Modern history



JAMAIS KOLONGA CLIMBED OUT OF BED THAT THURSDAY MORNING at four o’clock. He had slept at his tailor’s the night before, just to make sure nothing was left to chance.1 The ceremony was not until eleven, but this was not a day like any other. The city of almost half a million inhabitants was still dark and silent. The houses and huts were covered by a heavy blanket of heat. Nothing moved. The laundry: hanging in deathly stillness on the line. The fire: brittle cinders. Out of sight, the children slept in awkward poses. Out of sight, men and women nestled together—comfort for a single night, or for a lifetime. Along the empty boulevard, the traffic lights sprang from green to yellow to red. In the European neighborhoods, the water in the swimming pools was without a ripple.

The birds were still silent on their roosts. Further along, past the gardens and the villas, the lawns and the bougainvillea, the black water of the powerful river flowed by in silence. Little islands of vegetation were still being carried along, clods of earth and grass and plants, torn from the jungle hundreds of kilometers upstream, tree trunks that rolled in the darkness and soon, at the first rapids, would rise up and collide in the foaming river. That is how it had gone for thousands of years. Nature paid no heed to this auspicious day.

Jamais Kolonga turned on the light. He prayed and bathed. His brand-new suit was on its hanger. Carefully, he drew the trousers out from under the coat. His tailor had made a beautiful tuxedo for him, cut to size. The trousers’ smooth material felt cool, the shirt was wonderfully stiff and starched, the coat fit his little form to a tee. He looked at himself in the mirror. Who would ever have thought that he, Jean Lema to the registrar’s office, Kolonga to the rest of the world, would play such an important role on this day? Until just a few years ago he had worked only at a desk job in the interior, in Équateur. As a clerk for the Otraco, he was charged with the administration for the cargo ships plying the big river. But even then there had been change in the air. At his next promotion, he assumed a position formerly held by a white man, Monsieur Eugène, a Belgian from Verviers. In 1958 he came back briefly to Léopoldville and, as he put it, caught a whiff of “the odor, the perfume, of independence.” Joseph Kasavubu was still coming to his father’s home regularly; he heard the exciting conversations and sensed the unbelievable opportunities. He didn’t want to go back to the interior again, despite his employer’s repeated exhortations. On the boulevard, in the center of town, he had run into the great Jean Bolikango. Bolikango had gone to school at Tata Raphaël’s as well, he was one of the few Congolese who—with an eye to impending emancipation—had been given a high administrative position, as deputy commissioner at the Ministry of Information. Bolikango knew, of course, how eloquently Kolonga could speak in public, and remembered his father’s status as “über-évolué.” After all, King Baudouin had even visited his home! Bolikango had rolled down the window of his car and invited him there and then to become an editor/announcer/translator for the government’s information service. Jamais Kolonga agreed on the spot. From desk clerk for river transport he became a radio journalist for the public broadcasting system. From then on he would be able to inhale the perfume of independence each and every day. As a reporter he not only went from fashion show to soccer match, but he also saw his country’s great political turnabout from close up. During the round-table conference in Brussels he reported the goings-on each day from the studio. And on June 26, 1960, when Kasavubu was sworn in as first president of soon-to-be-independent Congo, it was his scoop. With his TEAC, the leaden tape recorder of that day, slung over his shoulder, he was the one who had done the interviews.

His new black shoes were buffed to a mirrored shine, their soles were still a virginal white. Kasavubu’s inauguration had been held only four days ago. Kolonga had done a good job on that. Two days ago they had asked him to do the live reporting on the solemn independence ceremony as well. He agreed. But it meant that his tailor would have to work around the clock.

June 30, 1960. Officially, Congo had become independent at midnight, but the ceremony at the Palais National would be the actual confirmation. King Baudouin flew in specially from Belgium; after fifty years of Belgian colonial rule, seventy-five years after his predecessor Leopold II had established the Free State, he would hand over the reins to President Kasavubu. And Jamais Kolonga, the reporter, would be at that historic event.

