Modern history







IT IS STILL THE SEA, OBVIOUSLY, BUT YOU CAN SEE THAT SOMETHING has changed, something about the color. The low, broad rollers rock the ship as benevolently as ever; there is still nothing but ocean, yet the blue is gradually becoming tainted with yellow. And that produces not green, the way you might remember from your lessons in color theory, but murkiness. The glimmering azure has vanished. There is no more turquoise billow beneath the noonday sun. The boundless cobalt from which the sun arose, the ultramarine of twilight, the leaden grayness of the night: gone.

From here on, all is broth.

Yellowish, ochre, rusty broth. You are still hundreds of nautical miles from the coast, but you know: this is where the land starts. The force with which the Congo River empties into the Atlantic is so great that it changes the color of the seawater for hundreds of kilometers around.

Once, aboard the old packet boats, this discoloration made the first-time traveler to Congo think he was almost there. But the crew and old hands soon made it clear to the greenhorn that it was still a two-day sail from here, days during which the newcomer would see the water grow ever browner, ever dirtier. Standing at the stern he could see the growing contrast with the blue ocean water that the propeller continued to lift up from deeper layers. After a time, clumps of grass would begin drifting by, chunks of sod, little islands that the river had spit out and that were now bobbing about dazedly at sea. Through the porthole of his cabin he perceived dismal shapes in the water, “chunks of wood and uprooted trees, pulled up long ago from darkened jungles, for the blank trunks were leafless and the bare stumps of thick branches sometimes roiled at the surface for a moment, then dove again.”1

In satellite images, one sees it clearly: a brownish stain that stretches out up to eight hundred kilometers (about five hundred miles) westward at the high point of the rainy season. It looks as though the dry land is leaking. Oceanographers speak of the “Congo fan” or the “Congo plume.” The first time I saw aerial photos of it, I couldn’t help but think of someone who slashes his wrists and holds them under water—but then eternally. The water of the Congo, the second longest river in Africa, actually sprays into the ocean. The rocky substrate keeps its mouth relatively narrow.2Unlike the Nile, no peaceful maritime delta has arisen here; the enormous mass of water is forced out through a keyhole.

The ocher hue comes from the silt that the Congo collects during its 4,700-kilometer-long (about 2,900-mile) journey: from the high springs in the extreme south of the country, through the arid savanna and the weed-choked swamps of Katanga, past the endless equatorial forest that covers almost the entire northern half of the country to the rugged landscapes of Bas-Congo and the spectral stands of mangrove at the river’s mouth. But the color also comes from the hundreds of rivers and tributaries that together form the drainage basis of the Congo, an area of some 3.7 million square kilometers (about 1.4 million square miles), more than a tenth of all Africa, coinciding largely with the republic of the same name.

And all those tiny bits of earth, all those torn-off particles of clay and mud and sand go floating along, downstream, to wider waters. Sometimes they hang suspended in place and glide on imperceptibly, then roil in a wild raging that mixes the daylight with darkness and foam. Sometimes they get stuck. Against a rock. An embankment. Against a rusty wreck that howls silently up at the clouds and around which a sandbank has formed. Sometimes they encounter nothing, nothing at all, nothing but water, different water all the time, first fresh, then bracken, finally salt.

That is how a country begins: far before the coastline, thinned down with lots and lots of seawater.

BUT WHERE DOES THE HISTORY BEGIN? Also much further away than you might expect. In 2003, when I first considered writing a book about the country’s turbulent history—not only the postcolonial period, but also the colonial and a part of precolonial times—I decided it would only be worth doing if I were able to include as many Congolese voices as possible. To at least challenge the Eurocentrism that I would doubtlessly find on my path, it seemed to me that I would have to go systematically in search of the local perspective or, better yet, of the diversity of local perspectives, for there is of course no single Congolese version of history, just as there is no single Belgian, European, or simply “white man’s” version. Congolese voices, in other words, as much as possible.

The only problem was: how does one set about doing that in a country where the average life expectancy during the last decade has never risen above forty-five? The country itself was turning fifty, but its inhabitants no longer were. There were, of course, the voices that came bubbling up from forgotten or nearly forgotten colonial sources. Missionaries and ethnographers had documented marvelous stories and songs. Numerous texts had been written by the Congolese themselves—to my amazement, I would even come across a native “ego document” from the late nineteenth century. But I was also looking for living witnesses, for people who would share their life stories with me, even the trivia. I was looking for what rarely ends up on the page, because history is so much more than that which is written down. That applies everywhere and always, but certainly in areas where only a tiny upper crust has access to the written word. Because of my training as an archaeologist, I attach great importance to nontextual information, which often provides a fuller, more tangible picture than textual information does. I wanted to be able to interview people, not necessarily the big decision makers, but everyday people whose lives had been marked by the broader scope of history. I wanted to ask people what they had eaten during this or that period. I was curious about the clothes they’d worn, what their house looked like when they were a child, whether they went to church.

It is, of course, always risky to extrapolate to the past from what people tell one today: nothing is so contemporary as our memories. But while opinion can be extremely malleable—informants sometimes sang the praises of colonialization: was that because things were really so good for them back then? Or was it because things were so bad for them now? Or was it because I’m a Belgian?—the memories of commonplace objects or actions often exhibit greater permanence. In 1950 you either had a bicycle or you did not. You spoke Kikongo with your mother as a child or you did not. You played soccer at the mission post or you did not. Memory does not discolor at the same rate everywhere. The trivial details of a human life retain their color longer.

So I wanted to interview ordinary Congolese people about their ordinary lives, although I don’t like that word ordinary, for often the stories I was told were truly extraordinary. Time is a machine that crushes human lives to bits, I learned during the writing of this book, but occasionally there are also people who crush time.

Yet still: how was I to get started? I’d hoped to be able to speak on occasion to someone who might still remember the final years of the colonial period. I unquestioningly assumed that there would be no eyewitnesses to the period before World War II. I would have been very pleased to think that some older informant could still tell me something about his parents or grandparents in the period between the wars. For earlier periods I would have to navigate by the shaky compass of written sources. It took a while, however, before I realized that the average life expectancy in Congo is not so low because there are so few old people, but because so many children die. It is the country’s hideous infant mortality rate that undercuts the average. During my ten journeys to Congo I soon met people of seventy, eighty, and even ninety years of age. One time, a blind old man of almost ninety told me a great deal about his father’s life: in that way I was able to descend indirectly to the year 1890, a dizzying depth. But that was nothing compared to what Nkasi told me.

FROM THE AIR Kinshasa resembles a termite queen, swollen to grotesquery and shuddering with commotion, always active, always expanding. In the sweltering heat it stretches out along the river’s left bank. On the far shore lies its twin sister, Brazzaville, smaller, fresher, shinier. The office towers there have mirrored windows. This is the only place on earth where two capital cities can view each other, but in Brazzaville, Kinshasa sees only its own, shabby reflection.

