Lights in the Heart of Darkness

The Equateur and Tshuapa Provinces on the map are the heart of Congo's Equatorial Rainforest
The Equateur and Tshuapa Provinces on the map are the heart of Congo’s Equatorial Rainforest

At the end of 2016 two separate investigations revealed the extent to which Congo’s President Joseph Kabila and family have profited from business dealings and bribes during the Kabila administration. In a country where the average daily income was figured to be $1.90 last year, its President has wielded his authority to build a lucrative business empire managed by his wife, his children and siblings. Recently released reports confirm that the “kleptocracy” under Mobutu’s 32 years as the executive head of Congo’s government has been preserved by his young successor.

The first source of evidence of massive corruption focuses on bribes paid out to officials of the Kabila administration. In an agreement with the U.S. Department of Justice signed the end of September 2016, the Och-Ziff Capital Management Group corroborated the payment of over $100 million in bribes between 2008 and 2012 to Congolese officials and the U.S. based hedge fund accepted a fine of $413 million for violation of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act. Further, the legal document detailing the agreement reports on $10.75 million paid out to a “DRC official 1” who NYU’s Congo Research Group reports is “most likely Joseph Kabila”.

The second source results from extensive research by staff of the Bloomberg News on the Kabila family business holdings in Congo. In the December 2016 article titled “With His Family’s Fortune at Stake, President Kabila Digs In”, three Bloomberg reporters write, “Joseph Kabila and his relatives have built a network of businesses that reaches into every corner of Congo’s economy”. Based on review of court filings, company documents and interviews with Congolese business persons, the Kabila family now own at least 70 companies in Congo.

One of the first actions of the new U.S. Congress was to help hide future deal making by the Congo President and the rest of the Kabila family. Less than two weeks after the Trump inauguration, the House struck down the Cardin Lugar Section 1504 “Transparency Amendment” of the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform Act. This means the payments by U.S. companies, such as those made by the hedge fund Och-Ziff, to foreign officials would no longer have to be disclosed. Should the Senate approve repeal of the Cardin Lugar measure aimed at helping protect countries burdened by the “resource curse”, bribery by U.S. multinationals of Congolese officials would remain business as usual.

While doubt rises regarding the Kabila administration’s commitment to the President election agreement of December 31, 2016, we take a tour of one of Congo’s poorest and most remote regions with Théodore Trefon. The tropical rainforest, our earth’s second largest, in Tshuapa and Equateur Provinces is where schools and health clinics maintained and supervised by staff of the Disciples of Christ Community of the Church of Christ of Congo offer the only social services.

With the photos below, we are again led to marvel at the resourcefulness, resilience, strength and beauty of the Congolese people. In spite of mounting evidence of Congo’s rule by a government dedicated to the most abject greed and self dealing, the people carry on their lives in what is one of the richest, most awe inspiring environments on the planet. For 25 years, Trefon has focused his research on Congo and now this U.S. born political scientist works at the Museum of Central Africa in Tervuren, Belgium. The photo gallery below is from pictures displayed at
http://congomasquerade.blogspot.com/
which is also the name of his latest book.

For a larger view of the photos in a slideshow format click on the first picture and scroll horizontally

Uncovering the Truth in Congo

For the six million people who have died due to the wars in Congo since 1997.  For the future of the youth and children of Congo.  For a peaceful and just Congo, spend twenty six minutes of your time and watch the newly released film “Crisis in the Congo: Uncovering the Truth” by going to this web site:

www.congojustice.org

If you would like a copy of this first, abridged version of the film – perhaps for use during Congo Week October 16 -21 this year – go to this section of the same web site:

http://congojustice.org/download-video/

For suggestions on other ways to honor the people of Congo and educate and raise awareness in the U.S. of how we can support social change in Congo, go to the Friends of the Congo web site at:

www.friendsofthecongo.org

For the children of Congo, see the film "Crisis in Congo"
For the children of Congo, see the film "Crisis in Congo"

Vachel Lindsay’s “The Congo”

 

  “This poem, particularly the third section, was suggested by an allusion

  in a sermon by my pastor, F. W. Burnham, to the heroic life and death

  of Ray Eldred.  Eldred was a missionary of the Disciples of Christ

  who perished while swimming a treacherous branch of the Congo.