The history of the Belgian presence in Central Africa had deeply effected his own family history. By means of study, his father had become one of the colony’s most prominent évolués, while his grandfather had still been a hunter in his native village. Kolonga knew the stories about him. “When the whites arrived in Bas-Congo he carried their baggage on his head. He wasn’t afraid of the white men, but he did what they said. He was polygamous, but when he was baptized he sent away two of his three wives.” No single individual life, not even in the depths of the interior, had been left unaffected by the great course of history. It had all gone very quickly.

At a quarter past six there was a briefing from the commissioner general of information. The press kits were prepared. A text had just come in from Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba and could now be handed out to the journalists. Kolonga was shown to his seat, up at the front of the hall. Everything was to proceed in a dignified and orderly fashion, that was emphasized again. There had already been an embarrassing incident yesterday, while the king and Kasavubu were being driven around the city in an American convertible.

As he had in 1955, Baudouin had waved to the people, who turned out in great numbers to wave back at him from the side of the road. But then suddenly, from somewhere in the crowd, a man had wormed his way to the front and grabbed the king’s sword. The incident had been filmed and photographed. Baudouin was standing upright in the car, wearing his white ceremonial uniform. Kasavubu was standing to his left, in a black, custom-tailored suit. Baudouin saluted the troops of the Force Publique, who were standing on the left side of the road, holding up a banner with the Belgian tricolor. When he felt something at his right hip, the king did not realize at first what was going on. A man with a high forehead and an oblong face raced away, holding aloft the royal sword, one of the regalia of the Belgian monarchy. More than merely a weapon, it was an object that symbolized the power of the royal household.

The incident provoked loud commentary. “That man wasn’t in his right mind,” Kolonga said, “he was a feu-follet, a misguided, restless soul with a mild form of psychosis. People had always said he was crazy.” They had little choice in the matter. Many Europeans considered it an idiotic display, a stupid, sophomoric prank that made a mockery of the change of power, but for many Congolese in the working-class neighborhoods this was no joke. For them, it was pure foolhardiness. To touch and then take away a sacral object belonging to a chief? This man would die that very night, they said. If a mask, an ancestor image, a leopard skin, or a monkey tail already had magic powers, what about the sword of a European king? Among the évolués, the rebellious gesture also met with disdain. Victorine Ndjoli, the photo model with a driver’s license, said: “We were so embarrassed when some idiot stole King Baudouin’s sword. We only heard later on that he was out of his mind.”2

If only things proceeded calmly today, Kolonga thought. The ceremony had to go without a hitch. But people had such strange expectations about independence. There were many who had buried boxes of pebbles in the hope that they would change to gold after independence. There were also many who believed that the dead would rise again.3 Some people had even laid clothes on the graves of their ancestors, as a sort of gesture of welcome. The graves of those less well-loved were sometimes covered in corrugated iron sheeting, to prevent them from crawling up out of the ground. Some villagers in the interior locked themselves up for four days in their huts, out of fear for the risen dead. Pregnant women refused to leave their homes.4

In the cities, the fever of independence assumed more socialized forms. In Stanleyville, a few native inhabitants built unauthorized huts on land belonging to Europeans. Adherents of the Kitawala religion, who had lived in secrecy for years, moved into the abandoned villas of Belgians, where they performed their rituals and sang their songs by torchlight. In Léopoldville, during the run-up to the great day, a clear rise was seen in the number of thefts and acts of vandalism. Boys laughed in their boss’s face and sat on the hood of his car, stubbornly refusing to get off.5

Around nine that morning, Kolonga watched as the huge rotunda of the Palais National began to fill with dignitaries. There were members of parliament and senators from Belgium, high-ranking officers and civilians. There were delegations from friendly African nations; Prince Hassan of Morocco was there, beside President Fulbert Youlou of Congo-Brazzaville and King Kigeri of Rwanda. But above all were the newly elected members of the Congolese parliament and senate. The Palais National, built only a few years earlier as residence of the governor general (at the time, people had thought that position would remain intact for decades to come) had now become the new house of parliament. Most of the guests seated beneath the big dome were dressed in dark, Western-style suits, but others wore traditional headdresses decked out with seashells, feathers, and skins, headdresses every bit as impressive as the white pith helmet with vulture feathers worn by the governor general.

