Madame Livingstone: The Great War in the Congo

Written by Barly Baruti Christophe Cassiau-Haurie Ivanka Hahnenberger (trans.)
Review by Jon G. Bradley

Based in reality, this dark graphic novel, both linguistically and pictorially, details a portion of the oft-forgotten colonial wars in East Africa during World War I. Not content with the slaughter in Western France, both Germany and Belgium fought intensely over their holdings around that great lake – Tanganyika.

Readers wander on a convoluted journey through a dangerous landscape overshadowed with multi-leveled racism and white European antagonism, as well as the vicissitudes of combat. The overarching aim appears simple: that is, destroy the well-armed German gunboat, Graf von Goetzen, securing the lake for the Germans and thus denying advancement to Belgium.

This simplicity hides the ills of society as a tag-team of a Belgium officer and a strangely named African man, “Madame Livingstone,” combine an uneasy liaison through many horrific situations to finally bring a resolution.

Not a simple action-oriented graphic representation, the colourful and often lurid visuals carry readers into places that their own minds may well have resisted. One can see the environment, visualize the territory, and conjure the many overarching and continual racist tensions. The illustrations add an element that may drive some readers into dark recesses.

As befitting reality, much defies a clear denouement: Who really is Madame Livingstone, the kilt-wearing African guide named after the famed explorer? How will the outcome on Lake Tanganyika contribute to the overall military situation? What becomes of the principal players? How might the local societies evolve in the immediate future?

Reading an integrated graphic novel provides an added visual component. The reader’s own mind-generated images are reinforced and/or contrasted by the visuals. This can be an engaging and conflicting experience that increases the adventure and supports Barly Baruti’s statement: “Comics are good dialogue.”