  See “A Master Builder on the Congo”, by Andrew F. Hensey,

  published by Fleming H. Revell.

LOnga sanctuary, built by Ray Eldred, is still the center of Longa church life

So wrote the poet Vachel Lindsay in a footnote to his most famous poem “The Congo” . The sermon which inspired the poem was preached in his hometown First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) of Springfield, IL in October, 1913.  The preacher had been a friend of the Congo missionary Ray Eldred before his pioneering service in helping found the second Disciples mission station in Congo at Longa.  According to Hensey’s book mentioned above, Ray Eldred perished while trying to ford a small tributary of Longa’s Ruki River.

The poem, while a startling reflection of the ignorance about Africa and the racism prevalent in the U.S.  fifty years after the Emancipation Proclamation, made Lindsay famous and still appeared in most American poetry anthologies in the 1950’s and 60’s and may still

"Witnesses to the Resurrection":on the gravestone of Lillian Byers Eldred, d. 1912, and Ray Eldred, d. 1913, in Longa

appear.  Lindsay’s performances of this poem made him a public figure in the tradition of Walt Whitman and Allen Ginsberg.  He was a wandering minstrel, twittering his verses for all within hearing distance and the Wikipedia article on the controversy of “The Congo” , on Lindsay’s championing of the poet Langston Hughes and other highlights of his fascinating life is a good introduction to him.  See it here:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vachel_Lindsay

I strongly suggest reading the article on Lindsay’s life before the shock of reading the poem.  Keeping in mind the cultural context and history of the times –early in the 1900’s Springfield was the setting for one of the worst race riots and lynchings in U.S. history-  Lindsay’s claim of promoting the advance of “the Negro” by writing the poem seems more credible.

Read the poem at:

http://www.tnellen.com/cybereng/poetry/poems/congo.html

Congo Market Visits

Saturday only the market opens in the village of Ikengo

And now for something completely different I want to focus on the open air market of Africa as the one place where the “winds of change” have had little effect over the last one hundred fifty years.  Those who have traveled in sub Saharan Africa will, I feel certain, find themselves reminded of their market expeditions  in reading the following descriptions of Congolese markets by two leading African explorers of the 19th century:  Dr. David Livingstone and Henry Morton Stanley.  Although it is Congolese markets more than one hundred years ago they describe here, the same scene could be discovered today in most countries of the continent.

First is a passage from The Last Journals of David Livingstone in Central Africa  from 1865 to His Death.  Livingstone spent several weeks in Nyangwe on the River Lualaba, central eastern Congo, recuperating from his futile wanderings in search of the Nile.  Every day he visited the busy marketplace of the large village.

Saturday at the Ingende Market

 

“All are pleased to tell me the names of the fishes and other things.  Lipidsirens (my note: a breed of chicken) are caught by the neck and lifted out of the pot to show their fatness.  Camwood ground and made into flat cakes for sale…. Are offered and there is quite a roar of voices in the multitude, haggling.  It was pleasant to be among them… vendors of fish run about with pots-herds full of snails or small fishes…each is intensely eager to barter food for relishes, and makes strong assertions as to the goodness or badness of everything; the sweat stands in beads of their faces – cocks crow briskly, even when slung over the shoulder with their heads down, and pigs squeal….They deal fairly, and when differences arise they are easily settled by the men interfering or pointing at me.” 

Whatever the particular African culture’s customs regarding gender roles and relations, it is the women who stand out in every African marketplace.  Livingstone writes of the Nyangwe market women:

“It seems to be a pleasure of life to haggle and joke, and laugh and cheat; many come

Fishermans Wife Negotiating at Ikengo Market

eagerly…..many are beautiful…. All carry very heavy loads of dried cassava and earthen pots which they dispose of very cheaply for palm-oil, fish, salt, pepper, and relishes for their food.  The men appear in gaudy lambas, and carry little save their iron wares, fowls, grass cloth, and pigs.” 

