Global Citizen Muhammed Ali

Muhammed Ali on the way from Kinshasa to his Nsele training camp 1974
Muhammed Ali on the way from Kinshasa to his Nsele training camp 1974. News coverage of his refusal to be inducted for the Vietnam War had elevated him to heroic stature world wide

“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

Ali praying over The Koran in an African mosque
Ali praying over The Koran in an African mosque
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.”[8] 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.” [14] 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?”

Muslims and Christians “Together Towards Life”

These days, we in the United States continue to discover new intersections of our personal political positions and our personal theology. In this year’s campaign for President, the issue of immigration policy has taken a new direction with even more obvious theological overtones in the contrasting positions of the two parties on admitting Muslim refugees.

As we approach the presidential election, it is likely that Donald Trump’s opposition to Muslims being admitted into the country will continue to feed the perception that the nation with the most Christians in the world is conducting a war on Islam. Some U.S. Christians counter that perception with action such as helping Syrian

Head of the largest Christian university in the U.S. Jerry Falwell Jr. joined Donald Trump at a January campaign event in Iowa
Head of the largest Christian university in the U.S. Jerry Falwell Jr. joined Donald Trump at a January campaign event in Iowa
refugees resettle in the country (as reported in the last blog on In our context of xenophobia and fear, such action needs now to be joined by defense of freedom of religion along with declaring trust and respect for adherents of Islam.

It is also important if not urgent for Christians in the U.S. to clarify their views on mission and evangelism in the Muslim world. Prior to the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, conservative Christian mission boards in the U.S. had considerably stepped up efforts to convert Muslims overseas to the Christian faith. The Southern Baptist Convention began distribution of a prayer guide in the late 90’s to guide their followers in praying for conversion of Muslims at the same time they considerably increased the number of missionaries being sent to majority Muslim countries such as Kyrgyzstan.

Fortunately, U.S. Christians seeking ways to unite with Muslims in movements of reconciliation and healing worldwide can find guidance and encouragement in the beautiful statement written by the Commission on Mission and

Chair of the Commission on Mission and Evangelism Bishop Mor Coorilos (WCC photo)
Chair of the Commission on Mission and Evangelism Bishop Mor Coorilos (WCC photo)
Evangelism of the 349 worldwide churches making up the World Council of Churches. Led by a Bishop of the Syrian Orthodox Church, the Commission unequivocally proclaims that the aim of Christian mission and evangelism today is to join with persons of other faith traditions in affirming human life and the whole of creation.

A summary statement of the Commission’s 2012 document “Together Towards Life: Mission and Evangelism in Changing Landscapes” declares, “Authentic evangelism is done with respect for freedom of religion and belief, for all human beings as images of God. Proselytism by violent means, economic incentive, or abuse of power is contrary to the message of the gospel. In doing evangelism it is important to build relations of respect and trust between people of different faiths.”

At the beginning of the document, the Commission envisions its task as discerning the implications of the “shift of the centre of gravity of Christianity”. One outcome emphasized is the accompanying “shift in mission concept from ‘mission to the margins’ to ‘mission from the margins’” and the ensuing question of “what then is the distinctive contribution of the people from the margins?”

Living the Christian faith as a minority community on the “margins” leads to some profound reflections on our relationships with persons of other faiths: “Plurality is a challenge to the churches and serious commitment to interfaith dialogue and cross-cultural communication is therefore indispensable. What are the ecumenical convictions regarding common witnessing and practicing life-giving mission in a world of many religions and cultures?”

One conviction that emerged from the Commission’s deliberations is that “mission activity linked with colonization has often denigrated cultures and failed to recognize the wisdom of local people. Local wisdom and culture which are life-affirming are gifts from God’s Spirit.” Christians in mission today who join with “local people”, whatever

Son of a Muslim immigrant bus driver Sadiq Khan is the newly elected Mayor of London (Photo by Jonathan Brady, Press Association)
Son of a Muslim immigrant bus driver Sadiq Khan is the newly elected Mayor of London (Photo by Jonathan Brady, Press Association)
their faith tradition, in life sustaining and life enhancing actions find that “marginalized people are reservoirs of the active hope, collective resistance, and perseverance that are needed to remain faithful to the promised reign of God”.