Kinshasa’s palette is varied, but they are not the intact pigments of other sun-drenched cities. Nowhere will you find the saturated hues of Casablanca, the warm coloration of Havana, the deep-red tints of Varanasi. In Kinshasa every lick of paint fades so quickly that the people seemed to have given up on it: pallid colors have become an aesthetic of their own. Pastels, the missionaries’ favorite hues, are dominant. From the tiniest boutique selling soap or prepaid mobile-phone refill cards up to and including the exuberant volume of a newly built Pentecostal church, the walls are always a faded yellow, faded green, or faded blue. As though illuminated day and night by neon lighting. The crates of Coca-Cola piled to form huge bulwarks in the yard at the Bralima brewery are not scarlet, but a dull red. The shirts of the traffic policemen are not a bright yellow, but urine colored. And in the brightest sunlight even the colors of the national flag flap rather wanly.

No, Kinshasa is not a colorful city. The soil there is not red, as in other parts of Africa, but black. Beneath the layers of pastel paint the walls are consistently drab. When masons along the Boulevard Lumumba lay their stones in the sun to dry, you see a color fan of grays: wet, dark-gray blocks beside mouse-gray ones that are still brittle, and ash-gray blocks beside those. The only color that really stands out here is the white of dried manioc, also known as cassava, the tuber that forms the staple for large parts of Central Africa. The plastic tubs of ground meal beside which the female merchants squat glisten so brightly that the women are forced to squint. Beside them lie piles of manioc roots, hefty, bright-white stumps that remind one of sawed-off tusks. Seeing those untidy piles from the air it looks as though the subsoil is baring its teeth, angry and fearful as a baboon. A grimace. The crooked ivories of a drab city. But pearly white, indeed. Impeccably white.

Imagine you could skim over this town like an ibis. A chessboard of rusty corrugated-iron roofs is what you would see, parcels of dark-green foliage. The grisaille of the cités, too, the poor districts of Kinshasa rolling on and on. We would circle above neighborhoods with leaden names like Makala, Bumbu, and Ngiri Ngiri, and down toward Kasavubu, one of the oldest neighborhoods for “inlanders,” as the Congolese were called in colonial times. We would see Avenue Lubumbashi, a straight stretch of arterial with countless smaller streets and alleys emptying into it, but which has never been paved. It is the rainy season, the street is covered in puddles the size of swimming pools. Even the most skilled cabby becomes bogged down here. The inky-black mud spatters from beneath his screeching tires and sullies the flanks of his rattling, but newly washed, Nissan or Mazda.

We would leave him behind, cursing, and soar on to Avenue Faradje. In the courtyard of number 66, past the concrete wall topped with shards of glass, past the heavy metal gates, something white is glistening. We zoom in. It is not manioc or ivory. It is plastic. Hard, white, extruded plastic. It is a potty. A child is sitting on it, a darling little one-year-old girl. Her coiffure: a plantation of young palm trees bound together close to the crown with yellow and red elastic bands. Her yellow dress with the floral pattern is draped over her rear end. Around her ankles there are no panties: she doesn’t have those. But she is doing what all one-year-olds all over the world do when they don’t understand exactly why that potty is so damned important: she is screaming, furiously and heartrendingly.

I SAW HER SITTING THERE on Thursday, November 6, 2008. Her name was Keitsha. It was a traumatic afternoon for her. Not only was she being denied the joy of spontaneous defecation, but she was also facing the most terrifying thing she had ever seen in her short life: a white person, something she knew about only from her worn-out, handicapped Barbie doll, but then big, and alive, and with two legs.

Keitsha would remain on her guard all afternoon. While the members of her family sat talking to this peculiar visitor and even sharing bananas and peanuts with him, she remained at a safe distance, staring for minutes at how he dug his hand too into the crackling bag of nuts.

Fortunately I had not come for her, but for her forefather, Nkasi. I left the courtyard with the howling child behind and slid aside the thin sheet covering the doorway. The room was almost completely dark. As my eyes tried to grow accustomed, I heard the roof cracking in the heat. Corrugated iron, of course. A faded blue wall, like everywhere else. “Christ est dieu” was written on it in chalk. Beside that, in charcoal, someone had scribbled a list of cell-phone numbers. The house as address book; for years, paper in Kinshasa has been prohibitively expensive.

Nkasi was sitting on the edge of his bed. His head hung down. With his old fingers he was trying to do up the final buttons of his shirt. He had only just awoken. I approached and greeted him. He looked up. His glasses were attached to his head with a rubber band. Behind the thick and badly scratched lenses I made out a pair of watery eyes. He let go of his shirt and took my hand in both of his. A striking amount of strength still in those fingers.

“Mundele,” he murmured, “mundele!” He sounded moved, as though we hadn’t seen each other in years. “White man.” His voice was like a rusty gear slowly creaking into motion. A Belgian in his home . . . after all these years . . . That he would live to see this.

“Papa Nkasi,” I spoke into the semidarkness, “I am very honored to meet you.” He was still holding onto my hand, but gestured to me to sit down. I located a plastic garden chair. “How are you?”

“Aaah,” he moaned from behind his lenses, so scored with scratches that you could hardly see his eyes, “I’m afraid my demi-vieillesse is acting up again.” Beside the bed was a little bowl that obviously served as spittoon. On the grimy mattress lay an enema syringe. Its rubber bulb looked chapped and brittle. Here and there I saw a piece of foil of the kind used to package pills. Then he had to laugh at his own joke.

So how old was that anyway, that middle-old age? He definitely looked like the oldest Congolese I had ever met.

He didn’t have to think about it long. “Je suis né en mille-huit cent quatre-vingt-deux.”

Eighteen eighty-two? Dates are a relative thing in Congo. I have had informants tell me, when I asked how long ago something had happened: “A long time ago, yes, a long, long time ago, at least six years, or no, wait, let’s say: eighteen months ago.” My desire to provide a Congolese perspective would never meet with complete success: I myself am much too fond of dates. And some informants are fonder of an answer than they are of a correct answer. On the other hand, though, I had often been struck by the precision with which they were able to recall facts from their own lives. In addition to the year, they were also frequently able to name the month and the day. “I moved to Kinshasa on April 12, 1963.” Or: “On March 24, 1943, the ship set sail.” It has taught me, above all, to be very careful with dates.

Eighteen eighty-two? Let’s see, that would mean we were talking about Henry Morton Stanley’s day, the establishment of Congo Free State, the arrival of the first missionaries. That was even before the Berlin Conference, the famous meeting in 1885 during which the European powers determined the future of Africa. Could I really be face-to-face with someone who not only remembered colonialism, but was in fact born in the precolonial era? Someone born in the same year as James Joyce, Igor Stravinsky, and Virginia Woolf? It was almost impossible to believe. That would mean the man was 126 years old! And that would make him not only the oldest man in the world, but also one of the oldest people ever. In Congo, no less. Three times the country’s average life expectancy!

