In the Belly of the Congo by Blaise Ndala, Translated by Amy B. Reid

When I finished In the Belly of the Congo by Blaise Ndala, I had to sit with it for a while. It’s an ambitious story, crossing continents and decades, and framed largely as the telling of a story from one person to another. It’s complicated and heartbreaking, with being disowned, running away, rape, kidnapping, and disappearing, all being central to the story. But it’s also a wonderful tale of family, care, and unexpected connections.

“It’s an ambitious story, crossing continents and decades, and framed largely as the telling of a story from one person to another.”

In the period leading up to the 1958 World Expo in Brussels, the Princess Tshala Nyota of the Kuba people in the Belgian Congo falls in love with a white Belgian administrator, sneaking out of convent school to be with him and risking the wrath of her father, King Kena Kwate III. Growing more an more daring, Tshala is eventually found out and the whole affair blows up in her face, leading to her seeking refuge with a friend of her lover’s in a different city. When her lover steps out of her life, she’s left working in the house of the friend, whose intentions are predatory, at best. From there, Tshala is sent to Brussels to be part of the Congolese exhibition at the World Expo – and disappears forever.

In 2003, Tshala’s niece, Nyota moves to Brussels to study, arriving with the promise of some under-the-table jobs while waiting for her visa to come through, and having made a promise of her own: find out what happened to her aunt in Brussels. Through a series of unexpected meetings, Nyota unravels what happened to Tshala, and races to bring her story home.

The framing of this novel was done in such a fascinating way: the first part is Tshala speaking from beyond the grave to Nyota, as Nyota visits Tshala’s Belgian grave. Tshala’s ghostly voice explains her life, and the privilege she enjoyed, and the twisted path she took away from her family, her arranged marriage, and her belief that this love affair was a lasting, secure one. The second part of the book is Nyota telling her grandfather about her time in Belgium and how she came to find the story of Tshala’s fate. The use of speaking directly to an unseen character, the lengthy monologues, lends such a depth to the novel. The book largely moves forward as an oral narrative, with the pauses and weaving that often comes from telling a story out loud.  

In the Belly of the Congo is a beautifully written, beautifully translated novel. The examination of colonialism and the brutal Belgian rule of the country, as well as how it played out into the twentieth century, through Tshala’s story, was informative as well as compelling. Nyota’s journey continues to probe this line at a distance, looking at how the sins and traumas of the past play out in the current era. What results is a deep story, demanding your full attention and reflection, and the time and consideration are worth it.

Blaise Ndala is an award-winning novelist. Originally from the Democratic Republic of Congo, Blaise Ndala emigrated to Canada in 2007. He worked as a representative in Haiti for the NGO Avocats sans frontières Canada and is now a jurist in Ottawa. Connect with him at his website or on Twitter at @Blaise_Ndala.

  • Publisher ‏ : ‎ Simon & Schuster (Feb. 21 2023)
  • Language ‏ : ‎ English
  • Paperback ‏ : ‎ 432 pages
  • ISBN-10 ‏ : ‎ 1982194766
  • ISBN-13 ‏ : ‎ 978-1982194765

Alison Manley has ricocheted between New Brunswick and Nova Scotia for most of her life. Now in Halifax, Nova Scotia, she is the Cataloguing and Metadata Librarian at Saint Mary's University. Her past life includes a long stint as a hospital librarian on the banks of the mighty Miramichi River. She has an honours BA in political science and English from St. Francis Xavier University, and a Master of Library and Information Studies from Dalhousie University. While she's adamant that her love of reading has nothing to do with her work, her ability to consume large amounts of information very quickly sure is helpful. She is often identified by her very red lipstick, and lives with her partner Brett and cat, Toasted Marshmallow.