LUTUNU LOOKED AT HIS WIFE. IT WAS BECOMING INCREASINGLY hard for her to walk. And she was still so young, he thought. The lumps on the side of her neck were clearly visible now, like a row of pebbles beneath the skin. He knew the signs, this was how it had started with his children too. First a fever, headaches, and stiff joints, then deathly fatigue and listlessness during the day, followed by sleeplessness. He knew what she was in for. She would become increasingly groggy, increasingly lethargic. Her eyes would roll up in her head, she would foam at the mouth. Then she would lie down in a corner until it was all over. What had he done to deserve this? All those who had this disease died. A few years ago all his brothers and sisters had succumbed to smallpox, they had dropped like flies. Then his two young boys, the first children she had borne him, had died of sleeping sickness. And now her. Had she drunk from a gourd used by someone else with the sickness? Had she eaten an orange with brown spots on it? No one knew where the sickness came from, no healer could offer a cult object or a medicine against it. Some people said it was a punishment from the missionaries, that they spread the sickness in indignation at those who still didn’t accept their doctrines.1 Lutunu had no idea.
Around 1900 even his leader had died of it, Mfumu Makitu, the big chief of Mbanza-Gomber. In 1884 he had been one of the first chieftains to sign an agreement with Stanley. Back then their village had been along the caravan route from the coast into the interior, long before the railroad came. Chief Makitu wanted nothing to do with the white newcomers at first, but he finally gave in. On March 26, 1884, along with several other chieftains, he had put his mark at the bottom of a sheet of paper which read: “We, the undersigned chiefs of Nzungi, agree to recognize the sovereignty of the Association Internationale Africaine, and in sign thereof adopt its flag (blue with a golden star) . . . . We declare that from henceforth we and our successors shall abide by the decision of the representatives of the Association in all matters affecting our welfare or our possessions.”2 Lutunu remembered it as clearly as though it had happened only yesterday. Chief Makitu gave Stanley a generous welcome present, one of his youngest slaves: Lutunu himself. He was ten years old at the time. For his great display of loyalty, Makitu was rewarded in 1888 with a medal of honor: he become one of the country’s first chefs médaillés (decorated chiefs). His prosperity continued to grow. Now, many years later, he had left behind sixty-four villages, forty wives, and hundreds of slaves.
Lutunu’s life was as full of adventure as that of Disasi Makulo, so adventurous in fact that he is still remembered today. A street in Kinshasa was named after him, and old Nkasi, whose native village had been close to Lutunu’s, had actually met him once in the distance past. “Lutunu, oh yes, I knew him!” he told me. It was the first time I had heard that name. “He came from my area, he was a little older than me. He was Stanley’s boy. And he always refused to wear trousers. When the white man would call out ‘Lutunu!,’ he simply shouted back ‘White man!’ Just like that! White man!” Nkasi couldn’t help laughing at the thought of it. Lutunu was special. A hotshot, on friendly terms with a lot of white people. When I returned to Belgium, I discovered that his story had been documented by a Belgian artist and writer.3
Like Disasi Makulo, Lutunu was a slave who fell into the hands of the Europeans. He served as boy to Lieutenant Alphonse Vangele, one of Stanley’s earliest helpers. He too came in contact with the British Baptists: they set up one of their most important mission posts in his region and Lutunu later became boy to one of the missionaries, Thomas Comber. And that took him to Europe, just like Disasi. He was there when Comber went to England and Belgium; he was present when Comber was received by King Leopold II. He was one of the nine children who were allowed to sing a song for the king. He was the one who later sailed to America and, when he came home, achieved fame from Matadi to Stanley Pool, and received a host of breathless followers as the first cyclist in Congo. That Lutunu, in other words. And his madcap adventures were not nearly over yet. Perfectly unsuited for the patient translation of the Gospels into his native language, but all the more for the world at large, he sailed up the Congo with Grenfell and must have met Disasi Makulo. He became the guide and interpreter for the Belgian officers Nicolas Tobback and Francis Dhanis during their military campaigns. For a short while, he was even a soldier himself in the Force Publique. He went everywhere the white people did and knew the colonizers better than anyone else. “Lutunu!” “White man!” But he refused to wear their trousers. And he had no interest in being baptized.
But then his wife died and he was all alone. Children dead, family decimated. After all his wanderings, he had ended up back in his native village. He spoke with the Protestant missionaries there and was converted. He was already around thirty by that time. The dozens of slaves he had bought in the course of the years he now set free. He went to live at the mission post. Francis Lutunu-Smith, that was the new name they gave him.
When great chief Makitu died around the turn of the century, his successor according to local custom was an inexperienced sixteen-year-old boy. The missionaries suggested that Lutunu act as the boy’s regent: that would be better for the village and better for the mission. It would allow them to exercise influence over the local authorities: Lutunu, after all, was one of their own. Just as Disasi Makulo was allowed to set up his own mission post, Lutunu was allowed to bear some administrative responsibility: thanks to the white man, the slave children of yore were acquiring a good deal of power.
Lutunu’s life may have resembled Disasi’s, but in piety he was no equal. Five years later he was suddenly expelled from the mission: he had taken an excessive liking to English stouts and lagers. The Congo Free State had dealt summarily with the endemic alcoholism of the local population. The consumption of palm wine was radically restricted; brandy, gin, and rum were banned. But Lutunu drank and danced. And although he continued to cherish his copy of the Bible, he suddenly turned out to be married to three different women, who bore him four, five, eight, twelve, seventeen children. Was the new religion really all that hard to reconcile with the old customs?
What did Congo’s new status as a Belgian colony mean to him? Did he notice anything of the transformation from the Congo Free State to the Belgian Congo? Was 1908 a pivotal year for him and his family as well? Did the local population actually notice anything of that reshuffle?
Hard questions to answer.
The classic historical accounts often say: the atrocities of the Free State lasted until 1908, but as soon as Belgium took over the colony everything calmed down and Congo’s history became un long fleuve tranquille (one long, smooth flow), which only much later, at the end of the 1950s, began to once again exhibit a few whitecaps.4 From that perspective, the colonial period in the strictest sense, lasting from 1908 to 1960, was a long and tranquil intermezzo between two turbulent episodes. In present-day Belgium, people tend often to be more concerned about the atrocities of Leopold II and the murder of Lumumba—two moments, strictly speaking, that do not belong to the classic colonial period—than by the decades in which the Belgian parliament and therefore the Belgian people were directly accountable (or should have been) for what happened in Congo. That idea of peaceful stability is reinforced further by the lengthy tenure of a number of key figures. Between 1908 and 1960, Congo had only ten governor generals, some of whom remained in office for seven or even twelve years. The first two ministers of colonies, Jules Renkin and Louis Franck, were in service for ten and six years, respectively. A tranquil current with a few solid beacons, or so it seemed.
But perhaps those are only assumptions. There was, after all, no complete break with the years before 1908. The Belgian tricolor was raised over the capital city of Boma on November 15 of that year, as the flag of the Free State was lowered and folded up for good, but little change was seen afterward. Leopold’s regime continued to cast a long, dark shadow over the colonial period. Furthermore, the half century of Belgian rule was anything but static. In fact it was characterized by a unique vitality—not only the oft-sung, unilinear dynamism of “progress,” but also the multifaceted dynamism of a complex historical era marked by tensions, conflicts, and friction. A long, wide current that grew ever more powerful? No, more like a braided river with numerous side channels, rapids, and whirlpools.
There was certainly a great deal afoot in 1908, but at first that new dynamism was seen more in Brussels than in Congo. On paper, a new dawn had come. The Colonial Charter arranging the transfer of the Free State provided Congo for the first with a sort of constitution. Very much aware of the misery suffered under the Free State, the Belgian ministers and secretaries laid out a completely new system of governance. Colonial policy was no longer based on the caprices of an obstinate ruler who could impose his will, but was established by the parliament, which was charged with ratifying laws concerning the colony’s administration. In actual practice, such policy was largely conceived and implemented by the minister of colonies, a newly designed post with a rather absurd title. The plural form, copied from its foreign neighbors, was a misnomer: Belgium had only one colony. Parliament itself spoke out only rarely on “overseas” politics. On December 17, 1909, no more than thirteen months after his lifework was taken from him, Leopold died. His successor, King Albert I, adopted a much more discreet and less self-willed stance when it came to Congo. There was also the Colonial Council, a new government body designed to provide the minister with technical advice on a host of subjects. Of its fourteen members, eight were appointed by the king and six by parliament and the senate. And then there was the Permanent Commission for the Protection of Natives, an institution with noble aims but little influence. During the fifty years of its existence, the Permanent Commission met only ten times.5 The financial arrangements changed as well: Leopold’s shadowy arrangements—which allowed him to slush money back and forth between his own personal fortune and the civil list, the means put at his disposal by the nation itself—were gone for good. From now on, black-and-white transactions were the rule. Revenues from the colony were to go to the colony itself and no longer to building projects in Brussels; this also meant, however, that Congo was to support itself in times of crisis (although Belgium, in actual practice, sometimes footed the bill). The colony, in other words, was to bear the joys and burdens of having its own budget.
These were drastic administrative reforms. But a change was seen as well in the attitude with which the colony was governed. The adventuresome made way for the bureaucratic, foie gras for corned beef. After Leopold’s antics, preference was given to a strict and sober approach. Belgium assumed its role as colonizer with more gravity than pride. The administration became highly officialized and in Belgian terms that meant extremely hierarchical and centralized. Its directives originated in Brussels and were given substance largely by people who had seldom or never been to Congo. This resulted on more than one occasion in conflicts with the European people in the colony itself. In Congo the governor general still reigned supreme, but his estimations of the situation in the colony were often at loggerheads with the orders handed down to him from Brussels. What’s more, Belgian colonials had no say in colonial policy: they had no formal political power. They submitted and not always enthusiastically.
