Non profit activists in the U.S. and Congo are collaborating in a new effort to shepherd Congolese youth who will honor the legacy of Patrice Lumumba. The opening of the new Andrée Blouin Cultural Center in an upscale residential neighborhood of Kinshasa could mark a significant strengthening of ties with civil society supporters in the U.S. A short distance from the Nelson Mandela Plaza in the Congolese capital, the new Cultural Center building will house workshops, conferences, cultural programs as well as house offices managing the leadership development programs.
In addition to cultural exchanges and opportunities to travel throughout Africa and beyond, the Center is now taking scholarship applications from Congolese students. U.S. donors particularly in the areas of Washington, DC and New York City have generously supported the scholarship program. Applications for a scholarship may be found at this Facebook address maintained by a leading organizer of the U.S. assistance.
The new Cultural Center gala opening was celebrated on July 2, Patrice Lumumba’s birthday. U.S. friends of the Congo attending the event noted that civil rights leader Medger Evers was born on the same day as the leading Congolese advocate for self determination and national unity. Lumumba’s speeches often highlighted the equal rights of women and his Chief of Protocol Andrée Blouin was a leader in organizing women for the independence movement.
Naming the Center for Blouin will hopefully deepen appreciation for a Congolese woman who played a prominent role as advisor and organizer for Sekou Toure in Guinea before her return to Congo in 1959-60.
We can hope that the new Cultural Center in Kinshasa will also help fill in the story of a notable female leader in the African independence movement while further educating young Congolese on the legacy of the man who was called the 20th Century’s most significant African political figure by Malcolm X.
“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:
Joseph Conrad began his journey up the Congo River that would inspire the writing of his Heart of Darkness only five years after Belgium’s King Leopold II took possession of the Congo as his personal estate at the Berlin Conference of 1885. The six months Conrad spent in Congo dramatically changed his life and led the sea captain to reflect until his death on “the vilest scramble for loot that ever disfigured the history of human conscience and geographical exploration”.
Eight years later, when in his new career as writer Conrad recreated his Congo experiences, King Leopold’s agents had almost stopped demanding tax payments of ivory in favor of the forced harvesting of natural rubber from the country’s vast rain forests. Leopold’s grand design, which first took shape on reading Henry Morton Stanley’s descriptions of a country of “unspeakable riches” waiting for “an
enterprising capitalist” to “take the matter in hand”, was becoming a reality at the cost of unspeakable suffering of the Congolese people. By the time Conrad put his pen to paper, the country “had become a place of darkness” he wrote in A Personal Record .
It became a “place of darkness” not due to behaviors of the African population but due to, in the words of one literary critic, “the savage degradation of the white man in Africa” that Conrad witnessed. In setting out to describe the atrocities wrought by Leopold II’s grand design, Conrad was driven by “that glimpse of truth for which you have forgotten to ask”.
The writer’s discovery of the “truth” of Congo under Leopold’s rule was greatly aided by his brief contact with the Irishman Roger Casement soon after arrival in the country. Casement’s 1903 report for the British Foreign Service sparked worldwide condemnation of the “Congo Free State” and helped force Leopold’s eventual abdication of rule over the country. Among the many personal accounts of brutality included in Casement’s report was one from a Disciples of Christ missionary. A founder of the Disciples’ first mission station at Bolenge, Ellsworth Faris, recounted in his diary an 1899 meeting with “Free State” agent Simon Roi:
“Each time the corporal goes out to get rubber, cartridges are given to him. He must bring back all not used; and for every one used he must bring back a right hand! As to the extent to which this is crried on, (Roi) informed me that in six months they, the State, on the Momboyo River had used 6000 cartridges, which means that 6000 people are killed or mutilated. It means more than 6000, for the people have told me repeatedly that the soldiers kill children with the butt of their guns.”
The Bolenge mission Faris established was a long day’s boat ride from the Lulonga River’s flow into the mighty Congo. The village of Lulonga, at the confluence, was the last place name mentioned in Conrad’s Congo diary. “Lulonga passage….N by E to NNE. On the Port Side: Snags.” Not long after Conrad’s visit, the Anglo Belgian India Rubber Company, the first and largest company in the Free State’s grisly history, was established at Basankusu where the Lulonga River begins in today’s Equateur Province. Leopold’s own commission of inquiry into the human rights abuses in Congo singled out the ABIR Company’s tactics of rubber exploitation in the Basankusu Region as “the black spot on the history of Central African settlement”.
