“No consideration of the language of Central Africa would be complete if it neglected the highly developed ‘drum language’ used for purposes of communication from village to village” wrote E.R. Moon, U.S. missionary to Congo in the early twentieth century. Variously referred to by foreigners in Congo as the “talking drum”, “bush telegraph” and other terms, the “lokole” of the Mongo people of the Congo rainforest has served communities in many ways. Moon described its many uses in his book I Saw Congo, “The drum is thus telegraph, radio, telephone, orchestra, religious instrument, all in one. I have even heard men quarrelling by use of drums over a distance of several miles.” By the mid-twentieth century, the “drum language” of African cultures all over the continent was more widely recognized as the African form of “writing” and a transmitter of wisdom and history.
In his 1961 book Muntu, Jahnheinz Jahn affirmed, “Both western and African culture possessed writing, one an alphabetical script, the other a drum script.” Jahn went on to describe the relative advantages of each, “the alphabet can be used to preserve information longer, and the drum script can spread it more quickly.” Summing up the critical place of the drum and drum language in the cultures of West Africa Jahn states, “The official drummers were the historians of Africa”. Like other observers of African social change in the last century, Jahn laments the growing neglect of drum language instruction due to the new focus on learning the Western written script. An ironic testimony to the past importance of the “talking drum” in transmitting the history and wisdom of the ancestors is shared by Jahn in concluding his comments on the “acoustic” record keeping of the lokole. In Cameroun, Jahn notes, children refer to the blackboard as “that black wall where one speaks with the dead”.
It is a curious fact that even for Europeans fluent in the languages of West and Central Africa, interpretation of the drum’s messages has remained a mystery. A U.S. missionary to Congo, John Carrington, who devoted himself to learning drum communication and wrote several books on the topic never perfected his use of the drum language. Although Africans considered Carrington to be a black man reincarnated as a white, they attributed his drumming mistakes to his white upbringing. E.R. Moon, his fellow missionary of an earlier date, simply concluded, “This drum language is quite an enigma to the white man.”
Other Western travelers and expatriate residents of Congo marvel at the many uses and benefits of the lokole while conceding failure to understand how it communicates detailed information. Many writers content themselves with a description of how the drum is made. Moon, the Disciple of Christ builder of churches, schools and hospitals wrote, “(the lokole) is made from a section of a solid hardwood log. It may be two feet in diameter and about six feet in length. A slot an inch and a half or so in width is cut in the top side, running almost the entire length of the section of log. The ends are left solid, and through this one opening the inside is hollowed out. By cleverly shaping the cavity and leaving one lip thicker than the other, the drum is made to give two distinct tones as it is struck alternately on the two lips near the center of the drum.” As for its placement in the Mongo villages of the equatorial rainforest, Moon tells us, “a large drum is always to be found near the chief’s place, and a lesser drum in each section of the village.”
One of the earliest travelers in Congo, the Englishman Herbert Ward, adds that river side villages take their drums to the water’s edge to take advantage of water’s ability to transmit sound a greater distance. Ward also offers the important information, given Congolese rubber’s contribution to the growing automobile industry at the turn of the 20th Century, that the Congolese used the sap from the rubber tree primarily for wrapping the ends of the lokole drum sticks.
Ability of the Congolese to communicate over considerable distances by means of the lokole astounded many long term Western residents in the early twentieth century. In her memoir recounting her Congolese upbringing as the first child born to Disciples of Christ missionary parents, Polly Dye attributes her survival to lokole drumming. Her gravely ill condition was transmitted by drumming one village to the next from the Bolenge mission station to the older, better provisioned Baptist station over three hundred kilometers away. Shortly after the message had been delivered, the necessary treatment was on its way to save the infant Polly.
We will conclude this post by sharing the Congo drumming scene in the 1959 film “The Nun’s Story”. Unfortunately, the clip you will see below does not include the shots of the young men playing two or three lokoles in unison at a Kisangani mission station. You will have to rent the movie to see the entire segment, but the sounds of the drumming and their interpretation accompany the new missionary’s arrival (played by Audrey Hepburn). Go to this link for the brief segment:
For those of us who already have much of everything else, there’s at least one good book every year testifying to the nobility, strength and “joie de vivre” of the Congolese people in their struggle. Books published by journalists and writers traveling up the Congo River have become a mini-genre in recent years. So Lokole ya Congo here publishes a wish list of recommended books for all Congophiles who have everything they need and don’t need already.
The journalist Tim Butcher published a list of his ten Congo favorites in The Guardian (U.K.) in 2008. He began his list not surprisingly with Henry Morton Stanley’s book that inspired Butcher’s own highly praised Blood River: The Terrifying Journey Through the World’s Most Dangerous Country. Butcher’s list is weak on the decolonization and post independence periods of Congo so I’ve added a few of my recommendations.
