The idea for this book arose one evening in November 2003 at Café Greenwich in Brussels. I was sitting alone at a table having a drink. In the years that went before I had traveled a great deal in Southern Africa and written about that; now I was about to visit Congo for the first time. In preparation for my trip I had just visited a few bookstores in Brussels, without really finding what I was looking for. Maybe I should write it myself, I realized then, for apparently I belong to that genus of writers who happen to write the books they themselves would like to read. At the time there was no way I could have known that, with that playful brain wave, I was embarking on a project that would take years and result in countless unforgettable encounters. But even at an early stage I decided to surround myself with a few of those whose judgment I value highly: Geert Beulens, Jozef Deleu, Luc Huyse, and Ivo Kuy. According to good Central African tradition I referred to them as “my uncles”: I could call on them whenever necessary, and enjoyed their confidence even before I had proven myself worthy of it. The sense of their silent involvement meant more to me than they realized.
It was clear from the very start that this book, sweeping gesture that it is, would be easier to write if I were not associated with any university. The freedom of authorship was dearer to me than the certainty of academic tenure. For the funding I decided to stick to the rule applied by Amnesty International, that is, to accept no money directly from any government institution: only in that way could I preserve my independence. It was therefore a true stroke of luck to be able to receive the support of five institutions, all of which work with autonomous—and often even anonymous—assessment committees. I am sincerely indebted to the Flemish Literature Fund, the Dutch Foundation for Literature, the Pascal Decroos Fund for Investigative Journalism, the Foundation for Special Journalistic Projects, and the Netherlands Institute for Advanced Study for the means they placed at my disposal. During two of my ten trips to Congo I traveled with the press corps, within the context of a Belgian ministerial visit. During my longer stays I regularly made domestic flights aboard planes used by the UN peacekeeping forces. That was the full extent of my embeddedness. I received no money from any government ministry, was not sponsored by any company, and accepted no lodgings from any NGO. Those who offered me such favors I teasingly told that, were I to accept, I would be placing them at far too great a risk.
Independence is the greatest good, but that is not to say that I played the knight errant. I was greatly nourished by the ideas of many others, first of all the numerous informants whose names have been mentioned in the previous chapters. They are the life’s blood of this book. As time went by, I even became friends with a few of them. But help also came from a great many people behind the scenes. A number of eminent Congo experts were extremely generous with information from the start. Lieve Joris provided me with books and contacts with a generosity rarely seen in this day and age. Walter Zinzen, Filip De Boeck, and Benoît Standaert were inexhaustible sources of erudition and friendship. Guy Poppe, Katelijne Hermans, Ine Roox, Peter Verlinden, Koen Vidal, Maarten Rabaey, and John Vandaele were more than willing to share with me their views on Congo. A number of people who knew I was working on this book drew my attention to interesting source material. My special thanks in this regard goes out to Colette Braeckman, Raf Custers, Roger Huisman, Piet Joostens, Luc Leysen, Alphonse Muambi, Sophie de Schaepdrijver, Mark Schaevers, Vincent Stuer, Margot Vanderstraeten, Pascal Verbeken, Paule Verbruggen, and Honoré Vinck.
In Kinshasa I profited greatly from my conversations with Zizi Kabongo, Annie Matiti, Noël Mayamba, consul Benoît Standaert, and Johan en Mieke Swinnen, the Belgian ambassador and his wife at that time. Chauffeur Didier Catu, Colonel Frank Werbrouck, ambassador Geoffroy de Liedekerke, and Brother Luc Vansina helped in various ways to solve logistical problems. In Kisangani I was assisted by Pionus Katuala, Faustin Linyekula, and Virginie Dupray. In Bunia it was a privilege to become acquainted with radio journalist Jean-Paul Basila. Sekombi Katondolo, Chrispin Mvano ya Bauma, Cléon Mufingizi, and Carine Tchoma came to my assistance during my time in Goma. In Bukavu I was the guest of Adolphine Ngoy and her family. In Lubumbashi I spoke at length with Jules Bizimana, Father Jo De Neckere, and Paul Kaboba. In Rwanda I was guided expertly by Gady Byabagabo. In Nkamba, the sacred city of the Kimbanguists, I learned a great deal from the young journalist Tétys Danaé Samba. In Nsioni I had the great good luck to listen to the accounts of Dr. Jacques Courtejoie and his friends Roger Zimuangu and Clément Nzungu. In Boma I met the remarkable town archivist Placide Munanga, who told me about his city’s history. In Kikwit I spent hours talking with the headmaster of the local school, Rufin Kibari Nsanga, whose desk was literally piled high with books and documents. It was a great joy to make his acquaintance. His knowledge of history was stunning and exceeded only by his curiosity and glowing hospitality.
During the time I spent with the MONUC (Mission de l’Organisation des Nations Unies au Congo), during the 2008 Nkunda offensive, I had fascinating encounters with William Elachi, Sylvie van den Wildenberg, and Bernard Kalume. In China I learned a great deal from my conversations with Belgian consul Frank Felix, Flemish economic envoy Koen De Ridder, Congolese journalist Jaffar Mulassa, and the African entrepreneurs Georges Ndjeka, Dadine Musitu, and Lina Garcia Mendes.
