Two Gifts from Congo for You

Ms. Hepburn in her Congo rainforest dressing room, one of the Eliot Elisofon photos from her book on the making of The African Queen
Ms. Hepburn in her Congo rainforest dressing room, one of the Eliot Elisofon photos from her book on the making of The African Queen

Let me interrupt this site’s news and commentary on the election and other developments in Congo with a recommendation of a couple of books to enjoy. After recently reading both, I feel I have already opened my Christmas gifts this year.

The books are Katherine Hepburn’s The Making of the African Queen published by Knopf in 1987, 36 years after she, as the subtitle describes it, “went to Africa with Bogart, Bacall and Huston and almost lost my mind”.  The movie crew’s camp for the primary shooting location was a short walk from a village in the Congo rainforest below Ubundu (then Ponthierville).  The second book is Margaret Myers’ Swimming in the Congo, a treasure of short stories inspired by the writer’s pre teen years growing up in the Disciples’ first mission post in Congo, Bolenge.

After making The Treasure of the Sierra Madre with Bogart in Mexico, John Huston felt ready for an African movie location - and the hunting opportunies there
After making The Treasure of the Sierra Madre with Bogart in Mexico, John Huston felt ready for an African movie location - and the hunting opportunies there

The Hepburn book could interest solely as the actress’ account of making a movie classic under very difficult conditions.  What strikes me about the book is the impact of the “Africa experience” on the pampered, famous woman who not only handles the deprivations gracefully but finds herself ruminating just before returning home,  “Would I ever come back here?  Oh, I hope – I hope”.  So for those who have also had the Africa experience take up residence inside them the book pleases as an account of discovering our common humanity with people so different in a so different setting.

It was the first book Hepburn wrote and she comes close to getting at why she wrote it with the words, “when you’ve lived as long as I have, you usually wish that you had kept one (a diary) because you can’t even remember the plot of many of the movies you’ve made – or the plays – really not anything about them or who or why.  But there are happenings you can’t forget….This happened to me with The African Queen.  I remember it in minute detail.”

So she remembers the quality of the water, “here it’s like honey. It is the most spectacular water. Dirt evaporates…. It is like sheer heaven and no need at all for any lubricant.” (pp25-26)  And the rain:  “The raindrops pelted down, making wonderful sounds on the palm trees and on the roof. It made everything seem very cozy.” (p. 54) She remembers the drumming in the night, “as the sun went down, we heard the drums begin.  The answering drums from another direction, then another and another.  A symphony of drums.  It was thrilling”. (p. 90)

But after days and days of soldier ants, living in a mud floored hut, the sinking of the Queen herself early in the shooting,

The Queen and the Jungle, two stars of the great movie
The Queen and the Jungle, two stars of the great movie

and a terrible case of dysentery it is Ms. Hepburn’s description of her relationship with her Congolese attendant that stands out.  And it is here that the real, lasting impact on the actress, and on many of us others who “know” Africa, is touched on, “I remember observing one thing which struck me very powerfully.  I would look serious or worried or trying to be sympathetic – or solemn.  And I would receive back an absolutely impenetrable expression.  A wall. But if I smiled or laughed, he did too.  The universal language.  This amazed me. I would have thought that tears were the things which bound us together, but no – smiles, laughter – and they warmed up immediately.” (p. 120)

Humphrey Bogart won the Academy Award for his role alongside Hepburn in the movie but the book suggests that she came away from the Africa experience with something even better – a greater understanding of herself, the world and what it is to be human.  And it makes me hope with her that she was able to return to
Africa, and Congo in particular, some day.


While forestry company trucks destroy Congo's dirt roads, Greenpeace International charges that the companies like Danzer/Siforco underpay or avoid Congo taxes entirely through the creation of offshore companies.
While forestry company trucks destroy Congo's dirt roads, Greenpeace International charges that the companies like Danzer/Siforco underpay or avoid Congo taxes entirely through the creation of offshore companies.

From time to time I check recent news of Equateur Province on the web site of Radio Okapi, the national network sponsored by the UN Mission in Congo.  Last month I came across an article reporting on more trouble between the population of a village near Bumba (on the Congo River 30 kms. above Lisala) in Equateur and a forestry company cutting hardwood in its area.  The story of Siforco’s (Societe Forestiere du Congo) actions in Equateur and neighboring Orientale Province got uglier and uglier when I did a search on Siforco on the Okapi site.

Mining companies are not the only multinational corporations acting like bandits in the American “wild west” while extracting the riches of the Congo.   Siforco is the Congolese subsidiary of the Danzer Group, the largest manufacturer of decorative veneer (think expensive  wood finish) in the world. The Swiss-German company’s timber processing plant in Maluku, Congo opened in 1976 and is the largest on the continent of Africa.  Someone with some time and, one can hope, a foundation fellowship , could look into labor relations at that plant.  Based on reports of the company’s relations with the local population in areas where they cut timber, their employee relations at Maluku are not likely to be very good.

 The Danzer-Siforco record since their forestry concessions in Congo were recertified in 2005 is abysmal.  On May 5, 2011 Radio Okapi reported that several villagers were injured and one person killed when Congolese army troops attacked locals intent on shutting down Siforco operations in Yalisika, near Bumba in Equateur Province.  After the company managers refused to discuss charges that they had violated the terms of their forestry agreement , the villagers sought to seize equipment and curtail further cutting of the forest.  The primary complaint is that the company has reneged on its promise to build a school and clinic for the local people.

