete the one at Laeken. Leopold was also to receive 50 million as gratitude for his sacrifices made to the Congo, and the change of ownership took place in November 1908. After Leopold died, his family and the Belgian government continued to try to clean up issues to do with the Congo and a lot of records of the atrocities of the era were lost.

EDIT Extras

  • Versions of book, including kindle ones, are on Amazon.
  • The last comeprehensive book I read on the country was Michael Wrong’s In the Footstep of Mr. Kurtz about Mobutu Sese Seko and his years as President.

Book Review: It’s Our Turn to Eat

A review of the book without having read the book. Note that I generally don’t like to read reviews’. If I want to watch a movie or read a new fiction book, I won’t read any reviews of it till after I watch it; this is because reviews tend to contain too many spoilers and plot giveaways.

During the May Day holiday weekend, I finally finished reading It’s Our Turn to Eat – the bootleg version, one which the author warned was not the real copy. It’s a fairly comprehensive e-mail; I’d wager its close enough to the real thing that and that over 90% of the blog readers here have read the PDF (real or faux) – and please don’t ask me for a copy.

The introduction of the book to Kenya, a biography of former anti-corruption Tsar John Githongo (written by Michela Wrong), had three background factors

  • John Githongo is a powerful, polarizing person in Kenya; a patriot & champion to some, a traitor & coward to others. While his accounts of events related to Anglo Leasing has been published in his parliamentary reports; not much has been written about Githongo the person this is his story
  • While the Government of Kenya never commented or banned, the book, several Nairobi bookshops shied away from displaying or advertising the book. This was because of previous libel awards that bookshops who were near easy targets got fined for carrying books that powerful leaders (Nicholas Biwott) felt besmirched them.
  • Also at the same time, a PDF version of the book was circulating, having being forwarded and downloaded widely

The author Michela Wrong and her publishing house realized that there was a leaked version circulating and:

  • (i) Alerted her friends and the net community that a faux/earlier/incomplete version was being circulated
  • (ii) Released a low-cost e-book to counter the faux copy.

Having only read the faux copy, I can only comment on what’s in it. I have no doubt it comes close to the real thing. I still intend to get a copy of the real book – either buying one from a friend, or having one delivered from abroad – good enough that I want to read the book – and not the E-Copy but the actual book; having a book still convey paper books have functionality, and durability that e-books don’t – I can read the book anywhere (matatu, bank queue, at lunch). Demand for the book is making me want to break a vow and obtain a credit card perhaps to buy it from Amazon (UK) or the publisher.

Michael Wrong’s last book I read was In the Footstep of Mr. Kurtz, about Mobutu Sese Seko and his years as President of Zaire (a.k.a the Democratic Republic of Congo.) It’s the definitive book for anyone new to the Congo or wishing to understand the Congo’s post-independence history, economy, diversity, people, problems etc. Likewise the Githongo book – focused on high-level government corruption, raw tribal political leadership, ease of corruption, political interference/weakness of judiciary – will be the definitive book of the Kibaki era (Kenya 2002 to the present) and until other government personalities commission their own biographies, this will be the way that the recent political history of Kenya will be understood. It would be nice to read about Michael Waweru on tax collection strategies, Peter Kenneth and the use of Constituency Development Funds, Esther Koimett at the Privatization process, and Kilemi Mwiria on free primary education etc.

Other local reviews of the book.

Saturday Reading

ranks & references

References: Looking for the latest fiction, biographies, financial or other reference books at the Book Villa? The Nairobi bookshop has moved to Norwich Union House 8th Floor (building houses Galitos/Chicken Inn on ground) Moi Avenue. New location is bigger and more spacious than the cramped old location and will soon have refreshments in a reading area with a great view of the city

Ranks: Trying to figure out why Alexa has stalled and why Technorati has refused to refresh for the last three weeks.