And so I did what I would have done in any other situation: check and double check. In this case, that meant digging up the past, little by little, with endless patience. Sometimes that worked promptly, at other moments not at all. Never before had I spoken like this with such a distant past, never before had it felt so fragile. Often, I was unable to understand him. Often, he began a sentence and stopped halfway, with the surprised look of someone who goes to fetch something from the cupboard and suddenly no longer knows what he was looking for. It was a struggle against forgetfulness, but Nkasi not only forgot the past, he also forgot to forget. The gaps that arose healed over immediately. He was unaware of having lost anything. I, on the other hand, was doing my best to bail out an ocean steamer with a tin can.

Finally, however, I came to the conclusion that his year of birth just very well might be correct. He talked about events in the eighties and nineties of the nineteenth century that he could only have known about firsthand. Nkasi had not attended school, but he knew historical facts of which other elderly Congolese from his region were entirely ignorant. He came from Bas-Congo, the area between Kinshasa and the Atlantic Ocean where the Western presence had first made itself known. If the map of Congo looks like a balloon, Bas-Congo is the neck through which everything passes. His memories, therefore, I could check against well-documented events. He spoke with great precision about the first missionaries, Anglo-Saxon Protestants who had settled in his homeland. They had, indeed, begun their evangelism around 1880. He mentioned the names of missionaries who, as it turned out, had come to the area in the 1890s and had moved to a nearby mission post around 1900. He spoke of Simon Kimbangu, a man from a neighboring village who we know was born in 1889 and started his own religion in the 1920s. And he talked above all about how he, as a child, had watched them build the railway between Matadi and Kinshasa. That took place between 1890 and 1898. The construction in his part of Congo began in 1895. “I was twelve, fifteen at the time,” he said.

“Papa Nkasi . . .”

Oui?” Whenever I addressed him he would look up, slightly distracted, as though he had forgotten there was a visitor in the room. He made no effort to convince me of his advanced age. He talked about what he still knew, and seemed amazed at my amazement. He was clearly less impressed by his age than I, who wrote down an entire notebook full.

“How is it that you know the year when you were born, anyway? There was no registrar’s office back then, was there?”

“Joseph Zinga told me about it.”


“Joseph Zinga. My father’s youngest brother.” And from that there followed the story of the uncle who had gone with a British missionary to the mission post at Palabala and attended catechism classes himself, during which he learned about the Christian calendar. “He told me I was born in 1882.”

“But then, did you know Stanley?” Never, in all my life, had I thought I would ask someone that question in earnest.

Stanlei?” he said. He spoke the name in the French way. “No, I never met him, but I heard about him. He came to Lukunga first, and then to Kintambo.” The chronology, in any case, jibed with the journey Stanley had made between 1879 and 1884. “I did know Lutunu, though, one of his boys. He was from Gombe-Matadi, not far from us. He never wore trousers.”

The name Lutunu rang a bell. I remembered that he was one of the first Congolese to serve the white men as a “boy.” Later, the colonizer would make him an inland chief. But he had lived until the 1950s: Nkasi could have met him much later as well. That, however, definitely did not apply to Simon Kimbangu.

“I knew Kimbangu back in the 1800s,” he said emphatically. It was the only time, with the exception of his year of birth, that he referred directly to the nineteenth century. They had lived in neighboring villages. And, he added: “We were more or less the same age. Simon Kimbangu was greater than me in pouvoir de Dieu, but I was greater in years.” During later visits as well, he confirmed time and again that he was a few years older than Kimbangu, a man born in 1889.

IN THE WEEKS AFTER my initial visit, I went by to see Nkasi several times. At the house where I was staying in Kinshasa I would run back through my notes, put together the pieces of the puzzle and search for gaps in his story. Each visit lasted no more than a couple of hours. Nkasi indicated when he was growing tired or when his memory was failing him. The conversations always took place in his bedroom. Sometimes he would sit on the edge of his bed, sometimes on the only other piece of furniture: a worn-out car seat that stood on the floor. Once I was able to talk with him while he was shaving. Without a mirror, without shaving cream, without water, only a disposable razor that he never disposed of. He ran his fingers over his chin, made a whole host of strange faces and scraped the white plastic razor across his weathered skin. After a few hesitant scrapes he would knock out the tiny hairs against the edge of his bedstead. The white stubble floated to the darkened floor.

In one corner of the room was a pile of odds and ends: what remained of his belongings. A broken Singer sewing machine, a pile of rags, a big can of Milgro powdered milk, a gym bag, and a linen bundle. The latter item had caught my eye during my first visit. It looked like it contained something round. “What’s in that package?” I asked him one time. “Ah, ça!” He reached for the bundle. Slowly, he unwrapped it and held out a beautiful pith helmet. A black one. I didn’t even know they existed. Without my asking, he put it on and smiled broadly. “Ah, monsieur David, I lived my entire life in the white man’s grasp. But within two or three days I am going to die.”

Moving about was very difficult for him. He used the handle and stick of an old umbrella as a cane, but preferred to rely on the support of a few of his daughters. Nkasi had had five wives. Or six. Or seven. Accounts differed. He himself had lost count. There were always a few family members outside in the courtyard. Estimates varied concerning the number of his children. Thirty-four was the figure heard most often. In any case, four pairs of twins, everyone seemed in agreement on that. Grandchildren? Definitely more than seventy.

I was also introduced to his two younger brothers, Augustin and Marcel, ninety and one hundred years old, respectively. Marcel did not live in Kinshasa, but in Nkamba. I spoke with Augustin’s son, a smart, sensible man who had not yet reached middle age. Or so I thought. Until he told me that he was sixty. It was almost too much for me to believe: he truly looked no older than forty-five. What an extremely resilient family, it occurred to me, what a wild quirk of nature. Three ancient brothers, all of them still alive. There had been two sisters as well, but they had died recently. Also well into their nineties.

Fourteen people lived here in three little adjacent rooms, but there was family visiting all day. Nkasi shared his room with Nickel and Platini, two boys in their twenties. One of them had a sweater that read Miami Champs. As the eldest, Nkasi got the bed each night, a foregone conclusion; the young people slept on the floor on woven banana-leaf mats. During the day they sometimes took a nap on their grandfather’s thin mattress.

Nkasi ate manioc, rice, beans, sometimes a little bread. The family couldn’t afford meat. After one particularly long session he realized I must be hungry and, using his umbrella stick, slid over to me a bunch of little bananas and a bag of peanuts. “I can tell. The head is closed, but the belly is open. Take it, eat.” There was no sense in refusing. Every time I visited I brought something along and would buy a supply of soft drinks. The family, like countless others in the cité, had a modest beverage dépôt, where they sold drinks from the Bralima brewery by the bottle. But they had no money to buy the cola and orangeade themselves. One time I watched as Nkasi, sitting in his car seat, poured a bit of Coca-Cola into a plastic mug. Bloodcurdlingly slow, he held the cup out to Keitsha. It was a poignant scene: the man who had apparently been born before the Berlin Conference (and before the invention of Coca-Cola) was handing a drink to his granddaughter, born after the Congolese general elections of 2006.

