Congo in Conversation

Linda Maroy, 20, enjoys a quiet moment on Lake Kivu in the periodically beseiged city of Bukavu on the 60th anniversary of DRC’s independence from Belgium. Public celebrations were canceled as they were for the 50th anniversary with the populace being encouraged to mark the day “in meditation”.

Artists and the flourishing Congo cultural scene emerge in our time as a vital front in the struggle to create a more just nation free of war.  While there is ebb and flow in organizing political protest and resistance in the context of the government’s and ruling elite’s surveillance and harsh repression, Congolese artists continue to depict the brutal inequality of the nation’s current political economy and their vision of social change and a new order.  A few non-Congolese artists of international renown have in recent years shown solidarity with Congolese “culture warriors” and sought to create a global platform for contemporary Congolese art. 

The recent project of the British-Canadian photographer Finbar O’Reilly has succeeded in drawing attention to the work of a dozen Congolese photographers, half of whom are women.  In an article for the Guardian newspaper, O’Reilly wrote, ”Dismantling the systems that have traditionally excluded African photographers from global conversations about their countries requires those of us in positions of privilege to understand that structural advantages have kept us in control”.

People gather to fill containers from a water truck in Kanyaruchinya on the outskirts of Goma, also highly subject to warlords’ attacks, in the capital of eastern DRC’s North Kivu province, in 2017. Three quarters of the nation’s population lack access to safe drinking water.  (Photograph by Ley Uwera for Fondation Carmignac)
Members of the pro-democracy and civil society movement Filimbi carry out a public educational campaign about coronavirus in a market in DRC’s capital, Kinshasa. Health and sanitation education by civil society and churches has contributed significantly to the fight against COVID. Congo has recorded only 300 deaths in the population of 90 million.

Awarded a sizable stipend by the French Carmignac Foundation to carry out a project of photographing Congo in 2020, when COVID closed borders O’Reilly and the Foundation agreed on an alternative plan.  Congolese photographers were named and funded to create a portfolio focusing on selected themes of Congolese life. In the same article referenced above, O’Reilly described the selected themes:

“Raissa Karama Rwizibuka examined environmental issues in Virunga national park, and fashion and self-confidence in a post-colonial context. Arlette Bashizi captured the realities of confinement in a country with unreliable electricity. Moses Sawasawa looked at politics and insecurity caused by the ongoing conflicts, along with Dieudonné Dirole. Ley Uwera photographed Ramadan under lockdown, and the challenges of living through a pandemic where access to water is severely limited. When the Black Lives Matter movement turned the world’s attention toward global anti-racism protests, Pamela Tulizo examined aspects of our collective post-colonial psychology, but also ideas about African women and beauty.”

The International Criminal Court collaborated with O’Reilly and the Fondation Carmignac on Congo in Conversation.  One of the Court’s judges explained their involvement, “Listening, learning and engaging with victims and other survivors is the first step to access to justice.”  

In the photo gallery that follows photos from the project are featured along with the names of the Congolese photographers. They are all taken from the article written by Finbarr O’Reilly and Matt Fidler in The Guardian dated November 23, 2020.

With schools closed during Congo’s period of confinement, Marie, 13, studies at home by the light of a mobile phone during one of the regular power cuts in Goma in April. Photograph by Arlette Bashizi
Vendors and shoppers at a market on the shores of Lake Kivu in Goma, April 2020. Photograph by Moses Sawasawa for Fondation Carmignac
“Sapeurs” or “Fashionistas” strut their styles in Bukavu in August 2020. Raissa Karama Rwizibuka for Fondation Carmignac.
Making charcoal in the aftermath of deforestation on the edge of Virunga National Park, November 2020.© Guerchom Ndebo for Fondation Carmignac
Villagers gather for a health lecture in Rutshuru, North Kivu Province. Not long before, villagers had buried an 11 month old girl who died from Ebola November 2020. Finbarr O’Reilly for Fondation Carmignac.
Protesters at a Black Lives Matter rally in Brussels carry signs denouncing Belgium’s imperial exploitation of what is now DRC. Pamela Tulizo for Fondation Carmignac
Rangers guard the Kahuzi-Biega National Park in eastern DRC in January. Photograph by Raissa Karama Rwizibuka for Fondation Carmignac
Congo in Conversation was mounted in an outdoor exhibit in Paris in 2021. Photo by Jasmine Olivia Murphy.
The likeness of a Congolese soldier stands in a field near the village of Tche in DRC’s north-eastern Ituri province in mid-February. Photograph by Dieudonne Dirole for Fondation Carmignac
Women do each other’s hair in Bukavu during Coronavirus confinement in May. Raissa Rwizibuka Karama for Fondation Carmignac

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After being exhibited in Paris and Antwerp, the photographs will be on public display at the Bronx Documentary Center in New York City from Sept. 8 -Oct. 12.

The Fondation Carmignac funded publication of two books of photographs that are now available for order at around $50 each:

Congo in Conversation and

Congo:Une Lutte Sublime  Congo photographs by Finbarr O’Reilly

For further information on the project go to:

https://www.fondationcarmignac.com/fr/finbarr-o-reilly/

As U.S. Independence in 1776 is Celebrated What Has Happened to the US Anticolonial Image?

An officer of the U.S. Command for Africa (Africom) salutes Congolese troops in preparation for a joint military exercise in Eastern Congo. (Photo by Africom)

I want to address in this blog the view widely held among Congolese in the 1960’s of the United States as an anticolonial nation. In previous posts I have written how many Congolese bought into Mobutu’s description of the U.S. as a friendly superpower opposed to the further exploitation of their new nation by the former Belgian colonizers.  Like others who had experienced European colonialism, Congolese remembered the colonial era as degrading, humiliating and undermining of their status as equal human beings.   The U.S. provided grounds for hope as a colony of Great Britain that had succeeded in founding a strong independent nation.  Some among the Congo’s leaders thought our leaders would readily identify with the 20th Century colonies’ struggles for independence.  And with Congo’s vast potential given its wealth in natural resources, a trusting partnership with the U.S. held great promise.