In this time of deep division within the two political parties of the United States and within the country itself, the World Council of Churches’ overview of Christian mission and evangelism calls us to a new vision of unity. The document “Together Towards Life” challenges us to include the entire human species in our interpretation and celebration of the familiar words of Psalm 133:

“How very good and pleasant it is/ when kindred live together in unity!” (NRSV version)

Pour la traduction du document de la Commission en francais ver

Pour la traducción en español du document de la Comisión ver

“Beyond Vietnam 1967 to Congo 2016”

Nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize, Dr. Denis Mukwege has pioneered surgical treatment of gang rape victims in eastern Congo.  He is the son of pastors in the Pentecostal Church.
Nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize, Dr. Denis Mukwege has pioneered surgical treatment of gang rape victims in eastern Congo. He is the son of pastors in the Pentecostal Church.

On April 4, 1967 at Riverside Church in New York City, civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King spoke out against the U.S. waging war on Vietnam. His “Beyond Vietnam” sermon will undoubtedly stand as a landmark speech in the history of the United States. Among the words of powerful prophecy we read,

“The war in Vietnam is but a symptom of a far deeper malady within the American spirit, and if we ignore this sobering reality [applause], and if we ignore this sobering reality, we will find ourselves organizing “clergy and laymen concerned” committees for the next generation. They will be concerned about Guatemala and Peru. They will be concerned about Thailand and Cambodia. They will be concerned about Mozambique and South Africa. We will be marching for these and a dozen other names and attending rallies without end unless there is a significant and profound change in American life and policy. [sustained applause] So such thoughts take us beyond Vietnam, but not beyond our calling as sons of the living God.

In 1957 a sensitive American official overseas said that it seemed to him that our nation was on the wrong side of a world revolution. During the past ten years we have seen emerge a pattern of suppression which has now justified the presence of U.S. military advisors in Venezuela. This need to maintain social stability for our investments accounts for the counterrevolutionary action of American forces in Guatemala. It tells why American helicopters are being used against guerrillas in Cambodia and why American napalm and Green Beret forces have already been active against rebels in Peru.”

Today a peaceful revolution is under way in the Congo. This revolution prevented the regime in power from changing the constitution last year to extend the president’s rule. Despite heightened repression of the opposition, demonstrations throughout the country this year have called on the government to prepare for the constitutionally- mandated presidential election. The response to these demonstrations has been arrests and attempts to silence Congolese citizens’ calls for change and their defense of the right to a free and fair presidential election in 2016.

One of those speaking out for change is the renowned Congolese doctor and founder of the leading clinic treating victims of the violence in eastern Congo. In a March talk at the French cultural center in Kinshasa, Dr. Denis Mukwege declared that in an election year which also brings the end of the President’s second term, “We have spoken too much of rape, of war and destruction; now is the time when we can also talk about development”. In response, the government’s spokesperson chastised the surgeon for “talking politics” and characterized his speech as “gross pandering” stating that he should focus on his medical work.

Within Congo, the government in power is attempting to silence even members of opposing political parties. In Equateur Province, the governor elected in March, M. Tony Patrick Bolamba, identifies himself as an “Independent”, which apparently is cause for suspicion. Since his election, the ruling party has attempted to unseat him to no avail. Their latest accusation challenged the validity of the new governor’s voter i.d. card. Such a trivial charge is another sign that the President’s party has been intent on preserving his rule indefinitely. In a “mini-gathering” of the ruling party held in Mbandaka two years ago its Secretary General declared, “We must enable the party and its founder (President Kabila) to hold on to power”.

What is the United States and other major foreign powers doing to support constitutionally-mandated change in Congo? What are the major powers doing to support the peaceful revolution under way now? Unfortunately, very little. Apart from statements calling for the election to be held, no action has been taken to bolster the people’s calls for change.

