Africa: A Failure to Communicate: Two Contrasting Views

1 December 1990
Africa News Service (Durham)


In one of his dramatic accounts of Africa travels, Henry Morton Stanley describes a trip up the Congo River in the 1870s.

At 2 p.m. we emerged out of the shelter of the deeply wooded banks and came into a vast stream, nearly 2,000 yards across at the mouth. . . . Looking upstream, we saw a sight that sent the blood tingling through every nerve and fiber of our bodies: a flotilla of giant canoes bearing down on us. . . . I gave the order to drop anchor. We had sufficient time to take a view of the mighty force bearing down on us and to count the number of war vessels. There were 52 of them! A monster canoe led the way, with two rows of upstanding paddles, 40 men on a side, their bodies bending and swaying in unison as with a swelling barbarous chorus they drove her down towards us. . . .

The crashing sound of large drums, a hundred blasts from ivory horns, and a thrilling chant from 2,000 human throats did not tend to sooth our nerves or to increase our confidence. We had no time to pray or to take sentimental looks at the savage world, or even to breath a sad farewell to it. So many other things had to be done speedily and well. . . . Every sound was soon lost in the rippling, crackling musketry. For five minutes we were so absorbed in firing that we took no note of anything else.... Our blood was up now. We therefore lifted our anchors and pursued them upstream along the right bank until, rounding a point, we saw their villages. We made straight for the bank and con-tinued the fight in the village streets with those who had landed, hunting them out into the woods, and there sounded the retreat, having returned the daring cannibals the compliment of a visit.


In a world culture series book, Through African Eyes, published by the Center for International Training and Education, editor Leon Clark reprints a description of the same event by an African chief called Mojimba, as told to Catholic missionary, Father Joseph Fraessle.

When we heard that the man with the white flesh was journeying down the Lualaba [Congo] we were open-mouthed with astonishment. We stood still. All night long the drums announced the strange news - a man with white flesh. . . .

We will prepare a feast, I ordered, we will go to meet our brother and escort him into the village with rejoicing! We donned our ceremonial garb. We assembled the great canoes. . . . We swept forward, my canoe leading, the others following, to meet the first white man our eyes had beheld and to do him honor.

But as we drew near his canoes there were loud reports, bang! bang! and fire-staves spat bits of iron at us. We were paralyzed with fright; our mouths hung wide open and we could not shut them. Some screamed dreadfully, others were silent - they were dead and blood flowed from little holes in their bodies. "War! that is war!" I yelled. "Go back!" The canoes sped back to our village with all the strength our spirits could impart to our arms. That was no brother! That was the worst enemy our country had ever seen. . . .

They came after us. We flung ourselves into the forest and flung ourselves on the ground. When we returned that evening our eyes beheld fearful things: our village plundered and burned and the water full of dead bodies.

This article was published originally in "Capturing the Continent: U.S. Media Coverage of Africa," a special 1990 edition of Africa News.

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