Independence day was full of surprises. A people who celebrate with flair disdained the official parade and ceremony in downtown Mbandaka. Very few who were not obligated to do so participated and willing spectators must have been scarce as well. There was simply no enthusiasm for an independence day celebration organized by a government many of its ciitzens consider illegitimate and the tool of foreign interests. It didn’t help that government workers and teachers hadn’t been paid in over a month.
So all day I waited to no avail for some sign of the day’s significance as the 50th Anniversary of the nation’s birth. But there were more surprises. The man I c onsidered the dullest member of the staff at the “Maison” here emerged as a fascinating informant on the current politics of his nation. “Everyone knows Bemba was the winner of the election in 2006” he declared. “And the whole country backs him” he further insisted. What others had said regarding the lack of enthusiasm for the official celebratiopn of independence he confirmed for me. “Salaries haven’t been paid so what’s there to celebrate?”
Even Radio Okapi, the national radio station, marked the day with solemn commentaries urging sober reflection on what real independence for the Congo would look like. An elder statesman of the Mobutu years stood out in citing achievements since 1960. He contrasted his nation with a divided Belgium, pointing out that an exceedingly diverse assembly of cultures had been united and held together by the chiefs of state, notably his own chief and sponsor, Mobutu. He did not join in what had been a plaintive chorus lamenting the culture of corruption and self dealing that has characterized the national politics since independence.
Later in the day my education on the current scene continued with a surprising revelation regarding my informant earlier in the day. One of the two night watchmen, a trusted source on the phases of the moon and a true naturalist, quickly explained that his colleague had been forcibly recruited into Jean Pierre Bemba’s army during the late 90’s rebellion against the first Kabila regime. While he conceded that Bemba had indeed carried the election of 2006 against a crowded field of candidates, his army was responsible for terrorizing Equateur province in particular during their urprising leading up to the election. “They killed a lot of people in the province” he declared.
That Bemba’s career and the rigged 2006 election was fresh news to me was not so surprising given the dearth of trustworthy Congo reporting in our U.S. media. But that night brought one final surprise. Around nine I scampered outside to confirm that the explosions I heard were indeed a fireworks display. And before the blasts and crackles subsided a half hour later, Rev. Bonanga paid a visit to assure me that the city was not under siege. The children in his home had been given a fright and he wanted to make sure the Church’s guest had not gone into hiding.