As many African nations and a few in Asia gained independence in the 1960’s the U.S. could have enjoyed an image in international forums and politics as a champion and a model for the new nations.  Unfortunately, the U.S. quickly squandered that opportunity as a brief look back at the year 1961 will reveal.

The year began with the assassination of Patrice Lumumba by Belgian officials with the complicity of the U.S. Embassy and Central Intelligence Agency operatives.  That was followed in the spring by the disastrous Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba by U.S. supplied and trained troops intent on overthrowing the Castro regime.  And with little opposition in the Kennedy administration the number of American “advisers” in South Vietnam increased. In the closing months of 1961 the U.S. planned and the South Vietnamese army had begun implementation of the “strategic hamlet program”.  This response to the guerrilla warfare tactics of the Viet Cong failed as did subsequent strategies to counter the Vietnamese people’s struggle for freedom from foreign rule.

Three major failures of the post WW II U.S. foreign policy and all can be attributed to the Kennedy Administration prioritizing the singular focus of the Truman and Eisenhower Administrations’ foreign policies. Our U.S. “establishment” remained focused on countering Russian and Chinese influence with military intervention.  They upheld the post-War image of the U.S. as the foremost defender of the western democracies and their former colonies threatened by Communist expansion.     

In the middle of the fateful 1961, Kennedy had a verbal confrontation with Soviet Premier Krushchev and two months later the Berlin Wall was constructed.  As a result, Soviet and Chinese Communism was feared even more as the greatest threat to world security and peace.  Kennedy told the New York Times that year, “Now we have a problem making our power credible and Vietnam looks like the place.”

Rather than embrace its image as an anti-colonial model and “new” highly successful nation, we led the way in 1961 in siding with the European elites who benefited most from colonial rule.  In Congo, Lumumba died in Katanga, the province rich in copper and led at independence by a Congolese elite already corrupted by the Belgians with mining interests.  When Tshombe’s value to them waned, it was time for the lowly Colonel Mobutu to take control of the federal government and the marketing of the nation’s resources. Destroyed with his vicious murder were Lumumba’s hopes, shared by Fidel Castro and Ho Chi Minh, that the U.S. might want to preserve its anti-colonial legacy and pursue a mutually beneficial relationship with the new post-colonial leaders guided by their people’s vision of economic and political self-determination.

Many in the U.S. today are asking what went wrong with our political system to allow our civil and human rights to be gradually rescinded by the Supreme Court.  How could one of the two major political parties be bent on establishing rule by a minority of the voters as an election strategy?  One way to trace where the nation jumped off the track is to consider our resistance to the changes made possible by the new nations’ advances to self rule. Neither Nkrumah nor Lumumba nor most other African leaders were steeped in Communist theory or saw their nations as partisans of the Communist bloc. In the U.S. however, both major parties, the national media and a preponderance of our influential leaders identified authentic self determination of the former colonies as Communist-inspired.  This justified spiraling expenditures on military defense in response to the world wide march of the majority of the world’s people.  While Islamist terrorism has replaced the threat of Communist expansion, there remains little consideration of how our military presence defends the status quo and squelches the hopes and the rule of the majority of people in many nations today. 

Kinshasa expressway improved with China’s assistance through the worldwide Belt and Road Initiative of the Chinese. (Photo by The Guardian)

The enduring U.S. focus on military defense and security contrasts in a distressing manner with the Chinese emphasis on aid for African infrastructure construction.  Most of the African nations have signed on to the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative and continue to welcome the benefits to marketing and trade of improved roads, ports and rail facilities.  Meanwhile, the major U.S. aid for the continent over the last twenty years has been the development of the Africom military defense network to counter Islamist terrorism.

“Kinshasa Makambo” Films Recent Congo History in the Making

Most of the protestors in the demonstrations against Kabila’s rule seen in the 2018 film “Kinshasa Makambo” are young men. The use of the Lingala “makambo” hints at the danger accepted by anyone involved in the uprisings. The word can mean “illicit relationships”, illegal enterprise or threats to “national security” among other things.

“Maman, we’re going to free this country” young Kinshasa slum dweller Christian tells his mother.

“Lumumba was going to free this country and he was killed” his mother responds and adds, “You think you’re going to do what Lumumba couldn’t.”

As we see in the one hour fifteen minute documentary film “Kinshasa Makambo” it is not Christian alone who will “free” the Congolese people.  In the scenes following the dialog with his mother Christian shouts directions to a horde of other youth facing the troops loyal to the rule of Joseph Kabila.  Christian is clearly a leader but he is not the only young leader featured in the Congolese Dieudo Hamadi’s film.

Ben has just returned from the U.S. to rejoin the struggle and Jean Marie has just been released from the notorious Kinshasa prison of Makala.  We see in the film the reaction of their families to these three young men’s political activism.  Though varied in tone and content each family’s response stops just short of the message that each should keep their distance.  They are courting danger and proximity exposes family members to the danger.  How different then are the celebratory greetings and embrace of Ben and Jean Marie when the two return to their brothers and sisters in the struggle.  

Even more than the scenes of demonstrations where the young Congolese defy Kabila’s troops and risk death, the effusive welcome reveals that the power of resistance and making change flows not from the individual but from those who join them in the fight.  Lumumba is quoted once in the film:

 “One day, the history of the Congo won’t be written in the United Nations, in Washington, Paris or Brussels but in the streets of Mbandaka, Kinshasa, Kisangani… It will be a story of glory and dignity.”

The attention and awards gained by the film maker’s later documentary “Downstream to Kinshasa” (2020) has generated interest in this 2018 film.  Both were shown as a double feature on the streaming site MUBI last September and both can be rented on Amazon Prime Video.  While “Downstream” was intended to memorialize victims of the forgotten conflict in Kisangani in eastern Congo, “Kinshasa Makambo” covers the popular uprisings bringing down the Kabila regime after father and son’s twenty year rule. In contrast to the support for the plea of victims of the forgotten Kisangani War, the earlier film pays homage to the courage, the leadership qualities, the Christian faith (in the case of Christian)  and the resolve of the three young men the film focuses on.