The first time I met Nkasi was on November 6, 2008. The day before had been an auspicious one in world history. At a certain point, Nkasi reversed our roles. Would I mind if he asked me a question? There were more things to talk about than just the past. He had heard a rumor and could hardly believe it. “Is it true that a black man has been elected president of the United States?”

NKASI’S LIFE RAN PARALLEL to the history of Congo. In 1885 the region fell into the hands of King Leopold II of Belgium. Leopold named it the État Indépendant du Congo (Independent State of Congo), commonly referred to in the Dutch language as Congo-Vrijstaat. In 1908, in the face of virulent criticism at home and abroad, he transferred his holdings to the Belgian state. It would continue to be called the Belgian Congo until 1960, when it became an independent country, the Republic of Congo. In 1965 Joseph-Désiré Mobutu carried out a coup that kept him in power for thirty-two years. During that period the country received a new name, Zaïre. In 1997, when Mobutu was dethroned by Laurent-Désiré Kabila, it was renamed the Democratic Republic of Congo. The “democratic” part required some patience, however, for it was only in 2006 that the first free elections were held in more than forty years. Joseph Kabila, son of Laurent-Désiré, was elected president. Without having moved about much himself, Nkasi had lived in five different countries, or at least in a country with five different names.

Although the country as conceived by Leopold II in no way corresponded with any existing political reality, it did exhibit a striking geographical cohesion: it coincided to a great degree with the drainage basin of the Congo River. Each stream, each watercourse empties at some point into that single, powerful river and theoretically contributes to that brown spot in the ocean. That fact is a purely cartographic one: in actual practice, that hydrographic system was not seen as a unit. But ever since then, Congo—a country of 2.3 million square kilometers (about 900,000 square miles), the size of Western Europe, two-thirds the size of the Indian subcontinent and the only country in Africa covering two time zones—has been the country of that one river. Despite the many name changes, it has always borne the name of the mother of all currents (the Congo, the Zaïre). Today’s inhabitants speak of it in French as le fleuve, the stream, just as the inhabitants of the Low Countries speak of “the sea” when they mean the North Sea.

The Congo is no straightforward river; its course describes three-quarters of a circle and runs counterclockwise, as though one were turning back the hands of an analogue watch forty-five minutes. That big curve has to do with the even and relatively flat topography of the Central African interior. The Congo, in fact, makes one huge meander through an area of gently rolling hills that is mostly only several hundred meters above sea level. During its thousand-kilometer-long journey the river descends less than fifteen hundred meters (about 4,900 feet). Areas above two thousand meters (6,500 feet) are found only in the farthest eastern part of the country; the country’s highest point lies directly on the border with Uganda: Mount Stanley, 5,109 meters (16,604 feet), the second highest peak in Africa, with a permanent layer of snow and a (dwindling) glacier. The eastern mountains, along with a chain of elongated lakes (the four so-called Great Lakes, of which Lake Tanganyika is the largest), are the result of major tectonic activity, as witnessed by the area’s still-active volcanoes. This serrated eastern edge of Congo is a part of the Rift, the great fault line cleaving Africa from north to south. Climatologically, this mountainous area can be relatively chilly: a city like Butembo, for example, close to the Ugandan border, has an average annual temperature of only seventeen degrees Celsius (about sixty-three degrees Fahrenheit), while Matadi, not far from the Atlantic Ocean, has an average of twenty-seven (about eighty-one degrees Fahrenheit). Elsewhere, the equatorial setting produces a tropical climate with high temperatures and great humidity, although regional differences are considerable. In the equatorial forest, afternoon temperatures vary from thirty to thirty-five degrees (about eighty-six to ninety-five degrees Fahrenheit), while to the extreme south there may be frost on the ground during the dry season. The duration of the dry season and the time it commences also vary.

Two-thirds of the country is covered by dense equatorial forest, with its 1.45 million square kilometers (565,500 square miles) the largest tropical rain forest outside the Amazon Basin. From the air it resembles one huge and endless head of broccoli, occupying an area three times the size of Spain. To the north and south, the woods (la forêt, as the Congolese call it) gradually changes to savanna. Not an endless, National Geographic sea of yellow waving grass but a woodland savanna that gradually fades into brush savanna as one travels away from the equator. The country’s biodiversity is spectacular, but increasingly threatened. Three of the most important zoological discoveries of the twentieth century were made in Congo: the Congo peacock, the okapi, and the bonobo. The discovery of a new primate in the twentieth century was something of a miracle in itself. Congo is the only country in the world where three of the four great apes are to be found (only the orangutan is absent): but the chimpanzee and particularly the mountain gorilla are highly endangered species as well.

Twentieth-century ethnographers distinguished some four hundred ethnic groups in the interior, each of them a society with its own customs, social structure, artistic traditions, and often its own language or dialect. These groups are usually indicated in the plural form, to be recognized by the prefix ba- or wa-. The Bakongo (sometimes rendered as baKongo) belong to the Congo people, the Baluba (or baLuba) to the Luba people, the Watutsi (or waTutsi, sometimes even waTuzi) to the Tutsis. In the chapters that follow I will use the standard expression as it is found in English. I will therefore speak of both the Bakongo and the Tutsis which, although not very consistent, is all the more convenient. The singular form (Mukongo or muKongo) is one I have avoided as much as possible.Kongo with a K refers to the ethnic group living close to the mouth of the Congo river;Congo with a C to the country and the river. The languages of these groups usually start with the prefix ki- or tschi: Kikongo, Tshiluba, Kiswahili, Kinyarwanda. Here too I have given precedence to common usage. Therefore: Swahili rather than Kiswahili, Kinyarwanda rather than Rwandan. Lingala is the exception to the rule, although languages in Lingala also start with ki. Once I even heard someone speak of “kiChinois.” And Kiflama is the language of the Baflama, the Flemish (derived from les flamands): Dutch, in other words.

The massive anthropological wealth of Congo must not blind one to the country’s great linguistic and cultural homogeneity. Almost all the languages are Bantu languages and exhibit structural similarities. (Bantu is the plural form of munt’u, meaning “the people.”) This is not to say that Nkasi will automatically understand someone from the other side of the country, only that his language will resemble that other one just as the Indo-European languages resemble one author. Only in the extreme north of Congo are languages spoken that are fundamentally different and belong to the Sudanese linguistic group. Everywhere else, Bantu languages became common with the spread of agriculture from the northwest. Even the Pygmies, the original hunter-gatherers of the jungle, made the switch to Bantu languages.

In Congo, ethnic awareness is a relative concept. Almost all Congolese can tell you with a certain precision to which ethnic group they and their parents belong, but the extent to which they identify with that group varies widely in accordance with age, place of residence, education, and, more crucial than all the rest, living conditions. Groups become more tightly knit in proportion to the extent to which they are threatened. At various moments in one’s life one may attach greater or less importance to ethnic background. If the turbulent history of Congo makes anything clear, it is the elasticity of what was once referred to as “tribal awareness.” It is a fluid category, and one I shall refer to more often.