It should be mentioned that Arab slave traders attacked the Nyangwe marketplace while Livingstone resided there, killing over 400 people and leading to the Doctor’s flight to Ujijii where Stanley “found” him just months later in 1871.

Cassava root for sale at Ikengo - and everywhere else in Congo

There can be no doubt that Henry Morton Stanley was a hard, sometimes cruel, man who drove the Africans in his employ with little mercy.  Another aspect of Stanley’s character – his high regard for the innate capacity of the African – is revealed in the following paragraph from his The Congo and the Founding of Its Free State in 1885.  Stanley too clearly  learned something important from visits to Congolese markets:

“In the management of a bargain I should back the Congolese native against Jew or Christian, Parsee or Banyan, in all the round world.  Unthinking men may perhaps say cleverness at barter, and shrewdness in trade, consort not with their unsophisticated condition and degraded customs. Unsophisticated is the last term I should ever apply to an African child or man in connection with the knowledge of how to trade….I have seen a child of eight do more tricks of trade in an hour than the cleverest European trader on the Congo could do in a month…….Therefore when I write of the Congo native, whether he is of the Bakongo, Byyanzi, or Bateke tribes, remember to associate him with an almost inconceivable amount of natural shrewdness, and power of indomitable and untiring chaffer.”

As an eerie conclusion, I quote from Joseph Conrad’s  1900 commentary in The

Clothes Shop at Ingende Market

Heart of Darkness on the prevailing European view of the Congolese. Conrad marveled at “the extraordinary effort of imagination that was necessary to make us take these people for enemies”.   No doubt Conrad too spent some time in Congolese marketplaces during his Congo travels in 1890.

NOTE:  To enlarge the photos, click on them; the photo to the right here might  surprise you.

A Milestone for the Pygmy People

Mr. Bokele, 44 years old, was Admitted by the Equateur Assembly after Three Months of Deliberation

Two weeks ago a Pygmy elementary school teacher was seated as the first member of his ethnic group to become a deputy in Equateur Province’s Assembly in Mbandaka.  Jerome Bokele, 44 years old and a teacher in a Disciples sponsored school in Ingende territory, declared his election and the approval of his seating by the Assembly has become “a great source of pride for his people”.  While the Pygmy population is as much as one fourth of the total population in Equateur Province, they continue to be discriminated against and looked down on by the Bantu majority in the Province.

Ikengo Pygmy Couple Demonstrate Rainforest Mosquito Repellent. Some Equateur Pygmies' height denotes intermarriage with Bantu.

On the occasion of World Women’s Day last month, the U.N. Mission in Congo (MONUSCO) communications office featured a story on Pygmy women’s status in one Equateur community.  Jean-Tobie Okala wrote: “As part of Bikoro territory, Iboko is one of those places where discrimination against women and girls is coupled with an ethnic bias. “

The MONUSCO journalist further noted, “In this locality of 80,000 dwellers, women of the Pygmy community are regarded as sub-humans by the Bantu, with whom they share the land. A Bantu man will not buy or eat from a Pygmy woman; or a Bantu will not marry a Pygmy, just as a Bantu woman will usually avoid fetching water at the same source as a Pygmy. Sexual violence committed against Pygmy women is almost never reported. “

Very few Pygmy men or women have in the past achieved literacy much less graduated from primary school.  New parliamentarian Mr. Bokele’s story is remarkable.  He described his childhood as more difficult “than anyone can hardly imagine”.  Graduating from Kabasele-Longa secondary school (another Disciples sponsored school) at age 27, he says, “You had to walk 28 kilometers (over 20 miles) both ways each day, to and from school”.

