National Geographic : 1952 Mar
White Magic in the Belgian Congo Tribesmen Mine Uranium, Run Machines, Study Modern Medicine as Booming Trade Opens Up the Vast Colony's Resources BY W. ROBERT MOORE With Illustrations from Photographs by the Author THE BELGIAN Congo today affords vivid proof that "darkest" Africa is becoming very bright indeed. In this equatorial colony, noisy com pressed-air drills, chiseling holes in rich ore deposits or probing cliff walls on new hydro electric dam projects, beat a more persistent tattoo than do native tom-toms. Engineers, chemists, biologists, and physi cians are making stranger magic here than ever did any tribal witch doctor. And cer tainly no tribal fetish of wood, bone, or fiber has affected the thought of so many persons as does the uranium ore-raw material of the atom bomb and atomic power-which laborers are digging from mines in the southeastern Province of Katanga. On the day the Pan American Airways Con stellation landed me in Leopoldville, capital of the Belgian Congo, I bumped immediately into one of the colony's big problems. My cable asking for reservations hadn't arrived, and not one of the half-dozen hotels had a single unbooked room! Fortunately, an ac quaintance generously came to my rescue. Mineral Wealth Brings Rapid Expansion I was to find the crowding of Leopoldville's hotels typical of conditions throughout the colony. Building is going on at a rapid rate, but it cannot keep up with expanding needs. "When I first came to Leopoldville 40 years ago," Governor General Eugene Jungers told me later, "there were only 40 Europeans and 20,000 natives here. Now the city has more than 10,000 Europeans and 200,000 natives. Its population has doubled just since the war." World War II gave the colony tremendous impetus. Its strategic minerals and other raw materials were vitally needed by the Allied countries. Since the war, its momentum has kept on at an accelerated rate. Ever-increasing quantities of copper, cobalt, tin, industrial diamonds, and other minerals are being torn from the Congo soil. Only 75 years ago the whole Congo Basin was virtually unknown land to the Western World. Fired by Dr. David Livingstone's African explorations, Henry M. Stanley spent the years 1876 and 1877 tracing the course of the long, curving Congo River which, unique among the world's big rivers, twice crosses the Equator.* Later Stanley came back to help direct the setting up of the Congo Free State for Leopold II in 1885. The Free State has since become a Belgian colony. This big colonial child of Belgium embraces most of the Congo Basin and reaches to the headwaters of the Nile-more than halfway across Equatorial Africa. It is 77 times the size of its parent, and larger than all our States east of the Mississippi combined. To see what goes on here now, I traveled more than 8,000 miles by river boat, auto mobile, and plane (map, page 324). I saw steamy, tropical bush, but I also traveled through wide regions of upland plateau, ranging from 3,500 feet to 7,000 feet altitude, where the equatorial sun is robbed of its sting and where colonists raise wheat, coffee, cinchona (source of quinine), and pyrethrum, whose blossoms are the base for a potent insecticide. In the eastern part of the colony rear lofty volcanoes. Here, too, are the perpetual snow peaks of Ruwenzori, the "Mountains of the Moon," towering more than 16,500 feet. Even in tropical areas, large sections of forests have been slashed away to make space for huge palm-oil plantations. Europeans supervise some 365,000 acres; the Congolese harvest 119,000 acres and also raise coffee and quantities of cotton. Impressive, too, in the Congo are the efforts the Belgians are making toward the improve ment of conditions for the Congolese. Old exploitation days are gone. At mining centers, railway workshops, and in towns, good hous ing, hospitals, child welfare, and recreational facilities are being provided for these natives. Scarred Natives Now Skilled Workmen How big a step forward this has been is best understood when one sees skilled workmen, some so near to their ancestral background that they wear tattoo markings and tribal scars, running bulldozers, operating precision metal lathes, and doing chemical and micro scopic tests in medical laboratories. One of my car drivers had a decorative scar extending vertically from his hairline to the tip of his nose, and two marks on each cheekbone. * See "Keeping House on the Congo," by Ruth Q. McBride, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC MAGAZINE, Novem ber, 1937.