Hamadi is not only a fine storyteller in this film.  Many of the scenes are filmed and edited in a cinematic style that convinces this viewer he will continue to gain a larger international reputation.  One can only hope that his importance as an artist respected internationally will also protect him and his role as a leading documentarian of the Congolese people’s ongoing progress in freeing their land and themselves from the plunder of their resources.

One of the most dramatic suite of scenes in “Kinshasa Makambo” takes us from  Ben squatting in the center of a sea of empty plastic bottles to his home where he cuts select bottles into shape.  Poised directly above Ben’s bent back, the camera lingers on the bottles and in the next shot on the bottles at his home awaiting their repurposing as Ben slices into one.  We don’t miss the irony that many of the bottles are labeled either “American Water” or “Canadian Pure” in a land with the second largest river in the world flowing through it.  In a later segment Ben is seen brushing his teeth with water he has purchased. Hamadi makes “message” films but the messages he communicates he leaves open to the viewer’s interpretation and attention to detail.

Only later in the film do we learn Ben’s water bottles will help demonstrators fend off the effects of the most potent tear gas fired by the police.  Jean Marie instructs a group of demonstrators in proper use of the homemade gas masks and the film then moves on to a shot of masked and butter-smeared faces awaiting deployment to the streets.   

Lumumba’s vision that the Congolese people will make their own history becomes contemporary reality as we watch the rally celebrating Etienne Tshisekedi, the leading opposition politician, on his return from abroad.  Beginning slowly with almost painful restraint, Tshisekedi affirms the demands made by voices in the crowd culminating in his affirmation of the date of Kabila’s last day in power.  Other than noting his commitment to non-violence and the long Congolese history of struggle against authoritarian rule, Tshisekedi issues no direction or instruction on mobilizing the people’s power that ultimately brings down the Kabila regime. As the film consistently and powerfully reveals, no elder, no single political organizer or spokesperson is leading this uprising.  The filmmaker demonstrates with this film that it is in art as well as in politics that it is in immersing oneself in the people’s dreams, their struggle, sacrifices and achievements that the power of the artist, as well as the political leader, participates in making history.  

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To view the trailer for the film copy and paste in your browser the link below. The film can be rented on Amazon Prime Video for $2.99.

https://mubi.com/films/kinshasa-makambo/trailer

Pygmy Advances Toward Justice and Equality Meet Violent Backlash in Congo’s Tshuapa Province

One of the Batwa homes destroyed in the attacks by nearby Bantu villagers in early 2021. (Photo by Thomas Fessy, Human Rights Watch, Oct. 2021)

A year ago the advances toward equal opportunity and justice made by the Batwa  indigenous people were met in Congo’s Tshuapa Province by a violent backlash.  Although the attacks on the Batwa (called “Pygmies” since the colonial era) by neighboring Bantu villagers have gone virtually unreported in international and most Congolese media news, Human Rights Watch just released a report on February 9 with the aim of bringing the atrocities to light and calling on the government to act.  The report cites the deaths of at least 66 Batwa and the destruction of over 1000 homes in Batwa villages. 

Only the UN sponsored Congolese radio network, Radio Okapi, has over the past year reported on the rising tensions between Bantu of the Nkundo ethnic group and the Batwa living in and on the boundaries of the vast Salonga Nature Reserve, the largest preserve of tropical rainforest biodiversity in Africa.  Assigned by the Congolese government to manage the Salonga Reserve, two international environmental non profits have seen and supported the Batwa as the guardians of the forest where they have lived before the Bantu migration to Congo many years ago.

Hired by the non profits to oversee protection of the reserve’s teeming life, Célestin Engelemba continues to warn Congolese government authorities of the potential on the reserve’s boundaries for continued conflict.  Although M. Engelemba has been elected to the national assembly and serves on its Commission for the Environment, he has been frustrated in his repeated attempts to safeguard Batwa human rights and enlist federal intervention.  “If something happens in Eastern Congo”, he notes, “everyone gets involved.  The people in my territory have the same right to be protected”.

In response to pleas by Engelemba, the Governor of Tshuapa Province (one of four provinces today produced break up of the Equator Province) in September did succeed in having household and farming implements sent to affected families.  Despite this gesture of support, Deputy Engelemba called attention to the schools, churches and health clinics destroyed in the attacks.  There are also over 10,000 Batwa left without proper shelter.

Violent conflict has broken out between Bantu villagers and Batwa ("Pygmy") inhabitants and protectors of the Salonga Nature Reserve in Tshuapa Province.  Though largely unreported by the  media, the growing resistance to their centuries old oppression by the Bantu feeds the conflict.
In a meeting organized by Deputy Celestin Engelemba for peace and reconciliation, Bantu villagers discuss the motives and background of the conflict with the Batwa (Radio Okapi photo)

In this remote Tshuapa River region accessible only by boat, the Protestant Disciples of Christ Church has been more active than the public authorities in building schools and health facilities for more than one hundred years. The Church has also defended Batwa rights, Engelemba was educated in Disciples schools, and the Church supports many Batwa churches.  The growing Bantu-Batwa conflict in the area of the Salonga Reserve and its potential to spread elsewhere in the “Grand Equateur” Region presents a formidable challenge to the Church.

Further complicating the situation is the attraction of the Region’s abundant resources to foreign capital eager to exploit the second largest rainforest in the world.  Mahogany, teak and other relatively rare timber from “Le Grand Equateur” forests have become a prized commodity for European furniture makers.  After a 2020 tour and dialog with persons throughout the Equateur Region, Deputy Engelemba declared himself in favor of a proposal to send water from the Ubangi River in the north to the drought stricken Lake Chad.  “I am for that project as long as it commits profits to the uplift of our Region’s population” he stated.