The focus of the major powers remains pacifying eastern Congo. On March 30, the UN Security Council voted to maintain the UN’s 20,000 member force for another year “to ensure an environment conducive to a free, fair, credible, inclusive, transparent, peaceful and timely electoral process.” Investing in reducing the mayhem and horror wrought by multiple armed groups plundering eastern Congo does little to nothing to support the holding of elections and the peaceful revolution carried out by the people of the country. The primary obstacle to holding free and fair presidential elections is not the marauding bandits of eastern Congo; the primary obstacle is in Kinshasa where the current government will never have, as the Mobutu regime never had, the popular backing nor the will to pacify the eastern region of the vast country. The latest UN resolution defies the regime’s desire to have the UN force reduced but does nothing to pressure the regime to prepare for the presidential election.

Why no sanctions on economic dealings of Congolese regime leaders as the U.S. has undertaken with respect to Venezuela? Why no withholding of aid to Congo by Belgium, France or the U.S.? Why no embargo imposed on Congolese exports? Maintaining UN troops in the East simply shores up the current regime’s armed forces and their enforcement of the status quo and stands in opposition therefore to the peaceful revolution in embryo throughout the country.

As achieved in South Africa, as well as in all the former Portuguese colonies including Mozambique, free and fair presidential elections will some day be held in Congo. It is the will and the dream of the Congolese people since independence from Belgian rule in 1960. The questions now are how much longer must they wait and at what cost? How the United States responds to the people’s organizing for change in Congo will have much to do with the answers to these questions.

Could it be that the U.S. embrace of political change in Congo will require profound change in the United States? Following the words quoted above from the “Beyond Vietnam” speech, the Baptist preacher declared,

“The words of the late John F. Kennedy come back to haunt us. Five years ago he said, “Those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable.” [applause] Increasingly, by choice or by accident, this is the role our nation has taken, the role of those who make peaceful revolution impossible by refusing to give up the privileges and the pleasures that come from the immense profits of overseas investments. I am convinced that if we are to get on to the right side of the world revolution, we as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values. We must rapidly begin [applause], we must rapidly begin the shift from a thing-oriented society to a person-oriented society. When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights, are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, extreme materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered.”

Nearly fifty years later, we are still a long way in the U.S. from making the shift to that “person-oriented society” Martin Luther King envisioned. Does this mean the people of Congo cannot count on their nation’s leading benefactor, the U.S. government, to support them in their peaceful revolution? The answer to this question at this time has to be yes. Does this mean the Congolese should not count on friends in the U.S. to stand with them in their struggle for freedom? The answer to this question remains to be seen.

***************************** ******************** ******************************

The entire text of “Beyond Vietnam” can be found at the King archives’ site:

Congo Presidential Election in Question

Mbandaka's Mayor ruled out the organizing of a march and rally in support of President Kabila last November citing "insecurity" as the reason
Mbandaka's Mayor ruled out the organizing of a march and rally in support of President Kabila last November citing "insecurity" as the reason

It appears that once again the people’s hopes for a free and fair presidential election in Congo are about to be dashed. Congolese and international observers along with Congo’s opposition party leaders are increasingly questioning the wisdom of attempting an election in November of this year. Various facts on the ground feed their doubt about the nation’s readiness to undertake the logistical challenges under the auspices of a barely functioning central state with a history of conflict.

Expectations of increased international aid to monitor and organize the polls have been disappointed. And little concrete evidence exists that a coalition of opposition parties will be created to present a serious challenge to the current rule of the Kabila administration. With the change in the constitution ruling out a run off when no candidate gains a majority of the vote, the incumbent president Kabila is virtually guaranteed victory without an opposing coalition candidate.

Initial steps in organizing the election have faltered. The Congolese electoral commission recently reported that only half the eligible voters have been registered in Equateur Province with similar results elsewhere. Some observers fault the lack of international funding for this election. A recent article notes, “While the 2006 election costs of US $500 million were funded almost entirely by international donors, this year the DRC is expected to shoulder 60 percent of the financial burden.”

The article goes on to quote a Kinshasa reporter’s questioning of the U.K Ambassador to Congo, “What is the explanation for the fact that five years ago there was an enthusiasm from the west surrounding the 2006 elections while today we sense a lack of attentiveness for those of 2011?”