When everyone was seated, Prime Minister Lumumba came in. A few moments later, the audience rose to its feet to greet King Baudouin and President Kasavubu. Baudouin was the first to address the auditorium. The charming king gave a speech that seemed more like something written in 1900 than in 1960. He praised the work of Leopold II as though no investigative committee had ever condemned his predecessor’s regime: “The independence of Congo constitutes the completion of the work that arose from the genius of King Leopold II, that was undertaken by him with undaunted courage and set forth by the determination of Belgium.” Nor did the young king eschew a certain paternalism: “It is now up to you, gentlemen, to show that we were right to have confidence in you . . . . Your task is immense, and you are the first to realize that . . . . Do not hesitate to turn to us, if need be. We are prepared to stay by your side and to assist you with our counsel.”6

When he was finished, the audience applauded politely. At that moment, thousands of people glued to their transistor radios in the villages and working-class neighborhoods heard the clear voice of Kolonga, announcing in French, Lingala, and Kikongo: “Ladies and gentlemen, you have just heard the speech given by His Majesty the King of Belgium. As from this moment on, Congo is independent.”7 He, that little Kolonga with the twinkle in his eye, was the first Congolese to call his country independent.

After that came President Kasavubu, the man Kolonga had seen so often in his parents’ living room, in enthusiastic conversation with his father, the man who had leveled blistering accusations at the colonizer during his first mayoral speech. This time, however, his address was restrained and conciliatory. Little wonder, really: the text was written by Jean Cordy, the Belgian who had once been Governor General Cornelis’s private secretary. “I wrote Kasavubu’s text, or at least the initial version of it. I had also written the text for him when he became president.”8 According to the protocol, the part of the day’s ceremonies dedicated to speeches had now come to an end.

But they had overlooked something.

Throughout the president’s speech, Lumumba had been busily making corrections. He had a pile of paper balanced on his knees and was scribbling comments here and there. Lumumba had seen Kasavubu’s mild-mannered speech days before the new president gave it, and felt that he couldn’t let things go at this. He was bound and determined to talk back to the colonizer one last time. Doing that would also put him back in the limelight, for it disturbed him greatly to see that it was not he, but Kasavubu, doing the honors. As the big winner of the election, he could only watch powerlessly as his archrival Kasavubu, the regionalist who did not even carry Congo in his heart, stood there showing off beside King Baudouin.9 Lumumba had written his speech the night before: he was still able to get by with only a few hours’ sleep. Rumor had it that his Belgian adviser and faithful supporter Jean Van Lierde had worked on the text as well. Today it is seen as one of the great speeches of the twentieth century and a key text from the decolonization of Africa:

For if today Congo’s independence is being announced in agreement with Belgium, a friendly nation with which we operate on an equal basis, then still no Congolese worthy of the name can ever forget that this independence was gained by struggle, a daily struggle, a fiery and idealistic struggle, a struggle in which we spared neither our efforts nor our hardships, neither our suffering nor our blood.

That struggle, which was one of tears, fire and blood, fills every fiber of our being with pride, for it was a noble and a just struggle, an inevitable struggle to end the humiliating slavery that had been imposed on us by force.

The fate that befell us during eighty years of colonial rule is not something we can eradicate from our memory, our wounds are still too fresh and too painful. We have known grueling labor, demanded from us in return for wages that did not allow us to eat decently, to clothe ourselves or have housing, nor to raise our children as loved ones.

We have known mockery and insult, blows that we underwent in the morning, in the afternoon and evening, because we were Negroes. Who can ever forget that a black man was addressed as tu, not out of friendship, but because the honorable vous was reserved only for whites?

We have seen our raw materials stolen in the name of documents that were called legal, but which recognized only the right of the most powerful.

We have seen that the law was never equal when it came to black and white: accommodating for the one, cruel and inhuman for the other.

We have seen the terrible suffering of those exiled for reasons of their political convictions or religious beliefs, banished in their own country; their fate was worse than death itself.