“1. Through The Dark Continent, Henry Morton Stanley (1878)
Stanley’s charting of the Congo was the high-water mark of 19th century African exploration. It took three years and cost the lives of hundreds of tribesmen slaughtered by Stanley’s heavily-armed bearers. All his white companions died. But it fired the starting gun for the Scramble for Africa, luring the European powers to claim the continent’s interior after centuries of nibbling round its edges. Like its author, this book, written in two volumes as a package with newspaper sponsors, is not trammelled by modesty.
2. Five Years With The Congo Cannibals, Herbert Ward (1890)
A more convincing account of the turbulent start to Congo colonialism. Ward was one of the foot soldiers hired by Stanley when he returned to claim the vast river basin, employed by the Belgian king, Leopold II. Ward learnt river languages to fluency, survived paddling thousands of miles up and down disease-ridden reaches and managed to retain some sense of humility throughout. (MY NOTE: WARD WAS A PRESBYTERIAN MISSIONARY AND CLOSE FRIEND OF THE BRITISH CONSUL IN CONGO ROGER CASEMENT WHOSE REPORT TO THE BRITISH PARLIAMENT ON KING LEOPOLD’S CONGO FREE STATE’S RUBBER COLLECTION METHODS HELPED BRING AN END TO HIS PERSONAL RULE OF THE VAST TERRITORY.)
3. Heart of Darkness, Joseph Conrad (1899)
What Conrad saw on the Congo in 1890 while serving briefly as a steamboat skipper burnt in his soul for eight years until, in a few hectic months, he ran off this most haunting of novellas. Is it a racist attack on the savagery of black Africa? Or, maybe, a lament for the evil that bursts from all of us when our moral compass starts to spin?
5. A Burnt-Out Case, by Graham Greene (1961)
Where would a troubled novelist go for solitude in the 1950s? A leper colony halfway up the Congo near the town of Mbandaka was Greene’s choice and the resulting fiction tells of a troubled individual – this time an architect – seeking time away from life’s pressures by escaping to a remote medical station. When I visited the ruins of Mbandaka a few years back, no trace was left of its once famous medical centre, the missionary nurses or the writer. (MY NOTE: IN FACT THE CATHOLIC MISSION IYONDA WHERE GREENE STAYED STILL OPERATES FIFTEEN KILOMETERS BETWEEN MBANDAKA AND WENDJI SECLI.)
7. The Poisonwood Bible, Barbara Kingsolver (1998)
Magical, multi-voiced account of a family’s spiralling doom at a remote mission station in the Congo around the time of independence in 1960. Narrated in turns by the mother and the daughters, it captures the singsong sound of Lingala, the language of the lower river, and the jungle’s hidden terrors. The day the ant column comes, consuming all before it, forcing the villagers to decide what – and whom – they can leave behind is unforgettable.
9. The African Dream – The Diaries of the Revolutionary War in the Congo, Che Guevara (2000)
Written in the mid-1960s but only published recently, this book reminds us of the heady days when lefties acted on their belief that revolution was to be exported. Guevara found himself fighting against white mercenaries in the eastern badlands of the Congo. Four decades later, and the fighting has still not really stopped.” (MY NOTE: GUEVARA’S COMMENTS ON THE INEFFECTUAL, OPPORTUNISTIC LEADERSHIP OF GUERRILLA CHIEF LAURENT KABILA, THE CURRENT PRESIDENT’S FATHER, IS NOTABLY PRESCIENT)
As you see, I’ve eliminated some of Butcher’s choices I either don’t recommend (Naipaul’s A Bend in the River) or haven’t read. I confess to not having read the first two which are essential sources for the story of Congo’s increased contacts with Europeans and Americans in the late 1800’s. For twentieth century developments, the Flemish writer David Van Reybrouck has published the highly readable The Congo: The Epic History of a People based on extended interviews with elderly Congolese who lived the history from a variety of viewpoints and social positions. The result surpasses anything Butcher suggests as an in-depth view of Congolese life in the pre and post independence era. For a more scholarly history of the twentieth century Congo I recommend the Congolese expatriate political scientist Georges Nzongola-Ntalaja’s book The Congo: From Leopold to Kabila. On King Leopold’s rule over the Congo and the campaign to free the country from his depredations, Adam Hochschild’s King Leopold’s Ghost can’t be beat. And Mark Twain contributed to bringing Leopold’s rule of Congo to an end with King Leopold’s Soliloquoy, a worthy satire.