According to the article, Ambassador Wigan of the U.K. responded by saying that “90 percent of the 2006 elections were financed by the west because they were the first to be held post-conflict, and the DRC needed hand-holding. This time, everyone wants to see the Congolese carry out elections with less outside support. “It’s not a lack of enthusiasm, but rather the evolution of democracy,” Wigan said.

The presence of 20,000 U.N. sponsored international troops in Congo may not be enough to enable further evolution of a fragile democracy in Congo. The head of the UN Mission in Congo (MONUSCO), Roger Meece, has said other organizations are in a better position to monitor the elections and he now seems to value good relations with the Kabila administration above the holding of a fair presidential election any time soon.

New Book on Congo’s Conflicts

A new book on the causes and evolution of the conflicts in eastern Congo has received favorable reviews in leading U.S. publications.  Jason Stearns, a young American who began serving as a relief worker in the area in 2001, has just

Excitement and hopes were high at the 10th Independence Anniversary Parade in Mbandaka on June 30, 1970. What a contrast to the sombre, reflective mood across the nation on the 50th Anniversary last June 30.

published Dancing in the Glory of Monsters: The Collapse of the Congo and the Great War of Africa

Adam Hochschild, author of King Leopold’s Ghost,  wrote in his April 1 review in The New York Times  : “The task facing anyone who tries to tell this whole story is formidable, but Stearns by and large rises to it. He has lived in the country, and has done a raft of interviews with people who witnessed what happened before he got there. Occasionally the chain of names of people and places temporarily swamps the reader, but on the whole his picture is clear, made painfully real by a series of close-up portraits.”

The American Congo-based political scientist who writes the blog “Texas in Africa” also has commented favorably on Stearns’ book:  “As someone who has read the bulk of what’s been published on the conflict over the course of the last fifteen years, I can unequivocally say that this is the most accessible introduction to the country’s multi-layered local conflict, civil war, and international wars out there. In short, if you want to understand the DRC wars, you need to read this book.”

We will have to wait it seems for the book which covers the conflicts of eastern Congo’s effects on the nation as a whole

"Servir: Oui!; Se Servir: Non!" emblazoned the official "pagne" of the Mouvement Populaire de la Revolution during the 10th Anniversary Year

or the book which assesses the post Mobutu state’s attempts to control exploitation of Congo’s resources other than the minerals.  Since the promulgation of the new Law of the Forest early in the current Kabila administration, cutting of the Congo rainforest in Equateur Province has stepped up considerably.  Environmental groups such as Greenpeace International are monitoring the signing of contracts with European timber companies and recently protested the World Bank’s approval of the state’s opening up the rainforest to increased harvesting.

U.S. Congress Updated on Congo

Actor Ben Affleck and Cindy McCain, wife of US.. Sen. John McCain, arrive before testifying on Congo before the House Africa, Global Health and Human Rights Subcommittee on Capitol Hill.

Last week the U.S. Congress turned some of its attention to the situation in Congo.  Not surprisingly, Hollywood actor Ben Affleck’s testimony became the focus of the media attention.  The House Foreign Affairs Africa Subcommittee hearing heard testimony from the State Department, the U.S. Agency for International Development, and human rights groups, including the Eastern Congo Initiative that Affleck founded in 2010. 

The new Chair of the Africa Subcommittee, Chris Smith, R-NJ, noted that Congo is one of the five poorest countries in the world, with 80 per cent of its people living on income of less than $2 per day.  With the regular outbreak of armed conflict and mass rape, many lives have been lost in eastern Congo by the failure to respond to the challenges to health posed by malnutrition, malaria, pneumonia and diarrahea.  Most affected are children under 5, the majority of the estimated 5.4 million (International Rescue Committee figure) who have died in the war torn areas of eastern Congo since 1998.

Affleck’s testimony emphasized the importance of the national elections scheduled for this year. “The path to stability in today’s Congo requires fostering stable elections and preventing another disaster that would easily require hundreds of millions of dollars in assistance. Come November we must be able to look ourselves in the eye and say that we did what our principles demanded [and] we helped democracy emerge in a place where tragedy is the alternative.” 