The progress made in acceptance and understanding of the Batwa by the Bantu Nkundo was obvious in my 2010 visit of Congo.  In contrast to the exclusion of Batwa from the Equateur village of Ikengo where I worked in 1970-71 fifty years later they were numerous and visible.  The director of the agricultural center supervised a largely Batwa staff and had helped start a human rights organization with a young Batwa in Mbandaka.  A year after my visit the first Batwa, a teacher, was elected to the Equator Provincial Assembly and after months of deliberations by its members they consented to seat him.

As there are several lokoleyacongo.com posts on the origins of Bantu-Batwa conflict and on Disciples support for the Batwa throughout the Region of “Le Grand Equateur” those interested can enter “the pygmie people” in the Search window.  For a fascinating interview with the author of a PhD thesis on the original inhabitants of the Congo rainforest and the myths used to justify Bantu exploitation and scorn of them enter “Dr. Bijoux Makuta” in the blog Search engine.  

Will Congo Benefit from U.S. Losing Control of Mining ??

Battery cells typically represent nearly one third of an electric car’s cost. The cells used by GM and other U.S. automakers are produced in South Korea but depend on the Chinese mined and processed cobalt from Congo.

The world’s supply chain for the cobalt now essential for the manufacture of electric vehicles is in the hands of China.  China’s purchase of the largest and richest  cobalt mine in the world, the southern Congo Tenke Fungurume mine, confirms its partnership with Congo in mining the country’s supply of two thirds of the earth’s known cobalt reserves. (See this blog’s 11/17 article “Congo’s Cobalt Powers Electric Cars” for more on cobalt) The second largest economy in the world now owns a controlling share of 15 of the 19 Congolese mines producing this critical raw material in the green revolution.

Having been the world leader in processing cobalt for years, China has succeeded in replacing the U.S. as Congo’s foremost foreign partner in mining the country’s reserves of the element and other strategic metals and minerals. The U.S. foreign policy and corporate establishment have largely ignored the few voices raising the alarm over the potential loss of access to Congolese supplies for powering electric vehicles and for semiconductor and chip manufacturing.  As the New York Times reported in a series of articles in November the 2020 sale by a U.S. company of a second Congolese mine rich in unexploited reserves of cobalt went virtually unreported in leading U.S. news media and caused little to no concern in the U.S. establishment.

China Molybdenum, a company partially owned by a Chinese government agency, has begun cobalt extraction at the Kisanfu mine, its second recent Congolese mining purchase. (Photo by Ashley Gilbertson of the NYT)

Although both the Obama and Trump administrations created bodies to study and protect the country’s supplies of vital resources for the nation’s economic growth, neither mounted opposition to purchase of the mines by China Molybdenum from Arizona based Freeport-McMoRan.  According to the Times investigators, the Arizona based company had invested heavily in fossil fuel extraction shortly before the 2010’s plunge in oil prices and thus needed a massive infusion of capital to remain viable.  Its sale in 2016 and 2020 of the two cobalt mines in Congo brought in over $3 billion.

Considering the decades of U.S. infusions of development and security aid, all with the declared intent of securing control of Congo’s vast reserves of vital raw materials, the country’s relinquishing the mining partnerships to China is perplexing.  When the superpower wrested Belgium’s mining interests in southern Congo from the former colonial power it was considered a foreign policy coup for the U.S.. But has the U.S. ceding dominance of Congolese mining jeopardized the Congolese people or their economic future? There is convincing evidence that it has not.    

When Freeport-McMoRan replaced another U.S. company as owner of the Tenke Fungurume mine in the early 2000’s, the property lay in ruins and overgrown with vegetation.  Congo’s challenges to the organizing of an efficient, productive mining operation, including the area’s periodic civil unrest, discouraged and finally overwhelmed the U.S. overseers.  Following its ouster of the Mobutu dictatorship, the Kabila administrations of father and son were eager to benefit from a transfer of ownership to a different U.S. company. That partnership with another U.S. mining firm ended with the Freeport sale of its mines to China Molybdenum.  The U.S. company’s cash deal with the Chinese in the final months of the Obama administration preceded  the end of the Kabila “kleptocracy” in December 2018. It also coincided with the boom in production of electric vehicles and the rising prices for cobalt. 

The sale also came almost ten years after China had signaled its aim to become the leading foreign partner in Congolese mining with the signing of a 2008 agreement.  In that agreement China committed to invest $3.6 billion to build roads, river transport, hospitals, universities and mining infrastructure in Congo.  A dam supplying electricity to a mining partnership of the two countries has now been built and is operational at a cost of $656 million.  While the agreement with China, called the “contract of the century” by the current Congolese Minister of Mines, was signed the same year Freeport McMoRan took over the Tenke Fungurume mine, no comparable aid package from the U.S. private or public sectors accompanied the purchase.

A Chinese crew is rebuilding a road next to the Tenke Fungurume copper-cobalt mine. (Photo by Ashley Gilbertson of the NYT)

At the beginning of 2021, China cancelled $24 million in debt repayments by Congo and pledged aid of $17 million for development projects in the country.  In return, the new Congolese President Tshisekedi signed on to the staggeringly ambitious Chinese Belt and Road Initiative for Asia, Central Asia and Africa.  A comparison of the eras of U.S. and now Chinese dominant influence in foreign aid for Congo does not favor the outcomes of western development and military aid. 

During my two years in Mbandaka from 1969-71, the U.S. replacement of Belgium as the leading foreign presence brought hope to the Congolese intelligentsia and the populace as a whole. Visions of sharing the country’s incomparable resources were supported by the burgeoning investments of U.S. companies and our government’s aid to Mobutu.  The fall of copper prices in the  mid 1970’s awakened some Congolese to the reality of a new neo-colonial economic order.  Along with the increased brutality and open corruption of the Mobutu rule, insurrections threatened resource extraction in Congo’s East and South where the riches lay.

