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.
Elesha Coffman is associate editor of Christian History.
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Christian History Corner appears every Friday at ChristianityToday.com. Previous Christian History Corners include:
Intro to the Inklings | C.S. Lewis's intellect was stimulated at one of the most fascinating extracurricular clubs ever. (May 18, 2001)
How Not to Read Dante | You probably missed the point of The Divine Comedy in high school. (May 11, 2001)
If My People Will Pray | The U.S. National Day of Prayer Turns 50, but its origins are much older. (May 4, 2001)
Mutiny and Redemption | The rarely told story of new life after the destruction of the H.M.S. Bounty. (Apr. 27, 2001)
Book Notes | New and noteworthy releases on church history that deserve recognition. (Apr. 20, 2001)
A Primer on Paul | The History Channel uses Holy Saturday not to discuss Jesus, but the apostle who spread his message. (Apr. 12, 2001)
Image Is Everything | The Taliban's destruction of Buddhist statues is only the latest controversy over the Second Commandment. (Apr. 6, 2001)
Christian Education for All | The first Sunday schools provide a positive example of government partnerships with faith-based organizations.(Mar. 23, 2001)
The Sport of Saints? | Forget St. Pat's. It's time for March Madness, baby! (And yes, it's Christian.) (Mar. 16, 2001)
Digging in China | Christianity in the world's most populous country may be a lot older than anybody imagined. (Mar. 9, 2001)
Food for the Soul? | Lenten traditions range from fowl-turned-fish to pretzels. (Mar. 2, 2001)
The Radical Kirk | The Church of Scotland has a long history of intense reforms. (Feb. 23, 2001)