But if they felt passed over, how much worse must it have been for the Congolese themselves? The Belgian government’s policies definitely had the natives’ best interests at heart: that insight, after the experiences with red rubber, was quite firmly defined. But Belgium was not answerable to the people in the country. The government was not elected by them, nor did it consult them in any way. It took care of them, with loving kindness.
AS POORLY AS THE BELGIAN GOVERNMENT LISTENED to the people in Congo itself, just as carefully did it heed the words of science. The objective, as Albert Thys put it, was “une colonization scientifique.”6 No more ad hoc improvisation, but Cartesian methodicalness. Scientists were the embodiment of this new-fangled sobriety—impartial, businesslike, colorless, and reliable. Or so people assumed. For in actual practice, it was their supposed impartiality that allowed them to gain so much influence.
One of the first scientific groups to gain a say in this way was that of the physicians. Around the turn of the century, Ronald Ross, a British doctor born in India, discovered that malaria was not caused by breathing in “bad air” in swampy areas (mal aria in Italian; the disease was still common in the Po estuary at the time). It was the mosquitoes that lived and bred in the stagnant water there that transmitted the sickness. One of the great mysteries of the tropics, which had claimed the lives of countless missionaries and pioneers, had been solved. Ross received the Nobel Prize in 1902 for his discovery. But that was not all. Yellow fever and elephantiasis, the disease that caused such gruesome malformation of the limbs, also turned out to be spread by mosquitoes. The enigmatic sleeping sickness came from contact with tsetse flies. Leishmaniasis was carried by sand flies, typhoid fever by lice, bubonic plague by the fleas on rats. The bite of a tick could produce stubborn attacks of fever. A new field of study, tropical medicine, was born; it was to become a powerful tool in the service of colonialism. Leopold II had already invited scientists from Liverpool to the Congo to study sleeping sickness. In 1906, on the model of the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine, he set up the École de Médicine Tropicale in Brussels, forerunner of the Antwerp Institute for Tropical Medicine.
For the inhabitants of Congo, this medicalization had major consequences. Even during Leopold’s regime, field hospitals were set up here and there in the Free State, where the victims of sleeping sickness were attended to by nuns. These lazarettes were located on islands in the river or at remote spots in the jungle and closely resembled leper colonies. Hospitalization often took place under duress. The patients were subjected more to a sort of quarantine than any form of nursing. No family, friends, or relatives were allowed to visit. For many, therefore, referral to the lazarettefelt like the death sentence. The patients served as guinea pigs for all sorts of new medicines, like atoxyl, a derivative of arsenic that produced blindness more frequently than recovery. It was not always clear what was actually being improved, the patient’s health or the experimental medicine. Because the aim was to isolate victims during the earliest stages of the sickness (when it is most contagious but also most treatable), those who were quarantined often felt perfectly healthy. Swollen lymph glands in the neck were often their only complaint. The characteristic symptoms arose only during their stay at the field hospital itself. The lazarettes therefore developed a bad reputation: people believed they were camps where colonial officials had one intentionally infected with the sickness. Riots broke out and guards cracked down, but many patients ran away and went back to their villages.
When Belgium took over Congo, for the first time in colonial history a medical service was set up . . . in Brussels. The chain of command to the local post administrators in the bush was extremely long, yet policy was successfully tailored to fit the new situation. Field hospitals alone were not enough. From now on, the movements of all Congolese had to be monitored. A 1910 decree stated that all natives fell under a specific chefferie or sous-chefferie (territory administered by a chief or smaller unit).7 The boundaries of those areas were carefully demarcated, and existing territorial limits were taken into account. Anyone wishing to move over a distance of more than thirty kilometers (about nineteen miles) for the duration of more than one month, another decree from 1910 said, were obliged to carry with them a medical passport that stated their region of birth, state of health, and any treatments received to date. A passport could only be obtained with the approval of the village chief or sous-chef. Those already infected were kept under village arrest. Anyone traveling without the proper documents risked a fine.
It would be hard to overstate the importance of this measure, which had five far-reaching consequences. First, all Congolese, even those in perfect health, were no longer able to come and go as they pleased; their freedom of movement was severely curtailed. For a region with a permanently high degree of mobility, that took some getting used to. Second, each inhabitant was from now on pinned to a spot on the map, like a beetle to a piece of cardboard. The sense of belonging in the native communities had always been great, now it became absolute. One’s identity was from then on chiseled in granite. Third, the local chefs became part of the local administration. That process had started already in Stanley’s day (see the case of Makitu), but now it was formally confirmed. They constituted the bottom rung on the ladder of the official hierarchy and fulfilled an intermediary role between the state and its subjects. The colonial government, of course, preferred to work with docile local leaders. The officially appointed chief, therefore, was often a weak character with little moral authority; the real, traditional chieftain remained in the lee, in order to go on ruling as before.8 Fourth, because the average chefferie comprised no more than a thousand inhabitants, larger ethnic entities dissolved.9 The village fell directly under the authority of the state, and intermediate levels vanished. That too had an impact on tribal awareness: nostalgia arose for a former glory. And fifth, for many, the laws originating in faraway Brussels were their first immediate encounter with colonial bureaucracy. During the era of the Free State, hundreds of thousands of Congolese had been brought under the yoke of the distant oppressor; now, in principle, there was no one who remained out of reach. The number of Belgian colonials remained quite limited (a few thousand in 1920), but the colonial apparatus tightened its grip on the population and penetrated further and further into the life of the individual.
The state: in 1885 that had been a lone white man who asked the head of your village to fly a blue flag. The state: in 1895 that was an official who came to conscript you as a bearer or soldier. The state: in 1900 that was a black soldier who came to your village, roaring and shooting, all for a few baskets of rubber. But in 1910 the state was a black assistant nurse on the village square who felt your lymph glands and said that it was good.
The colonial administration hoped to get started quickly with a large-scale medical examination of the population; King Albert allocated more than a million Belgian francs to that end, but World War I delayed the process. Starting in 1918, however, teams of Belgian physicians and Congolese nurses began traveling from village to village, and many hundreds of thousands of villagers were tested. The state: that was the men with microscopes who frowned gravely as they looked at your blood. The state: that was the gleaming, sterile hypodermic needle that slid into your arm and injected some kind of mysterious poison. The state literally got under your skin. Not only was your countryside colonized, but so was your body and your self-image. The state: that was the medical pass that said who you were, where you came from, and where you were allowed to go.
Lutunu’s life, in any case, became much more domestic as a result. The man who had been to every corner of his country, in addition to making trips to Europe and Ámerica, now remained in his village year after year. As assistant to an adolescent village chieftain, he probably advised the white supervisor about who was eligible for a travel pass and who was not. It need come as no surprise that this system left the door wide open for abuses. Passports were highly coveted, and some chiefs, clerks, and nurses were open to bribes. In the hope of obtaining a new, blank passport, villagers who wished to travel but had only recently been treated for sleeping sickness claimed to have lost their medical papers. Many people viewed the white man’s medicine with profound suspicion. Atoxyl could blind you and the spinal taps used to treat the worst cases were very painful. Yet this is not to say that the people lived in irrational fear of everything wearing a white coat. Some treatments met with general approval, such as the operative removal of tumors caused by elephantiasis, but hypodermic needles were commonly seen as a way to spread diseases. The colonizer clearly underestimated the deep attachment to traditional medicine and rejected it out of hand as quackery and mumbo-jumbo. For many Africans, this made sleeping sickness the white man’s disease, part and parcel of military domination, economic exploitation, and the political reshuffle.
And in all of this, physicians had power, a great deal of power. Doctors decided who could go where. They established the boundaries of those areas where travel was forbidden. They could force recalcitrant individuals to undergo treatment, and even punish them. They even had the authority to have entire villages moved, should there be sound public-health reasons for doing so. Village communities in areas where the tsetse fly flourished could be forced to pack up and move collectively. And should such a village refuse, doctors could call in the assistance of colonial officials and the Force Publique. More than healing individuals, this brand of medicine was intended to keep the colony on its feet.
After such mandatory migration, local communities often became disjointed. Bakongo tribespeople forced to leave their village behind sang with nostalgia and the blues: “Hey! Look at the village of our forefathers. / The shady village of palms that we were forced to leave. / Hey! The old folks? Hey! Hey! Hey! Our dead have vanished! / Hey! Look at our abandoned village! / Too bad!”10
Lutunu’s village was allowed to stay put. In order to reduce the risk of sickness, however, he did something no one in his village had ever done before: he built a house of stone. From then on he no longer slept beneath a thatched roof, between walls of clay, but in a brick hut with galvanized iron for a roof. By then, after all, there were enough carpenters and masons to be found in nearby Thysville. They knew how to make bricks from earth and how to nail down corrugated iron. Sleeping sickness had destroyed Lutunu’s family, but now he lived more or less like the white man did. Were his new brick walls hung, as a Belgian cabinet minister noted after a visit to a village chieftain in eastern Congo, with “extremely middling portraits of our rulers, as distributed everywhere by the colonial administration, and a few illustrations torn from magazines from Paris or London”? Did the occasional white visitor leave behind “a few pretty prints and a few tins of caramels” as a present?11 No one knows. What we do know is that a few years later the colonial administration appointed him chief of the region, and that, a former slave, he was given authority over no less than fifty-two villages.