Although the names of the provinces and their number have changed often, still there are several regional designations used invariably by the inhabitants to delineate the parts of this enormous country. Bas-Congo, as mentioned, is the neck of the balloon. Matadi, its administrative center, is a seaport some sixty miles inland where container vessels, tacking against the Congo’s powerful current, can load and unload. Farther upstream, rapids render the river unnavigable. Kinshasa, a city of an estimated eight million inhabitants, who call themselves Kinois, is located precisely at the spot where the balloon widens. From this point the river once again becomes navigable, until deep into the interior. To the east of Kinshasa one finds Badundu, an area between forest and savanna that includes Kikwit and the historically important region of Kwilu. Beside it, in the country’s heart, lies Kasai, the diamond country. Its principal city is Mbuji-Mayi, which has grown in recent years to become the country’s third, perhaps even second largest city, due to the rush for diamonds. Farther east one arrives in the area once known as the Kivu, but which has now been divided into three provinces: North Kivu, South Kivu, and Maniema. Both Kivus form the vulnerable top of the balloon, with Goma and Bukavu as major centers directly on the border with Rwanda. This is a heavily populated farming area. Due to its altitude, sleeping sickness does not occur here and it is possible to raise cattle; the soil and climate, furthermore, are well suited to high-grade agriculture (coffee, tea, quinine).

To the north of the line Bandundu-Kasai-Kivu stretches the largest part of the rain forest, administratively categorized under two megaprovinces, Équateur and Orientale province, both long earmarked for subdivision. Mbandaka and Kisangani respectively are their capitals. Kisangani in particular has played a key role throughout the history of Congo. To the south of this central east-west axis lies another megaprovince, Katanga, with Lubumbashi as capital. This mining region forms the economic heart of the country. Katanga has a territorial peninsula sticking out to the southeast, as though a clown had given a twist to the balloon that is Congo: it is, in fact, the product of a late-nineteenth-century border dispute with England. While Katanga enjoys a great wealth of copper and cobalt, and Kasai relies on its diamonds, the earth of Kivu contains tin and coltan, and that of Orientale province, gold.

The country’s four major cities, therefore, are Kinshasa, Lubumbashi, Kisangani, and, more recently, Mbuji-Mayi. At the time of this writing they are connected by neither rail nor paved road. At the start of this third millennium, Congo has less than one thousand kilometers of asphalt roads (and most of those run to the outside world: from Kinshasa to the port at Matadi and from Lubumbashi to the Zambian border, to facilitate the import of goods and the export of mineral ores). Rail service these days is almost nonexistent. The boats from Kinshasa to Kisangani take weeks to reach their destination. Anyone hoping to travel from one city to the other takes a plane. Or takes a great deal of time. One rule of thumb says that a journey that took one hour during the colonial period now corresponds to a full day’s travel.

Kinshasa is and always has been the country’s navel, the knot in the balloon. More than 13 percent of the country’s sixty-nine million inhabitants lives in one of the capital city’s twenty-four districts, but the bulk of the Congolese population still lives in the countryside. Bas-Congo, Kasai, and the area around the Great Lakes are particularly densely populated. French is the language of the government and higher education, but Lingala is the language of the army and the ubiquitous pop music. Four native languages are officially recognized as official languages: Kikongo, Tshiluba, Lingala, and Swahili. While the first two truly constitute ethnic languages (Kikongo is spoken by the Bakongo in Bas-Congo and Bandundu, Tshiluba by the Baluba in Kasai), the latter two are trade languages of a far greater range. Swahili arose on the African east coast and is spoken not only in all of the eastern Congo, but also in Tanzania and Kenya. Lingala arose in the province of Équateur and made its way down the Congo River to Kinshasa. Today it is the country’s fastest-growing language, and is also spoken in neighboring Congo-Brazzaville.

And, speaking of neighboring countries: Congo has no less than nine of them. Starting at the Atlantic and proceeding clockwise, they are: the Angolan enclave of Cabinda, Congo-Brazzaville, the Central African Republic, South Sudan, Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi, Tanzania, Zambia, and Angola proper. Only Brazil, Russia, and China have more neighbors—ranging from ten to fourteen. This results in diplomatic complexities, and Congo was and is no different, both in colonial times and in the present. For the last century and a half, border disputes and territorial conflicts have been a constant, just as some stretches between Russia and China have long been a bone of contention.

WHERE DOES THE HISTORY BEGIN? A long way out to sea, a long way from the coast, even a long time before Nkasi was born. A tendentious urge exists to let the history of Congo begin with the arrival of Stanley in 1870, as though the inhabitants of Central Africa wandered sadly before that time through an eternal, immutable present and had to wait for a white man to come through and free them from the wolf trap of prehistoric listlessness. Central Africa, it is true, did gain major historical momentum between 1870 and 1885, but that absolutely does not mean that the inhabitants before that were suspended in a solidified state of nature. They were not living fossils.

Central Africa was a region without writing, but not without a history. Hundreds, yea thousands of years of human history preceded the arrival of the Europeans. If a heart of darkness existed back then, it was sooner to be found in the ignorance with which white explorers viewed the area than in the area itself. Darkness, too, is in the eye of the beholder.

I would like to illustrate that far-distant history with the use of five virtual slides, five snapshots. And I would like to wonder aloud what the life of, say, a twelve-year-old boy looked like at each of those five moments. The first snapshot was made about ninety thousand years ago. The date is taken fairly at random, but it happens to be the only reliable date we have for the oldest archaeological remains in Congo.

How bizarre to place Congo’s history in the hands of a European. How Eurocentric can one be? It was in Africa, between five and seven million years ago, that the line of humans split off from that of the primates. It was in Africa, four million years ago, that humans began walking upright. It was in Africa, almost two million years ago, that the first purpose-driven stone tools were made. And it was in Africa one hundred thousand years ago that the complex, prehistoric behavior of our species arose, a behavior characterized by long-distance trading networks, advanced tools of stone and bone, the use of ochre as a dye, early systems for counting, and other forms of symbolism. Congo lay a little too far to the west to join in that evolution from the very start, but extremely primitive and undoubtedly extremely ancient tools have been found at many locations, most of them, unfortunately, poorly dated. The area also produced a number of the world’s most impressive prehistoric celts, skillfully crafted stone axes of up to forty centimeters long.

