REVIEW

Facing the Congo

by Jeffrey Tayler (Morocco 1988–90; PC Staff/Poland 1992, Uzbekistan 1992–93)
Ruminator Books, $27.00
300 pages
October 2000

Reviewed by Tina Thuermer (Zaire 1973-75)

    THERE ARE THREE THINGS you might want to know about Jeffrey Tayler. One, he is a bona fide pioneer, born either 100 years too late to explore unmapped territories or 100 years too early to go to the stars. Two, he’s a divergent thinker, which makes what he has to say more interesting than that of the average guy on the street. And three, he knows how to wield a pen, which makes his book, Facing the Congo, much more than just a bizarre adventure in a country that now appears to be the disastrous modern frontier of social Darwinism gone wild.
         In 1995 Tayler, at the age of 33, was casting about for something to give his life some direction and definition, and casts his eye on Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of Congo) after reading V. S. Naipaul’s A Bend in the River. He saw Zaire as “a land of tragedy, hope, and great drama: it was vital to its continent, huge and primal and rich in resources; and it was still largely untrammeled by outsiders.” Only those who have lived there have any idea how truly untrammeled Zaire is, and Tayler was to come smack up against its stubborn reality in his voyage of discovery.
         Deciding to face the beast at its heart, Tayler travels up the Congo River on one of the rusting barges that still, just barely, ply their way from Kinshasa north on a 1,084 mile long journey to Kisangani, the actual navigable part of the river, but only one-third of its eventual length. The plan was then to buy a pirogue and float his way down the river to Kinshasa, on a 45-day odyssey. “Confronting and vanquishing a tropical river would be my defining achievement. Traveling its jungle waterways, I would strop myself of encumbering personal concerns, remake myself.”
         Facing daunting challenges, no less from without than from within himself, Tayler eventually is able to make his way, with Zairois escorts, 470 miles from Kisangani to Mbandaka, facing not just the relentlessness of the river, but the ruthlessness of Zaire’s lawless interior, the poverty of life along its banks, and the fatalism of its people.
         “I began to understand Desi and Amisi’s fatalism. If we perished in this wilderness, the forest would absorb us and continue silent and impassive, an eternal, if unfathomable, life force apart, endlessly renewing itself, indifferent to anything we feared, felt, or thought . . . . Fatalism was necessary here, as was surrender.”
         Painted against the screen of this uncaring wilderness are two sets of lives: those of the Congolese who subsist, as they have subsisted for hundreds of years, at the mercy and on the bounty of the river, and that of a mondele who dares to take on the challenge of being a relatively rich man in a poor country, a white man in an African country, and to the Congolese, the most suspicious thing of all: a man who can make the choice to be there or not.

    A mirror of the inner journey of the PCV
    The book is compelling, depressing, and fascinating. Tayler’s journey mirrors the inner journey all Peace Corps Volunteers face — what am I doing here, in my vanity, and how could I indulge myself like this in the face of people who have no choices? "The alien in Zaire had seduced me; the threatening had challenged me; and I had pictured its wilderness as a bourn where I could rejuvenate myself through suffering and achievement and the conquest of my fear. But my drama of self-actualization proved obscenely trivial beside the suffering of the Zaireans and the injustices of their past.” Tayler’s ability to look straight at himself and his motivations provide much of the interest of this book, and make it more than the freak-show travelogue it might have been without his soul searching.

    Tina Thuermer (Zaire 1973–75) is an educator working in an international school in the Washington DC area. She also trains teachers to work in international schools overseas, and has never met a plane ticket she doesn't like.