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.
“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.
A long line of visitors waited for hours to speak with Mbandaka native son M. BOETSA during his stay last summer. Living next to him in the duplex housing at the “Maison des Missionaires” I had the opportunity to get acquainted with this esteemed native son and learn the reason for his return.
During the colonial era, the Belgians had built in Mbandaka what they envisioned would be the first and only Institute for Tropical Medicine in Central Africa. Independence scuttled those plans but a Belgian foundation now wants M. BOETSA to carry out the original vision of a medical research center in Mbandaka. Having caught wind of those plans, the Congolese Ministry of Education has asked him to also consider assuming the post of C.E.O. of the University in Mbandaka.
For more than twenty years, he has raised a family and taught biology at the Ecole Polytechnique in Paris. Raised in the Disciples church, BOETSA told me about his baptism at the Mbandaka III cathedral church and how his parents continue to participate in the Ikongo Wassa Disciples parish of Mbandaka. When I told him of my friendship with Pierre Sangana, now resident of Indianapolis, BOETSA exuberantly described Pierre’s son Georges as one of the most respected surgeons in Paris. He also noted that Pierre’s daughter Aimee, now living in the San Francisco Bay area, had ignored his childhood crush.
M. BOETSA returned to Paris at the end of last summer to ponder the logistics of maintaining a home in Mbandaka and one in Paris. He planned to return with his wife on his next Mbandaka visit and planned to again stay in the “Maison des Missionaires”. His wife had rejected the Ministry of Education’s offer of a large house in town in favor of staying next to the river and enjoying the porch’s cool breezes.
Our thoughts and prayers accompany the 8 Indiana Disciples who on Sunday begin their journey to Mbandaka for a two week visit. With the aim of strengthening the partnership ties of the Indiana and Mbandaka Regions of the Disciples, the group is led by Susan McNeely and the Partnership Chair Rev. Bob Shaw. Follow Susan’s report and commentary on the trip at her blog
While in Mbandaka they will likely be among the first visitors to dine at the new
Restaurant Maman Entombodji next to Disciples headquarters. Running along the south wall of the Secretariat building, this is an income generating, training project of the Disciples’ Department of Women and Families.
Head of the Women’s Department, Rev. Christiane Ikete Engelete, envisions the Restaurant generating revenues for the Department’s programs of literacy education, micro-credit and agricultural cooperatives. Built with the help of funding from the Disciples/U.C.C. Global Ministries and the German United Evangelical Mission, the building comprises the main dining hall, kitchen, office, pantry and interior and exterior rest rooms.
Restaurant Entombodji was dedicated May 12, forty years after Rev. Christiane’s father participated in the dedication of the dormitory at the Disciples’ CAP (Centre Agro-Pastorale) farm in the village of Ikengo. A dedicated Disciples layman at the time, Joseph IKETE served as volunteer Protocol Chief for the occasion. Now in his 70’s Joseph continues to serve the Disciples as Chief Administrative Assistant in President Bonanga’s office.
In closing, a heart felt “Bon Voyage/Kende Malamu” to the Indiana Disciples as they prepare for their long journey beginning Sunday 5/22. They go with our gratitude for helping strengthen the partnership of U.S. and Congo Christians and our trust that their visit will also strengthen the mission witness of churches in both countries.
Nouvelle Cite Sanctuary and Primary School on June 24, 2010 Preschool Graduation Day
Two primary schools with up to 800 students. A preschool with 180 three to five year olds enrolled..Three levels of adult literacy classes which meet between 6 and 7 am before the children arrive for school. A women’s micro loan group with 30 participants. A diaconate committee that assists widows and orphans of the parish. This is not a mega church I’m describing; it’s the Nouvelle Cite parish of Mbandaka where about 450 persons worship every Sunday.
