In the jungles of the Congo

The book 'Emerald Labyrinth' explores American and Congolese efforts to document species biodiversity.

Photo: JB dodane via Flickr CC.

Emerald Labyrinth is by turns an entertaining and frustrating autobiographical account of an American zoological researcher’s work in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) in 2008 and 2009. A herpetologist, Eli Greenbaum conducted a series of research visits to eastern DRC particularly to research frogs, lizards, and snakes. It is to Greenbaum’s credit that he was willing to write a book so far removed from his typical audience. The book assumes the reader has no background in herpetology or Congolese politics. Greenbaum consciously fits his study in a long history of similar (albeit rather dated) accounts of scientific exploration in Africa. The ethnocentric legacy of these works is such that twenty-first-century forays in this genre are hard-pressed not to follow well-worn paths of exoticism and exclusions of Congolese knowledge. This study does put considerable effort to not repeat the flaws of its forebearers, although it is not entirely successful.

The opening chapters provide justifications of his research project. Greenbaum points out that the dated and very incomplete records left by Belgian colonial researchers are only a foundation for more detailed studies. He highlights the need to document biodiversity and to trace how changes in individual species’ behavior requires much more zoological research in African countries. Thankfully, Greenbaum also realizes how important Congolese scientists are to this work. He describes how herpetologist Chifundera Kusamba was a crucial partner throughout the research. Greenbaum does much better than most of his counterparts in the humanities and social sciences by illustrating the crucial importance of his Congolese assistants beyond rote gestures of gratitude in the acknowledgments section. Chifundera literally manages the entire program. He regularly negotiated with government authorities, Mai Mai militia leaders, and local communities so that Greenbaum could continue the project. Greenbaum also recognizes Chifundera as a co-author in his publications, which is much more than can be said for many researchers in the global North.

Strikingly, Greenbaum is able to operate in the fractured politics of eastern DRC. Local political actors recognized quickly how US research constituted a possible source of income and goods. Even an Interahamwe Rwandan commander allowed Greenbaum to travel into his remote rural fiefdom in return for beer, cigarettes, and money. Strikingly, this leader quizzed Greenbaum about the possibility the then newly elected US president Barack Obama might change his policies toward Rwandan rebels. The leader also referenced a previous US zoological researcher’s visit in the region. Other local leaders rightfully expected payment for their protection and assistance. Local people and politics set the contours for how and where zoological research can take place.

Although the author himself does not place his own activity in a larger political or economic context, it is clear foreign-funded scientific collection and observation fits into a much larger economy of extraction of natural resources. Greenbaum’s workers also resemble the go-betweens who ensure the daily movement of arms, cell phones, minerals, and people across eastern Congo. Although Greenbaum documents in painstaking detail his constant illnesses, he also makes clear how his wealth allows him to retain center stage. Within the team of Congolese assistances, individuals used their social and political influence to stay tied to Greenbaum’s patronage. An elderly assistant used his connections to a prominent chief to force Chifundera to keep him employed, even though the Congolese scientist did not want him. Emerald Labyrinth also does offer glimpses into the environmental impacts of political struggles and economic change in eastern Congo. Charcoal collection and changing settlement patterns led to deforestation and declining numbers of many animals. Although an environmental history of the Congolese civil wars since the mid-1990s has yet to be written, Greenbaum offers a glimpse of both areas left largely abandoned of human settlement and other regions where increased human activity led to reduced numbers of animals, such as elephants.

For all of the strengths of Emerald Labyrinth, there also are some missteps. The insertions of overviews of Congolese history perhaps might have been better covered in a single chapter. Greenbaum initially frames this historical context from the perspective of the “discovery” of central Africa by European travelers. Perhaps only the lure of external funding might dissuade some authors writing on the Congo from making an obligatory nod to Joseph Conrad. The narrative soon veers away from these shopworn conveniences, much to my relief. However, the biggest absence here is the development and obstacles of Congolese scientific institutions after independence. Much of the time, one is left with the impression that not much Congolese zoological research has occurred after 1960. Chifundera’s central role clearly demonstrates this is not the case, but there is little here that places the poverty of Chifundera’s research institution in a larger narrative of how the Congolese state neglected education and science. Another lacuna lies in how Congolese themselves viewed animals. Local knowledge was crucial to obtaining information about animals. Even so, Congolese understandings of these animals are not accessible here.

How could this book be used by instructors? For courses in environmental studies or scientific research in Africa, this would be an extremely valuable primary source. Teachers would need to contextualize developments in environmentalism and postcolonial Congolese politics left out in the book. Researchers from the social sciences and humanities may find the book useful in terms of fleshing out how biologists from the global North frame their justifications and methodology. Historians of central Africa will not find much new here as far as Greenbaum’s expositions of Belgian colonialism. However, the expositions on scientific research do not require any specialized background in zoology. The book is written in an accessible way.

I initially had reacted with some trepidation at the offer to read Emerald Labyrinth. Finishing it did confirm some of my misgivings, although I did not cringe nearly as much as I expected. If we in African studies are to rightly celebrate interdisciplinary approaches, then we should encourage scholars working in such disciplines as biology and geology to contribute to this dialogue. This necessarily means that these writers will have to stretch themselves well outside their familiar research territory and audiences. If Greenbaum falters at times, one must grant he also succeeds as a whole.

Further Reading