The same complaint of no school or clinic built was filed in 2008 by the local population in the area of Siforco’s logging near Aketi in Orientale Province.  In their self defense presented to the Provincial Minister of the Environment, the company charged that villagers would not help with the construction of the education and health centers promised.

On the Danzer Group web site three facts stand out in the company’s justification for its lack of follow through on promises made to local populations in the areas of Congo logging operations:

1)    The company web site reports that by the end of 2011 8 schools and five health clinics will have been built by its subsidiary Siforco but it does not indicate where in Congo they were built.

2)    The company’s statement that these projects began “after 2009” is an admission that nothing was done per their 2005 agreeements with local populations until 2010.

3)    Danzer’s excuse for the delay is laughable for a company reporting revenue of  460 million euros (about $700 million) in 2006:  “Unfortunately we were delayed in the implementation of various social projects due to limitations in our capacities to implement social projects accompanied by low levels of cash availability caused by the world economic crisis in 2008 to 2010”

Danzer/Siforco’s record of adhering to their agreements in Congo certainly raises questions about their environmental practices as well as their corporate social responsibility in cutting the hardwood in the Congo basin rainforest. Do we want to entrust the “lungs of the earth” to their stewardship?



Rainforest Photo Gallery


Forest and Congo River (or part of it!) at Mbandaka

The Equator Province is the greenest swath on the map of the Congo.  The Province does not have the diamonds, gold, copper, cobalt and other rare metals of the eastern, central and southern provinces.  It is the poorest and least developed of the Congo’s provinces. It is the Congo’s Mississiippi.

Dense tropical rain forest covers much of the Province.  One flying into Mbandaka for the first time might wonder if anyone lives along the great river pilots follow on their way to Mbandaka, the provincial capital.  Congo’s rain forest of the Equator Province was described unforgettably by Joseph Conrad in The Heart of Darkness after his Congo travels in 1890:

“Going up that river was like travelling back in the earliest beginnings of the world, when vegetation rioted on the earth and the big trees were kings.”  (The Heart of Darkness and The Congo Diary, Penguin edition, p.59)

After his own travel up the Congo River in 1925, French writer Andre Gide wrote, “I am rereading The Heart of Darkness for the fourth time. It is only after having seen the country that I realize how good it is.” (Travels in the Congo University of California Press, 1962, pp. 292-293)  Forty years into Belgian rule in Congo, Gide was concerned about the effects of deforestation in Equator Province.  “I am inclined to think that this continual deforestation, whether it be systematic and deliberate or accidental, may bring about a complete modification of the rain system.” (p. 58)

The following gallery of photos were taken in the rainforest of Equator Province during my Congo visit last summer.

Fallen tree on the road to Ingende from Mbandaka. A half hour delay only
That's Rev. Eliki BONANGA, Disciples President, greeting a family traveling by pirogue to Mbandaka

Pothos plants grow bigger in Congo! So do papayas!!
Unique rainforest fruits the "metanique" on the right and "safo" on the left
Ikengo children offering a "mondimbi" fruit to the "mondele" white man
Following the baptism in a roadside pool of Ikalenganya parish
Breadfruit tree - the leaves are a favorite image in the cut outs of Henri Matisse
Five of us helped baptise 41 youth on 7/11/10 in Ikalenganya parish
Rainfall averages 85 " a year at Mbandaka; we're used to 14 " in L.A.
Taken on the porch of the Disciples guest house, Mbandaka
"There was in it one river especially, a mighty big river, that you could see on the map, resembling an immense snake uncoiled, with its head n the sea, its body at rest curving afar over a vast country, and its tail lost inthe depths of the land." Conrad, H of D, p. 22

Africa’s Largest Rainforest (Jungle!) Preserve

Rev. MPUTU Clement, Vice President of the Disciples’ Community, recently sent the following message (translated here from the French):

“I am writing from the heart of the equatorial rain forest in the Salonga National Park near Monkoto.  By the grace of God and the miracle of today’s technology I am sending you this message.  We are meeting here for the training of pastors and laypersons of the area.  The schedule for our departure by air remains uncertain and  security in this region is threatened.  Please pray for us.  May God be with you.”

The Salonga National Park in the south of Equateur Province and stretching into two other provinces of the Congo, is the largest rain forest preserve in the world.

A river flows through the Salonga National Park which covers an area of the Congo larger then Belgium.

It is also one of the most isolated and challenging places to get to in the Congo. Although many bonobo, now a celebrity among the primates, roam widely in the Salonga only a few researchers and virtually no tourists have observed this celebrity among the primates in this habitat.

Several parishes of the Disciples Community of the Church of Christ of Congo border the Salonga National Park.  The airport most often used by researchers is at the former mission “post” of Monkoto and the park entrance nearby is on the edge of Ifumo, another Disciples “post”.

Funded by UNESCO which named Salonga a World Heritage Site in Danger in 1999, a French conservation and environmental non profit oversees protection and preservation of the Salonga’s resources.  The non profit’s on site operations director is ENGELEMBA Celestin, former Director of the Disciples’ Ikengo farm project.

On my left is ENGELEMBA Celestin, Former Ikengo Director, with BOSALA Rio, current Director on the right

Shortly before my departure in mid August from Mbandaka, Radio Okakpi reported that Congolese troops had been deployed to the Salonga National Park to curb illegal poaching – of elephants especially.  Rev. MPUTU’s message implies security remains dicey in the area.  In addition to praying for the people in the Park and in villages bordering the Salonga, there is need for prayer and action to preserve the forest habitat throughout the Congo.  More on that in the next post.