Parish pastor Rev. Ilondo Michel LIKUMBA completed his advanced theological studies at UPC in 2004. Before returning to the Kinshasa campus for the equivalent of the U.S. M. Div. degree in 2002, Rev. LIKUMBA had served the Communaute des Disciples du Christ as a pastor and a Regional Minister. The UPC (Universite Protestant du Congo) grad and his wife Mme. Engesu LIKUMBA have left behind a visible addition to every community they have served: a guest house in Boende, a new church building in the Basoko parish of Mbandaka, the new preschool at Nouvelle Cite.
What impressed me most about this couple is their dedication and sacrifice in educating their 8 children. Four of the children are currently in university; even with Mme. LIKUMBA working in the matenity ward of Mbandaka hospital, much of the household income goes for the children’s education.
Rev. and Mme. LIKUMBA and anyone else who works for the church in Congo needs our help in educating their
children. After preaching this June at Nouvelle Cite, I was presented with a chicken, bananas, plantain, varieties of fruit and an offering amounting to about $7.50. When I learned that the LIKUMBAS’ household includes three orphan children living with them, I considered an increase in my household’s UPC scholarship giving for educating youth with academic promise in Congo.
Contributions for scholarships at either Kinshasa’s Protestant University or the Bolenge Protestant University of the Equateur can be made through Global Ministries of the Chrisitan Church (Disciples of Christ), P.O.B. 1986, Indianapolis, IN 46206, (317)635-3100.
With average rainfall of 85 inches annually, one would think water would not be a problem in Mbandaka, capital of Equateur Province in the Congo. But rainwater catchment systems are rare in the city of 700,000 plus persons and Regideso, the public water utility has been unable to upgrade its infrastructure since the original installations of the 1950’s and 1960’s.
Only 5 per cent of Mbandaka households are served by Regideso. In the country as a whole, only one third of the urban population now enjoys running water; that figure has declined from 68 per cent of urban Congolese with tap water in 1990. Outside Mbandaka, the only other city in Equateur Province with running water is Gemena and from 1990 to 2009 the system there did not function.
This past summer in Mbandaka, my bathroom water barrel was kept full thanks to a large cistern on scaffolding just outside the window. Regideso supplied the water for the cistern but only every other day for a few hours. Were it not for the payments from the Bralima brewery (owned by Heineken) in Mbandaka, Regideso managers say they would be out of business. Drinking water in plastic bottles was purchased for my household, a leading item in the budget.
Warfare in Equateur and in the eastern Congo has contributed to the decline in water delivery systems. With only ten per cent of the estimated 5.4 million deaths in eastern Congo from 1998 to 2006 due to the violence, one wonders how many of the deaths stemmed from typhus, cholera, dysentery and diarrhea transmitted by contaminated water.
While much of Africa suffers from a decades long drought, the Democratic Republic of Congo has no shortage of water. Half the African continent’s water can be found in the Congo. But much of the country’s water is not fit to drink.
Fifty one million Congolese or three fourths of the country’s population do not have access to safe drinking water according to a report released this week by the U.N. Environment Program (UNEP).
The head of UNEP’s Congo office Mr. Hassan Partow noted, “the stark reality is that the DRC has one of the fastest urbanization growth rates in the world and this is not being matched with adequate water and sanitation service delivery”. The study calls for an investment of $169 million over a five year period to upgrade the water delivery infrastructure, especially in urban areas.
Rural Congo is just as threatened by unsafe water as UNICEF’s Congo Director pointed out on World Water Day March 22. Ms. Pierrette Vu Thi stated, “A child living in a Congolese village is four times more likely to drink contaminated water than someone in town.” Current statistics hold that 2 million children under the age of 5 regularly suffer from diarrhea, usually caused by contaminated water in Congo. This makes unsafe water a leading cause of death among Congo’s infants, whose mortality rate is over 20 per cent in
many areas of the country.
Strongly recommended by the U.N. study are undertaking low cost solutions such as communal taps and rainwater catchment systems.
Short video of June 24, 2010 Preschool Graduation at the Nouvelle Cite Disciples parish in Mbandaka, Congo. Note the talcum powder poured on the graduates’ head at the end of the video. Anyone out there who can explain why the powder please let us know.