THE SECOND GROUP OF SCIENTISTS to turn their attention to the colony were the ethnographers. If the scandal of the Free State had many anything clear, it was the total lack of understanding of native culture. Félicien Cattier, the eminent Brussels scholar and a virulent critic of Leopold, had been quite explicit about that: “How can one hope to carry out useful work in the colonies, if one fails to first submit the native institutions, their customs, their psychology, the conditions of their economic existence and their societies to careful study?”12 Some explorers and missionaries had shown interest in local customs, but many officers and agents of the Free State entertained rudimentary views, to say the least, about what they called “the Negro race.” If any interest existed at all, it was focused primarily on the tangible aspects of the foreign culture: their baskets and masks, their canoes and drums, the shapes of their spears, the dimensions of their skulls.
But that, Cattier felt, was not enough. This was not about specific objects or individual traits. One had to develop an eye for the deeper layers of native society. And that called for serious study. “It would be fitting if there were to be set up in Congo, just as in the Dutch Indies or British India, a ministry or office of ethnological studies.”13
And so it came about. With great to-do, the Bureau International d’Ethnographie was called into being, an institution manned by Belgian and foreign researchers whose goal it was to gather and analyze as much data as possible concerning the native population of Congo. What the École de Médicine Tropicale was for medicine, the Bureau International d’Ethnographie was for anthropology: an agency possessing expertise that became transformed into influence. Its members read travel diaries and mission reports and invested a great deal of time in drawing up exhaustive questionnaires, which were then sent to thousands of respondents in the colony: civil servants, traders, soldiers, and missionaries. They were asked to fill out all 202 sections, with themes ranging from marital customs to funeral practices and on to personal hygiene. The informants complied and the answers began flowing in. Within a four-year period, more than four hundred thousand bits of ethnographic data were processed.14 This information ended up in a monumental series of books, the Collection des monographies ethnographiques, eleven volumes of which appeared between 1907 and 1914. Each volume dealt with a given population that was considered characteristic of a given geography: the Bangala for the riverside, the Basonge for the savanna, the Warega for the jungle . . . and attention was granted as well to the Mayombe, the Mangbetu, the Baluba, and the Baholoholo. A description was provided each time of all 202 sections of the questionnaire, adding up to more than six thousand pages of reading. It was the first attempt to systematically document native culture. The result was nothing less than an encyclopédie des races noires (encyclopedia of the black races).15
But the result was also that these “races” were suddenly seen as something absolute. The series sorted the inhabitants of Congo into clearly distinguishable blocs, each with its own identity, ethnic character, and customs. There was something to be said for it—there were, after all, undeniable differences—but the attempt to throw up a cultural wall around each of those groups was entirely artificial and served to obscure any interrelations. Yet that is precisely what the ethnographers did. At the outset of the project in 1908, the key collaborator, Edouard De Jonghe, resolved to examine “les peuplades une à une, en elles-mêmes” (the tribes one by one, as they are).16 Methodologically, this step-by-step approach was quite understandable; it kept things orderly. But what was at first a guiding principle soon became an unshakeable conclusion. The “tribes” were eternal, free-standing, and immutable entities. After a few years the project’s initiator, Cyrille van Overbergh, also a prominent Catholic politician, stated with certitude: “Generally speaking, the peoples of Congo have little in the way of mutual interrelations . . . . The tribes are independent of each other and retain their autonomy.”17 This roundly ignored the centuries-long, and by that time well-known, exchanges between various groups of the population. Pygmies lived alongside Bantu-speaking farmers; the Bobangi took their boats upriver and came in contact with dozens of other groups. Ethnically, the former savanna kingdoms of Bakongo or Baluba had been quite heterogeneous. Many natives were multilingual. The cultures of the various Bantu-speakers were closely related. But the early-twentieth-century anthropologist unraveled the population into specific racial threads, the same way the eighteenth-century taxonomist had once split up the animal kingdom into various species. Changeless throughout time, without admixtures.
Congo became like an old-fashioned typecase. The map of the colony from then on consisted of little compartments, each with its own tribe. A gigantic collection of ethnographic material was assembled in Tervuren, outside Brussels, all neatly categorized according to tribe. Because the physicians forced people to stay put, the anthropologists fell prey to the even more outspoken impression that the peoples they encountered “were tied to their respective territories,” as the head of the Bureau International d’Ethnographie put it.18 This “monographic vision” had major consequences. Not only did the white people in the colony begin to act accordingly, but the Congolese themselves began identifying with a tribe more and more. The genie of tribalism was out of the bottle.
Early anthropology was not at all seen as art for art’s sake; it was intended to facilitate the colonizer’s work. Recruiters for the Force Publique, for example, could profit from a description of the belligerence inherent to certain tribes. The medical services could learn about the hygienic conditions amid the peoples most heavily affected by sleeping sickness. The administrators in Brussels could adapt their legislation in accordance with what they read about traditional common law in the colony. And the mission congregations could adjust their tactics on the basis of which religion was prominent in which region. People acted on the insights gleaned from the Collection des monographies ethnographiques. Like the various European nationalities, the tribes were ascribed characters of their own. In Congo there arose the equivalent of the stingy Scotsman, the lazy Sicilian, the messy Spaniard, and the hardworking but humorless German.
The inhabitants of the colony, too, began seeing themselves and each other in that way. What about Lutunu, for example? He had seventeen children, thirteen of whom survived into adulthood. Beginning in 1910 they all fell under the same chefferie, had the same state-recognized village chieftain, and without medical permission were not allowed to leave the area—all ingredients that furthered a pronounced regional and ethnic awareness. In addition, they received schooling from the missionaries, for education in the colony was entirely in the hands of the church. In 1908 there were some five hundred missionaries in Congo, by 1920 around fifteen hundred. School attendance was not mandatory, but Lutunu with his bicycle and his brick house, must surely have encouraged them to learn to read and write like himself. He was, after all, one of the first literate inhabitants of Bas-Congo. His village lay within the sphere of influence of the British Protestants, but outside that area the power of the Belgian Catholics continued to grow.
And what were the Congolese taught, in those plain classrooms or in the shade of a tree? Reading and writing, of course. Arithmetic as well. Church history. Devotional stories. The provinces of Belgium. About the royal family, of course, but also a few lessons concerning their own country. About the slave trade, for example. “Tungalikuwa watumwa wa Wangwana / Wabeleji wakatukomboa,” the children at Catholic mission posts in the interior sang. Literally: “The Arabized Africans were making us their slaves / The Belgians set us free.” The melody was taken from the “Brabançonne,” the Belgian national anthem. One of the oldest known school songs in Swahili provided a summary description of the colonization: “Once we were idiots / Sinning day by day / Sand fleas on our feet / Heads full of mould / Thank you, reverend fathers!”19
The songs and lessons of the Catholic priests and nuns were invariably taught in the local vernacular. Most of the missionaries came from Flanders and, in analogy to the Flemish struggle for linguistic recognition, considered one’s own language to be a supreme good. That too served to bolster tribal pride. In a grammar used by the Missionaries of the Sacred Heart in Mbandaka in the 1930s, one finds the following reading exercise: “Our language is Lonkundo . . . . Although some people like to speak Lingala, we love our Lonkundo best. The language is very beautiful and has many shades of meaning. We are very fond of it. It is a language given to us by our ancestors.”20
But ethnic identification also took place much more explicitly. Around that same time, pupils in Équateur read that “the people of Congo are divided in many groups. They stand out by reason of their dialects, their customs, and even their laws. Our true family is the tribe of the Nkundo.”21 This sounded like a literal echo of the Collection des monographies ethnographiques. The first textbooks used by the Marist Brothers (the oldest dates from around 1910) went even further. In Lingala, one read in a textbook:
The inhabitants of Congo are black. Their numbers have not yet been counted. They are estimated at up to sixteen million. They can be divided according to various tribes: Basorongo, Bakongo, Bateke, Bangala, Bapoto, Basoko, Babus, Bazande, Bakango, Bangbetu, Batikitiki, or Baka and many others.
The Basorongo live close to the ocean.
The Bakongo live upstream, close to Boma, Matadi, and Kisantu, on the river’s left bank. They are dockworkers and heavy laborers.
The Bateke are found in Kitambo. They are specialized in buying and selling.
The Bangala live around Makanza, Mobeka, Lisala, and Bumba. They are large people. They wear tattoos on their faces and ears. They remove the lashes from their eyelids and file their teeth. They are not afraid of war. Are there not, after all, many Bangala in the government’s army? They are intelligent.
The Bapoto and Basoko are brothers to the Bangala. They disfigure their faces with tattoos. They make big pestles and sound canoes, they forge spears and machetes. They kill lots of fish.22
AND SO IT GOES, on and on. Congo consisted of tribes, one was taught, each with its own territory and customs. Some were virtuous, others were not. The pupils, for example, were taught that the Azanda respected their chieftains, which was a good thing; the Babua did not and that was scandalous. The Bakongo killed elephants and were therefore very courageous. Mission schools were factories for tribal prejudice. Children who were not allowed to leave their villages were suddenly told that the Bakongo lived on the other side of their vast country and what they were to think of them. In many handbooks, Pygmies were depicted as bizarre aberrations. If you had never met one, you still knew what you were to think of them. “They excel in stealing other people’s property,” the pupils at Bongandanga read in the late 1920s, “they do not make friends with other people . . . . Most of the peoples of Central Africa are fond of keeping themselves clean and because there is plenty of water they bathe every day. But the Pygmies detest water and are very dirty . . . . In terms of ignorance, they stand head and shoulders above all other African peoples. They do not realize that living in a village with people of your own culture is better than moving around all the time.”23
This is not to say that there had never been tribes—of course there had, there were major regional differences, different languages were spoken, different customs honored, different dances danced, different dietary patterns observed, and there had even been intertribal wars. But now the differences were being magnified and recorded for all time. It rained stereotypes. The tribes, in fact, were not communities that had been fixed in place for eons; their rigidity came only in the first decades of the twentieth century. More than ever before, people began identifying with one tribe as opposed to the other.
