Congo in books (1)

The 20th century is the era of mass murder with Congo at either end. The reign of King Leopold II between 1885 and 1908 sits on one side; the wars from 1997 onwards sit on the other. The Belgian monarch caused an estimated 10 million deaths, as the historian Adam Hochschild states in his seminal book King Leopold’s Ghosts, a must-read for anyone trying to understand why the Democratic Republic of Congo has become the dysfunctional place that it is. Congo is the product of arguably the most catastrophic colonial enterprise in history, the symbol of which is the deranged Kurtz, whose reign of terror is the real Heart of Darkness in Joseph Conrad’s short novel. Kurtz demonstrates the moral corruption that was the core of the colonial enterprise in Congo. Conrad, who served as a riverboat captain in Congo for six months called Leopold’s rule “the vilest scramble for loot that ever disfigured the history of human conscience.”

‘Free access to the Congo Basin. That has been the cornerstone of every single foreign intervention in our country.’ A few short years ago, I heard this dry assessment of a Congolese journalist as we sat in a beer garden, not far form the city centre. Sweet Congolese rumba played in the background. Yes, there were radio stations in Kinshasa still playing the nation’s signature music non-stop, even though its apogee had been about two decades ago. Rumba, or soukouss – it’s one of the wonders of the world. How can a country with such a cruel history produce some of the sweetest music on earth?

But back to the journalist’s main point. It can, in fact, be refined even further. Foreign meddling in the Congo has always been about free access to the riches that the Congo Basin offers to the world – at the lowest price possible. This was the guiding principle of King Leopold’s rapacious involvement in the 19th century and it can be no surprise that the practices based on this principle have spawned one of the most venal political classes on the planet.

The symbol of that political class is without a doubt the late president Mobutu Sese Seko and one book, written by Michela Wrong (a former Financial Times correspondent in Kinshasa) portrays his life, the country that produced him and the country he left behind, in a poisonous symbiotic relationship.

It is called In the Footsteps of Mr Kurtz. Yes, quite ominous that title and it has the same rollercoaster qualities as Conrad’s novel. Except that the figures in Wrong’s book are real.

She walks us through Mobutu’s life. Born in precarious circumstances, basically adopted by whites and then sent to school. Character and destiny formed in the army where has was sent as a punishment for not showing up at school. Dabbled in journalism for a bit when in Belgium. Befriended Patrice Lumumba, the charismatic first Congolese prime minister in whose murder the Belgians, Mobutu and the CIA all played their miserable parts while the United Nations looked the other way. Belgian sociologist and researcher Ludo de Witte laid bare his country’s eternal shame in his meticulously documented book The Assassination of Patrice Lumumba.

The rest is history. Mobutu, the new king with the leopard skin bonnet, went on to bleed his country dry in a way that would even make King Leopold II envious. First the plantations, then mining, then the diamonds and finally the Central Bank. For the second time in less than a century, one man left this country behind like a rattling carcass. How many lives does Congo have?

Many, as it happens, but then you have to turn away from the broad sweep of history and get underneath the country’s skin. This is what makes Michela Wrong’s book, published in 2000, so extraordinary. You get a snapshot of a country on its knees with a population that stubbornly refuses to keel over and die.

Take the gangs of handicapped men and their impressively voluminous tricycles. Polio victims, almost all of them. Thanks to a law that allowed them cheap passage from Kinshasa to its neighbour Brazzaville on the other side of the Congo River, they used their tricycles (built-to-order) to set up an elaborate transport and smuggling organisation between the two Congos. They also ran a protection racket for the boutiques and stalls in town. If you paid them, they would leave you alone. If you didn’t, they would smash your place up. Next time you look adoringly at a concert of the handicapped singers and musicians of the formidable band Staff Benda Bilili – this is where they come from. And this is why they are mightily pissed off with even the slightest whiff of patronising compassion. ‘Article 15 – that’s us,’ one of them tells the author matter-of-fact like.

“Article 15” is the unwritten extra article of the nation’s Constitution. The phrase, as Michela Wrong tells us, was actually born in the short-lived tumultuous (Belgian-backed) republic of South Kasai. Its quixotic leader, Albert Kalonji, fed up with the endless requests for government support told his people “You’re at home – just fend for yourselves” – in French: débrouillez-vous. And that is what an entire nation has set about doing: fending for yourself, sorting yourself out by hook or by crook. There are millions of instances of “débrouillez-vous”; the cripples in their tricycles are simply one of the most compelling cases.

(to be continued)

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One Response to “Congo in books (1)”

  1. An open space | Bram Posthumus - Yoff Tales Says:

    […] extreme exploitation that jolted French public opinion into action in ways perhaps not seen since King Leopold’s excesses in the Congo. In 1910, the CAR became part of French Equatorial Africa, a collection of disparate countries […]

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