In the cities we have seen magnificent houses built for the whites, and hovels for the black, that a black was not allowed into the so-called “white” movie theaters, restaurants and shops, that a black man traveled in the hold of the riverboats, beneath the feet of the white man in his luxury cabin.10

It was, indeed, a memorable text. Like all great speeches, it clarified the abstract course of history with the use of a few concrete details, and he illustrated the great injustice with a host of tangible ones. But Lumumba’s timing was highly unfortunate. This was the day on which Congo won its independence, but he spoke as though the elections were still in full swing. Too focused on attaining immortality, too blinded by the romanticism of Pan-Africanism, he who was, after all, the great advocate of unity in Congo forgot that on this first day of autonomy he should be leading his country to reconciliation rather than divisiveness. He professed to be the voice of the people—that fit with the exalted rhetoric of the day (the People, the Yoke, the Struggle, and, of course: the Liberation)—but the people did not stand unanimously behind him. After all, he had won a little less than a third of the votes. Lumumba’s speech was therefore a great one in terms of import, but a problematical one in terms of its effect. And compared with the truly grand speeches of history—Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address from 1863 (“a government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth”), Winston Churchill’s first speech as prime minister on May 13, 1940 (“I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears, and sweat”), the speech given by Martin Luther King in 1963 (“I have a dream”), the words with which Nelson Mandela lectured the judges on democracy in 1964 (“It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die”), or the acceptance speech with which Barack Obama thrilled the world in 2008 (“Change has come to America”)—Lumumba’s address contained more of a look back than a look forward, more rage than hope, more rancor than magnanimity, and therefore more rebellion than statesmanship.

JAMAIS KOLONGA WITNESSED IT ALL from the front row. He heard how the Lumumba supporters in the audience interrupted the speech eight times with a hail of applause, but he also saw the “chilly looks of the invitees and the king’s paleness.” He saw Baudouin lean over to Kasavubu to demand an explanation, but Kasavubu didn’t move a muscle: neither of them had been informed of Lumumba’s initiative. His text had been handed out to the journalists under embargo, but neither the king nor the president had seen it. Afterward, Baudouin was furious and deeply offended. For him it must have been a painful replay of his own coronation. Then, at the height of the ceremony ten years earlier, the Communist senator Julien Lahout had shouted out “Vive la république!” That too was intended to be a festive day, a confirmation of his royal dignity, but then too the ceremony had been ruined by a leftist firebrand who had butted in and claimed all the attention. One week later Lahaut had been mowed down in his doorway by a group of unknown assailants, under circumstances as vague and violent as the fate that awaited Lumumba six months later.

Baudouin wanted to return to Belgium immediately. He no longer had any desire to visit the Pioneer Cemetery or the equestrian statue of Leopold II. But Belgian Prime Minister Gaston Eyskens intervened and during lunch demanded that Lumumba give a second, more friendly speech. And so it came about: Eyskens wrote the text, Lumumba read it aloud drily, Baudouin stayed to the end of the day.

It would be a mistake to assume that all of Congo rejoiced at its prime minister’s daring words. Fourteen million people rarely share the same opinion. Kolonga, in any case, found it troubling: “Lumumba was no diplomat, he was far too categorical. Kasavubu, now that was a gentleman. He wanted some of the whites to stay on as deputy director in the provinces, for agriculture, for finance. But our constitution gave too much power to the prime minister. It also made our president after the image of the Belgian king: he ruled, but did not govern.” As a native of Bas-Congo, he felt more sympathy for Kasavubu. For many Bakongo, Lumumba was no hero. “Kasavubu was calm, cultivated, and respectful,” old people in Bas-Congo say even today. “Lumumba was empty-headed, affected, and rude. He was the source of our problems. The way he talked to the king, that was irresponsible! He should have said: ‘You people are independent now, so come on, get to it!’ instead of pointing out the minor problems of the past.”11 Almost all older citizens in Boma, Matadi, and Mbanza-Ngungu (former Thysville) can still get wound up about this. “It all started then. Lumumba’s speech angered the Belgians. The king didn’t even want to stay for the banquet. Kasavubu didn’t want to chase away the Belgians, but Lumumba wanted to wipe the slate clean. It was a very bad start. And I say that truthfully, not just for ethnic reasons.”12

Even Lumumba’s fervent supporters had their misgivings. Mario Cardoso, who came from Stanleyville, Lumumba’s home town, and who had been his personal representative during the economic round table in Brussels, told me: “I was in the audience and I was struck dumb. Lumumba acted like a demagogue. I was a member of the MNC, but our campaign hadn’t been about what he was saying. Some of the deputies applauded, but I didn’t. He’s committing political suicide, that’s what I thought.”13

In other parts of Congo, however, the incident received little attention. In Elisabethville, the day was calm and festive. Moïse Tshombe, who’d had to be satisfied with the position of provincial governor, reemphasized the importance of warm and friendly ties between Belgium and Congo. During the independence day celebrations in the mining town, a children’s choir sang a few hymns. Colonials, who still had to get used to the fact that they were suddenly ex-colonials now, joined the party in the native districts and were welcomed.14 Elsewhere in the country, too, mass was celebrated, cantatas were sung, and tribute was paid. The news about Lumumba’s speech was heard only later. Very few people disagreed with what he said, but many wondered whether it had really been necessary. One capital city inhabitant said: “A birth is always accompanied by painful contractions. That’s the way it goes. But once the child is born, it is smiled upon.”15

AND SO WENT THE FIRST DAY of a liberated Congo. There were parades and games, folk dancing and fireworks. The party was to last for four days, from Thursday to Sunday. Congo began its existence with a long, free weekend. There were sports contests at Stade Baudouin (Kasavubu was supposed to hand the trophy to the winners, but Lumumba grabbed it away from him and did it himself).16 There was a bicycle race through the streets of the city (the most Belgian of all sports, but the first three places went to Congolese cyclists). And above all there was beer, lots of beer, a great deal of beer. It was the end of the month and everyone had just been paid. The walls of the bars were lined with crates. After a few days the new government ordered that all points of sale for alcohol be closed between six in the evening and seven in the morning. The partying got a bit out of hand, but it was innocent enough. There was some rioting in Kasai, but there were no attacks on Belgians, no lynchings, no raping, no looting of European homes.

But on that first day of independence, there was one man who—by his own account—laying groaning in pain on the floor of a prison cell: Longin Ngwadi! The man from Kikwit, the believer who had wanted to become a priest but was not allowed, Élastique, the star player for Daring Club, the former houseboy to Governor General Léon Pétillon, the man who had traveled to Belgium not to see the Expo; he, of all people, was the new state’s first dissident. “My belly was swollen like a balloon. I was bleeding from my nose and anus. I peed blood, I passed terrible gusts of wind. I was handcuffed, as though I had stolen something.” At four in the morning, while Kolonga was busy gussying up for the big day and Lumumba was still working on his speech, Longin had already been lying there for hours, bemoaning his fate. The day before he had been arrested by the provincial governor, Jean-Baptiste Bomans. “They came to get me with two jeeps full of soldiers. ‘You’re insane,” Bomans told me. ‘I’m not insane,’ I said, ‘I’m normal. King Baudouin is my brother. Do whatever you like, I am a prophet, like Elijah or Jeremiah.’”

After months of searching in 2008, when I finally met found Ngwadi in Kikwit, he was washing himself in the river. To welcome me, he put on his most cherished piece of clothing: a shirt with a leopard-skin pattern to which he had pinned a photograph of Lumumba standing beside Antoine Gizenga. Gizenga was his big political hero, a man from his region who had been deputy prime minister under Lumumba and who, at the moment we met, was sitting out his final days as prime minister under Joseph Kabila. Papa Longin Ngwadi was one of the most colorful Congolese I had ever met, and not just because of his amazing life story. Even his gaudery was breathtaking. Around his neck, on that first day we met, he wore a big crucifix, alongside a medal of St. Theresa with the Infant Jesus, a medal of the archangel Michael, a blue cross of Lourdes, an old ICSA door key bearing the stamp “made in Italy,” which he described as “the key to heaven,” a hammer that was his allusion to the name “Jean Marteau, the nickname for Kamitatu,” that other great politician from his region, and a whistle, “because when I have a vision, I call everyone together to pass on the message.”

Ngwadi’s fantasy knew no bounds. He claimed that he was the man behind that stunt half a century earlier: “Yes, I am the one who took Baudouin’s sword.” For a long time I thought that he was telling the truth. His high, prominent forehead and oval eyes, after all, strikingly resembled those of the man in the famous picture. But meanwhile we know that there are many stories in circulation about that incident. Any number of elderly Congolese claim to know who stole the sword, and why, while the actual culprit died long ago. Those stories, even if they are usually only that, form a rich source of information about the memories of decolonization. “Baudouin was an icon,” Ngwadi said, “a chouchou; he was straightforward, very young and very handsome.”