In the 1980s an old man from Lubumbashi recorded a few recollections of his childhood. The nascent mining operations then had brought people from various backgrounds together in the compounds: “In the olden days we didn’t look at other people and say: ‘That one there is from Kasai, that one is a Lamba, a Bemba or a Luba.’ No. We were together.” And, he added: “There was no difference. No one talked about the differences.”24
The missions not only ran primary schools, but also set up seminaries to train talented pupils to become local priests. The first Congolese to be ordained was Stefano Kaoze, in 1917. He came from the Marungu mountains and was molded and made by the white fathers. In 1910, at the age of twenty-five, he had already come up with a first: his long essay “La psychologie des Bantu” appeared in La Revue Congolaise. This made him the first Congolese to publish a text. And what do we read in the first paragraphs of this incontestable landmark document? What does a young Congolese intellectual write, one who has been saturated with Catholic mission schooling? Indeed, that tribal awareness in Africa was nurtured by European books: “When I had read a number of books about a number of tribes, I saw that most of the customs originate from the same background as those of the Beni-Marungu [Kaoze’s own tribe]. Now that I realize this, I am going to tell who we are, we Beni-Marungu, and what we are not.”25 The books he read caused him to reflect on his own tribal identity. Is it any wonder that, later in life, he developed into a tribal nationalist, a champion of his own people and a defender of Congolese interests? “Potentially the most dangerous black man,” a French nobleperson noted after a tour of the colony, “is he who has had a bit of education.”26
MEANWHILE, NKASI’S LIFE DRIFTED ALONG CALMLY. When interviewing him, I was struck on a number of occasions by the fact that he had few memories of the early years of the Belgian Congo. When he spoke of the building of the railroad in the final decade of the nineteenth century, his eyes twinkled and the stories came of their own accord. But the decades that followed, which he spent back in his village, seemed to have been washed away. For a long time I wondered why, until I noticed that Lutunu’s biographer was also rather laconic about that period in her subject’s life. She too had noted blank spots in her conversations with her informant. Could that be a coincidence? I don’t believe it is. I suspect that the legislation forcing people to remain in their villages also resulted in becalmed years with few spectacular events. World War I passed them by with barely a ripple, even for Lutunu who was by that time, after all, an assistant regent. When I asked Nkasi again whether he really could remember nothing of the Great War, he said: “I may have heard of it, but it didn’t happen here.”27 His world had drawn in on itself once again. His youngest brother was born around that same time, yes, he remembered that. And in the end he had finally allowed himself to be baptized a Protestant. That was in 1916, at the Lukunga mission post. His Christian name became étienne, but everyone continued to call him Nkasi.
For him, the big turnaround came in 1921: for the first time in a long time, he left his village again. To do that he first had to apply for a valid passport and une feuille de route (a travel pass), otherwise he would not be allowed to leave. Even today, a Congolese has trouble traveling through his country without an ordre de mission; Congo is one of the few countries in the world with a migrations service that also deals with domestic travel—due to the once-so-preponderant sleeping sickness. But Nkasi was in luck. His father’s cousin worked for the railroad and so he was able to travel for free by train. He spent one whole day chugging across the grand landscape and arrived that evening in Kinshasa.
The place had changed unrecognizably since Swinburne had set up his post in the wilds there in 1885. Along the shores of Stanley Pool, some eighty companies had meanwhile built warehouses. Eight kilometers (about five miles) to the west lay the older military and administrative center, Léopoldville, where the British Baptists had once established their headquarters. In 1910 the two nuclei, Kinshasa and Léopoldville, were connected by a broad road. Today that is the Boulevard du 30 Juin, no longer a connecting road between two European settlements, but the city’s hectic, smoking main arterial. When Nkasi arrived, however, there were no more than two hundred cars and trucks in Kinshasa. A thousand white people lived there, including one hundred and fifty women. The city numbered some four hundred houses built of durable materials.28
Nkasi found himself in a city under construction, a dusty flat full of building sites and avenues leading nowhere. To the south of the European district the colonizer had built a cité indigène (district for housing African workers), a three-by-four-kilometer (about five-square-mile) checkerboard neatly divided by straight lanes. Clay huts with thatched roofs stood on the tidy square plots. Around the houses, the inhabitants grew manioc and plantain. Here and there one saw a brick house with a corrugated iron roof. Children ran naked down the sandy alleyways. Women spent hours sitting the shade, combing each other’s hair. Some of the house fronts were painted. It was there, he found out quickly, that one could buy rice, dried fish, and matches. This was a new world. Within only a few years, twenty thousand people had come to live here. Another twelve thousand settled in neighboring Léopoldville. They had arrived from all over the interior. They spoke languages he didn’t understand and came from regions he had never heard of. Only four thousand of them were women. It was a man’s world full of coarse shouting, roars of laughter, and homesickness. The cité indigène in no way resembled the traditional village; it was one huge camp of manual workers and tradesmen, but also of boys who made their way up to the white neighborhood each morning, and of vagabonds, the victims of sleeping sickness, thieves, and prostitutes.29
“I came to Kinshasa in 1921. I worked for Monsieur Martens,” he told me. “He had sheds full of diamonds from Kasai. Diamonds came from the mines, but they were sorted in Kinshasa. My job was to fill sacks and empty them.” To illustrate his words, he made a shoveling motion with his arms. “Fill them and empty them. I earned three francs a month.”30 To prevent thievery, the diamonds were not sorted at the mines themselves. The concentrate that came from the washing plant was instead taken to a central depot.
Nkasi’s move to the big city that was soon to become the colony’s capital was due to a twenty-milligram grain of glass that had been found years before at a spot many hundreds of kilometers to the east. In 1907 Narcisse Janot, a Belgian prospector traveling around Kasai with a geologist, found a chunk of crystal that did not look entirely unpromising. Because he did not have the instruments needed to carry out a petrological assay, he put it in a tube and took it back with him to Brussels. When he got home however, he forgot about it and the tiny stone remained among the many geological samples brought back by the expedition. It turned up again only years later. Further analysis proved that it was, indeed, a diamond.31 A veritable rush ensued. Kasai turned out to be the source of high-grade diamonds fit for jewelry, but also of a rougher sort in great demand for industrial use.
At other spots as well, the colony’s substratum proved to have highly welcome surprises in store. Back in 1892 the young geologist Jules Cornet had discovered extremely rich veins of copper in Katanga: areas such as Kambolove, Likasi, and Kipushi seemed particularly promising. That evening in his tent, he noted: “I would not dare to venture a figure concerning the enormous quantity of copper present at the sites I have recently examined: if I did, it would sound all too outrageous and unbelievable.”32 King Leopold II made him swear to keep his discovery a secret, so as not to rouse Britain’s interest. Probably not unwise: the copper deposits of Katanga proved to be the richest in the world. Some areas of substrate contained up to 16 percent pure copper. In a few rivers in the hilly northeast of the country, close to the border with Uganda, two Australian prospectors found a number of unsightly chunks of metal that gleamed in the sun: gold. The sites at Kilo and Moto would develop into the most important gold mining area in Central Africa. And in 1915 another prospector in Katanga found a yellowish, extremely dense stone that reminded him of the work of Pierre and Marie Curie. Later analysis showed the stone to indeed be very rich in uranium. The place where it was found became the Shinkolobwe mine—for decades the world’s major supplier of uranium ore.
Beneath its surface, Congo turned out to conceal a true “geological scandal,” as Cornet put it. It was almost too good to be true. Until then, the economic exploitation of the area had been aimed exclusively at its biological riches—ivory and rubber—but now a far greater wealth was found to be lying a few meters under the ground. Katanga, the rather unpromising region that Leopold had annexed almost by accident in 1884, suddenly turned out to contain an improbably vast treasure trove. In addition to copper and uranium there were major deposits of zinc, cobalt, tin, gold, wolfram, manganese, tantalum, and anthracite coal. The discovery that the colony was sitting atop these immense mineral riches came, by the way, not a moment too soon. Revenues from rubber harvesting had begun sinking rapidly as from 1910. The world price for rubber was in free fall. In 1901 rubber had accounted for 87 percent of Congo’s exports; by 1928 that was only 1 percent.33 “These days,” a traveler noted in 1922, “one no longer—or almost no longer—refers to rubber in Congo.”34
It seemed like a historical déjà vu: in the same way that the rubber boom had arrived just in time to offset the dwindling ivory trade, mining began just in time to replace the ailing rubber industry. There is no other country in the world as fortunate as Congo in terms of its natural wealth. During the last century and a half, whenever acute demand has arisen on the international market for a given raw material—ivory in the Victorian era; rubber after the invention of the inflatable tire; copper during full-out industrial and military expansion; uranium during the Cold War; alternative electrical energy during the oil crisis of the 1970s; coltan in the age of portable telephonics—Congo has turned out to contain huge supplies of the coveted commodity. It has easily been able to meet demand. The economic history of Congo is one of improbably lucky breaks. But also of improbably great misery. As a rule, not a drop of the fabulous profits trickled down to the larger part of the population. That dichotomy, that is what we call tragedy. Nkasi, who once worked by the sweat of his brow to empty sacks of jewel-laden earth, profited very little indeed from the entire diamond business. Today he is poor as a pauper.
For the colonizer, however, these finds were extremely important. They signaled the start of the local mining industry, even today the most important branch of Congolese industry by far. But extracting and processing ore was not the same as buying tusks or commandeering baskets full of rubber. To achieve a profit here, one had to make huge investments. Crushers and rinsing installations had to be built, ovens, foundries, hoists, and rolling mills. What’s more, the most important minerals came from regions far from the ocean. If Africa resembled a giant pear, then Katanga was “if not its heart, then certainly one [of] its best seeds.”35 That called for the construction of new railroads, harbors, telegraph lines, and roads.