By January, 1976, the Tenke Fungurume mine, had been abandoned by its U.S. overseers.  In effect, the company had declared defeat.  The recent NYT article notes that Henry Kissinger helped write a cable apologizing to Congolese authorities for the “mothballing” of the mining project in southern Congo.  Despite the huge investment in making a cobalt-free battery to power electric vehicles, continued growth of production at the TF mine today appears to be a safe bet. 

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The New York Times revised version of the article “How the U.S. Lost Ground to China in the Contest for Clean Energy” was published December 7, 2021. It was the lead in a series of articles written by three journalists focusing on the U.S.-Congo and China-Congo history of partnership and accompanied by Congo photos taken by Ashley Gilbertson.  

For more on the consequences of a dearth in cobalt supplies see this blog’s April 2021 article “Kansas City Auto Workers Pay the Price for U.S. Ceding Access to Congo’s Cobalt”.

“Downstream to Kinshasa”: Congo’s Documentary Film with Potential to Heal Trauma

The Congolese film “Downstream to Kinshasa” (in French “En Route Pour le Milliard”) was one of only three documentaries selected for screening at the prestigious Cannes Film Festival in 2020.  The stars of the film are members of a Kisangani theatre group: “The Kisangani Zombie Theatrical Troupe”.  And they are all amputees.  Maimed by the “Six Day War” of Congolese proxy armies armed and funded by Uganda and Rwanda, they are not, however, “victims” except in the minds of those to whom they appeal for respect and the compensation promised but never delivered since the year 2000 conflict.  In their troupe performances, crafted from the nightmarish scenes they suffered, and their persistence in claiming what is due them as human beings, they rise above their fates with dignity and power.

This film puts on our screens the harsh conditions of Congolese life along with the exuberance and vitality of a people for whom dance, music and performance are not just “art” or “culture” but the source of a spirit-driven life itself. We accompany several members of the theatre troupe on a pilgrimage to Kinshasa to claim the justice due the thousands of survivors wounded by the War.  Using a hand held camera, the young filmmaker Dieudo Hamadi masterfully disappears in filming the arguments, the joshing, the singing, the distress of the group on their 1700 km plus journey.  Anyone with experience of Africa will appreciate the authenticity and truth of this portrayal of contemporary life in Congo, and anyone with a heart will thrill to its intimate portrayal of the human spirit at its strongest and deepest reaches.

Prior to its official premiere in Paris last month, the reviewer in the film magazine Cahier du Cinema wrote, “Hamadi captures at the same time the constant suffering and endurance of his subjects, giving them with his lighting and framing the tormented power of August Rodin’s group sculptures”.  Although delayed by the pandemic, the film’s screenings this year are likely to earn the filmmaker the praise and international recognition he has already experienced in Africa. In a recent Jeune Afrique article he was hailed as the most talented documentary filmmaker of Subsaharan Africa.

The 37 year old Hamadi, often working alone, has turned his camera on the Congo’s women’s healthcare, the nation’s electoral process and education system as well as the scourges of child abuse and sexual violence countered by the civil society’s attempts to make a difference in the context of severe repression.  In an interview with Jeune Afrique the filmmaker was asked if he considered himself an “engagé” (activist) filmmaker.  “Wherever I focus my camera in Congo,” he responded, “I film injustice, inhumane things going on, revolting social problems.” 

In the same interview, he explained what was behind his decision to leave his pre-med studies for a career in film.  “Through film you can communicate everything that is moving, on the one hand tragic but also positive in my country.”  He then elaborated in eloquent fashion, “In spite of 80 years of colonialism, a 32 year dictatorship and all the atrocities that you have lived and seen, such as the ones described in my latest film, the country still exists and holds on.  And as you can also see in the film, the courage of the people, their dignity, and their strength of character enable them to continue to believe in the future.”  When the journalist commented that he could be said to aspire to heal his country with his art he remained down to earth. “I heal myself above all.  When one has grown up in a country like mine, one cannot avoid suffering some trauma.”

Hamadi was a 16 year old living in Kisangani when the Six Day War took 1000 lives, injured thousands and destroyed hundreds of buildings.  While making his film “Maman Colonelle” in 2017 in Kisangani he knew, “I just had to return to what people in that film cannot forget, the stigmata of this war that they carry in their flesh.”  Another strong motivation was the fact that most youth and adults in the capital of Kinshasa and the western half of the country had no memory of the horrors suffered by Kisangani residents in the East.

The “buzz” surrounding the “Downstream to Kinshasa” Cannes screening has stirred Congo’s Department of Human Rights to some action.  They have finally taken an interest in the Kisangani protestors.  Some have been assisted in returning to home and a fund is growing for those who remain in Kinshasa.  Most significantly, the International Court of Justice has resumed hearings on Ugandan compensation payments for its role in the conflict.  Meanwhile, this documentary will continue to touch viewers around the world with its powerful witness of the strength and beauty of some extraordinary human beings.

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I acknowledge my appreciation for the fine Jeune Afrique  article on “Downstream to Kinshasa” and Dieudo Hamadi which can be found at:

https://www.jeuneafrique.com/1241152/culture/dieudo-hamadi-ou-que-je-place-ma-camera-en-rdc-je-filme-linjustice/

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How to View the Film:

You will need to open an account on vimeo.com .  Once you are registered with them, go to the search box and enter “Downstream to Kinshasa”.  There you have the option of renting for 48 hour viewing at $4.99 or purchasing the film at a bargain price of $9.99.

An African Plea for Unity and Tolerance

The only written record in English of the teachings of Tierno Bokar (1875-1939) is found in this book by the Malian diplomat and intellectual Amadou Hampate Ba.

“May our love not be centered upon ourselves! May this love not incite us to love only those who are like us or to espouse ideas that are simililar to our own! To only love that which resembles us is to love oneself; this is not how to love.”

These are words spoken by the Malian mystic Tierno Bokar in the 1930’s. Known as Soudan during the era of French rule, Mali had been largely Muslim for centuries and Tierno was a disciple of the Sufi tradition of Islam.  The unity of all believers, like the unity of humankind, was basic in his teaching.  