Last summer I was struck by the dramatic increase in the number of Pygmy residents  and their involvement  in village life and in the Disciples farm project (Centre Agro-Pastorale) at Ikengo.  Nearly the entire staff at the farm and several members of the local Disciples parish are of Pygmy origin .  While on a trip with Church leaders to Ingende territory, we met

Ikengo Director Rio BOSALA with 5 of the 6 Pygmy Children whose primary school fees are paid by the farm project's receipts.

with a Pygmy pastor who supervises Bantu catechists in the area of Bokatola and worshipped in two largely Pygmy Disciples churches.  For more on “The Pygmy People” see my July entry in this Blog’s Archive by entering those words in the grey search box in the upper right section of the blog home page.

Rainforest Photo Gallery

 

Forest and Congo River (or part of it!) at Mbandaka

The Equator Province is the greenest swath on the map of the Congo.  The Province does not have the diamonds, gold, copper, cobalt and other rare metals of the eastern, central and southern provinces.  It is the poorest and least developed of the Congo’s provinces. It is the Congo’s Mississiippi.

Dense tropical rain forest covers much of the Province.  One flying into Mbandaka for the first time might wonder if anyone lives along the great river pilots follow on their way to Mbandaka, the provincial capital.  Congo’s rain forest of the Equator Province was described unforgettably by Joseph Conrad in The Heart of Darkness after his Congo travels in 1890:

“Going up that river was like travelling back in the earliest beginnings of the world, when vegetation rioted on the earth and the big trees were kings.”  (The Heart of Darkness and The Congo Diary, Penguin edition, p.59)

After his own travel up the Congo River in 1925, French writer Andre Gide wrote, “I am rereading The Heart of Darkness for the fourth time. It is only after having seen the country that I realize how good it is.” (Travels in the Congo University of California Press, 1962, pp. 292-293)  Forty years into Belgian rule in Congo, Gide was concerned about the effects of deforestation in Equator Province.  “I am inclined to think that this continual deforestation, whether it be systematic and deliberate or accidental, may bring about a complete modification of the rain system.” (p. 58)

The following gallery of photos were taken in the rainforest of Equator Province during my Congo visit last summer.

Fallen tree on the road to Ingende from Mbandaka. A half hour delay only
That's Rev. Eliki BONANGA, Disciples President, greeting a family traveling by pirogue to Mbandaka

Pothos plants grow bigger in Congo! So do papayas!!
Unique rainforest fruits the "metanique" on the right and "safo" on the left
Ikengo children offering a "mondimbi" fruit to the "mondele" white man
Following the baptism in a roadside pool of Ikalenganya parish
Breadfruit tree - the leaves are a favorite image in the cut outs of Henri Matisse
Five of us helped baptise 41 youth on 7/11/10 in Ikalenganya parish
Rainfall averages 85 " a year at Mbandaka; we're used to 14 " in L.A.
Taken on the porch of the Disciples guest house, Mbandaka
"There was in it one river especially, a mighty big river, that you could see on the map, resembling an immense snake uncoiled, with its head n the sea, its body at rest curving afar over a vast country, and its tail lost inthe depths of the land." Conrad, H of D, p. 22

June 16, 2010

What a show! What a show! After an hour or more of lying in bed, at four thirty in the morning I began recording the pounding and the shaking brought on by what would be an epic rain in California. A series of two, three , four flashes of lightning shone as the ground shook with tremendous blasts of thunder. The rain itself was not to be outdone by the other displays of power. The rain ‘s pounding was constant, with occasional crescendos in its pouring.

The audio recording does not capture the thunder The experience of the whole event defies description, but as I lay, struck with awe, it was as though Beethoven‘s “Ode to Joy” was being played at high volume in the room. I was surrounded and lifted by a massive chorus of benediction, with all of nature exulting around me.

The day before the rain we were crushed by what had to be readings in the 90s for both heat and humidity. What had been the increasing, inscrutable force of the equatorial heat climaxed in an explosion of the heavens washing over sticky bodies with a breeze that assuaged and soothed. And this, I’m told, is the “dry” season in the Equateur Province of the Congo.