Ninety thousand years ago, let us say. Let’s imagine the shore of one of the four Great Lakes to the east, the one known today as Lake Edward. Our twelve-year-old boy could have been sitting there, at the spot where the Semliki River flows out of the lake. Perhaps he was part of that little group of prehistoric people whose remains were meticulously exhumed in the 1990s. Once a year, a group of hunter-gatherers assembled at this spot, always when the catfish were spawning. This tasty, slow-moving fish with its grim feelers can easily grow to over seventy centimeters in length and weigh more than ten kilos. Normally, it lives at the bottom of the lake, beyond the reach of people. But at the start of the rainy season it moves to shallow water to spawn. To this end, the fish is even equipped with a special respiratory organ. Useful, but risky: as early as ninety thousand years ago, people along that lake were already carving harpoons from bone, the oldest known such artifacts—in other parts of the world, that took place only twenty thousandyears ago. Using a rib or a femur, a spearhead was fashioned with deadly notches and barbs. A twelve-year-old boy like ours may very well have learned to impale a fish like that, or perhaps one of the many smaller species. Very possible indeed that he also dug up lungfish, eel-like animals that nestle into a shallow recess at the start of the dry season and remain there for the eight months of summer. Paleontological research has shown that the area was much drier then. Elephants lived there, along with zebras and warthogs, animals typical of an open landscape. But the proximity of water meant there were also hippopotami, crocodiles, marsh antelope, and otters. The wind blew over the water, the bushes rustled, a fish writhing in pain beat its tail wildly and impotently against the wet rocks. And leaning over it on his harpoon, a boy’s voice might have been heard: excited, grim, and exultant. A snapshot, no more than that.

A second slide: it is twenty-five hundred years before the start of our calendar. Our twelve-year-old boy was then a Pygmy in the dense rain forest. Agriculture did not yet exist, not by a long shot, but he would certainly have tasted the nuts of the wild oil palm. The remains of such early inhabitants have been found beneath rocky overhangs in the Ituri forest. Scattered amid a few crude stone implements there were the pits of prehistoric palm nuts. Did these forest dwellers live there? Or did they come there only sporadically? No one knows. The tools, in any case, were made from quartz and river stones that had been gathered locally. The twelve-year-old boy may have belonged to a small, extremely mobile group of hunter-gatherers, who must have possessed a very thorough knowledge of their everyday environment. They hunted apes, antelopes, and porcupines, they picked nuts and fruit, dug for tubers, and knew which plants were medicinal and which were mind expanding.

This too, however, was not a closed world. Even then there was contact with the outside world. Flint and obsidian were traded over great distances, sometimes up to three hundred kilometers (185 miles) away. Perhaps our boy was the first Congolese of whom we have a written record. Perhaps he was captured as a slave and abducted from the jungle, taken across the savanna and the desert, a journey that took months, to a river and a seemingly endless journey downstream: the Nile. His escort was delighted with his catch: a Pygmy, the rarest and most costly thing imaginable. His divine master in the north would send him a special summons: a letter he would later have carved in stone: “Come and bring me the dwarf, the dwarf you have brought me from the land of the spirits, alive, safe and well, to dance the holy dances to the entertainment and felicity of Pharaoh Neferkare. Be careful he does not fall in the water.”3 The hieroglyphs were chiseled into the rock at Aswan, at the grave of the expedition’s leader, twenty-five hundred years before our era began. “The land of the spirits”: it was the first time Congo was mentioned in writing.

Next slide, the third. We find ourselves around AD 500. In Europe, the Western Roman Empire has just collapsed. A twelve-year-old Congolese boy in those days led a completely different life from his predecessor. The wandering was over, from now on he would be more or less sedentary: he no longer pulled up stakes several times a year, but only a few times in his life. Approximately two thousand years before our Christian era began, agriculture was practiced for the first time in what is now Cameroon. This new source of nutrition resulted in a growing population. And because it was extensive agriculture, new fields had to be cultivated each year. Slowly but surely, the farming lifestyle spread across Africa. It was the start of the Bantu migration. That migration should not be seen as a great trek on the part of farmers who one day packed their bags and arrived a thousand kilometers further along with the statement “This is it!” It was a slow but steady shift southward (to the north, after all, lay the Sahara). In the course of three millennia, agriculture took over all of central and southern Africa. The hundreds of languages spoken in that huge area are, as noted, related even today. The forest in Congo formed no real obstacle for the Bantu-speaking farmers. Along the rivers and elephant trails, they pushed their way into the area. There they came in contact with the local forest dwellers, the Pygmies. By the year 1000, the entire region had been settled.

The great innovation around AD 500 was the cultivation of plantain, the cooking banana, a crop with an origin as unclear as its flavor is delicious. Our twelve-year-old boy was in luck: during the centuries before, the principle staple had been the yam, a nutritious tuber rich in starch, but rather bland to the taste. For his mother, who tended the fields, the plantain had major advantages: unlike the yam, it did not draw the malaria mosquito. The yield was ten times that of the tuber, the plantain required less care and was much less taxing for the soil. At that time, his father must also have climbed palm trees to harvest palm oil. Perhaps they had a few chickens and goats, maybe even a dog. In addition, they still did a great deal of foraging, fishing, and hunting. The son must have gathered termites, caterpillars, grubs, slugs, mushrooms and wild honey. With his father and other men from the village he hunted antelope and bush pigs. To catch fish he set out weirs or dammed streams. He had, in other words, an extremely varied diet. Agriculture still accounted for only 40 percent of his intake.

In the year 500, our boy’s father probably had several iron tools. That was another innovation of the day: the earliest known metallurgy in the area arose during the first centuries of our era. Before that, people had used exclusively stone tools. His mother almost certainly owned pots of baked clay. Ceramics had come along centuries earlier. Pots and bowls and metal were luxury goods that his parents obtained by barter and exchange, just like costly animal skins and rare pigments.

The family lived in a smallish village with a few other families, but between villages new forms of cooperation were arising. Agriculture’s ongoing march resulted in family ties across a larger area. Perhaps even then each village would have had its own gong or slit drum, a hollow log on which one could produce two tones, one high and one low; this allowed them to send messages across a great distance. Not vague alarm signals, but extremely precise messages, entire sentences, bits of news and stories. When someone died, his name, nickname, and calls of condolence were ruffled around. When a hut burned down, when a prey was killed or a family member came to visit, the villagers drummed the news from place to place. Early in the morning or late in the evening, when the air was cold, you could hear the beats for miles around. Distant villages passed the information along to even more distant villages. The peoples of Central Africa never developed a system of writing, but their langage tambouriné (drummed language) was ingenious. Information was not stored for the future, but broadcast immediately across field and forest and shared with the community. Nineteenth-century explorers were amazed to find that the villages where they came ashore had been expecting them for a long time. When they learned that a drummed message could travel up to six hundred kilometers (370 miles) in a single day, they spoke laughingly of thetélégraphe de brousse (bush telegraph). They didn’t know that this form of communication easily preceded Morse’s invention by a millennium and a half.

Next slide, more than one thousand years later. Let’s say: 1560. Italy is caught up in the Renaissance. Jan Breughel the Elder is painting his masterpieces. The first tulip appears in Holland. What did the life of a twelve-year-old Congolese look like? If he was born in the forest, he now almost certainly lived in a larger village, a village with dozens of houses and hundreds of inhabitants, ruled over by a chieftain. The chief’s power was based on his name, fame, honor, wealth, and charisma. Only he was allowed to don the skin and teeth of the leopard. He had to rule like a father, never placing his own interests before those of the community. A number of such villages together formed a kind of circle that helped prevent conflicts over farmland and ward off intruders.