The impact of Conrad’s imaginative tale of the rapacious exploitation of Congo’s resources has had more of an impact on Western culture than on the West’s political and commercial presence in Congo. In his post WW I poem “The Wasteland” TS Eliot’s original epigraph for the poem quoted Kurtz’s “cry that was no more than a breath – ‘The horror! the horror!’”. Although scrapped due to WW II concerns, a screen adaptation of Heart of Darkness was to be Orson Welles’ first film for RKO Pictures. And when Francis Ford Coppola sought to depict the madness and brutality of the U.S. War in Vietnam, “the greatest portrait in fiction of Europeans in the Scramble for Africa” (in Adam Hochschild’s words) was again adapted for the movie screen as “Apocalypse Now”. An outstanding example of the impact on the West’s intellectual dialog is the novella’s influence in the eminent Palestinian critic Edward Said’s thought. One of his biographers wrote that Heart of Darkness was “foundational to Said’s entire career and project”.
For Conrad himself, the six months in Congo resulted in a political awakening that shaped the rest of his life and his writing career. When he left for Africa he was persuaded that although Leopold’s enterprise aimed to make a profit it was a noble and ‘civilising’ mission. Years after his Congo journey, Conrad declared to the literary critic Edward Garnett that at the time he had had “not a thought in his head”.
Since Conrad’s day, Congo has experienced political change but the basic pattern of the exploitation of the nation’s vast resources primarily for the benefit of foreigners has not changed. This spring’s kidnapping and murder of a U.S. and Swedish UN investigator
inquiring about the recent outbreaks of violence in the Kasai constitutes recent evidence that rule of the Congo is still marked by brutality and impunity. The primary difference in Congo’s politics of our time is that “the vilest scramble for loot that ever disfigured the history of human conscience” has coopted and now enriches a tiny elite of Congolese nationals “to tear treasure out of the bowels of the earth…..with no more moral purpose in back of it than there is in burglars breaking into a safe” (Heart of Darkness).
At the end of 2016 two separate investigations revealed the extent to which Congo’s President Joseph Kabila and family have profited from business dealings and bribes during the Kabila administration. In a country where the average daily income was figured to be $1.90 last year, its President has wielded his authority to build a lucrative business empire managed by his wife, his children and siblings. Recently released reports confirm that the “kleptocracy” under Mobutu’s 32 years as the executive head of Congo’s government has been preserved by his young successor.
The first source of evidence of massive corruption focuses on bribes paid out to officials of the Kabila administration. In an agreement with the U.S. Department of Justice signed the end of September 2016, the Och-Ziff Capital Management Group corroborated the payment of over $100 million in bribes between 2008 and 2012 to Congolese officials and the U.S. based hedge fund accepted a fine of $413 million for violation of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act. Further, the legal document detailing the agreement reports on $10.75 million paid out to a “DRC official 1” who NYU’s Congo Research Group reports is “most likely Joseph Kabila”.
The second source results from extensive research by staff of the Bloomberg News on the Kabila family business holdings in Congo. In the December 2016 article titled “With His Family’s Fortune at Stake, President Kabila Digs In”, three Bloomberg reporters write, “Joseph Kabila and his relatives have built a network of businesses that reaches into every corner of Congo’s economy”. Based on review of court filings, company documents and interviews with Congolese business persons, the Kabila family now own at least 70 companies in Congo.
One of the first actions of the new U.S. Congress was to help hide future deal making by the Congo President and the rest of the Kabila family. Less than two weeks after the Trump inauguration, the House struck down the Cardin Lugar Section 1504 “Transparency Amendment” of the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform Act. This means the payments by U.S. companies, such as those made by the hedge fund Och-Ziff, to foreign officials would no longer have to be disclosed. Should the Senate approve repeal of the Cardin Lugar measure aimed at helping protect countries burdened by the “resource curse”, bribery by U.S. multinationals of Congolese officials would remain business as usual.