In closing I will share some favorites that are less well known. One of the first Peace Corps volunteers in Congo wrote an account of his cultural mishaps, misunderstandings and mistakes in a remote village. Mike Tidwell’s The Ponds of Kalambayi is a delight. The anthropologist Colin Turnbull has stirred much controversy with his research and books on northern Uganda but his classic The Forest People remains a beautiful rendering of his love and admiration for the Pygmy inhabitants of the Ituri Forest. Finally, I have just finished Noble Prize winner Mario Vargas Llosa’s account of the life of Roger Casement in The Dream of the Celt. Already mentioned above as one of the first international human rights campaigners focused on Congo, Casement led a fascinating but very difficult life worthy of the great novelist Llosa’s nuanced account.
Finally, I want to encourage Lokole ya Congo readers to explore the writing of the Congolese poets, short story writers and novelists who have gained literary attention since 1960. From the DRC, the late, lamented Sony Labou Tansi stands out as does our contemporary Fiston Mwanza Mujila whose recent first novel Tram 83 has been highly praised. The Republic of Congo’s Alain Mabanckou and Emmanuel Dongala continue to garner attention and literary awards. After reading Dongala’s The Fire of Origins, I want to read more of his work in the coming year. It is regrettable that a brief internet search brings up no mention of Congolese women writers. We need their voice to balance the images, views and impressions of Barbara Kingsolver’s highly regarded novel, probably the most widely read book on Congo in the U.S. Kingsolver’s book is written from an American missionary family’s standpoint, her parents also lived in Congo as missionary doctors before independence, during and following the Congolese transition to self rule.
I close this wish list with the wisdom of Congo’s “article quinze” (referring to the non-existent fifteenth article of Congo’s first Constitution) or “debrouillez-vous” which loosely translated advises, “carry on with what you’ve got”.
“I know that beating George Foreman and conquering the world with my fists does not bring freedom to my people. I am well aware that I must go beyond all this and prepare myself for more. I know,” said Muhammed Ali, “that I enter a new arena.” So spoke Ali summing up the significance for himself of reclaiming the Heavyweight Championship just hours after the 1974 fight held in Kinshasa, capital of the then Zaire.
Before the long awaited match of the powerful, younger Foreman and the cagey former champ, Muhammed Ali had reflected publicly on the larger role he assumed with his conversion to Islam and refusal of induction to the Army. “If I win”, he declared, “I’m going to be the black Kissinger. It’s full of glory, but it’s tiresome. Every time I visit a place, I got to go by the schools, by the old folks’ home. I’m not just a fighter, I’m a world figure to these people.”
During the month-long delay of the fight, Ali had plenty of time in Kinshasa to carry out and describe further his mission as a “world figure”. As the excitement mounted, a few days prior to the bout he said, “Nobody is ready to know what I’m up to. People in America just find it hard to take a fighter seriously.” He then issued an alert, “They don’t know that I’m using boxing for the sake of getting over certain points you couldn’t get over without it. Being a fighter enables me to attain certain ends. I’m not doing this,” he revealed, “for the glory of fighting, but to change a lot of things.”
In his interpretation of the pronouncements and ever expanding persona of Ali before and after the Foreman fight, Norman Mailer wrote, “Was he still a kid from Louisville talking, talking, through the afternoon, and for all anyone knew through the night, talking through the ungovernable anxiety of a youth seized by history to enter the dynamos of history? Or was he in full process of becoming that most unique phenomenon, a twentieth century prophet, and so the anger and the fear of his voice was that he could not teach, could not convince, could not convince?”
Reading Mailer’s account in The Fight of his grappling with Ali’s meaning to people in Congo and the rest of the world, this reader felt the writer had come closest to the measure, the legacy of the recently deceased champ. Mailer wrote, “One only had to open to the possibility that Ali had a large mind rather than a repetitive mind and was ready for oncoming chaos, ready for the volcanic disruptions that would boil through the world in these approaching years of pollution, malfunction and economic disaster.” It seems Mailer had to go to Congo to learn to understand and accept that this “prophet” had been shaped and prepared by his Muslim faith and co-believers.
Mailer confessed in his book, “He (Mailer) had implicitly kept waiting for some evidence that Ali was not a Black Muslim, not really, and that was absurd. It was time to recognize that being a Black Muslim might be the core of Ali’s existence and the center of his strength. What was one to do about that?” On his flight back to the States Mailer was confronted by stunning evidence that the Muslim world claimed Ali as one of them.
Before landing in Dakar, capital of largely Muslim Senegal, the pilot announced they would divert to a remote airport runway to evade the couple of thousand persons waiting for the chance to greet what they thought was their champ’s plane. Undaunted, the crowd surrounded the plane and were persuaded to disperse only after a few were allowed to search thoroughly for Ali inside the aircraft.
In a time when Christians especially in the U.S. need greater understanding of Islam and its approximately 1.5 billion followers, it is unfortunate that very few obituaries paid homage to the depth and profound influence of the man’s faith. Prior to the fight in Kinshasa he had noted referring to his projected earnings, “I’m left with a million three. That ain’t no money. You give me a hundred million today, I’ll be broke tomorrow. We got a hospital we’re working on, a Black hospital being built in Chicago, costs fifty million dollars. My money goes into causes.” With little understanding of Islam, Mailer cannot escape the insight that Ali’s courage and integrity were founded on the bedrock of his Muslim faith.
In the end, it was that courage and integrity that won over his most bitter foes. In 1981 George Foreman reconciled with the man he had loathed since losing to him. Much later he recalled, “In 1981, a reporter came to my ranch and asked me: ‘What happened in Africa, George?’ I had to look him in the eye and say, “I lost. He beat me.”
Following that interview with the reporter, Foreman softened. “Before that I had nothing but revenge and hate on my mind, but from then on it was clear. I’ll never be able to win that match, so I had to let it go.” Foreman eventually concluded, in 2003: “[Ali is] the greatest man I’ve ever known. Not greatest boxer that’s too small for him. He had a gift. He’s not pretty he’s beautiful. Everything America should be, Muhammad Ali is.”  In response to Foreman’s statement we citizens of the U.S. in 2016 are left with the question, “What was one to do about that?”
For most travelers to the Congo, the dusty, chaotic capital city of Kinshasa will shape their first impressions. This is unfortunate on many counts but foremost for the reason that Kinshasa can overwhelm in ways that threaten to challenge appreciation of the overall Congo experience, including the experience of life in the more serene settings in the interior. A similar challenge would be faced by those entering the country via the war torn cities of the eastern Congo, Bukavu and Goma.
The following article on Kinshasa by journalist Cindy Shiner represents an attempt to describe how ten million people survive the degraded economic and environmental conditions of the capital city. It will, I hope, serve the reader in facilitating understanding of the order underneath the chaos and perhaps enabling an appreciation of the courage and vitality of a population struggling for a better life for themselves and their children.
By Cindy Shiner from All Africa. Com 11 June 2012 “Staff Blog”
Titled “Congo-Kinshasa: A City’s Modern March of Hope”
Kinshasa — It begins at twilight, just as the roosters begin to crow, before the sky reclaims the overnight rain. At first there are only a few hundred – the earliest risers, the ones hoping to get ahead of the traffic, those wishing for a jump on the competition. By dawn, the steam rising from the rain-soaked ditches and potholes, the people along the Boulevard Lumumba number in the thousands.
Once the mini-buses, trucks, motorcycles and car taxis have jammed the road, the masses of people heading into town have swollen to the tens, if not hundreds, of thousands: walking, jumping into trucks, tying things down, hoisting them up, holding them in place, limping, carrying, balancing, navigating, shifting a baby on their backs, holding a child’s hand, peering through the cassava leaves bundled on top of their heads, urban cowboys yelling from taxi buses, cash blooming in their fists, a man dressed up in a chartreuse shirt and polka dot tie, carrying a portfolio, another holding an umbrella in case there is an afternoon thunderstorm. Footsteps sound on pavement; mud sucks at shoes.
Twenty years ago, a pro-democracy demonstration called the March of Hope brought thousands onto the streets of Kinshasa. Now, a march of a different sort plays out six days a week in this city of 10 million, as masses of people head downtown to earn a living or seek a means to do so.
It is, in a sense, another kind of march of hope – one that has nothing to do with politics and everything to do with survival. To a returned visitor, however, it has everything to do with politics. Because it is poor governance – the lack of urban planning, corruption, neglected infrastructure – that is responsible for Kinshasa’s millions of poor people and the state they’re in.
I first came to this capital city in January 1992, a few weeks before what was formally organized by church leaders as the March of Hope. I lived in the city for five months and then returned intermittently throughout the 1990s while based in Abidjan, Cote d’Ivoire, as a freelance journalist. My last trip to Kinshasa was in 1997 for the end of Mobutu Sese Seko’s 32-year despotic rule. Known as Zaire under Mobutu, the country became the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).
I recently had the chance to return to Congo, on assignment for AllAfrica to do a story on maternal health, and I jumped at it. I wanted to see how much had changed in the past two decades. Demonstrators in 1992 were marching for democracy and the better life they thought it would bring. Where, I wanted to know, was Kinshasa’s hope now?