If our young fellow was born on the savanna, he would have noticed that this system had developed a step further there. A number of circles together formed a district, in some cases even a kingdom. The first real states, like those of the Kongo, the Lunda, the Luba, and the Kuba, appeared on the savanna south of the equatorial forest from the fourteenth century on. The expansion was made possible by agricultural surpluses. Some of the states were the size of Ireland. They were feudal, hierarchical societies. At the top stood a king, a village chieftain to the nth degree, the father of his people, protector and benefactor of his subjects. He cared for the community, consulted the elders, and settled disagreements. The result of this political construct is not hard to imagine: a great deal indeed depended on the personality of the king. One could be lucky or unlucky. When power becomes so personalized, history becomes manic-depressive. This certainly applied to the kingdoms of the savanna. Periods of prosperity alternated rapidly with periods of decline. The changing of the throne led almost invariably to civil war.

If our imaginary boy grew up along the lower reaches of the Congo, he was a subject of the Kongo Empire, the most famous of all these feudal principalities. Its capital was called Mbanza-Kongo, today a place in Angola, just south of Matadi. In 1482 the coastal inhabitants of that empire had seen something extremely remarkable: huge huts looming up out of the sea, huts with flapping cloths. When those sailing ships anchored off the coast, the people along the shore saw that there were white people in them. These had to be ancestors who lived at the bottom of the sea, a kind of water spirit. The whites wore clothes, lots more clothes than they did, which seemed to be made from the skins of strange sea creatures. All highly peculiar. The inexhaustible quantities of cloth the strangers had with them made the people think they probably spent most of their time weaving, there below the ocean.4

But these were Portuguese sailors who, in addition to linen, also came bearing the consecrated wafer. The king of the Bakongo, Nzinga Kuwu, allowed them to leave four missionaries behind in his empire and sent four dignitaries with them in exchange. When the latter returned a few years later with weird and wonderful stories about that distant Portugal, the king burned with the desire to learn the Europeans’ secrets and, in 1491, let them christen him Don João. Several years later though, disappointed, he returned to his polygamy and divinations. His son, Prince Nzinga Mvemba, however, was to become a deeply devout Christian and to rule over the Kongo Empire for four decades (1506–43), under his Christian name of Afonso I. It was a period of great prosperity and consolidation, during which the king’s power was founded on trade with the Portuguese. When those Portuguese asked for slaves, he had raids carried out in neighboring districts. It was an ancient practice—slavery was an indigenous phenomenon, anyone with power also had people—but his cooperation created so much goodwill with the Portuguese that Afonso was allowed to send one of his sons to Europe to attend seminary. In Lisbon the son in question, eleven-year-old Henrique, learned Portuguese and Latin and then moved to Rome, where he was enthroned as bishop—the first black Catholic bishop in history—before returning home. But Henrique was of weak constitution and died a few years later.

The Christianizing of Congo was therefore undertaken by Portuguese Jesuits and later by Italian Capuchins as well. These activities in no way resembled the missionizing of the nineteenth century; here the church made its appeal expressly to the upper reaches of society. The church stood for power and affluence, and that appealed to no little extent to the top of the Kongo Empire. The wealthy had themselves baptized and assumed noble Portuguese titles. Some of them even learned to read and write, although a sheet of paper at that time cost as much as a chicken, and a missal cost as much as a slave.5 Yet churches were built and cult objects (fétiches in French) burned. Where sorcery was found, Christianity was obliged to triumph. A cathedral arose in the capital, Mbanza-Kongo, and governors in the provinces had churches built as well. The population at large viewed the new religion with interest. While the Christian priests hoped to bring them the true faith, the people saw them as their best protection against sorcery. Many had themselves baptized, not because they had abandoned witchcraft, but precisely because they believed in it so fervently! The crucifix became highly popular as the most powerful of all cult objects to ward off evil spirits.

In 1560, after Afonso’s death, the Kongo Empire went through a deep crisis. Chances are that our twelve-year-old boy wore around his neck a crucifix, a rosary, or a medallion, perhaps an amulet his mother had made. Christianity did not oust an older belief, but fused with it. Years later, in 1704, when the cathedral at Mbanza-Kongo had already fallen to ruin, a local black mystic would live amid the ruins and claim that Christ and the Madonna were members of the Kongo tribe.6 When missionaries traversed the lower reaches of the Congo in the mid-nineteenth century, they still met with people with names like Ndodioko (from Don Diogo), Ndoluvualu (from Don Alvaro) and Ndonzwau (from Don João). They also saw rituals being performed before crucifixes three centuries old, but now decked out with shells and stones and roundly claimed by all to be indigenous.

Around 1560, in addition to an amulet, our boy also adopted different eating patterns. The Atlantic trade brought new crops to his district.7 From the moment the Portuguese established their colony on the coast close to Luanda, the change came quickly. In much the same way that the potato reached ascendancy in Europe, corn and manioc quickly conquered all of Central Africa. Corn grew from Peru to Mexico, manioc came from Brazil. In 1560 our boy of twelve would have primarily eaten porridge made from sorghum, a native grain. From 1580 on, however, he began eating corn and manioc. Sorghum could be harvested only once a year, corn twice and manioc the whole year through. While corn did well on the drier savanna, manioc flourished in the more humid forest. It was more nutritious and easier to cultivate than plantain or yams. The tubers rarely rotted. All one had to do was clear a new plot each year; it was during this period that slash-and-burn agriculture originated.8 If he was lucky, the boy’s bowl also featured sweet potatoes, peanuts, and beans—regular ingredients even today in the Congolese kitchen. Within a few decades the diet of Central Africa had been radically transformed, thanks to globalization on the part of the Portuguese.

Congo, in other words, did not have to wait for Stanley in order to enter the flow of history. The area was not untouched, and time there had not come to a standstill. From 1500 it took part in international trade. And although most of the forest’s inhabitants would not have known it, each day they ate plants that came from another part of the world.

Fifth slide. Final snapshot: we have arrived in the year 1780. If our boy was born then, there is a sizeable chance that he became merchandise for the European slave drivers and ended up on the sugar plantations of Brazil, the Caribbean, or in the south of what would later be the United States. The Atlantic slave trade lasted roughly from 1500 to 1850. The entire west coast of Africa was involved in it, but the area around the mouth of the Congo most intensively of all. From a strip of coastline some four hundred kilometers (250 miles) long, an estimated four million people were put on transport, equaling almost a third of the entire Atlantic slave trade. No less than one in every four slaves on the cotton and tobacco plantations of the American South came from equatorial Africa.9 The Portuguese, the British, the French, and the Dutch were the major traders, but that does not mean that they themselves penetrated far into the African interior.