All this was financed by the Belgian state and private capital. The goldmines of Kilo-Moto were at first entirely state owned; the enterprise went public in 1926. In other places one reverted to the system of concessionaries, the same arrangement that had made “red rubber” possible. Those companies operated with private capital, but there was also usually a lavish retombée (fall back, beneficial effect) for the colonial treasury. That took place not by means of direct taxation (before World War I, a tax on profits was still almost unheard of), but by the mandatory relinquishing of large packets of shares to the colonial government. That stock portfolio made it possible for the treasury of the Belgian Congo to fall back on what were often extremely ample dividends.
In 1906 three companies were set up that would play a crucial role in Congo’s mining activities: the Union Minière de Haut-Katanga (UMHK), the Société Internationale Forestière et Minière du Congo (Forminière), and the Compagnie du Chemin de Fer du Bas-Congo au Katanga (BCK). Half the Union Minière’s starting capital came from British investors, the other half from the Generale Maatschappij, the powerful Belgian holding company that had maintained a firm grip on the national economy ever since 1822. The company focused largely on Katanga. After the initial extraction activities had been carried out by a private company—the Compagnie du Katanga, run by Albert Thys, the same industrialist who had built the railroad in Bas-Congo—the Comité Spécial du Katanga (CSK) became involved. The CSK had a very special legal structure: it was not a classic enterprise but a semigovernmental organization run by the colonial state, a partnership sui generis, with public-private funding and unique privileges. It laid claim to exclusive mining rights for half of Katanga, and was also charged with the region’s political administration. The CSK, although more a company than a government, even had its own police force. It was a state within the state. This odd situation continued even after the Union Minière came along in 1906. Economic and political interests remained tightly interwoven. As the supreme industrial colossus in Katanga, the CSK often had more say in the colonial administration than the colonial administration did in the company. The colonial government, for example, facilitated the recruitment of workers for the company. Katanga, in short, was subject to a form of administration unlike that in the rest of the country. It was that, among other things, which would later fuel the region’s struggle for independence.
Forminière was set up with American capital. Because the diamond deposits were so widely scattered, the company was originally allotted a prospecting stake of no less than 100 million hectares (about 39,000 square miles), later reduced to 2 million hectares (about 7,700 square miles) with fifty mines in the area around Shikapa and Bakwanga. In 1913 Forminière extracted 15,000 carats in Katanga; by 1922 that had grown to 220,000 carats.36
BCK, finally, the third company set up in 1906, was a private railroad company founded with French-Belgian capital and charged with the construction of a rail connection between Katanga and Bas-Congo. It was along this line that ore was to reach the ocean without leaving the territory of the Belgian Congo. The only other alternative would have been to cross through Portuguese, German, or British colonies, thereby generating troublesome forms of dependence. The new railroad was finished in 1928. But BCK was involved in more than simply building railroads. The company also owned enormous mining rights, which would later serve it very well indeed. Its concession turned out to contain one of the world’s largest deposits of industrial diamonds. The profits were spectacular and almost half of them flowed into the Congolese treasury.37
And Nkasi went on shoveling. The earliest mining activities, after all, called for manual labor, a great deal of manual labor. And who was going to supply that? The Belgians themselves? That seemed to be out of the question: “South of the Equator, a Belgian can carry out almost no other work than that of supervision. Continuous physical effort, every form of manual labor, which is difficult enough in itself, is more or less off limits to him.”38 For a time, in sparsely populated Katanga, consideration was given to importing Chinese laborers; in view of the god-awful mortality rates experienced during the building of the railroad, however, this idea was soon abandoned. Anyone flying over Katanga today by helicopter, for example from Kalemie to Lubumbashi, as I had the honor of doing in June 2007, can learn a great deal about the region’s social history. The UN aircraft in which I was supposed to travel turned out, due to a shortage of passengers, to have made way for a worn-out chopper with a Russian crew and Russian insignia. Rather than a short, two-hour flight, it became a long and noisy six-hour journey over an empty landscape. We flew at an altitude of no more than three hundred meters (about a thousand feet). One could pick out the individual trees, buffalo, and termite hills, but rarely a village. Wearing my red ear protectors as I peered out the open window, I came to better understand the transformation that had taken place here a century earlier. If today, in an era of explosive population growth, the savanna still remains so empty, I thought, how much more desolate must it have been a hundred years ago, after a pandemic of sleeping sickness?
Katanga was packed with ore, but there was no one to dig it up. In the isolated villages a fruitless search was carried out for people willing to work. From 1907 on, therefore, the companies began recruiting abroad: each year, six or seven hundred Rhodesians came to work the Katangan copper mines.39 By 1920 their numbers had risen to many thousands; they accounted for one-half of all the African laborers. The workers were employed for stretches of no longer than six months, they lived in compounds, as at the South African mines, and were not allowed to bring their families along.
There are almost no firsthand accounts from those early mineworkers, with a few exceptions. “I came to Katanga on May 4, 1900. I was hired by a Mr. Kantshingo,” an old man recalled. He had to undergo a medical exam and was given a worker’s pass with his thumbprint on it.
There were no houses of stone or brick. The blacks slept in huts, the whites in tents and in termite mounds [sic]. Many of the whites were Italians. The crew bosses came from Nyasaland [Malawi]. The language we used was Kikabanga. A pick was called amutalimbi. A shovel was a chibassu, a wheelbarrow a pusi-pusi, a hammer a hamalu. At four in the morning we left for work. We started at six and stopped at five, six, seven o’clock at night. The workers were beaten very often . . . . We used Rhodesian money. The beer we drank was called kataka and kibuku, it was made from corn or sorghum.40
In 1910 Katanga was linked to the rail network that the British had built in their southern colonies. From then on there was a direct connection between Katanga and Cape Town. Around the little village of Lubumbashi, close to the mine that the prospectors called Star of the Congo, a city quickly arose: Elisabethville. In 1910 there were three hundred Europeans and a thousand Africans living there: one year later, that were a thousand Europeans and five thousand Africans.41 From the very start, the city was more South African than Congolese. The straight roads lined with trees reminded one of Pretoria; the cozy white house fronts were more like Cape Town. The Rhodesian workers and British industrials saw to it that English became the dominant language and the pound sterling the prevailing currency.
There is an extraordinary document that helps us to understand that earliest phase of the Katangan mining industry from an African perspective. In the 1960s André Yav, an old man who had worked all his life as a boy in Elisabethville, wrote down his recollections:
When bwana Union Minière began, the first people who came to work there were from the nearby villages. Those were Balamba, Baseba, Balemba, Baanga, Bayeke and Bene Mitumba people. There were not very many of them, and they didn’t really want to leave their villages for too long. They would work for two or three months and then go home. After a time, the places where there was work to be had became big. Then they started calling in people from Luapula and Northern Rhodesia [present-day Zimbabwe and Zambia], and others came as well: Balunda, Babemba, Barotse and also boys from Nyasaland. They were strong enough to do the work, but couldn’t leave their villages for a long time either. After six or ten months, they would go home again.42
Things did not stop there, however. Recruiters moved farther and farther into Katanga in search of young, able-bodied men. Some recruiters worked for official organizations, but there were also very many private contractors, white adventurers who did their best to lure as many young people as possible to the mines. Some of them even went as far as Kasai or Maniema, journeys of eight hundred kilometers (about five hundred miles). Their recruitment methods were often dubious: they would bribe village chieftains with European luxury goods such as blankets and bicycles and a bonus for each worker supplied them. Concerning the working conditions in the mines, they remained prudently silent. They bought up workers in order to sell them on again. Force was often used as well. In fact, their working methods differed little from the recruitment tactics of the Force Publique around 1890, or the Afro-Arab slave traders in 1850. In his memoirs, our retired boy was perfectly clear about that:
In that way, bwana Changa-Changa [the African nickname for Union Minière] and the other whites were able to set up their mining companies . . . . The misery we suffered was unimaginable; we slept on the ground, were bitten by snakes, by mosquitoes, by all kinds of insects. That’s the way it was to work for the white people, and all that just to find ore in Katanga, and things were even worse with the whites of the Comité Special [du Katanga, active until 1910]. They made us walk around, go prospecting, look around in the bushes and on the hillsides for all kinds of stones. And what’s more, we, the boys, had to go with the white people along all the rivers of Katanga, of Congo, everywhere.43
The housing provided for the first generation of mineworkers was often abominable. The miners were placed in work camps, far from where the whites lived in the city center. This spatial segregation was established by law from 1913.44 Their neighborhoods looked more like military encampments than urban districts: rectangular and almost without shade. Traditional huts were arranged in serried ranks. Four workers were assigned to each hut, with four square meters (about forty-two square feet) of living space each. Latrines were provided, at least in theory. In reality, the exhausted miners were forced to live under harsh and unsanitary conditions. At the Kambove mine, the camp inhabitants sometimes literally had to wade through the dreck. Drinking water was scarce. With its steam engines and drilling installations, the mine itself used up most of the water. During the dry season, workers drank from stagnant ponds or muddy streams.45 And the diseases arrived. Dysentery, enteritis, and typhoid fever took their toll, and local influenza epidemics broke out at Elisabethville, at the Star, and in Kambove. At those three places in 1916, 322 workers out of a total of 5,000 died. Hard labor in the dusty mines also caused many workers to contract pneumonia and tuberculosis. One quarter to one third of them fell ill, but health care remained minimal.46 In 1920 there were some seventy physicians and one dentist for all of Congo: they were there largely to serve the white population.47 The miners worked long hours and were paid a pittance. Many of them became apathetic and depressed and longed for home. They organized themselves only in ad hoc fashion and often along ethnic lines, to care for their sick, bury their dead, to drink, and to sing. Some of them deserted, others did not dare. Until 1922 corporal punishment was allowed.
