Hergé fans in the Congo

Observations on Tintin

A decades-old controversy about Tintin au Congo has been revived by the publication of a new English edition of the comic book. After critics complained that its cartoon imagery made Africans "look like monkeys and talk like imbeciles'', Borders moved it from the children's shelves and placed it in the adult graphic novels section.

But, for the street kids of Kinshasa, the decrepit modern capital of what was the Belgian Congo - where Hergé based his 1931 book - this controversy is no controversy at all. Whenever my work as a writer has taken me to the city, I have been mobbed by hawkers who are more than happy to use images from Tintin au Congo as an important source of income.

I was offered painted wooden carvings of the intrepid cub reporter, capped with the topi given to him by Hergé for his African adventure. Other street artists used shards from tin cans to weave perfect models of the jalopy Tintin drives across the Congolese savannah. They even re-created the crudely rubber-lipped Coco, who accompanies Tintin in the subservient role of "boy".

For the desperately poor street children in today's Democratic Republic of Congo, one of the most failed of failed states, the debate about Tintin's racism is a luxury they cannot afford. Selling trinkets is their only source of income and they will do pretty much anything to earn a few Congolese francs. In the bloody aftermath of the assassination of President Laurent Kabila six years ago, I watched as white shop owners boarded up their businesses while the hawkers ventured out on to the dirty, dangerous streets to sell their Tintin wares to the press corps, almost the only foreigners still left in Kinshasa.

Years later, while crossing Congo on my own harrowing journey, Tintin au Congo would often come up in conversation. In Kasongo, a landlocked ruin of a town over in the war-ravaged east of the DRC, a spritely 82-year-old called Vermond Makungu dragged me to his leaky house to show me his own, sun-bleached topi. After popping it on his head, he capered around crying, "Just like Tintin, just like Tintin.''

It might sound perverse, but Congolese like Vermond view the book with a degree of pride. The Belgian Congo was one of the most racist and cruel of all colonial projects, something that Hergé's artwork starkly reflected, but for people like Vermond, that was not really relevant. The important thing was that the cartoon story reminded them of an age when Congo was connected to the outside world, when a mainstream cartoonist would use their country for a bestselling work.

It was a common theme that I encountered when I crossed Congo, the first outsider to make the journey in decades. Deep in the sweaty rainforest of Maniema or on the vast, torpid Congo River itself, I came across Congolese who were desperate not to be left behind by the modern world and who clung to the memory of a time when Evelyn Waugh, Graham Greene, V S Naipaul and even Hergé all wrote about their homeland.

For that reason alone, I will - one day - share Tintin au Congo with my two children.

Tim Butcher's "Blood River: a Journey to Africa's Broken Heart'' is published by Chatto & Windus (priced £12.99)

This article first appeared in the 30 July 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Brown v Cameron. Game over?