Beginning in 1780 greater demand for slaves in the United States resulted in a major upscaling of the trade. From 1700 onward, between four and six thousand slaves were shipped annually from the Loango Coast north of the Congo; by 1780 that number had risen to fifteen thousand annually.10 This increase was felt far into the equatorial forest. If our boy was abducted during a raid, or sold by his parents in times of famine, he would have ended up with one of the important traders along the river. He would have been forced to sit in an enormous dugout, perhaps twenty meters in length, which could carry between forty and seventy passengers. He may have been chained. In addition to dozens of slaves, the canoe would also have carried ivory, the rain forest’s other luxury good. A Pygmy who had killed an elephant would not, after all, have gone himself to the coast to sell the tusks to an Englishman or a Dutchman. Trade went by way of a middleman. In the opposite direction as well: a keg of gunpowder could easily take five years to make its way from the Atlantic coast to a village in the interior.11

And then the journey began, downstream. For months the captives floated down the broad, brown river through the jungle, until they arrived at the section that was no longer navigable. There arose the huge and supremely important market of Kinshasa. People gathered there from all over. One heard the bleating of goats, dried fish hung on racks, manioc loaves were piled beside textiles from Europe. You could even buy salt there! The air was filled with shouts, prayers, laughter, and argument. There was as yet no city, but the activity was in full swing. Here the trader from the interior would sell his slaves and ivory to a caravan leader, who would take his goods overland to the coast, three hundred kilometers (185 miles) farther. Only there would our twelve-year-old boy see a white man, for the first time in his life. He would be haggled over for days.

We do not know how his crossing to the New World went. But a rare eyewitness account by a West African slave who was shipped to Brazil in 1840 provides a bit of a picture:

We were thrown naked into the ship’s hold, the men close together on one side, women on the other; the ceiling of the hold was so low that we could not stand up straight, but were forced to squat or sit on the floor; day and night were the same to us, the close quarters made it impossible to sleep, and we grew desperate with suffering and fatigue . . . . The only food we were given during the journey was grain that had been soaked and boiled . . . . We suffered greatly from a lack of water. Our rations were one half liter a day, no more than that; and a great many slaves died during the crossing . . . . If one of them became defiant, his flesh was cut with a knife and pepper and vinegar were rubbed into the wound.12

The international slave trade had an enormous impact on Central Africa. Regions were torn apart, lives destroyed, horizons shifted. But it also brought with it an extremely intensive network of regional commerce along the river. If you had to go down the Congo River anyway with a shipment of slaves and tusks, you might as well fill your dugout with less luxurious goods to sell along the way. And so fish, manioc, cane sugar, palm oil, palm wine, sugarcane wine, beer, tobacco, raffia, baskets, ceramics, and iron were taken along as well. Each day, some forty metric tons (forty-four U.S. tons) of manioc were transported along the Congo, over distances of no more than 250 kilometers (155 miles).13 Usually this was in the form of manioc loaves, chikwangue: boiled manioc gruel cleverly packaged in banana leaves. A hefty meal in itself, leaden on the stomach, but not perishable and easy to transport.

The importance of this regional trade should not be underestimated. In a world of fishermen, farmers, and hunters, a new professional category arose: that of merchants. People who had traditionally lived by tossing their nets discovered that a greater catch could be obtained by plying the river. Fishermen became merchants, and fishing villages marketplaces. Trading had always been carried out on a modest scale, but now commerce became a trade in itself. Many were none the worse for it. Some came to possess dugouts, wives, slaves, and muskets, and therefore power. Anyone possessing gunpowder had influence. And so the traditional authority of the tribal chieftains was shaken to the foundations. Centuries-old social forms were eroded. Anarchy reared its head. Political ties based on village and family were being elbowed out by new economic alliances between traders. Even the once so powerful Kongo Empire became dissolute.14 A gigantic political vacuum arose. International trade was flourishing, but it resulted in total chaos far into the African interior.

Ninety thousand years of human history, ninety thousand years of society . . . such vitality! No timeless state of nature occupied by noble savages or bloodthirsty barbarians. It was what it was: history, movement, attempts to contain the misery, attempts that sometimes brought new misery, for the dream and the shadow are the closest of friends. There had never been anything like standing still; the major changes followed each other with ever-increasing momentum. As history moved faster, the horizon expanded. Hunter-gatherers had lived in groups of perhaps fifty individuals, but the earliest farmers already had communities of five hundred. When those societies expanded to become organized states, the individual was absorbed into contexts of thousands or even tens of thousands of people. At its zenith, the Kongo Empire had as many as five hundred thousand subjects. But the slave trade annihilated those broader ties. And in the rain forest, far from the river, people still lived in small, closed societies. Even in 1870.

IN MARCH 2010, as I was putting the finishing touches to this manuscript, I booked a flight to Kinshasa. I wanted to visit Nkasi again, this time accompanied by a cameraman. I resolved to take him a nice silk shirt, for poverty cannot be combated with powdered milk alone. Regularly, during the long months of work on this book, I had called his nephew to ask how Nkasi was getting along. “Il se porte toujours bien!” (He’s still doing fine) was always the cheerful announcement from the other end. Less than one week before my deadline, five days before my departure, I called again. That was when I heard that he had just died. His family had left Kinshasa with the body, to bury him at Ntimansi, the village in Bas-Congo where he had been born an eternity ago.

I looked out the window. Brussels was going through the final days of a winter that knew no respite. And as I stood there like that, I could not help thinking about the bananas he had slid over to me during our first meeting. “Take it, eat.” Such a warm gesture, in a country that makes the news so much more often for its corruption than for its generosity.

And I had to think about that afternoon in December 2008. After a long talk Nkasi had needed a rest, and I entered into conversation with Marcel, one of his great-nephews. We were sitting in the courtyard. Long lines of wash had been hung out to dry and a few women were sorting dried beans. Marcel was wearing a baseball cap with the visor turned to the back and was leaning back comfortably in a plastic garden chair. He started talking about his life. Although he had been good at school, he had now been relegated to the marché ambulant (walking marketplace). He was one of the thousands and thousands of young people who spent all day crossing the city with a few articles to sell—a pair of trousers, two baskets, four belts, a map. Sometimes he would sell only two baskets a day, a turnover of less than four dollars. Marcel sighed. “All I want is for my three children to be able to go to school,” he said. “I liked school so much myself, especially literature.” And to prove that, in a deep voice he began reciting “Le soufflé des ancêtres,” the long poem by the Senegalese poet Birago Diop. He knew great chunks of it by heart.

Listen more often

To things rather than people

You can hear the voice of the fire,

Hear too the voice of the water.

Listen to the bush

Sobbing in the wind:

It is the breath of the dead.

Those who died never went away:

They are in the shadow that lights up

And also in the shadow that folds in upon itself.

The dead are not beneath the ground:

They are in the leaves that rustle,

They are in the wood that groans,

They are in the water that rushes,

They are in the water at rest,

They are with the people, they are in the hut.

The dead are not dead.15

Winter on the rooftops of Brussels. The news I just received. His voice that I can still hear. “Take it, eat.”

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