“To believe that one’s race or one’s religion is the only possessor of the truth is an error. This could not be.  Indeed, in its nature, faith is like air.  Like air, it is indispensable for human life and one could not find one man who does not believe truly and sincerely in something.  Human nature is such that it is incapable of not believing in something, whether that is God or Satan, power or wealth, or good or bad luck.”

Tierno (pronounced ‘Chair-no’) Bokar grew up in a devout Muslim household surrounded by social conflict in Segou, a major town of southern Mali.  While periodic battles threatened the population, his mother, aunt and grandmother taught and lived the virtues of love and charity.  Following his father’s flight with one of the contending militias, Tierno and family settled at 18 in the village of Bandiagara where he lived the rest of his life.  As a man who exemplified modesty and humility, he taught that God bestowed faith and wisdom on all peoples regardless of their level of technological advance or education.  Although highly literate himself, Tierno’s humility along with his sensitivity and respect for those without education led him to teach through oral communication only.

Amadou Hampate Ba also published the African proverb “When an elder dies, an entire library burns.” He served on UNESCO’s Executive Committee and wrote many books including memoirs based on his long career serving as a “cultural ambassador for Mali and for Africa.

His leading disciple Amadou Hampate Ba wrote that Tierno had said, “Contrary to what usually happens, one should therefore not be surprised to find spiritual riches in someone from a people considered as backward, but one should instead be troubled at not finding them in civilized individuals who have long worked on developing their material lives.”  Ba urged us to remember that all of Tierno’s words “came out of a modest room of dried earth, in the heart of black Africa, in 1933”.  Amadou Ba’s 1957 record, published in French, of his master’s teaching was titled A Spirit of Tolerance: The Inspiring Life of Tierno Bokar in the 2008 English translation. 

After the Catholic Director of the colonial Office of Muslim Affairs read Amadou Ba’s transcript of Tierno’s words, he wrote,  

“These were words in their pure state, words spoken not to exalt man, neither speakers nor listener, but rather truly animating words, spoken with such sincere feeling for the other as to cause god to lie in the heart of the unbeliever, to vivify his faith, and to give a meaning to the lives of everyone.” 

At the age of 33 Tierno Bokar opened his school, or “zawiya”, in Bandiagara.  It was where Amadou Ba began his education.  After years of study in the colony’s French schools and university,  Ba spent six months in 1933 with Tierno, his first and foremost teacher.  His copious notes recording for himself and others what this master of wisdom and faith taught represents the only account of Tierno’s teachings.

Apart from his emphasis on tolerance and the unity of humankind, Tierno Bokar appealed to his pupils to find what God was trying to communicate to us through our senses and the “Book of Life”. As Jesus sought to do with the parables, Tierno often based his lessons on seeking the meaning of commonly shared experience. Amadou Ba’s book tells a moving story of his teacher repairing a bird nest and follows it with Tierno recounting an incident when his dog served him as an example of faithfulness. Ba comments, “For him, all of nature, animals and plants included, should be respected because they are not only our nourishing Mother, but they are, moreover, the great divine Book wherein everything is a living symbol and a source of teaching.”

During the six month sabbatical from his post in the colonial administration Ba asked Tierno whether it was good to study other religions.  The “sage of Bandiagara” replied,

“You will gain enormously by knowing about the various forms of religion.  Believe me, each one of these forms, however strange it may seem to you, contains that which can strengthen your own faith.  Certainly faith, like fire, must be maintained by means of an appropriate fuel in order for it to blaze up.  Otherwise , it will dim and decrease in intensity and volume and turn into embers then from embers to coals and from coals to ashes.”

Tierno Bokar then added, “That which varies in the diverse forms of Religion – for there can only be one Religion- are the individual contributions of human beings interpreting the letter with the laudable aim of placing religion within the reach of the men of their time.  As for the sources of religion itself,” he went on to say, “it is a pure and purifying spark that never varies in time or space, a spark which God breathes into the spirit of man at the same time as He bestows speech upon him.”

Founding his beliefs on love and humility, Tierno’s teachings on religious tolerance came naturally. A plea for the unity of all believers accompanied his teaching on tolerance:

“Brothers of all religions, let us in God lower the boundaries that separate us. Down with the artificial creations that pit human being against each other….. Let us fly as an eagle with powerful wings towards the union of hearts towards a religion that is not inclined towards the exclusion of other ‘credos’ but towards the universal union of believers, freed from their own selves and morally liberated from the appetites of this world.”

Tierno advocated respect and acceptance for Christian missionaries and colonial officials: “This religion, which Jesus sought to deliver and which was loved by Muhammad, is that which, like pure air, is in permanent contact with the sun of Truth and Justice, as well as with the Love of the Good and Charity for all.”

It is with excitement that I introduce most of you readers to the teaching of Tierno Bokar. I am looking forward to re reading Ba’s book again and expect it will soon fill with my scrawled notes and comments. The lessons of a heightened awareness of what is going on around us in nature, the animal and plant realms in particular, hold a special appeal for me as I approach three quarters of a century in age. I also plan to order the only other book I know of that treats Tierno’s insights on God’s presence. Published in 1984 it is by the author of the introduction to Ba’s book, Dr. Louis Brenner, and is titled West African Sufi: The Religious Heritage and Spiritual Search of Cerno Bokar Saalife Tall .

Tierno Bokar Saalif Taal (1875-1939)

Division Street in the U.S. South and North

Activists in the U.S. see the new Juneteenth federal holiday as an appropriate occasion to call attention to the country’s high rate of incarceration of U.S. black males. Although they make up only 13 % of the country’s population, at the end of 2017 there were 476,000 black inmates and 437,000 whites in federal and state prisons. (Getty Image)

Division Street remains the principal east-west residential artery in Atchison, Kansas.  The town is named after a leading defender of slavery who himself “owned” many slaves: David Atchison.  A powerful Senator in the pre-Civil War era, Atchison advocated founding the town on the west side of the Missouri River to bridge the Kansas territory with the pro slavery forces of the State of Missouri to the east..