I didn’t find the answer on the rehabilitated Boulevard 30 Juin – an eight-lane highway that drivers treat like a speedway. (Just ask the head of the emergency department at the main hospital.) I didn’t find it in the many new hotels and high-rises in the city or in the brand new western-style supermarket downtown. I didn’t find it on the giant billboard advertizing the new Justice Ministry offices that are to be built with the help of foreign aid. I didn’t find it with the recognition that all the calendars I saw in government offices were for 2012, unlike previous visits when they were often out of date, serving mainly as artwork. I didn’t find it discussing the most recent, problematic elections. And I didn’t find it around the new fountain downtown or the one near the stadium, as aspirational and refreshing as they looked.
No, the hope I found was in an unlikely spot: on the Boulevard Lumumba.
The morning bustle on the boulevard is the audible manifestation of se débrouiller – the French word that means “to get by” or “to manage”. The Kinois, as the residents of this city are known, are experts at it. And as these things go, it is both their greatest strength and their greatest weakness. Perhaps if they hadn’t been so good at getting by and making do, they would long ago have gotten rid of the corrupt leaders who forced them to rely on theirdébrouillardise, or resourcefulness.
Eighty percent of the country’s workforce labors in the informal sector. Ask them how they deal with the many problems they face – joblessness, conflict in the east, endemic malaria, scant running water, poor sanitation, health and education they can barely afford, the rising cost of food and transportation – and they’re like to say, “Je me débrouille.” I get by; I manage.
But it’s more than that isn’t it? I get by wearing 10-year-old sandals. I manage the household budget (or I’m supposed to). Kinois, I thought, must have a unique idiom – possibly a local word, a Lingala word – for what they do. There is one term, Article 15, which encompasses ingenuity and state-sanctioned graft. But I was thinking of something a little different, something more physical, because being a Kinois is downright hard work. Ask the man hauling 18 oil drums on a wheelbarrow down the street.
These efforts are not “managing” or “getting by” they’re much more than that. So I asked my Kinshasa assistant, the efficient and pragmatic Emery Makumeno, if there was a Lingala term. And, he said, to some degree, there is:kobeta libanga. It is literally translated as “breaking stones” from the time of forced labor under the Belgian colonizers. It is often used to refer to Congolese in the Diaspora who will work any job to send money home. It is also used to describe the work, efforts and challenges Kinois will undertake to survive in their city. Je me debrouille rolls off the tongue easily, but kobeta libanga is worthy of a ballad.
Kobeta libanga plays out the length of the Boulevard Lumumba as more people are forced to walk several kilometers into town because of frequent traffic gridlock caused by road works. Named after independence leader Patrice Lumumba, the boulevard is the main artery leading to Kinshasa from beyond the international airport, Ndjili.
At the end of the runway, and visible from the air, is the city’s version of a potter’s field. There’s no telling how many people have been buried there: headstones are broken, stolen, grown over. It is one of the cheapest places around to inter a body. There’s another cemetery, downtown, that has been taken over, the precious soil now used as a community garden for people to plant subsistence crops or a few surplus vegetables they can sell at the market. I asked Emery if people had much success hawking vegetables nourished by decomposing bodies. “I don’t think they tell anyone,” he said.
Passing the airport on the right, the same side as the Congo River, the boulevard abuts the neighborhoods Masina I, II and III. I don’t know why these impoverished quartiers weren’t given distinct names. Perhaps by the time people had reached that far from the city center, they just plain ran out of ideas.
Health workers I visited at the Roi Baudouin I Hospital Center in Masina I, said the Masinas are
among the poorest and most densely populated neighborhoods of Kinshasa. Wikipedia says Masina (it didn’t say which one, or all three) had “recently become a desirable area in which to live and has a large, growing population”.
I think someone should tell the Wikipedia editors that just because a lot of people live in a place doesn’t necessary mean it’s desirable. Much of the Masinas are on a wetland. Malaria is endemic. The disease is the DRC’s biggest child killer, claiming the lives of some 180,000 children under the age of five per year, according to Unicef. A wet, warm, overcrowded environment is prime for malaria transmission.
Further down, the Wikipedia listing says this: “The urban area reaches population densities comparable to those of other municipalities in the heart of Kinshasa (about 50,000 inhabitants per square kilometer).” To get a perspective on just how many people live in the Masinas, take into account that New York City has a population density of about 27,000 people per the equivalent of one square mile, or 2.6 square kilometers, according to the city’s official website. So, for those of you who are math challenged like me, that means nearly double the number of people in Kinshasa live on less than half the equivalent area. And most don’t have running water, proper toilets or trash disposal.
If that wasn’t daunting enough, the United Nations estimates that between 2010 and 2020 Kinshasa’s population will have grown by 46 percent. That means the challenges for Kinois, the competition for resources, the pressure on an already overburdened infrastructure and the sheer effort it will take to get into town will become that much greater. The government of President Joseph Kabila deserves credit for making improvements to Kinshasa’s main arteries, such as the Boulevard Lumumba and the Boulevard 30 Juin. But little work has been done in the most populous neighborhoods, such as the Masinas.
Much has been written about DRC’s resources – it’s gold, copper, diamonds, rubber, forests – and how transparent use of them could turn the nation around. The Congo River – the world’s second largest river by volume – has enormous hydroelectric potential. But as it is now, DRC ranks near the bottom of United Nations indicators for human development.
It is true that the country could be an economic giant in sub-Saharan Africa and that it holds enormous promise. The World Bank predicts an annual economic growth rate of seven percent over the next two years. But growth cannot reach its full potential without the work of the Congolese people – the nation’s greatest resource, its best hope.
As I wrapped up my stories from Kinshasa I was also finishing up some of the escapist reading I had bought to pass the many hours spent on planes and in airport terminals. I found this passage at the end of “Sole Survivor” by Dean Koontz.
“Only the human spirit can act with volition and consciously change itself; it is the only thing in all creation that is not entirely at the mercy of forces outside itself, and it is, therefore, the most powerful and valuable form of energy in the universe.”
The government in Kinshasa should take note.
NOTE: Photos in this and all lokoleyacongo postings are by the editor/author, Doug Smith, unless otherwise noted
Following my last blog I have been reminded that there are people I respect and love who lived in Congo at the time of independence and hold a vastly different view of Patrice Lumumba. When I read a former Congolese missionary’s recollection of Lumumba’s “frantic and emotional ravings on the radio” I feel I owe him and you a direct response.
It would take a novel to reconstruct the atmosphere of fear and panic among nearly all whites in Congo in 1960 especially after Lumumba’s speech at the independence celebration on June 30. That the Belgians present were so offended by the “truth telling” of Lumumba’s critique of Belgian colonialism indicates how unprepared the former rulers were for Congolese self rule. The depth of Belgian loathing of Patrice Lumumba emerges clearly from the numbingly detailed and thorough account of The Assassination of Lumumba by Ludo De Witte.
Published in 2001, this book leaves no doubt that the Belgian government called for the elected Prime Minister’s torture and death at the hands of security officers and government officials of Belgium and the secessionist provinces of Katanga and South Kasai. More telling though is the book’s evidence of the utter disdain and fear of the nationalist Lumumba among the Belgians. Following his death, a leftist Belgian newspaper commented, “The press probably did not treat Hitler with as much rage and virulence as they did Patrice Lumumba”.
The De Witte book also notes the U.S. backing, support and even plotting of the definitive elimination of the Congolese nationalist.
Head of the C.I.A. Allen Dulles wrote the Kinshasa station chief Devlin on August 26, 1960, “We concluded that his (Lumumba’s) removal must be an urgent and prime objective and that under existing conditions this should be a high priority of our covert action”. These efforts to remove Lumumba from power took place with the recognition that no other Congolese politician had a
comparable following or power to move the people. U.S. Ambassador Clare Timberlake in a 1960 memo to the State Department declared that Lumumba could enter a room of Congolese politicians as a waiter and emerge by the end of the meeting as the gathering’s elected leader. “Kasavubu will be a political zero as long as Lumumba is active” Timberlake wrote in another message.
This brings me to call attention to Lumumba’s naïve and touching trust of the U.S. In the tape made by a reporter who visited him while in prison shortly before his death, he advanced the U.S. example as a template for the task his people faced:
“I remind you here of the Declaration of Independence adopted by the Congress of the United States in 1766 (sic), which proclaimed the overthrow of the colonial regime, the united colonies’ liberation from the British yoke, and thir transformation into a free and independent state. The Congolese nationalists have thus merely followed in the footsteps of the French, Belgian, American, Russian and other nationalists. We have chosen only one weapon for our struggle: nonviolence. The only weapon that would bring victory in dignity and honor. Our watchword during the liberation campaign was always the immediate and total independence of the Congo.”
Those who would attribute the Congolese post- independence violence and mayhem to Lumumba’s words and not to the machinations of the West, must, in my view, account for the fifty plus years of war, dictatorial rule and increasing misery of the people of Congo after his death. It is that deplorable record of Congolese rule in the context of neocolonial foreign control of the country’s resources that leads me to state that Congo has lost its way. The words of their first and only democratically elected leader have been suppressed and subsequent leaders have honored him without in any substantive way attempting to realize his vision.