Having traveled three times in the last year to the eastern Congo, among the actor’s policy recommendations were the appointment of a U.S. envoy to Congo and increased funding of the Congo electoral process.  Interesting to note that Mr. Affleck did not call for that funding to be channeled through the U.N. whose peacekeeping and civil society support efforts are woefully underfunded.

Last month the head of the U.N. Mission in Congo (MONUSCO) warned that lack of funding of  their election related activities would be dire.  Former U.S. Ambassador to Congo and Indianapolis native Roger Meece declared, “it is not yet clear we will have needed funds in the 2011/2012 budget cycle to ensure the necessary logistical support we are uniquely positioned to provide.”  He did not mention that at this time the UN presence in Congo is scheduled to end on June 30.

Congo Elections Update


Leaders of Opposition Parties Committed to a United Front in the Presidential Election. Jean-Claude Vuemba, second from right, and Vital Kamerhe, not pictured but President of the National Assembly, are spokespersons for the unity movement.

Since independence in 1960, only two democratically elected heads of state have governed in Congo.  As leading Congolese political scientist Georges Nzongola-Ntalaja points out, both Patrice Lumumba in 1960 and Etienne Tshisekedi in 1992 held office for only a brief time before a military coup led by Mobutu.

While the massive undertaking of holding an election in Congo would be a challenge for any government, one key procedural issue has been settled.  On the urging of the Kabila administration, the Assembly has ruled that there will not be a second run off election if no candidate for President is backed by a majority of the voters.  Should the opposition remain divided, and there a few dozen political parties running candidates for the Assembly, the reelection of President Kabila would be virtually assured.

It would be a major achievement for Congo to complete the electoral process without an upsurge of violence in the East and elsewhere in the country.  It would be an even greater achievement, deserving of our most fervent prayers, for Congo to experience a free and fair election resulting in a change in administration.

Patrice Lumumba and Martin Luther King, Jr.

In 1960, U.S. Ambassador to the Congo, Claire Timberlake, reported to Washington on Patrice Lumumba’s powerful leadership skills. He commented that if Lumumba had entered a conference of Congolese politicians as a waiter, he would still have emerged by the meeting’s end as their elected leader

Since Lumumba’s assassination fifty years ago today his vision of a united, democratic and truly independent Congo has become the polar star for the nation. Both leading candidates for the presidency in 2005 claimed to be the heirs of Lumumba’s legacy of national leadership. His statue stands atop a lofty pillar on the route from the airport to the capital city of Kinshasa. No one has and no one is likely to ever dislodge Lumumba as the Jefferson and the Washington of the Congolese nation.

The source of Lumumba’s power was aptly described by Martin Luther King in Where Do We Go From Here, his last book, described by Cornel West as “his most prophetic challenge to powers that be”. In the final chapter of that book, “The World House”, Rev. King wrote, “Once the aspirations and appetites of the world have been whetted by the marvels of Western technology and the self-image of a people awakened by religion, one cannot hope to keep a people locked out of the earthly kingdom of wealth, health and happiness. Either they share in the blessings of the world or they organize to break down and overthrow those structures or governments which stand in the way of their goals.”

The Congolese people remain far from the “earthly kingdom” King refers to, and in their struggle against “governments which stand in the way of their goals” Lumumba’s words, political stands and martyrdom continue to inspire and empower. Once again, at the end of this year, a national election holds the promise of the formation of a government which truly serves the Congolese people first and foremost.

The presence of the largest U.N. peacekeeping force in the word today represents the best hope for a peaceful transition to government by the people and for the people in Congo. The sizable contingent of African troops in the U.N. force in Congo have a special interest in the transition to more democratic rule in Congo. Lumumba declared on the occasion of Congolese independence June 30, 1960,
“The independence of the Congo represents a decisive step toward the liberation of the entire African continent”.