After Ngwadi returned from his Belgian adventure and Pétillon was no longer governor general, he too became caught up in the fever of emancipation. He had an eye for its mystic dimensions in particular. He wandered the streets of Léopoldville and went each day to the Église Saint-Pierre, in the borough of Limete. Monseigneur Joseph-Albert Malula celebrated mass there. Malula, an extremely intelligent man who had witnessed the struggle for independence from close at hand and had even been involved in the manifesto issued by Conscience Africaine, was enthroned as bishop in 1959. Later he would become the first cardinal from Congo and a direct opponent of Mobutu.

“I went to his church every day. When I prayed, everything became light. I had the power of the spirit and the vision of history. All the prayers came as though I’d known them beforehand; I sang all kinds of new hymns, I broke through all the secrets, I saw flowers, lots of flowers. Tiens, I said, so God has given me peace. I went and told Malula about that. He gave me a ballpoint pen and a little notebook and asked me to write down my visions.”

Today, Ngwadi is still a deeply religious man. His whole life is saturated with spirituality. He prays constantly, never fails to start a conversation by blessing his visitors with hairspray or perfume, and raises his hands to heaven to ask for protection. For him, religion and politics are joined at the hip. One day, still woozy from the cloud of cheap women’s perfume, I walked with him along the street market in Kikwit, a long ribbon of merchandise that extends along the main street of the lower city all the way to the bridge over the Kwilu. Every five minutes he would stop, blow his whistle, and shout in Kikongo to anyone who would hear: “Children of Kikwit, if you still don’t believe in my powers, look at this visitor. I asked Gizenga to send me a white man, and here he is!” Half an hour later, his son had to ask him to edit this particular vision, because not everyone was an adherent of Gizenga’s and that could compromise my safety. On the market, just before the bridge, was a sinister stand selling fetishes, herbs, masks, and monkey skulls. No one stopped there. “Don’t look at it,” his son said to me, “that brings bad luck.” But Ngwadi examined the wares attentively, obviously feeling more powerful than all this sorcery. At home he had a magic sword he’d made himself. He had decorated an old umbrella stick with artificial flowers, bits of copper wire, a picture of Christ with flowers, and a banner bearing the acronym of the Palu, the Parti Lumumbiste Unifié, Gizenga’s current party. The reference to the magic sword of half a century earlier was loud and clear. In his “junk art,” memory and mysticism mingled effortlessly.

I found a good spot and waited for Baudouin at the station, close to the railroad workers’ monument. Everyone wanted to see him, he was a handsome boy, but there were soldiers with rifles everywhere. It was impossible, but my power allowed me to slip past. I wanted to give the king some flowers, to show my love for him, but then I saw that long, shiny sword and I took it pour la folie, just for fun. I got five meters away, then I heard the soldiers loading their weapons. King Baudouin said: “No guns.” I walked back to him and said: “I wish you a fine visit to Congo. The Lord was the one who urged me to take your sword. We will travel to parliament together as good acquaintances. It is time that we become independent. The European women are like the Virgin Mary, but later the good Lord will grant us the peace to be able to marry white women. Belgium is far away, as far as heaven, a common property where there must be black people as well. A common market. The blacks will go to Belgium. I am not insane, I am normal. I give you your sword back.” Baudouin replied: “No one may hit you! I am going to give you a gift. Don’t forget me. It’s true, later you will marry a white woman, on condition that you learn French.” But he left the same day, without giving me a gift. He never kept his promise.

Whether this remarkable conversation actually took place is very much in question. In it, mysticism and eroticism collide ingeniously with European current events (the common market!) and Belgian linguistic rivalry (learning French!). But that a man with a rather idiosyncratic way of thinking remembered independence, fifty years after the festivities, as a promise never kept says a great deal in itself. Today, through the fissures in his bizarre fable, there shines the light of a profound truth: independence should have been a gift, but it remained an empty promise.

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