Well-meaning but ultimately trivial memoir

2009-10-14 00:00


Bongo, Bongo, Bongo, I Don’t Want To Leave The Congo: A Memoir

Veronica Cecil

Kwela Books

THE title comes from a long-ago song that conjures up a naïve view of ­paradisal life in the colonies. But there is little that is upbeat about ­Veronica Cecil’s memoir of her ­family’s brief stint in the newly independent Congo.

She finds herself, the young wife of a company man sent to gain experience in darkest Africa, caught in the turmoil of a country trying to free itself from its past while fighting for its identity in a cold-war powerplay that eventually dragged it into an abyss from which it has still not managed to emerge.

Memoirs offer up the little stories that tend to get drowned out by the rage of history, and there have been some brilliant ones from Africa’s ­colonial past. Alexandra Fuller’s Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight, about growing up in Rhodesia, was a moving insight into the ambiguities and emotional costs of privilege, ­oppression and civil conflict.

Cecil’s attempt doesn’t have the emotional intensity of Fuller’s, and it’s not because she hasn’t got an ­interesting story to tell. Having just settled on a palm-oil plantation near what was then Stanleyville on the banks of the Congo River, she is forced to evacuate to the safety of Leopoldville by advancing rebels and then on to England with a toddler in tow and about to give birth to her ­second child. Her husband stayed ­behind and his fate and that of fellow foreigners from both Europe and ­Africa was desperately uncertain for a while. He does eventually make it out, but Cecil still feels the guilt of their safety as whites having been prioritised by “The Company” (as she coyly and irritatingly insists on calling her husband’s employer as if it’s a James Bond film), while foreign black workers and locals, had to take their chances against the rebel Simbas.

Cecil comes across as well­meaning, and determined to portray herself as different from other ­”colons” by having a genuine interest in the welfare of Africans. Her memoir, however, is littered with trivial details and preoccupations that make her seem vacuous in a way that, from listening to her being ­interviewed, she clearly isn’t.

Her account of a defining period in her life does no doubt contribute in some way to colouring in the history book of Africa, but her writing is pallid and detached and a little self-serving. Her memoir should have stayed in the family scrapbook from which it was imprudently dug out.

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