During my travels I regularly met and engaged in edifying and enjoyable conversations with journalists or researchers. I think in particular of Caty Clement, Samuel Turpin, Greg Mthembu-Salter, Kipulu Samba, Hery Mambo, Delphine Schrank, and Kristien Geenen. Most of the time I traveled alone, but it was a wonderful experience to venture out on a few occasions with intrepid travelers like Jan Goossens, Carl De Keyzer, and Stephan Vanfleteren. I met Kris Berwouts, director of EurAc, the European network of NGOs in Central Africa, during a flight from Kinshasa to Bukavu. Even without the aborted plane crash upon our landing at Bukavu, we would have become friends. But as we stepped unharmed from the aircraft and made our way through the tall grass, the torrential rain and the red mud, away from a plane that might explode at any moment, we both realized that we had been very lucky indeed and that from then on we would be bound not only by our love for Congo but also for life itself.
During the actual writing phase, I was regularly able to turn to historians Jean-Luc Vellut, Daniel Vangroenweghe, Zana Aziza Etambala, Guy Vanthemsche, and Vincent Viaene, to anthropologists Filip De Boeck, Peter Geschiere, Klaas de Jonge, David Garbin, and Anne Mélice, to art historians Roger Pierre Turine and Sabine Cornelis, to archaeologist Els Cornelissen, economist Frans Buelens, and filmmaker Valérie Kanza. Walter and Alice Lumbeeck and Frans and Marja Vleeschouwers, friends of my father from the 1960s, helped me to understand the Belgian perspective regarding the Katangan secession, while Michel and Edith Lechat and Jean Cordy served as very special informants concerning the colonial era. Many people who I never had the pleasure of meeting in person were nevertheless willing to answer my e-mails and phone calls. Reverend Martin M’Caw, Robert Lay, Julian Lock, and Betty Layton helped with information concerning the very first generation of Protestant missionaries. Aldwin Roes, Fien Danniau, Nancy Hunt, Myriam Mertens, Bob White, Bodomo Adams, and Bram Libotte sent me unpublished manuscripts, while Dominiek Dendooven, Didier Mumengi, Steven Spittaels, and Didier Verbruggen helped me with specific information or documents that I was looking for. Bogumil Jewsiewicki, Tom De Herdt, Stefaan Marysse, and Erik Kennes also answered a few thorny technical questions. Odette Kudjabo told me on the phone about her grandfather, who had fought in World War I, Michel Drachoussoff talked about his father, who had kept such a fascinating wartime diary in 1940–45, and Dorothée Longeni Katende related stories about her grandfather, Disasi Makulo, who she had unfortunately never met.
When the manuscript was finished, I asked a few experts to read through it. Vincent Viaene, Guy Vanthemsche, and Filip Reyntjens examined the chapters dealing with the Free State, Belgian Congo, and independent Congo, respectively, while Frans Buelens double-checked the passages on economics. I am deeply indebted to all of them for their careful comment.
In the world of Dutch-language letters it is uncommon to thank one’s editor (“Only doing my job,” is the slightly embarrassed comment one usually hears from them), but that rule does not apply to Wil Hansen, for the simple reason that he was much more than an editor, but un honnête hommeof the rarest and most noble sort, and a great pleasure to work with.
I wrote Congo: A History at my studio in Kuregem, the oft-cited “problem neighborhood” in the Brussels district of Anderlecht, although I must add right away that I was bothered more by the noise of the police helicopters circling the neighborhood as part of the city’s zero-tolerance policy than by anything in the neighborhood itself, where I have worked with pleasure for more than four years. I could never have dreamed of finding in Europe a better place to write about Congo: my studio has a view of the street where every day dozens of second-hand cars are bought and sold before being shipped to Central Africa. The street corners are adorned with posters for concerts by Werrason or services by faith healers. From the outside this neighborhood seems so poorly integrated into Belgian society, I am sometimes told, but from here it seems more like Belgium is poorly integrated into the world. Kuregem is a lesson in globalization, but also in empathy and involvement.
The best classroom for such lessons is probably the Royal Flemish Theater in Brussels. My research on Congo began more or less simultaneously with the start of that theater’s artistic Congo project, a long-term exchange program between Congolese and Belgian artists. I was involved in the start of it; I taught several workshops for Congolese authors in Kinshasa and Goma, and meanwhile worked on my theater monologue Mission, which had its premier at that same theater. The wonderful work of people like Jan Goossens and Paul Kerstens convinced me that broad social debate is often carried on with greater urgency at such sanctuaries for critical thought than at many universities or in the increasingly commercialized media. It was in that context that I met a number of my dearest Congolese friends. I think in particular of the writers Bibish Mumbu and Vincent Lombume, of dramaturgists Papy Mbwiti and Jovial and Véronique Mbenga, of the actresses Starlette Mathata and Dadine Musitu, of filmmaker Djo Munga, choreographer Faustin Linyekula, visual artist Vitshois Mwilambwe, and sculptor Freddy Tsimba. Not only have they helped me to understand their country, but also to love it, for a country that brings forth such intelligent and courageous artists is far from being lost.
This book could also not have been written without the proximity of a number of very dear friends in Europe: each in their own way, Natalie Ariën, Geert Buelens, Emmy Deschuttere, Jan Goossens, Maaike Pereboom, Grażyna Plebanek, Stephan Vanfleteren, Francesca Vanthielen, and Peter Vermeersch supported me in the long process of writing this text. But above all I would like to thank Bernadette De Bouvere and Tomas Van Reybrouck, my mother and brother, for their untiring wisdom and warmth.
Brussels, April 2010