Listen to the Lumumba speech on June 30, 1960 at the following YouTube address:

For a nine minute overview of Lumumba’s contributions to the movement for democracy and unified nationhood in Congo, see the video at the following address:

Within hours of being flown to the secessionist Province of Katanga,  Patrice Lumumba and two compatriots were shot by a Belgian firing squad fifty years ago today.
Read a commentary from today’s New York Times Opinion page on the Lumumba assassination’s long shadow cast over Congolese and, indeed, over African history since 1960. Written by Adam Hochschild, the piece places the event in the context of the long history of exploitation of the country’s vast natural resources by foreign powers.  Go to:

A Season of Hope

In commemoration of the third annual Congo Week October 17-23, I am posting the following article with a plea to all to visit and for updates on how to express solidarity with the people of Congo in their struggle for peace with justice.

A Season of Hope

Wrinkled and hard, the woman looked 70; I did not know her age, only that she was a native of Bunia, the beleaguered city in the eastern Congo terrorized by rebels and its own nation’s army in recent years.  I met her in Mbandaka, a thousand miles from her first home After returning to Bunia and finding none of her family had survived and nothing else to hold her there, she had fled a second time to Mbandaka.

I met her the last night of my two months stay this summer in Mbandaka, the provincial capital of Equateur Province and for me she represented the truth I would have to contend with and describe on my return to the States. Countless times prior to the trip I had been asked about the risk of revisiting the place I lived for two years from 1969 to  1971.  My response had become something like a tape replayed again and again:  Mbandaka was far from the troubles in the eastern Congo and relatively unaffected.

Over the last fifty years since independence as a new nation free of Belgian colonial rule, most of the violent conflict has occurred in the mineral producing areas of the country.  In 1969 there were reports of combat in the Eastern Congo with its array of rare minerals as well as gold.  And the rebel armies in Katanga battled the national army over control of the Province’s copper mines.  But Equateur Province lacks mineral reserves and its relative poverty seemed to create a safe haven from the conflicts bedeviling other areas of the country, the East particularly.

The Hutu refugees who had made it all the way from the East to Mbandaka following Tutsi Paul Kagame’s rise to power in the mid’90’s in Rwanda had sought refuge in Equateur Province..  They managed to live off the fertile land of the Province and survive until the march of the Rwandan troops supporting Laurent Desire Kabila’s persistent ambition to rule Congo.  These Tutsi soldiers made it to Mbandaka and executed every Hutu they could find in the area.

Referring to their prey as “cockroaches”, Kabila’s Tutsi backers stayed three days before descending the River on their way to Kinshasa in the final days of the Mobutu dicatatorship.  A prominent church leader told me the soldiers ordered all residents to stay in their homes while they searched for provisions and wreaked revenge.  Hutu men, women and children were found, lined up and shot with a single bullet.  “They weren’t worth wasting ammunition on” my informant reported they had told their captives.

The man’s account confirmed  journalist Howard French’s reports at the time (see his A Continent for the Taking) of Tutsi forces massacring Hutus in the Mbandaka area. And it convinced me to no longer speak of Mbandaka as insulated from the incessant violence of the eastern Congo.  Surrounded by the Church’s abundant hospitality, I learned first hand of other occasions when Congo’s conflicts had shaken this city.of over a million.

On Easter Sunday this year, a rogue rebel group had attacked Mbandaka and worshippers remained in their churches until they could return home under the cover of night.  The rapid routing of the rebels by the U.N.  troops and the death of a U.N. Ghanaian soldier did not win over the public’s favor.  Security troops of any description appeared to be met with distrust if not disdain by local Congolese

Twice in the last five years local troops of the Congolese Army have gone on the rampage when they had not been paid.  My cook and housekeeper “Papa Jean” lost all of his flock of 50 plus chickens in the latest pillaging.  He is not optimistic enough about the current regime to have restocked his coop with even a pair of chickens.  Although Kabila’s son’s administration has made payments to the army a priority, resulting in long delays for salary payment of teachers, medical workers and civil servants, the uncertainty over the elections scheduled for next year prevails.

A jolting revelation during my stay came with Congolese referring to the Mobutu era as the “good ol days” compared to the current Kabila regime.  Many question the legitimacy of the current ruler and even the legitimacy of the President’s claim to be a citizen of Congo.  There is frequent reference to the young President Kabila having served in the security forces of both Rwanda and Uganda.