There are signs of a metaphorical Division Street in all U.S. towns and cities, in the South and the North.  The multiple deaths of black men and women at the hands of law enforcement and the ensuing mass protests before and during the pandemic have called our attention to the signs of racial separation and conflict.  Let me take you to Indianapolis, Indiana my hometown, the capital of a “free state” prior to the Civil War.

When my family moved there in the mid-1950’s African Americans were virtually banned from purchasing homes north of 42nd Street.  Real estate agents would not show homes in my white neighborhood to potential black buyers; banks denied their mortgage applications.  I grew up with no African American neighbors and no black children attending my elementary school.  In the early 1960’s when support for racial integration and opposition to the City’s discriminatory practices and legislation grew, the neighborhood and City changed.   As black families moved into houses in the area, some realtors contributed to the view that they would bring a decline in neighborhood appearance and property values. This widespread expectation did create a white flight to northern Indianapolis suburbs along with increased profits for realtors. 

By the time I entered high school in 1960, many of my neighbors were African American.  Once the inevitable was accepted, integration took place quickly.  I learned that one of the black families on my paper route hosted Rev. Martin Luther King on his visits to the city.   My graduating class at the City’s premier public high school was half African American and included the School’s first black junior prom queen.

Fifty years after my high school graduation, I was dismayed to learn that not all of my class’ white students took pride in the School’s progress in adapting to a more racially diverse student body.  At the reunion in 2014, no reference was made in the program that we had been participants in historic change at the City’s oldest high school.  For some attendees, it was evidently no cause for celebration.

In my wife’s Atchison, Kansas hometown, Division Street is a constant reminder of the conflict that continues to divide this country today. The Street’s name also describes the seated U.S. Congress. Republicans want to preserve the filibuster, a measure originated by southern congressmen to defend segregation and subjugation of the black population in the South.  In response to Republican legislation in many states to limit voting by persons of color, Democrats have now submitted a bill to protect and expand the right to vote .  Without ending the Senate’s filibuster procedure, however, the “For the People Act” has little chance of being approved.

Thanks to the intransigent solidarity of the Republic opposition, expansion of voting rights, substantive measures to reduce income inequality, reform of immigration policies and even urgently needed repair of the nation’s infrastructure will continue to be stalled or voted down.   Inoffensive gestures affirming citizens of color continue as the political strategy for the next elections.  There was near unanimous Republican approval of a national Juneteenth holiday this week in the Congress.  African Americans have for years celebrated the June 19, 1865 freeing of slaves in Texas when a Union general arrived at a State seaport and made the announcement, more than two years after President Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation.  But how many white U.S. citizens will be celebrating the holiday this weekend?

The spring Martin Luther King, Jr. was murdered in Memphis, TN I had a college job in the national headquarters of one of the country’s leading retailers. There were dozens of low wage “key punch operators”, most of them black and Puerto Rican women, and I knew most saw King as a heroic martyred leader.  The day before the King funeral, I protested the company’s refusal to give us paid time off for the day and was promptly fired.  How many U.S. citizens still resent the national holiday in January celebrating his birth?  The King birthday did not become a national holiday until 1983 and did not become an official state holiday in all 50 states until the year 2000.

A ‘Radical Masterpiece’ on Colonialism and the Roots of White Supremacy

The film borrows its title from Swedish historian Sven Lindquist’s book who was quoting The Heart of Darkness’ Kurtz in his final delirium declaring “exterminate the brutes”.

Born in Haiti but raised from age 8 in the Congo, Raoul Peck has made a ground breaking documentary film on colonialism and white supremacy.  The filmmaker’s 1991 film “Lumumba” laid bare the facts surrounding the assassination of Congo’s first and only democratically elected Prime Minister.  He has now explored the ways widespread belief in the superiority of white Europeans and Americans led to genocide, the slave trade and colonial plunder and rule over five hundred years.  “Exterminate All the Brutes” is a four episode television series hailed by more than one reviewer as a master work and the pinnacle of Peck’s filmmaking career.  The popular U.S. news magazine Time called it a “radical masterpiece”.

Financed by the U.S. based HBO and now available only on their streaming service, the filmmaker calls his latest work an “origin story” for white supremacy.  In interviews focused on the film he emphasizes that his intention was not to point fingers or accuse but to contribute to making change possible.  Peck is dedicated to the conviction that armed with the truth, people’s collective action will bring about the changes needed to free us all from perpetual warfare and staggering inequality. “What must be denounced here” Peck has recently stated “is not so much the reality of the Native American genocide, or the reality of slavery, or the reality of the Holocaust; what needs to be denounced here are the consequences of these realities in our lives and in life today.”

Peck begins the series by demythologizing the history most citizens have been taught about the United States.  President Obama’s declaration that “America was not a colonial nation” is refuted by the film’s assertion that “America IS a colonial nation.”  The first episode retells the story of our “settler colonialism” requiring wars on the native American population and the appropriation of their lands and resources. Peck as narrator notes the word “exterminate” derives from the Latin words meaning, “drive out” and “boundaries”

The prevailing mythology of the U.S. as a beneficient nation of immigrants has been elaborated by those in power from the Pilgrim days to the present.  The film’s themes and analysis flow from a change in perspective.  “The whole vision of the film is based on changing the point of view of who is telling the story” Peck told one interviewer.  The first episode dramatizes the fatal encounter of the Seminole female chief Osceola with a commander of the troops assigned to displace the tribe.  “You steal land; you steal life; you steal human beings.  What kind of a species are you?” Osceola asks.

In a later episode the film tells the story of the Haitian slave rebellion and the founding in 1804 of the first nation in the Americas to free all human beings on its soil.  Peck reminds us that the example of the Haitian revolution and former slaves’ democratic rule in Haiti was widely feared in the U.S. In response the U.S. opposed recognition of the new nation until 1862.  Some U.S. political leaders continue to portray Haiti as a “s….hole country” while their powerful northern neighbor  continues to corrupt and manipulate Haitian politicians to the present day. 