While doubt rises regarding the Kabila administration’s commitment to the President election agreement of December 31, 2016, we take a tour of one of Congo’s poorest and most remote regions with Théodore Trefon. The tropical rainforest, our earth’s second largest, in Tshuapa and Equateur Provinces is where schools and health clinics maintained and supervised by staff of the Disciples of Christ Community of the Church of Christ of Congo offer the only social services.
With the photos below, we are again led to marvel at the resourcefulness, resilience, strength and beauty of the Congolese people. In spite of mounting evidence of Congo’s rule by a government dedicated to the most abject greed and self dealing, the people carry on their lives in what is one of the richest, most awe inspiring environments on the planet. For 25 years, Trefon has focused his research on Congo and now this U.S. born political scientist works at the Museum of Central Africa in Tervuren, Belgium. The photo gallery below is from pictures displayed at http://congomasquerade.blogspot.com/
which is also the name of his latest book.
For a larger view of the photos in a slideshow format click on the first picture and scroll horizontally
“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?”
The following message was sent me a few days ago by Congolese friend Frederic Lombe who shared his office with me in the Mbandaka headquarters of the Disciples “Communaute”. With it, he has asked me and several U.K and U.S. based friends for advice on the Congolese pursuit of democratic rule. The complete message and my response follow. If you would like to respond to Fred’s heart felt inquiry, you may use the comments section of the blog or write me at email@example.com.
I am sure you all are more informed and experienced in the DEMOCRACY than us here. What can you advice me about what happens here in my country? I am often in contact with different people and many of them concluded that they will not vote in the future because it is not necessary when their willing is not respected. And I think you are following through your TV, there is already much trouble, we are going to die as flies. Your powers showed us this excellent system to vote the one people like much, but finally the contrast. The dictature continues, so what can we do now? Your different replies will encourage my family and myself.
Dear Fred –
Someone once said, “the price of liberty is eternal vigilance”. We in the United States, a young nation but with two hundred thirty five years of pursuing liberty through democratic rule, keep learning the truth of this statement. Our democracy is always in jeopardy but today’s threat posed by a small minority with wealth and power seems to be especially great.
You may have heard about the increasing gap between the very rich and the rest of the U.S. citizens. Over the past thirty years, but accelerated during the younger Bush administration, taxes on the rich have been cut resulting in part for a massive transfer of wealth from the middle income in the U.S. to the wealthy. Some of the largest U.S. corporations, G.E. for example, pay little to no tax on their profits and pay their executive management annual salaries and bonuses larger than most Americans make in a lifetime.
It is increasingly apparent that the great wealth of a small elite in our country is being used to manipulate elections in our American democracy. Skepticism continues regarding the results in our 2000 and 2004 presidential elections. The Republican party in the U.S. slavishly adheres to an ideology favoring the wealthy and has appointed most of the current members of the U.S. Supreme Court. That Court in the recent Citizens United decision gave unprecedented support for corporations to use their funds to back the candidates they favor. We now know that the conservative/corporate ideology favoring the wealthy has been promoted by the investment of millions of dollars by billionaires such as the Koch brothers and Art Pope in North Carolina with the aim of electing like-minded candidates.
It is the gap in wealth and the super wealthy’s increasing influence on the electoral process in the U.S. that the Occupy Wall Street movement is protesting; like the “revolutionaries” who opposed British rule of the U.S. colony and set the stage for the writing the Declaration of Independence and the rule “by the people”, protest is a hallowed tradition in our country and, I believe, in every nation where the people truly rule.
A recent example in Africa of a non violent people’s movement taking power from an elite and standing up for democratic rule comes from Liberia. It is not surprising that the Liberian women who demanded the Charles Taylor regime make peace with the rebels also backed the election of a woman as the first President of an African country. Organizing meetings of women from all backgrounds with the simple aim of “We want peace. No more war” it was women
in Liberia who also brought about free and fair elections with Ms. Johnson Sirleaf being reelected to a second term.