Will President Kabila allow elections to be held next November as called for by the country’s constitution and as announced  the week of my departure?  While many educated Congolese are introduced as candidates for Deputy to the National Assembly, few of them speak with certainty about the rules and procedures for running this time. 

The question of whether the election will in fact take place is now giving way to whether President Kabila will be forced by the U.N. presence to relinquish control of the process to impartial overseers.  Although the U.N. troops in Congo represent the largest peacekeeping force in the world today, their record of guaranteeing a fair election in the country is not encouraging.  But Congolese are talking politics more openly and there is unrestrained opposition to the current rule, a notable change from 1971 during the height of Mobutu’s power.

The truth represented by the woman from Bunia had become undeniable by the time I met her the last night in Mbandaka.  I had come to the realization that the entire nation has been gripped and held in check by the foreign exploitation of this richest store house of natural resources in Africa and perhaps anywhere else on the earth.  That the Congo holds such incomparable wealth seems to be another fact which some people would like to remain in the darkness.

Perhaps an even more important and relevant truth about the country as one seeks to influence the march of justice in Congo is that the incessant and unrestrained exploitation of Congo by foreigners did not begin with King Leopold’s creation of the Congo Free State in 1885.  We have to go back to the Portuguese slavers trading at the mouth of the Congo River early in the 1500’s as setting the pattern for the horrors visited today on the people of the Congo.

And the more important and relevant truth about the woman from Bunia is that she has taken another name for herself as a displaced person living in Mbandaka today. She has replaced  the name given her by her family and given herself a  name which suggests what has kept her going through all her losses and the brutality she has suffered.  She is now introduced as Marie Catherine Sauve Vie or Marie Catherine “who saves life”. Strange to say, she may be the clearest sign I received during my stay that God has certainly not finished with Congo yet.

50 Years of Independence??

First it was the traffic in human beings. Then, under the rule of the King of the Belgians, it was the coerced trade in ivory followed by gathering of rubber, under the penalty of amputation or death, for the manufacture of automobile tires. Between 1910 and June 30, 1960, a colonial administration overseen by the Belgian Parliament found recompense in the mineral wealth of the Congo. While copper took precedence as the leading export, the Begian Congo gained renown as an incomparable reservoir of a variety of rare minerals and metals.

U.S. mining interests took note of the quality and size of the reserves and supplied uranium from the Belgian colony for the first atomic bombs. It was widely known when I lived in the newly independent Demorcratic Republic of the Congo from 1969 that the country was, next to the Soviet Union, the leading producer of industrial diamonds in the world and that at least half of the gemstones were exported illegally. Today, it is the neighboring countries of Uganda and Rwanda whose official exports of gold and coltan respectively fuel their development with minerals extracted from the Congo.

One of the first Congolese Christians, King Affonso I of the Kingdom of Kongo, made an eloquent plea in the early 1500s for a more humane treatment of the subjects of his realm. In response, the King of Portugal did little to nothing to restrain the slave traders. The greed and depravity of the European slave traders modeled what was to come later and turned a relatively benign traditional practice of slavery into a brutal decimation of the continent’s people.

Five hundred years later it now seems apparent that the pillaging of Congo’s incredible wealth will not be ended by today’s traders or their fellow citizens in Europe, North America, and increasingly, Asia. It rests with the Congolese themselves to reclaim their patrimony, stand up for their rights as an independent nation, and, in so doing, help all of humanity take a giant step toward the day of true independence for us all.

That that day will come might be seen every morning in the valiant struggle of the pirogue fishermen on the Congo River. After a night or several nights of fishing they paddle their canoes against the powerful current to their homes on the other side of the River. The parable of their struggle takes shape in the retreating progress that follows. The spectator on the bank is despairing, but then notes that in their retreat downstream they are closer to the island in the middle, the island whose bulk will impede or reverse the current and enable the eventual crossing. Unremitting, constant, the fishermen plunge their paddles, matching their force and their wisdom against that of the river as they make their way home.