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In most of America, where railroads, interstates, and airline routes have absorbed much of the traffic once carried by waterways, river access is not a compelling concern. In parts of Africa, however, a closed river can mean death. In war-ravaged Congo, for example, farmers in fertile areas have been burning crop surpluses while their countrymen down the militia-controlled Congo River starve to death. The nation of Congo, about one-fourth the size of the United States, has only a few thousand miles of roads, and there is simply no other way to get food—or humanitarian aid, or anything else—where it is needed.

This week United Nations forces labored to reopen the Congo River, which had been unsafe for travel or commerce for about two and a half years. "The moment has come for peace," Security Council Ambassador Jean-David Levitte said Sunday night. "And with the time of peace must come an economic rebirth."

Levitte is far from the first person to link Africa's economic health and long-term stability to open waterways. A similar impulse drove David Livingstone to explore the Zambezi and Nile rivers on three voyages between 1841 and 1873. But Livingstone's journeys had an added objective, for he believed that "Christianity, Commerce, and Civilization" were needed to improve life in Africa. He sought not merely a commercial arterial, but "God's Highway" into the heart of the "Dark Continent."

The Zambezi, which wends from the jungles of Angola and Congo through Mozambique to the Indian Ocean, was in Livingstone's day a river of human misery. Slaves were captured in European colonies in the interior, shipped to the coast, and sold to Brazilian agents, who in turn sold them in Cuba and the United States. Following the river toward its source, Livingstone frequently encountered groups of 50 to 100 men, women, and children traveling the other way, chained and shackled. Though he was not as aware of the potential dangers of colonialism as observers today, he was intimately aware of the evils of slavery. And he thought he had a solution.

The 1,700-mile-long Zambezi made a good thoroughfare for trade, and the tribes who used it were commercially savvy. The tribes were not, however, utterly dependent on the slave trade. They sold slaves because slaves were a popular commodity. Livingstone learned by experience that the Africans were just as eager to sell "legitimate" goods, such as agricultural and animal products, and he believed that such business could become the basis of a more stable, and much more humane, economy. The pious Scottish colonists Livingstone hoped to import would help build this economy while nurturing the Africans' souls.

For all his hopes, Livingstone achieved little tangible success. His Zambezi Expedition failed to find a waterway that crossed the continent, and he missed discovering the source of the Nile by about 200 miles. Though he spent one-third of his 30 years in Africa in the service of a mission board, he made only one certified convert—who later backslid. Yet through the post-colonial backlash in the second half of the twentieth century, when many European references were erased from the African map, the cities of Livingstone (Zambia), Livingstonia (Malawi), and Blantyre (the capital of Malawi, named for Livingstone's birthplace) remained intact.

The U.N. attempt to open the Congo will hopefully have a more significant, immediate impact on quality of life in Africa than did Livingstone's efforts. At the same time, it is hard to imagine that purely economic and humanitarian endeavors will reach as deeply into people's hearts as did the labor, and example, of one failed missionary.

* For more on Livingstone, see CH issue 56, The Paradox of David Livingstone.

Elesha can be reached at cheditor@ChristianityToday.com.

The online issue archive for Christian History goes as far back as Issue 51 (Heresy in the Early Church). Prior issues are available for purchase in the Christian History Store.