This film represents a powerful tool for those who are committed to this era’s project of truth telling that connects the dots of colonial expansionism with current systems that seek to maintain white supremacy and white privilege.  Republican political leadership in the U.S. is mobilizing in defense of  the country’s obstinate but obsolete mythology.  Confronting truths long suppressed is considered a threat to their power.  On April 30 Senate Minority Leader McConnell warned the new administration’s Secretary of Education  that “powerful institutions increasingly subject Americans to a drumbeat of revisionism and negativity about our nation’s history and identity”.

Contrary to McConnell, there is widespread agreement in the U.S. today that if the nation is to progress in creating the multi-racial society we have envisioned its citizens must come to grips with the legacy of slavery and the expropriation and elimination of native Americans. Decades ago, James Baldwin, the subject of Peck’s previous documentary “I Am Not a Negro”, described well the film’s importance.  “Not everything that is faced can be changed” Baldwin stated.  “But nothing can be changed that is not faced.”

The two minute trailer for the film can be seen here:

https://www.hbo.com/exterminate-all-the-brutes

Kansas City Auto Workers Pay the Price for U.S. Ceding Access to Congo’s Cobalt

Apart from its use for manufacture of computer chips and semiconductors in gas powered autos, Congo’s cobalt has supplied most of the essential element used in batteries for the electric auto industry. (Photo by Tesla)

What do the layoffs of thousands of Kansas City’s GM and Ford auto workers have to do with Congo’s vast reserves of cobalt?  Plenty it turns out.  A new car hasn’t rolled off the line of General Motors’ sprawling Kansas City, Kansas, factory in more than two months. According to an April 13 article in the Kansas City Star the shutdown at the plant where workers make the Chevy Malibu sedan and a Cadillac SUV model is due to the shortage of semi conductors.  Now essential in manufacture of today’s automobiles, both semi conductors and and powerful industrial magnets for the engines rely on cobalt and other rare earths found in Congo.

Congo’s soil holds 51 % of the world’s cobalt reserves according to the U.S. Geological Survey and cobalt originating in Congo accounted for 70% of the world’s production of the element in 2019.  Access to supplies of cobalt and other rare earths is now seen as a national security priority of the U.S.  Last year’s Bloomberg Opinion  article by former Secretary of Defense James Mattis and others stated  “U.S. supply chains — both military and commercial — are almost wholly dependent on China for processed rare earths for our advanced weaponry and microelectronics”.   Although China accounts for “between 25% and 45%” of the world’s rare earth reserves more troubling to the article’s authors is the fact that  “Nearly all the rare earths mined anywhere in the world, including the U.S., are processed in China”.

Congo’s contracts with China for processing of its cobalt and other rare earth elements reflects the U.S. rival’s success in controlling the supply chain for these critical minerals.  While China now extracts over 40 % of Congo’s cobalt, it has also signed agreements with multi-national mining companies active in the country to refine and process most of the strategic mineral.

The Biden Administration has already begun the strengthening of the U.S. supply chain of rare earths and critical minerals in general.  Following the previous administration’s failure to accompany tariffs on China with creation of an alternative supply chain, President Biden issued and executive order to review our current access to rare earths . The Order highlights the importance of strategic minerals in these vital industrial sectors of the U.S. economy:

  1. The defense industrial base
  2. Public health and biological preparedness industrial base
  3. Information and communications technology (“ICT”) industrial base
  4. Energy sector base
  5. Transportation industrial base
  6. Agricultural commodities and food production

The Administration singled out four key products of these sectors with semiconductors and large capacity batteries at the top of the list.  Both of these areas now rely on cobalt and other rare earths mined in Congo.  As former Defense Secretary Mattis and the other authors of the Bloomberg article note, “Breaking China’s monopoly (of rare earth supplies, Lokole ed.) will require development of processing plants and supply chains outside Beijing’s control”.  The article notes that consumption of rare earths will nearly double by 2030 and that China’s current dominance in their production “cannot be accomplished without a White House that ensures accountability and progress”.

It is unlikely that the U.S. strategizing with its allies on vital supply chains will include sharing or taking over China’s import of Congo’s cobalt and other rare earths.  China’s partnership with Congo has been built by the world’s second leading economy replacing the U.S. as the leading aid donor for all of sub-Saharan Africa and Congo in particular. 

Researchers at a Silicon Valley start-up are working on production of batteries for electric vehicles that will be easier to recharge, cheaper – and less dependent on cobalt (NYT Photo by Gabriela Hasbun)

In recent years, the U.S. Africa policy has not maintained the close ties with Congo that enabled use of the country’s high grade uranium ore for production of the first atomic bombs. The new U.S. administration is intent on creating an alternative supply chain for critical minerals   One of the first steps taken by the Biden Defense Department was the awarding of a contract to  Lynas Rare Earths Limited, the world’s largest rare earth element mining and processing company outside of China.  The $30 million contract is for development of mining and refining at a Texas mine that holds the most promising rare earth deposits in the U.S.

Meanwhile, China continues to develop its partnership with Congo.  Back in early January, China announced that it would cancel an estimated $28 million of loans to the DRC, repayment of which were due by the end of 2020, and would provide $17 million in other financial support to help the country overcome the sanitary crisis caused by the covid-19 pandemic. 

Escalation of U.S. tensions with China and the delays of previous administrations in securing other sources of critical minerals may well portend additional losses for the U.S. economy and its workers.  One of Ford’s largest plants in the world, located on Kansas City’s outskirts, has periodically furloughed production line workers over the last year and in mid April shut down its Transit van production line. Anticipating success in stocking up on semiconductors and computer chips, Ford announced at the same time they would not close its Kansas City plant for the customary summer vacation.  The U.S. auto industry is expected to lose upwards of $60 billion this year due to the shortage of microelectronic components.

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The April 13, 2021 article by Kevin Hardy in the Kansas City Star inspired this posting.  The article is titled “Parts shortage forces months-long layoffsfor thousands at Kansas City Ford, GM plants”