It was, all things considered, a grim situation. Southern Katanga had never been bothered much by the Free State’s rubber policies, but now the region was dragged along by a relentless wave of industrial capitalism. This caused André Yav, the retired boy, to draw an extremely remarkable but also very telling conclusion: he decided that King Albert I was far worse than Leopold II, who had at least “honored the laws of Africa and Congo”! That called for a bit of explanation: “In the days of King Leopold II, the ‘boys’ ate with the white people at the same table. The white people saw them as employees. They were not like the whites who came after Leopold II. When he died, he was succeeded by King Albert I. Those whites made hard decisions, and those decisions were really very bad. They were the ones who brought a bad kind of slavery for us, the Congolese.”48
No less trying were the conditions at the Kilo-Moto gold mines in Orientale province. Only one out of every eight workers was there voluntarily, the rest had been press-ganged in local villages: human trafficking, in other words, and forced labor. Recruiters would pay a local chieftain ten francs for each laborer and take the young men away in chains. They were bound together at the neck by a wooden yoke or a noosed rope. In 1908 there were eight hundred workers, by 1920 more than nine thousand.49 In 1923, in diamond-rich Kasai, some twenty thousand Africans were working in the service of two hundred whites.50
Between 1908 and 1921, in other words, Congo experienced its first wave of industrialization, thereby prompting the proletarianization of its inhabitants. Men who had once been fishermen, blacksmiths, or hunters became wage laborers for a company. Even in this earliest phase, their numbers were large. In Katanga, where 60 percent of the laborers worked for Union Minière, the body of mineworkers grew from 8,000 in 1914 to 42,000 by 1921, and the number of railroad workers from 10,000 to 40,700. Together, Kasai and Orientale province were good for 30,000 workers, while another 30,000 migrant workers lived in Kinshasa and Léopoldville. The reason for this massive recruitment of African workers was simple enough: sweat costs less than gasoline.51
This proletarianization was not limited to industry alone. Agriculture too had need of manual laborers, especially now that white farmers had started coffee, cacao, and tobacco plantations. The most extensive agrarian employment of all, however, was in the palm oil sector. In Liverpool in 1884, a man named William Lever had started making soap on an industrial scale. The bars rolled from the production line, and he christened his product Sunlight. This company’s rise to become the Unilever multinational was due in part to the contribution of Congo. At first, the soap was made from palm oil that Lever purchased in West Africa. But when the British colonial administration there stopped providing favorable conditions, the Belgian state granted Lever an extremely sizeable concession in Congo in 1911. At his own discretion, he was allowed to stake out five circles with a sixty-kilometer (about a thirty-five-mile) radius in those areas where wild palms flourished, for a total holding of some 7.5 million hectares (about 29,000 square miles), two and a half times the size of Belgium. This was the start of the Huileries du Congo Belge (HCB), an enterprise that was particularly active in the south of Bandundu and grew to become a massive concern. Close to Kikwit, the town of Leverville arose. For the harvesting of palm nuts the company made use of thousands of Congolese, who climbed the trees in the traditional manner to cut down the clusters. Lever had a reputation as a great philanthropist, but very little that his company did bore witness to that in Congo. His employees earned a miserable twenty-five centimes a day and lived under primitive conditions. Press-ganging and the bribing of village chieftains took place. Dozens of villages had to pack up and move for the industry’s purposes. People today in Kikwit think back on that period with bitterness: this was worse than what the region had experienced under the rubber regime.52 It was something King Albert could hardly have suspected in 1912, when William Lever presented him with an ivory box containing the first bar of Sunlight soap manufactured with Congolese palm oil.
“I EARNED THREE FRANCS A MONTH,” Nkasi had told me. It was the first time in his life that he earned a wage, which was why he remembered it so clearly. The budding industrialization of Congo led not only to an initial form of urbanization and proletarianization, but also to a far-reaching process of monetization. For the first time, on a major scale, the population became involved with a concept as abstract as money. Formal currencies were nothing new: in Bas-Congo people had been paying with white seashells since time immemorial; in Katanga the currency took the form of crafted copper crosses; in other parts of the country they paid with mitakos, the copper bars introduced by the first colonizers. But such currencies were brought to bear only for very special transactions. There was as yet nothing like a widespread monetary economy. But that changed soon enough. In the year 1900 no more than few hundred workers in Bas-Congo, most of whom worked on the railroad, were on a payroll; by 1920, when Nkasi moved to Kinshasa, there were already 123,000 such employees scattered across the country. And that was before the real employment boom began: in 1929 there were some 450,000 paid workers. Congo became a monetary economy.53
That monetization had a major impact. Once again, the state was overtly intruding into everyday life. One could no longer buy a chicken from the neighbors without symbolic government involvement. The centuries-old barter system, a transparent system of exchange between individuals, was pushed out by an abstract system imposed by the state. People had no choice but to assume that these strange pieces of paper showing a white woman in a white tunic had any effective value at all. “Banque du Congo-Belge” one read, printed in stately letters on that first Congolese banknote, “un franc”—at least, for those who could read. The woman, who had rather Hellenic look to her, wore a tiara. Her left arm rested on a big wheel, and with her right she embraced a sheaf of wheat.54 This was obviously intended as an allegory for agriculture and industry, but the average Congolese was not very familiar with neoclassical graphics and kitsch. In the early 1920s, however, the local coins came one step closer to local reality: they bore the imprint of an oil palm, m’bila in a number of the native languages.55 The people recognized it as a literal link between state and industry: Lever’s concern soon became known as Compagnie m’bila. Money, that was barter with the factory. You gave them your body, they gave you your wages.
An advantage of all this, however, was that it now became much easier to collect taxes. One no longer needed to pay in kind or with labor for his mandatory membership in the state. Gone were the days of toting burdens, paddling upriver or collecting rubber to serve the white man; gone was the rule that one had to serve the state for forty hours each month. When Belgium assumed control of Congo, it first introduced a system whereby goods other than rubber could serve as tax—the colonial revenue department was equally pleased to received bars of manioc, copal, palm oil, or chickens—but went on after a time to express its preference for taxation in the form of hard cash. When a missionary asked him in 1953 to describe the course of his long life, Joseph Njoli, a man from Équateur, remembered that quite clearly:
After rubber, they imposed on us a tax in fish and manioc. After the fish came the palm oil and wood that we had to bring to the regional administrator at Ikenge. His name was Molo, the white man who lived at Ikenge with the river people. The chores we were given to do took many forms . . . . Then there came another white man, Lokoka. He stopped the work we had been doing and brought us money. He said: “You people may now pay taxes with money. Everyone has to pay four-and-a-half francs.” That was how money was introduced to the black people. And now we still live in slavery to the Belgians.56
Four and a half francs a year: that was not particularly exorbitant. The tax burden was kept light on purpose. In 1920 that sum was the equivalent of six kilos (thirteen pounds) of rubber, or forty-five kilos (a hundred pounds) of palm nuts, forty-five kilos of palm oil, thirty-five kilos (seventy-seven pounds) of copal resin, nine chickens, half a goat, or a few dozen loaves of manioc.57
On paper, the Belgian Congo wished to put an end to the noxious practices of the Free State, but in actual practice things went quite differently. In those zones where international big business had settled, new forms of exploitation and bond service arose. Migratory waves were set in motion that did more to disorganize the country than to help it recover. Young men ended up in shabby workers’ camps, while only women and old people remained behind in their villages. Much of the misery in the period from 1918 to 1921 could be blamed on the four long years of World War I, but a great deal of misery had already gone before. It would be a mistake to pass the blame off on that accursed conflict. The Great War was not the cause, but it did make the situation worse.
ON NOVEMBER 11, 2008, the rain was pounding down over Kinshasa. This was, even by equatorial standards, an unusually heavy downpour. What fell were not drops, but rivulets of glass, liquid test tubes. Traffic in the city ground to a halt, horns honked incessantly as though ordering the puddles to dry up, and the courtyard of the Maison des Anciens Combattants was reduced to a swimming pool. During the 1950s this building had been an open-air movie theater; now it served as a club for the veterans of the many wars Congo has seen, a daily gathering place for its members. “It’s unbelievable,” a Belgian soldier in uniform remarked, “nothing in this country is watertight, the rain gets in everywhere, but here it just collects, no problem.” He looked at the tiled courtyard. Seemingly without success, a dozen boys with buckets were trying to bail it out. The water must have been a foot deep. “You could raise goddamned koi carp here.”
Meanwhile, the crowd flowed in. Women wrapped in beautiful robes: the heels of their dress shoes made little indentations in the ground. Men with glistening brass instruments. Gentlemen in three-piece suits. Former military men in green uniforms. This of course was their big day. There weren’t many of them left anymore. They stood beneath the shelter of roofed-in gallery, assaying each other’s medals, seizing them from each other. “Saio? You weren’t even there. Give here.” Amid petulant grumbling, medals changed jackets. That went on for a long time, until everyone who wanted to wear something shiny actually had something to pin on. André Kitadi told me: “None of these people were there. There are only four veterans of ’40–’45 still alive in Kinshasa.” He was one of them, I had interviewed him already. He didn’t give a hang about medals.
Today was the ninetieth anniversary of the armistice that ended World War I.
The invitees waited beneath awnings until the courtyard was dry again. The ceremony was supposed to have begun at eleven, but it was already twelve-thirty. Finally someone showed up with a pump. Half an hour later they found the diesel fuel as well and fifteen minutes later the pump actually kicked over. After five minutes of noisy slurping, the courtyard was dry and the garden behind the Maison des Anciens Combattants had become a mud puddle. The ceremony could begin.