It should be noted that while the Liberian women represented diverse Muslim and Christian faith backgrounds, it was prayer and deep faith in our God of justice that held them together and on course. Nobel Peace Prize co-awardee Leymah Gbowee describes the movement’s beginnings in this way. “We started a peace outreach project, going to the churches on Sunday, to the market stalls on Saturday, the mosques on Friday.” And when there was confusion and dissension among the women, one of them would intervene with the unifying reminder, “We need to pray”.
You say, “we are going to die as flies” but so far as I know very few of those women in Liberia died. Ms. Gbowee was asked to serve as a cabinet member by the new President. She declined because she was afraid it would weaken her capacity to continue bringing about positive change in her homeland. Liberia is fortunate to have women and men like her leading the way to rule by the people and for the people. What will their system of government eventually become? Will it be a democracy like the U.S. Or a parliamentary system like in England? I don’t know, but I do know Ms. Gbowee, like Patrice Lumumba in the Congo, will always be acclaimed as a great leader in her country.
Thank you for your note. I look forward to continuing our dialog in the new year.
Microcredit organizing has already boosted the income of many Disciples households and some congregations and
provides further evidence that the “social economy” can help drive economic development in Congo. “Mobilising microfinance is critical to the success of social enterprises including through savings and credit cooperative organizations” observed the recent U.N. Environment Program “Post Conflict Environmental Assessment Synthesis for Policy Makers”. The UN report touts microfinance as a means to generate employment and allow Congolese to “deal pragmatically with their own development priorities”.
But as is typical of Congo culture, microcredit Congo style is often different from the pattern followed in other countries and often varies from group to group. While some groups begin with seed funding, the Microcredit Union of women in Mbandaka’s Besenge parish began with no funding other than what was brought by members of the group. Twenty five women divided into two groups and met twice a month, each member bringing at least 1000 Congolese Francs (about $1.20) to the meeting. One group of women is invited to take a loan on the 10th of the month, according to group leader Mama Micheline Mwami, and the other on the 25th of the month. The next month the women return the amount taken out plus 10 per cent interest. Some women bring more than the minimum contribution from month to month to enable larger loans and larger profits for the group. Within a year, the Besenge group distributed among the 25 women, proportionate to their “investments”, savings and profits of just under $1900.
In the urban setting, many of the women participating in a Disciples organized Microcredit Union begin small businesses with their loans. By contrast, in the rural setting of Bonsombo (Lofoy is its “mission post”), ten families decided to pool their funds and buy seed and tools to cultivate ten hectares of land, agriculture being the primary source of cash in their experience. In the cash economy of Equateur Province’s capital of Mbandaka, the potential for larger investments and earnings is much greater.
Aided by $1400 in seed funding, the Mbandaka pastors’ wives group enabled group leader Mama Lombe to receive a total of $100 the first three months from her Union’s fund pool. She set up a table on a downtown Mbandaka street and began selling children’s underwear, soap, tomatoes and biscuits and returned $105, 5 % interest being the group profit on the loan. After the “Emmanuela” group’s first six months, $2417 was distributed among the members. More recently, after two years of the growth of the group and of the participants’ small business ventures, $12,000 in savings and earnings was shared by group members.
With no banks now providing credit to the 750,000 persons of the city of Mbandaka or anywhere else in Equateur province, the Microcredit Unions have rekindled the “social economy”, the UNEP report’s term, and
entrepreneurship in urban areas where groups have been organized. Enthusiasm among Disciples for the Microcredit organizing has led to Pauline Ngoy presenting for students at the Bolenge Protestant University of the Equateur a lecture on “Microcredit and Evangelism”.
You can contribute to the Microcredit Union organizing by the Disciples in Congo by sending a check designated for “Microcredit in Congo” to Global Ministries, P.O.B. 1986, Indianapolis, IN 46206-1986. You can also make a gift online by going to:
A contribution of $150 will enable purchase of a group’s “kit” – a wooden box with calculator, notebooks for each group’s three “accountants”, pens and pencils. The more contributions received by Global Ministries, the more groups will be started with some “seed” funding as well as the “kit”.
Follow new developments in the Microcredit organizing on Nathan Weteto’s blog; English translation can be accessed at: