“The village of Ikengo welcomed me as a son of the village on my return” was the beginning of this blog’s “Return to Ikengo” on July 13, 2010. In that article I described how I had been joyously welcomed back by the people of Ikengo 39 years after my last visit. Only this past week did I learn that the great grandparents of Ikengo villagers had saved from starvation Henry Morton Stanley (of Stanley and Livingstone fame) on the first descent of the Congo River by a non African.
Having fought repeated battles with the aggressive, obstreperous Bangala who controlled the river trade, Stanley threw
himself and his men on the mercy of the people of Ikengo, located twenty five kilometers below Mbandaka. “Since the 10th of February we have been unable to purchase food or even approach a settlement for any amicable purpose” Stanley wrote in his February 18, 1877 journal entry quoted in Through the Dark Continent .
In the next day’s entry, the bold adventurer overcomes his fear of the local populace by dwelling on a greater fear, “This morning we regarded each other as fated victims of protracted famine, or the rage of savages, like those of Mangala. But as we feared famine most, we resolved to confront the natives again.” Reflecting throughout his account the racism characteristic of 19th century Europe and America, Stanley finds his fears unfounded in meeting the inhabitants of Ikengo and nearby villages.
“We arrived at Ikengo, and as were almost despairing, we proceeded to a small island opposite this settlement and prepared to encamp. Soon a canoe with seven men came dashing across, and we prepared our moneys for exhibition. They unhesitatingly advanced and ran their canoe alongside us.” After Stanley and crew presented gifts and were rendered “rapturously joyful” by this meeting, the explorers and villagers “proceeded to seal this incipient friendship with our blood with all due ceremony”.
Stanley titles this section of the book, “Among Friends” and sums up his account of the day with the words, “During the whole of this day life was most enjoyable, intercourse unreservedly friendly and though most of the people were armed with guns there was no manifestation of the least desire to be uncivil, rude, or hostile.” The explorer characterizes the encounter with the Ikengo villagers as an “act of grace”.
How their hospitality was ultimately received and repaid is a woeful fact of Congo’s history. As the European/American explorer who contributed the most to knowledge of African geography, Stanley also bears responsibility for opening up Congo to the brutal exploitation of King Leopold’s Congo Free State. So far as we know, Henry Morton Stanley never returned to Ikengo.
That the people of Ikengo have continued to welcome visitors from afar in our times with joyous hospitality is an “act of grace”. That the Congolese as a whole have held to their traditions of welcome after centuries of foreigners’ abuse of their trust is also a matter of grace. What a gift to us all.