In 1914 Congo was as neutral as Belgium. They had to be: both countries had been conceived to serve as a buffer state between rival powers. For Congo, that neutrality proceeded from the final act of the Berlin Conference. But that neutral stance came to an end on August 15, 1914, eleven days after the German attack on Belgium. Across from the village of Mokolubu, on the Congolese side of Lake Tanganyika, a steamboat suddenly appeared. It was coming from the far shore, the German shore. The ship opened fire on a local café and sank fifteen canoes. A detachment of German soldiers landed and cut the telephone lines at fourteen places.58 One week later, the port of Lukuga was attacked as well. That was how World War I began in Congo. The country’s territorial integrity was threatened, the imperative of neutrality no longer applied.
Colonialism made it possible for an armed European conflict to become a world war. Large parts of Africa therefore became caught up in the international conflagration. The German colonies in East Africa (later Rwanda, Burundi, and Tanzania) and West Africa (later Togo, Cameroon, and Namibia) were bordered on all sides by French, British, Portuguese, and Belgian overseas property. In the northwest, Congo shared a few dozen kilometers of border with Cameroon, to the east more than seven hundred kilometers (430 miles) with German East Africa. Little wonder then that, for quite some time already, Berlin had been showing interest in the Belgian Congo. It wished to establish a bridgehead between its eastern and western colonies, in part at least to squelch the British axis “from Cape to Cairo.” After all, wasn’t colonization a task that should be left up to the major powers? Could one really leave such responsibility in the hands of piddling dwarf states like Belgium?59 As early as 1914 Germany had approached Britain with the formal proposal to divide the Belgian Congo between them. The English, however, were not interested: they knew all too well that the French, with their historical droit de préemption (right of first refusal) to Congo, would never allow that.60 But there were those, even in Belgium, who wondered whether Belgium might not appease its ravenous eastern neighbor by giving it half of Congo as a present. An area of 680,000 square kilometers (265,200 square miles) of jungle: wouldn’t that allay the Teutonic hunger just a bit?61
But war was what came, in Africa as well. Not a single native knew who Archduke Franz Ferdinand von Habsburg was or why a lucky shot in Sarajevo had to lead to bloodshed on the savanna, but they saw the whites acting very serious about the whole thing. The military operations in Africa, however, in no way resembled the immovable war of positions to which Europe was to be submitted. There was no clear and continuous front, not like the line extending from Switzerland to the North Sea. There were no trenches, no mustard gas attacks, no fortifications undermined with dynamite, no Christmas truces with soccer matches in no-man’s land. The sheer scale of the African continent, the lack of roads, the shortage of troops, and the often extremely trying topography led to a very different kind of warfare. It was not regions that were conquered, but strategic spots. One did not break through a solid front line, but defeated a local regiment. Zones were not seized but roads were controlled. The intensity of the conflict was much lower. In German East Africa, General Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck made a four-year stand with three thousand German troops and eleven thousand Africans, numbers that were run through at Verdun in the course of a morning.
From Brussels, the governor general heard that he was allowed to make use of the Force Publique to defend the colony. Later, when the Belgian government in exile was staying at Le Havre, France, intensive communication took place with the colonial administration at Boma. But the one-way flow of governmental directives from Europe was interrupted: while Belgium was more or less completely overrun by German troops, the territory of the colony itself remained virtually intact throughout the war. The balance had suddenly shifted.
The Congolese troops fought on three fronts: Cameroon, Rhodesia, and German East Africa. The first two called for relatively small-scale efforts. In 1914 six hundred soldiers and a handful of white officers came to the aid of Allied troops in the battle for Cameroon. One year later, when Germany threatened Rhodesia, 283 Congolese and seven Belgian soldiers joined forces with the British colonial troops. But the most intense show of military strength by far took place in the east of the colony. In the region of Kivu the border between Belgian and German territory had been established only in 1910. As from 1915, however, German troops made repeated attempts to invade Kivu, from where they could move to the Kilo-Moto gold mines in the Ituri rain forest. Those attempts failed. They did, however, succeed in gaining control over two of the Great Lakes: Lake Tanganyika and the much smaller Lake Kivu. Their gunboats—the Kingani, the Von Wissman, and most notably the (one-hundred ton) Von Goetzen— patrolled the Congolese shores. On Lake Kivu they took control of the island of Idjwi, the only part of the Belgian Congo to fall under German occupation.
MAP 5: BELGIAN CONGO DURING WORLD WAR I
The struggle for Lake Tanganyika was one of the most epic of World War I. From South Africa, British troops smuggled the parts for two fast and maneuverable gunboats of their own to the shores of the lake. Carrying ships in overland: it was like a repeat of Stanley’s day. Under their codenames Mimi and Toutou, the ships played a decisive role in weakening the Germans’ naval power. Even more audacious, if possible, was the initiative to reinforce Belgian troops on Lake Tanganyika with four aquaplanes. Air travel was still in its infancy, especially in the colonies. No one knew how these lightweight planes would react in the warm tropical skies. No one knew a thing about wartime flying, let alone about flying fragile biplanes that took off from water. The four planes arrived in pieces at Matadi. The train then took them to Kinshasa, whence they were loaded onto a freighter bound for Kinsangani. One month later they reached Kalemie. The shipment comprised five hundred metric tons (five hundred fifty U.S. tons) of hardware, fifty-three thousand liters (14,000 gallons) of fuel and oil, four machine guns, and thirty thousand rounds of ammunition. Lake Tanganyika was too turbulent for takeoffs and landings, so the planes were brought to a landlocked lagoon thirty kilometers (about nineteen miles) farther away. The lagoon was completely out of the enemy’s sights and the water was placid. In 1916 the planes flew out a number of missions over Lake Tanganyika, primarily with the intention of bombarding the Von Goetzen. On July 10 of that year, the bombs found their target. (The Von Goetzen, however, did not sink; in 2010 it was still in service, as a ferryboat on the same lake where it had met its inglorious end as gunboat.) The defense of the German coastline, and particularly of the town of Kigoma, had been broken.
Meanwhile, the infantry came into action as well. The commander of the Force Publique, General Charles Tombeur, assembled a large contingent on Congo’s eastern border. He brought together fifteen thousand men, all equipped with rifles and ammunition. Moving all that matériel into place must have been a logistical nightmare. The transport was seen to by thousands and thousands of local bearers; for every soldier who went into battle, some seven porters were needed. During the four war years, no less than 260,000 native bearers—out of a population of less than ten million inhabitants—took part in the effort. Many of them suffered from malnourishment. Drinking water was scarce. People drank from ponds; people drank their own urine. There was a dire shortage of victuals, tents, and blankets, even as the troops moved through the Kivu highlands with their chilly nights. An estimated twenty-five thousand porters died along the way. Another two thousand soldiers succumbed; at the height of the struggle, the Congolese troops numbered twenty-five thousand men. But unlike the campaign to Sudan in 1896, there was almost no desertion or mutiny, partly because the white officers behaved more mildly toward their African auxiliaries, partly because this was a victorious campaign that boosted the soldiers’ morale.
In March 1916 Tombeur felt the time was ripe for an offensive. His troops crossed the border into German East Africa and the advance on Kigali, later the capital of Rwanda, could begin. The city fell on May 6. From there the campaign moved on to Tabora, administrative nexus of the Germany colony. That city lay six hundred kilometers (370 miles) farther as the crow flies, and the soldiers advanced on foot, once again with tens of thousands of bearers. A second Congolese column departed from the shores of Lake Tanganyika. With a number of big hotels, mercantile houses, and industry, Tabora was a substantial city on a dry, open plain at twelve hundred meters (3,900 feet) above sea level. The battle formed the climax of the Belgian colonial efforts during World War I. On September 19, after ten days and nights of heavy fighting, the city fell into Belgian-Congolese hands. The German troops fled; the Belgian tricolor was raised above their fort. One year later, in 1917, the city would serve as base for another successful campaign against Mahenge, five hundred kilometers (310 miles) in the direction of Mozambique. The Force Publique now controlled one-third of German East Africa. A few scattered troops actually pushed on to the Indian Ocean, but Tabora was the name everyone would come to know. General Tombeur was raised to the peerage—most appropriately, his new name became Tombeur de Tabora—and a stylized monument was raised to him in Sint-Gillis, close to Brussels. In Congo, the name Tabora took on the connotation of a mythical conquest, heard of by generations of schoolchildren to come. “[King] Albert watches the enemy,” the pupils of the Marist Brothers in Kisangani sang, “Unflaggingly / In Europe, in Tabora town / He keeps his eye on them.”62
Martin Kabuya, the ninety-two-year-old veteran whose grandfather was buried alive during the Sudanese campaign, was two years old when the war ended. His other grandfather, from his mother’s side, saw the fighting from close by. One suffocatingly hot day, as I sat in his garden, he told me the following: “My grandfather’s name was Matthias Dinda and he was born in 1898. He was a Zanda, from the north of Congo. Our tribe originally comes from Sudan, in fact we are all Sudanese. He was a very strong man, he hunted leopards. He joined the Force Publique and was promoted to soldat de première classe [soldier first class], the highest rank for a black man. From Goma he went to Rwanda, and Burundi and Tanzania, all those German territories. He was there when Tabora fell.” Kabuya was quiet for a moment. An orange-headed lizard flashed across the wall. “My grandfather was a friend of the men who planted the flag there. He even provided them with cover. He was a very great soldier.”63
I saw Kabuya again at the Armistice Day commemoration in the Maison des Anciens Combattants. The few dozen invitees took their places in the now-dry courtyard. He sat up in front, with the veterans. Plastic lawn chairs had been set up for them. The podium, packed with nicer chairs, was soon filled with military and civilian dignitaries. As the brass band launched into the Belgian and Congolese national anthems, everyone stood and remained saluting the soldiers and officers. It was gripping to celebrate a truce in Kinshasa while, in the east of the country, Nkanda’s rebels were in the midst of their most concerted offensive. During his speech, one of the World War II veterans said: “This riles us and fills us with horror. If we were as young as we were in 1940, we would take up our weapons and go and disarm these troublemakers.”64
After the speeches it was time for the annual remise des cadeaux (distribution of gifts). A deputy cabinet minister presented the chairman of the veterans’ club with a refrigerator, another decorated veteran received ten kilos (twenty-two pounds) of manioc flour from the Belgian military attaché. But the most important gift—a boom box, imported from China—went to a fragile old woman referred to by all as “la veuve” (the widow). Her name was Hélène Nzimbu Diluzeyi; she was ninety-four and the last remaining widow of a veteran of World War I.
