“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”

Congo’s COVID Vaccination Campaign

Received by Health Minister Eteni Longondo, the delivery of 1.6 million doses to Congo is part of the largest vaccine procurement and supply operation in history.

UPDATE: Congo’s Health minister yesterday suspended roll out of the vaccination campaign due to concerns with the astra zeneca injections causing blood clotting in some persons.

As promised by COVAX, the international COVID vaccination alliance, the Congo received its first delivery of AstraZeneca vaccines March 2.  Congo’s Health Minister announced the four provinces most affected by the pandemic will begin vaccinating by the end of March. With 75 % of the reported COVID cases, Kinshasa will see the most activity and provide a test of the vaccine protocol which calls for health and social workers to receive the first doses.  They will be followed by those most vulnerable to the virus, with pre-existing conditions, and finally all persons over 55 years of age.

Subsequent vaccine deliveries from COVAX will supply Congo with a total of 6 million Astra-Zeneca doses developed in the UK but manufactured by the Serum Institute of India.  COVAX has announced it is on track to provide 2 billion doses of COVID vaccines to 92 low income countries by the end of this year.  All African nations should be capable of matching Congo’s vaccinations’ goal of vaccinating 20 per cent of the population in 2021.  “We will only be safe anywhere if we are safe everywhere,” said Dr Seth Berkley, CEO of the COVAX international partner responsible for delivery of the vaccines.

Of the two vaccines first approved for use in the U.S., 40 million doses of the Pfizer vaccine will be distributed by COVAX in the first quarter of this year.  This total is dwarfed by the AstraZeneca/Oxford jab of 336 million doses largely produced in India and to be administered worldwide by mid year. A half billion of the newly approved Johnson & Johnson vaccine are to be received by COVAX as well as the U.S. developed and soon to be approved Novovax doses which may result in 1.1 billion additional doses provided by purchases from U.S. companies.

After four years of the Trump administration’s rejection of international cooperation, President Biden announced at the February meeting of the G7 developed nations a U.S. contribution of $2 billion to COVAX. The commitment also includes another $2 billion conditioned on fulfillment of pledges by other nations in the G7 group.

Congo’s vaccination campaign continues the country’s effective COVID response begun after the first case was diagnosed the second week of March 2020.  The Congolese President Tshisekedi declared a public health emergency by the end of that month enabling him to close schools and places of worship along with a ban on large gatherings and travel from Kinshasa to the rest of the country.  An excellent article by human rights activist Pascal Kambale describes how the new President was also able to take advantage of the closure of Parliament and other pandemic related conditions to strengthen his political position vis a vis the formidable bloc of former President Kabila’s supporters.   http://congoresearchgroup.org/impacts-covid19-on-democratic-process-in-the-drc/

After the year long closure, Congo’s National Assembly is due to reconvene this month.

As noted in the last posting on this site, Congo’s total number of COVID cases is far lower than in its trade partners of the industrialized world.  With a fast growing population of over 91 million persons, the third largest in sub Saharan Africa, the Congo has reported 26,405 cases with 711 deaths due to the virus.  In my home state of Missouri in the U.S., there have been 574,000 cases with 8,750 COVID related deaths among a population of 6.14 million persons.

Congo Leads Way in Response to COVID-19

On May 20 – 21 Congo’s Protestant denominations convened an interfaith conference to discuss religious practices and prevention of the spread of COVID-19. Members of the Church of Christ of Congo were joined by Catholics, Kimbanguists, Muslims and Orthodox leaders to share strategies. (Photo by Bryan Parrish, Mission Co-Worker with Disciples of Christ of Congo)

“With health systems in even high-income countries still at risk of being overwhelmed by the pandemic, leaders would do well to heed the example of the DRC (Democratic Republic of the Congo).”  This was the conclusion of the World Health Organization’s director general in a Guardian article announcing the end of the latest Ebola outbreak in Congo. Dr. Tedros Ghebreyesus used the June 25 announcement to notify governments and health agencies of what measures were behind Congo’s success in turning back Ebola.  “The Congolese people ended a devastating outbreak through an unshakeable commitment to science, data and community, and with international solidarity.”

The Congolese have benefited from the learnings and improvements in health infrastructure gained in stemming spread of Ebola in their response to the COVID virus.  The latest WHO statistics on COVID in Congo speak for themselves:  in a population of 90 million people there have been 11,052 cases and 303 deaths.  These figures are way below those of other Central African countries.  In the neighboring Republic of Congo there have been 5,156 total COVID cases with 92 deaths in a country with less than half the population of the DRC.   Rwanda leads the DRC in most measures of economic and infrastructure development but has treated 383 cases per each million persons in its population compared to the DRC figure of 122 cases per million.

The tragically inept and chaotic response of the United States is evident in a comparison of the virus’ spread and mortality rate with the Congo’s (DRC).  There have been 680 deaths in the U.S. per each million persons and 25,538 cases per million in stark contrast to the Congo’s loss of 3 persons per million to the virus and 122 cases per million Congolese.  Even accounting for Congo’s challenges in tracking cases and deaths in remote areas and the country’s faulty data practices, the U.S.-Congo gap in the spread of the virus underlines crucial differences in the countries’ response to COVID.

Perhaps due largely to its experience with other deadly viruses, sub Saharan Africa was quick to respond to COVID.  A March 30 statement by the former President of Liberia, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, pointed to the international cooperation and reliance on science as decisive in her country’s battle with the Ebola virus which took 5000 lives during her administration.  Ms. Sirleaf described Liberia’s learnings with these words, “A mass mobilization of resources led by the UN, the World Health Organization, and the US followed. We defeated it together. As a result, today there are effective experimental vaccines and antivirals thanks to the collaboration of the best scientific minds around the world.”  Three months after this statement, the Trump administration declared the U.S. would leave the W.H.O., the only global health agency created by the United Nations.

In summing up Congo’s effective response to the Ebola outbreak in the country’s northeast, also plagued by civil conflict, the W.H.O. director general emphasized the important role of non-governmental actors.  “Engaging communities and influential figures, such as faith leaders and traditional healers, was critical. Communities should be respected as first responders, who can quickly detect cases and collectively work out how to isolate patients, even with minimal resources” Dr. Ghebreyesus wrote.  The example set by the leadership and health staff of the Disciples of Christ of Congo is noteworthy.  In the poorest province of the country, the DCC President Rev. Eliki Bonanga wrote three weeks after the first COVID case was detected on March 10 that the Church committed to “campaigning against COVID-19 through community education on what is COVID-19, how to contain it, how to avoid it, what to do in case the community identifies a suspect case.”



Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Liberian President 2005-17, at the Obama White House with leaders from Sierra Leone (l) and Guinea (r) who collaborated with her and the U.S. on defeating the Ebola virus in their countries

The Congo Disciples’ health services have greatly benefited from aid from partner churches in Germany and the U.S.  International aid and cooperation were highlighted in former Liberian President Ms. Sirleaf’s analysis of her country’s success against Ebola. Commenting on Africa’s readiness to combat COVID, Ms. Sirleaf explained, “what most encourages today, is the opening up of expertise and the fact that knowledge, scientific discovery, equipment, medicines and personnel are being shared”.  She concluded her message transmitted by BBC News on March 30 with this eloquent plea, “As we all hunker down in the next few weeks, I pray for the health and well-being of our global citizens, and I ask that everyone remember that our humanity now relies on the essential truth that a life well-lived is a life in the service to others.”