Over the last 50 years, Lumumba’s stature as a spokesperson for the aspirations of oppressed peoples and as the prophet of the African liberation struggle in particular has grown. As the African journalist Cameron Doudo wrote on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of Lumumba’s death, “Patrice Lumumba is, next to Nelson Mandela, the iconic figure who most readily comes to mind when Africa is discussed in relation to its struggle against imperialism and racism”.
The major difference between Lumumba and Mandela’s political careers is that Mandela saw the strengthening of his African National Congress from inside the walls of his prison. Despite Lumumba’s overwhelming grass roots support in 1960, his assassination cut woefully short his and his followers’ opportunity to organize for nation’s control of the country’s resources. That is the great tragedy of Lumumba’s life and legacy. In the midst of the multiple political parties organized on a tribal base of support, the creation of the MNC (National Congolese Movement) as a nation wide political party prior to the 1960 elections demonstrated that Lumumba’s powerful communication skills were matched by political organizing acumen.
Among the unrealized aspects of his legacy was Lumumba’s championing of the role of women in the new nation. In an early 1960 talk in Brussels he encouraged Belgian women in the audience to assist in the education of Congolese women for leadership.
“We want many Belgian girls to come to the Congo to teach and instruct our girls, and tomorrow the young ladies who are here will come to our country as welfare workers to educate our Congolese girls. Our efforts tomorrow must bring about a harmonious evolution of our peoples, and we want this evolution, the most fundamental one of all, especially that of our women, which has been somewhat neglected under the colonial regime – we want our women to have the same level of education that we men have, because when a man is educated, it is only the individual who is educated, but when a woman is educated, an entire family, an entire generation is educated. We want many Congolese girls to come to Belgium tomorrow to get an education, and we want many Belgian girls to come to the Congo to teach and instruct our girls. And it is so as to ensure equality between men and women that the Congolese movement demands the same political rights for women as for men. We have proposed that both men and women eighteen or over be allowed to participate in the coming elections. But certain reactionary circles, those that still insist on regarding women as servants are opposed to this plan and have a hand in the scheme to prevent this from happening. I am certain that when I go back to the Congo, I shall conduct a noisy campaign on behalf of Congolese women.”
In concluding this overview of the Lumumba legacy, let’s consider what U.S. based Congolese political scientist Georges Nzongola-Ntalaja wrote on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the assassination,
“In Congo, Lumumba’s assassination is rightly viewed as the country’s original sin. Coming less than seven months after independence (on 30 June, 1960), it was a stumbling block to the ideals of national unity, economic independence and pan-African solidarity that Lumumba had championed, as well as a shattering blow to the hopes of millions of Congolese for freedom and material prosperity.”
One way to summarize the current state of the legacy would be that Lumumba’s ideal of national unity has been preserved at the cost of the nation’s economic independence and pan-African solidarity.
NOTE: To read the entire Nzongola-Ntalaja article go to:
“But this is a people robbed and plundered, all of them are trapped in holes and hidden in prisons; they have become a prey with no one to rescue, a spoil with no one to say, ‘Restore!” Is 42:22
Like the people of Israel before their return from exile in Babylon, Congo today appears to be a land adrift, a nation state which has lost its bearings and its vision of what this newly independent nation in Africa might become. It is therefore to be lamented that Patrice Lumumba’s comprehensive and compelling vision for the nation is largely neglected if not contradicted by the current regime and not known by the Congolese people, few of whom were alive in 1960.
Following the dedication of the Lumumba monument and statue in Kinshasa, the 2002 placement of Laurent Desire Kabila’s ostentatious mausoleum across from the Palais de la Nationsignaled where the current regime’s roots lie. In contrast to the international recognition and respect accorded the
legacy of Patrice Lumumba, the father of the current president has the reputation of a cowering opportunist whose rise to power in Congo resulted from Rwanda’s desire to unseat Mobutu and exploit the resources of eastern Congo. The closest Laurent Kabila comes to resembling Lumumba is in his also having been assassinated.
In a 2008 article by investigative journalist Christian Parenti titled “In Search of Lumumba: Congo’s Landscape of Forgetting” investigative journalist Christian Parenti found no traces of Lumumba’s political thought in the country’s politics or daily life today. Parenti found that even those with access to the mass media outlets of Kinshasa have only a rudimentary understanding of Lumumba’s rise to power and what he stood for. “He was our first President” a handyman at a Catholic mission told Parenti, and “he became a Communist” responded a university student. An English teacher at a Jesuit high school told Parenti that in the Mobutu era, Congo history lessons focused on the President, “his family, his life”. Parenti sums up his findings with “ Once dead, the memory of Lumumba is erased, then revived to prop up a dictator, then to legitimize the rebel who overthrew that dictator”.