Afterward, for a full thirty minutes, a band played “Ancien combatant” by Zao, a singer from Congo-Brazzaville, perhaps the loveliest song in Congolese pop music. “La guerre, ce n’est pas bon, ce n’est pas bon” (War, it’s not good, not good) it went. Elderly soldiers began dancing in the courtyard, while beer and soft drinks and snacks were brought out. Some of them shuffled cautiously to the beat, others played war: one man held an umbrella and pretended to be shooting it, another fell in slow motion to the ground, shook his arms and legs in time to the music, then pretended to be dead. “La veuve” watched in amusement, clapped her hands, and couldn’t help laughing out loud now and then at this brilliant pantomime.
When the party was over, I walked her home. She lived in the Kasavubu district. We crisscrossed the muddy streets of the cité, avoiding the larger puddles. She held tightly to my left arm; under my right I held the monstrously huge box containing the boom box. It was the first time I had ever walked arm-in-arm with a veteran’s wife. When we reached her yard, we sat down together beneath the line hung with laundry. Children and grandchildren came and gathered round us. Her son came to interpret. “My husband’s name was Thomas Masamba Lumoso,” she began. “He was born in 1896. He came to Kin when he was ten. The Protestant missionaries taught him English, then they handed him over to the army. That’s where he got his uniform. In khaki.”
“No, Mom, that was much later. Back then they still wore a blue uniform with a red fez.”
“Really? En tout cas, he was eighteen when the war began. He operated the TSF, as a corporal.”
TSF, I remembered, that was the telégraphie sans fils, the field radio.
“He went to wherever the war was. Everywhere. But he was never wounded. God protected him greatly.”
“That’s right,” her son chimed in, “and he spoke a lot of languages. Swahili, Kimongo, Mbunza, Tshiluba, Kinzande, but also Flemish, French, English, and, because of the war, a little German too.”
“Yes, things like ‘Guten Tag! Wie geht es? Danke schön!’ I don’t know what it means, but that’s what he always said.”65
It was the only time during my ten trips through Congo that I met someone who knew a few words of German.
That evening, at the house of the widow’s other son, Colonel Yoka, I saw a photograph of the war veteran. In uniform, wearing his decorations and looking quite grave. In a report from 1921, his father was described as being “active and honest.” But the most interesting document the colonel showed me was a letter from his Belgian superior: “The aforementioned Masamba from the village of Lugosi served as a supervisory noncom on the TSF from August 9, 1914, to October 5, 1918.” Signed, on October 7, 1918, by someone named Vancleinghem, as far as I could read the handwriting. The dates said a great deal. Masamba’s tour of duty coincided almost exactly with the duration of World War I. He entered the army five days after it started and was discharged one month before the Armistice.66 The last of the veterans was also the one who had served the longest.
THE WORLD WAR effected more Congolese than the men of the Force Publique alone. In Katanga, the miners worked like mad. The excavation activities were running at full speed. The financial ties with Brussels had been broken, but the war caused the demand for copper to skyrocket. In the midst of the conflict, colonial copper exports rose from 52 million Belgian francs in 1914 to 164 million francs in 1917.67 The British and American shells fired at Passendale, Ypres, Verdun, and along the Somme had brass casings made for 75 percent from Katangan copper. Parts of their cannonry were made of pure, tempered copper. Their bullet shells were made of nickel, which is 80 percent copper. Torpedoes and naval instruments were made from copper, bronze, and brass.68
Yet even outside the big industrial areas a great many Congolese experienced the fact that a war was on. In Orientale province, farmers were obliged to raise rice as victuals for the troops. In other parts of the country the government charged the population with the cultivation of cotton; that was not only good for exports, but also for the local textile mills. A whole system arose of cultures obligatoires (mandatory state crops). This evoked many unpleasant memories. In their village in Bas-Congo, Nkasi and Lutunu may have noticed little of the war, but brought many people in the interior back under the colonial yoke. And, as has happened more often in Congolese history, the protests against that situation took on a religious form.69
In 1915 in the Ekonda region of Équateur, a woman by the name of Maria Nkoi had a mystical experience. She became convinced of her own powers of healing and her prophetic duties. From then on she was known as Marie aux Léopards (Marie of the Leopards).70 She began treating the ill and preaching. In addition, she called for a revolt against the colonizer and predicted that Congo would soon be liberated by the “djermani,” the Germans.71 These inflammatory words caused a run-in with the local administrators. She was jailed. Her story is reminiscent of the woman who, in 1704, amid the ruins of the cathedral at Mbanza-Kongo, had come up with an alternative form of Christianity and was prosecuted for that. Then too, European authority had been experiencing a crisis, and then too people feared the consequences of such a religious revival.
Liberated by the Germans? Albert Kudjabo and Paul Panda Farnana would have had something to say about that! After all, they had been taken prisoner by the Hun! Kudjabo and Panda were among the very few Congolese to fight in World War I in Belgium itself. As early as 1912, a man named J. Droeven had joined the Belgian army; he was the son of a Belgian arms manufacturer who was murdered in Congo in 1910 and a native woman. Droeven was the first man of color in the Belgian army, but less than three months after the war started he deserted and went off to live a life of debauchery in the cafés of Paris.72 Kudjabo, on the other hand, was part of a Congolese Volunteer Corps that had offered to help the beleaguered Belgian forces in 1914.73 Most of the corps consisted of former European colonials; its leader was Colonel Louis Chaltin. These were the only Belgians with previous combat experience, gained during the Arab campaigns and the Sudanese expeditions. But even that didn’t matter. They helped to defend the city of Namur from the advancing German army, but not very successfully. Das Heer steamrolled Belgium, and twenty-one-year-old Albert Kudjabo, along with Paul Panda, were captured. Sent to Berlin as a prisoner of war, he suddenly found himself amid soldiers from all over the world. A handful of anthropologists and philologists became fascinated by this impromptu ethnographic assemblage; they set up the Royal Prussian Phonographic Committee and made almost two thousand recordings of this band of exotics. Albert Kudjabo was asked to sing a song. He drummed, whistled, and sang in his native language.74 Those recordings have been preserved. It is a moving experience to hear them: the only Belgian soldier from World War I whose voice we know is a Congolese.75
WORLD WAR I had far-reaching consequences for the Belgian Congo. Territorial ones, first of all. The 1919 Paris Peace Conference that produced the Treaty of Versailles decided to divvy up the German colonies among the victors. Cameroon became French and British, Togo became French and British, German East Africa turned British, and Namibia was mandated to the British dominion of South Africa. Belgium received guardianship over two minuscule countries on its eastern border, the historical kingdoms of Rwanda and Burundi (still Ruanda and Urundi at the time). In 1923 the League of Nations ratified these territorial mandates. A trust territory was, on paper, not a colony, but in actual practice there was little difference. Here too the rigid and only recently developed tenets of anthropology were applied. In the protectorates, too, people reasoned, one had “races.” Those were absolute: you were either Tutsi or Hutu or Twas (Pygmy). From the 1930s on, this was also printed in one’s passport. For centuries, the borders between these tribal groups had been diffuse, but people forgot about that. The consequences of this neglect, during the second half of the twentieth century, were catastrophic.
In Congo, the war comprised a sort of pause button in the country’s social history.
The tentative attempts to improve the living conditions of the natives, by means of better housing at the mines or large-scale campaigns to combat sleeping sickness, were put on the back burner. After four exhausting years, the public health situation was once again extremely precarious. In 1918–19 the Spanish flu claimed fifty to a hundred million victims worldwide; half a million died in “the Spanish fever,” ninety-two-year-old Kabuya told me, “now that killed a lot of people.” The decimation of 1905 seemed to have returned. The pause button was a rewind button as well.
But, in the eyes of the Belgians, something really had changed. For the first time they began viewing the fate of the Congolese with compassion. The Belgians realized that these people had suffered greatly under a war that was not their own. In addition, the experience of war had resulted in a feeling of soldierly camaraderie. That caused a Belgian officer in the Force Publique to wax lyrical: “No, these men, they have fought, suffered, hoped, desired, forged ahead and triumphed along with us, like us, these are no . . . these are no longer wild men or barbarians. If they could be our equals in suffering and making the greatest sacrifice of all, then they must, then they shall be that too when it comes to being civilized.”76 The soldiers of the Force Publique had shown great courage and loyalty, even under the worst conditions. That called for greater mildness and, yes, greater involvement in the natives’ fate.
For the Congolese themselves, however, it was an ambivalent experience. Many soldiers entered fully into the undeniable Belgian military successes. The euphoria of victory was sweet and forged new bonds that were certainly sincere and warm. The Belgians could fly through the air and land on water! But for many normal Congolese, the war effort had been grueling. In addition, and this was the most sobering of all, they had seen how the whites—who had taught them not to kill anymore and to stopping waging tribal war—had applied an awesome arsenal for four whole years to combat each other for reasons unclear, in a conflict that claimed more lives than all the tribal wars they could ever recall. Yes, that did something to the respect they felt for these Europeans. It began to crumble.