So what of the Lumumba legacy can be recovered and applied to the restoration of the Congolese nation today? Above all, there is the writing and speeches of a gifted and passionate defender of the rights of the Congolese people. Within the pages of Lumumba Speaks, edited by Jean Van Lierde, there can be uncovered the outline of a plan of action for the rise of a free Congo as well as a free Africa. There are excerpts which reveal Lumumba as a political pragmatist seeking to encourage the understanding if not the support of his opposition,
“Europeans must recognize and come to accept the idea that the liberation movement that we are engaged in throughout Africa is not directed against them, nor against their possessions, nor against their persons, but purely and simply against the regime of exploitation and enslavement that we are no longer willing to tolerate. If they agree to put an immediate end to this regime instituted by their predecessors, we will live in friendship and brotherhood with them.” (from his speech at the University of Ibadan, March 22, 1959, sponsored by the Congress for the Freedom of Culture)
And there are excerpts so prescriptive and truthful regarding the history of his nation and the entire continent of Africa over the past fifty years as to rank him among the major prophets of the last century. The words that follow were tape recorded during Lumumba’s last days in prison shortly before his death,
“The powers that are fighting us or fighting my government, under the false pretense that they are fighting communism, are in fact concealing their real intentions. These European powers favor only those African leaders who are tied to their apron strings and deceive their people. Certain of these powers conceive of their presence in the Congo or in Africa only as a chance to exploit their rich resources to the maximum by conniving with certain corrupted leaders.
This policy of corruption whereby every incorruptible leader is called procommunist and every leader who is a traitor to his country pro-Western must be fought.
We don’t want to tag along with any bloc. If we aren’t careful, we will risk falling into a neocolonialism that would be as dangerous as the colonialism that we buried last June 30. The imperialists’ strategy is to maintain the colonial system in the Congo and simply change the cast, as in a stage play, that is to say, replace the Belgian colonialists with neocolonialists who can be easily manipulated.”
Among his speeches and writings, I have found no words associating the U.S. with the “European powers” determined to enforce a neocolonial status on Africa. In the next blog, we will look at Lumumba’s trust of the U.S. as an inspiring former colony of the British Empire. We will also lift up his emphasis on the rights of women and the priority he envisaged in the new Congo of educating women.
Copies of Lumumba Speaks are unfortunately hard to come by. There is one copy in the County of Los Angeles Public Library system. Congo, My Country by Lumumba is an extended essay on the country’s march to self rule written in early 1958; the first book is essential for reading his mature political thought.
More accessible today are the film by Raoul Peck Lumumba, available on Netflix for instant view, and the biography by Leo Zeilig Lumumba: Africa’s Lost Leader (Life and Times)
The Christian Parenti article cited above is from the January 30, 2008 edition of In These Times magazine and though there are errors (Lumumba did NOT study abroad as stated) it is worth reading at:
The pure, soaring melody of the “Banaha” song on the Missa Luba album (see the January 24, 2012 post of this blog) always uplifts. What a joy to learn from a Google search that the song is now sung by choirs internationally.
There is, however, considerable confusion about its origin so I’m dedicating this post to what I’ve learned about this Congolese folksong, a powerful expression of the joy of living. “Banaha” is described as a “soldiers’ song” on the liner notes of the original Missa Luba album. This could well be so as former Baptist missionary Edna Stucky, who grew up in Congo, explains:
“When we were young, growing up in Congo, we used to march along with the older boys who were probably in PE, marching all over Luebo station, singing those words to a tune that I know still, which is the Missa Luba one. May have had something to do with soldiers, since this was late 40s or so, and there were still Congolese soldiers from WWII around who were wearing those caps/hats/whatever you call them that were the head dress for infantry during the war. Always wondered how that kind of song got into Missa Luba! ”
“Banaha” becomes more perplexing when one tries to make sense of the words which are from the Kiluba language of southern Congo, Katanga provice. The agreed on, literal translation goes,
“At the foot of the pineapple tree,
Yaku ladles a banana into his aunt’s red hat.”
That Edna Stucky had no idea of the meaning of the words is not surprising as Kiluba is very different from the Tshiluba widely spoken in Luebo, Kasai, south central Congo, where she grew up.
I have never seen or heard of a “pineapple tree” growing in Congo or anywhere else but then “ladling a banana” is not something I’m familiar with either. Clearly, this ecstatic outburst in song is meant to transport the singer to a fanciful land where anything is possible, just the kind of song we all need from time to time.
For the musical notation (is that the correct term?) of the song, click on this link to the Illawarra (Australia) Union Singers’ song book: