Joseph Conrad’s Congo Journey

Belgium’s King Leopold II by an unknown artist in Mark Twain’s satire King Leopold’s Soliloquoy: A Defense of His Congo Rule

Joseph Conrad began his journey up the Congo River that would inspire the writing of his Heart of Darkness only five years after Belgium’s King Leopold II took possession of the Congo as his personal estate at the Berlin Conference of 1885. The six months Conrad spent in Congo dramatically changed his life and led the sea captain to reflect until his death on “the vilest scramble for loot that ever disfigured the history of human conscience and geographical exploration”.

Eight years later, when in his new career as writer Conrad recreated his Congo experiences, King Leopold’s agents had almost stopped demanding tax payments of ivory in favor of the forced harvesting of natural rubber from the country’s vast rain forests. Leopold’s grand design, which first took shape on reading Henry Morton Stanley’s descriptions of a country of “unspeakable riches” waiting for “an

The “Roi des Belges” (King of the Belgians) “sardine can” that Conrad was trained to pilot on the Congo River in 1890.

enterprising capitalist” to “take the matter in hand”, was becoming a reality at the cost of unspeakable suffering of the Congolese people. By the time Conrad put his pen to paper, the country “had become a place of darkness” he wrote in A Personal Record .

It became a “place of darkness” not due to behaviors of the African population but due to, in the words of one literary critic, “the savage degradation of the white man in Africa” that Conrad witnessed. In setting out to describe the atrocities wrought by Leopold II’s grand design, Conrad was driven by “that glimpse of truth for which you have forgotten to ask”.

The writer’s discovery of the “truth” of Congo under Leopold’s rule was greatly aided by his brief contact with the Irishman Roger Casement soon after arrival in the country. Casement’s 1903 report for the British Foreign Service sparked worldwide condemnation of the “Congo Free State” and helped force Leopold’s eventual abdication of rule over the country. Among the many personal accounts of brutality included in Casement’s report was one from a Disciples of Christ missionary. A founder of the Disciples’ first mission station at Bolenge, Ellsworth Faris, recounted in his diary an 1899 meeting with “Free State” agent Simon Roi:

“Each time the corporal goes out to get rubber, cartridges are given to him. He must bring back all not used; and for every one used he must bring back a right hand! As to the extent to which this is crried on, (Roi) informed me that in six months they, the State, on the Momboyo River had used 6000 cartridges, which means that 6000 people are killed or mutilated. It means more than 6000, for the people have told me repeatedly that the soldiers kill children with the butt of their guns.”

Basankusu appears just above “Equateur” on this map of Congo. Click to enlarge.

The Bolenge mission Faris established was a long day’s boat ride from the Lulonga River’s flow into the mighty Congo. The village of Lulonga, at the confluence, was the last place name mentioned in Conrad’s Congo diary. “Lulonga passage….N by E to NNE. On the Port Side: Snags.” Not long after Conrad’s visit, the Anglo Belgian India Rubber Company, the first and largest company in the Free State’s grisly history, was established at Basankusu where the Lulonga River begins in today’s Equateur Province. Leopold’s own commission of inquiry into the human rights abuses in Congo singled out the ABIR Company’s tactics of rubber exploitation in the Basankusu Region as “the black spot on the history of Central African settlement”.

The Basankusu “micro credit” group was the first organized by the Disciples Church development office outside Mbandaka

The impact of Conrad’s imaginative tale of the rapacious exploitation of Congo’s resources has had more of an impact on Western culture than on the West’s political and commercial presence in Congo. In his post WW I poem “The Wasteland” TS Eliot’s original epigraph for the poem quoted Kurtz’s “cry that was no more than a breath – ‘The horror! the horror!’”. Although scrapped due to WW II concerns, a screen adaptation of Heart of Darkness was to be Orson Welles’ first film for RKO Pictures. And when Francis Ford Coppola sought to depict the madness and brutality of the U.S. War in Vietnam, “the greatest portrait in fiction of Europeans in the Scramble for Africa” (in Adam Hochschild’s words) was again adapted for the movie screen as “Apocalypse Now”. An outstanding example of the impact on the West’s intellectual dialog is the novella’s influence in the eminent Palestinian critic Edward Said’s thought. One of his biographers wrote that Heart of Darkness was “foundational to Said’s entire career and project”.

For Conrad himself, the six months in Congo resulted in a political awakening that shaped the rest of his life and his writing career. When he left for Africa he was persuaded that although Leopold’s enterprise aimed to make a profit it was a noble and ‘civilising’ mission. Years after his Congo journey, Conrad declared to the literary critic Edward Garnett that at the time he had had “not a thought in his head”.

Since Conrad’s day, Congo has experienced political change but the basic pattern of the exploitation of the nation’s vast resources primarily for the benefit of foreigners has not changed. This spring’s kidnapping and murder of a U.S. and Swedish UN investigator

Rudyard Kipling said of Conrad, “with a pen in his hand he was first amongst us”.

inquiring about the recent outbreaks of violence in the Kasai constitutes recent evidence that rule of the Congo is still marked by brutality and impunity. The primary difference in Congo’s politics of our time is that “the vilest scramble for loot that ever disfigured the history of human conscience” has coopted and now enriches a tiny elite of Congolese nationals “to tear treasure out of the bowels of the earth…..with no more moral purpose in back of it than there is in burglars breaking into a safe” (Heart of Darkness).

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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

Global Citizen Muhammed Ali

Muhammed Ali on the way from Kinshasa to his Nsele training camp 1974
Muhammed Ali on the way from Kinshasa to his Nsele training camp 1974. News coverage of his refusal to be inducted for the Vietnam War had elevated him to heroic stature world wide

“I know that beating George Foreman and conquering the world with my fists does not bring freedom to my people. I am well aware that I must go beyond all this and prepare myself for more. I know,” said Muhammed Ali, “that I enter a new arena.” So spoke Ali summing up the significance for himself of reclaiming the Heavyweight Championship just hours after the 1974 fight held in Kinshasa, capital of the then Zaire.
Before the long awaited match of the powerful, younger Foreman and the cagey former champ, Muhammed Ali had reflected publicly on the larger role he assumed with his conversion to Islam and refusal of induction to the Army. “If I win”, he declared, “I’m going to be the black Kissinger. It’s full of glory, but it’s tiresome. Every time I visit a place, I got to go by the schools, by the old folks’ home. I’m not just a fighter, I’m a world figure to these people.”

During the month-long delay of the fight, Ali had plenty of time in Kinshasa to carry out and describe further his mission as a “world figure”. As the excitement mounted, a few days prior to the bout he said, “Nobody is ready to know what I’m up to. People in America just find it hard to take a fighter seriously.” He then issued an alert, “They don’t know that I’m using boxing for the sake of getting over certain points you couldn’t get over without it. Being a fighter enables me to attain certain ends. I’m not doing this,” he revealed, “for the glory of fighting, but to change a lot of things.”

In his interpretation of the pronouncements and ever expanding persona of Ali before and after the Foreman fight, Norman Mailer wrote, “Was he still a kid from Louisville talking, talking, through the afternoon, and for all anyone knew through the night, talking through the ungovernable anxiety of a youth seized by history to enter the dynamos of history? Or was he in full process of becoming that most unique phenomenon, a twentieth century prophet, and so the anger and the fear of his voice was that he could not teach, could not convince, could not convince?”

Reading Mailer’s account in The Fight of his grappling with Ali’s meaning to people in Congo and the rest of the world, this reader felt the writer had come closest to the measure, the legacy of the recently deceased champ. Mailer wrote, “One only had to open to the possibility that Ali had a large mind rather than a repetitive mind and was ready for oncoming chaos, ready for the volcanic disruptions that would boil through the world in these approaching years of pollution, malfunction and economic disaster.” It seems Mailer had to go to Congo to learn to understand and accept that this “prophet” had been shaped and prepared by his Muslim faith and co-believers.

Mailer confessed in his book, “He (Mailer) had implicitly kept waiting for some evidence that Ali was not a Black Muslim, not really, and that was absurd. It was time to recognize that being a Black Muslim might be the core of Ali’s existence and the center of his strength. What was one to do about that?” On his flight back to the States Mailer was confronted by stunning evidence that the Muslim world claimed Ali as one of them.

Before landing in Dakar, capital of largely Muslim Senegal, the pilot announced they would divert to a remote airport runway to evade the couple of thousand persons waiting for the chance to greet what they thought was their champ’s plane. Undaunted, the crowd surrounded the plane and were persuaded to disperse only after a few were allowed to search thoroughly for Ali inside the aircraft.

In a time when Christians especially in the U.S. need greater understanding of Islam and its approximately 1.5

Ali praying over The Koran in an African mosque
Ali praying over The Koran in an African mosque
billion followers, it is unfortunate that very few obituaries paid homage to the depth and profound influence of the man’s faith. Prior to the fight in Kinshasa he had noted referring to his projected earnings, “I’m left with a million three. That ain’t no money. You give me a hundred million today, I’ll be broke tomorrow. We got a hospital we’re working on, a Black hospital being built in Chicago, costs fifty million dollars. My money goes into causes.” With little understanding of Islam, Mailer cannot escape the insight that Ali’s courage and integrity were founded on the bedrock of his Muslim faith.

In the end, it was that courage and integrity that won over his most bitter foes. In 1981 George Foreman reconciled with the man he had loathed since losing to him. Much later he recalled, “In 1981, a reporter came to my ranch and asked me: ‘What happened in Africa, George?’ I had to look him in the eye and say, “I lost. He beat me.”

Following that interview with the reporter, Foreman softened. “Before that I had nothing but revenge and hate on my mind, but from then on it was clear. I’ll never be able to win that match, so I had to let it go.”[8] Foreman eventually concluded, in 2003: “[Ali is] the greatest man I’ve ever known. Not greatest boxer that’s too small for him. He had a gift. He’s not pretty he’s beautiful. Everything America should be, Muhammad Ali is.” [14] In response to Foreman’s statement we citizens of the U.S. in 2016 are left with the question, “What was one to do about that?”

Frederic’s Plea

The following message was sent me last week by a Congolese friend Frederic LoFrederic Lombe, Congo Disciples Minister mbe who shared an office with me in the Mbandaka headquarters of the Disciples
Frederic Lombe, Congo Disciples Minister

The following message was sent me a few days ago by  Congolese friend Frederic Lombe who shared his office with me in the Mbandaka headquarters of the Disciples “Communaute”.  With it, he has asked me and several U.K and U.S. based friends for advice on the Congolese pursuit of democratic rule. The complete message and my response follow. If you would like to respond to Fred’s heart felt inquiry, you may use the comments section of the blog or write me at dsmithy1@verizon.net.

Dear friends,

I am sure you all are more informed and experienced in the DEMOCRACY than us here. What can you advice me about what happens here in my country? I am often in contact with different people and many of them concluded that they will not vote in the future because it is not necessary when their willing is not respected. And I think you are following through your TV, there is already much trouble, we are going to die as flies. Your powers showed us this excellent system to vote the one people like much, but finally the contrast. The dictature continues, so what can we do now? Your different replies will encourage my family and myself.

Kindest regards.

Frederic.

Dear Fred –
Someone once said, “the price of liberty is eternal vigilance”. We in the United States, a young nation but with two hundred thirty five years of pursuing liberty through democratic rule, keep learning the truth of this statement. Our democracy is always in jeopardy but today’s threat posed by a small minority with wealth and power seems to be especially great.
You may have heard about the increasing gap between the very rich and the rest of the U.S. citizens. Over the past thirty years, but accelerated during the younger Bush administration, taxes on the rich have been cut resulting in part for a massive transfer of wealth from the middle income in the U.S. to the wealthy. Some of the largest U.S. corporations, G.E. for example, pay little to no tax on their profits and pay their executive management annual salaries and bonuses larger than most Americans make in a lifetime.

It is increasingly apparent that the great wealth of a small elite in our country is being used to manipulate elections in our American democracy. Skepticism continues regarding the results in our 2000 and 2004 presidential elections. The Republican party in the U.S. slavishly adheres to an ideology favoring the wealthy and has appointed most of the current members of the U.S. Supreme Court. That Court in the recent Citizens United decision gave unprecedented support for corporations to use their funds to back the candidates they favor. We now know that the conservative/corporate ideology favoring the wealthy has been promoted by the investment of millions of dollars by billionaires such as the Koch brothers and Art Pope in North Carolina with the aim of electing like-minded candidates.

It is the gap in wealth and the super wealthy’s increasing influence on the electoral process in the U.S. that the Occupy Wall Street movement is protesting; like the “revolutionaries” who opposed British rule of the U.S. colony and set the stage for the writing the Declaration of Independence and the rule “by the people”, protest is a hallowed tradition in our country and, I believe, in every nation where the people truly rule.

A recent example in Africa of a non violent people’s movement taking power from an elite and standing up for democratic rule comes from Liberia. It is not surprising that the Liberian women who demanded the Charles Taylor regime make peace with the rebels also backed the election of a woman as the first President of an African country. Organizing meetings of women from all backgrounds with the simple aim of “We want peace. No more war” it was women

Press Photo of Leymah Gbowee
Press Photo of Leymah Gbowee

in Liberia who also brought about free and fair elections with Ms. Johnson Sirleaf being reelected to a second term.

It should be noted that while the Liberian women represented diverse Muslim and Christian faith backgrounds, it was prayer and deep faith in our God of justice that held them together and on course. Nobel Peace Prize co-awardee Leymah Gbowee describes the movement’s beginnings in this way. “We started a peace outreach project, going to the churches on Sunday, to the market stalls on Saturday, the mosques on Friday.” And when there was confusion and dissension among the women, one of them would intervene with the unifying reminder, “We need to pray”.

You say, “we are going to die as flies” but so far as I know very few of those women in Liberia died. Ms. Gbowee was asked to serve as a cabinet member by the new President. She declined because she was afraid it would weaken her capacity to continue bringing about positive change in her homeland. Liberia is fortunate to have women and men like her leading the way to rule by the people and for the people. What will their system of government eventually become? Will it be a democracy like the U.S. Or a parliamentary system like in England? I don’t know, but I do know Ms. Gbowee, like Patrice Lumumba in the Congo, will always be acclaimed as a great leader in her country.

Thank you for your note. I look forward to continuing our dialog in the new year.

Your friend,
Doug

Microcredit Congo Style II

Microcredit organizing has already boosted the income of many Disciples households and some congregations and

Nathan Weteto, Congo Disciples Communication Director, is the microcredit organizing wizard
Nathan Weteto, Congo Disciples Communication Director, is the microcredit organizing wizard

provides further evidence that the “social economy” can help drive economic development in Congo.  “Mobilising microfinance is critical to the success of social enterprises including through savings and credit cooperative organizations” observed the recent U.N. Environment Program “Post Conflict Environmental Assessment Synthesis for Policy Makers”.  The UN report touts microfinance as a means to generate employment and allow Congolese to “deal pragmatically with their own development priorities”.

But as is typical of Congo culture, microcredit Congo style is often different from the pattern followed in other countries and often varies from group to group.  While some groups begin with seed funding, the Microcredit Union of women in Mbandaka’s Besenge parish began with no funding other than what was brought by members of the group.  Twenty five women divided into two groups and met twice a month, each member bringing at least 1000 Congolese Francs (about $1.20) to the meeting.  One group of women is invited to take a loan on the 10th of the month, according to group leader Mama Micheline Mwami, and the other on the 25th of the month.  The next month the women return the amount taken out plus 10 per cent interest.  Some women bring more than the minimum contribution from month to month to enable larger loans and larger profits for the group.  Within a year, the Besenge group distributed among the 25 women, proportionate to their “investments”, savings and profits of just under $1900.

In the urban setting, many of the women participating in a Disciples organized Microcredit Union begin small businesses with their loans.  By contrast, in the rural setting of Bonsombo (Lofoy is its “mission post”), ten families decided to pool their funds and buy seed and tools to cultivate ten hectares of land, agriculture being the primary source of cash in their experience.  In the cash economy of Equateur Province’s capital of Mbandaka, the potential for larger investments and earnings is much greater. 

Aided by $1400 in seed funding, the Mbandaka pastors’ wives group enabled group leader  Mama Lombe to receive a total of $100 the first three months from her Union’s fund pool.  She set up a table on a downtown Mbandaka street and began selling children’s underwear, soap, tomatoes and biscuits and returned $105, 5 % interest being the group profit on the loan.  After the “Emmanuela” group’s first six months, $2417 was distributed among the members.  More recently, after two years of the growth of the group and of the participants’ small business ventures, $12,000 in savings and earnings was shared by group members.

With no banks now providing credit to the 750,000 persons of the city of Mbandaka or anywhere else in Equateur province, the Microcredit Unions have rekindled the “social economy”, the UNEP report’s term, and         

Mama Lombe on right with Mama Bonanga, the leaders of pastors' wives' Microcrdit Union
Mama Lombe on right with Mama Bonanga, the leaders of pastors' wives' Microcrdit Union

entrepreneurship in urban areas where groups have been organized.  Enthusiasm among Disciples for the Microcredit organizing has led to Pauline Ngoy presenting for students at the Bolenge Protestant University of the Equateur a lecture on “Microcredit and Evangelism”. 

You can contribute to the  Microcredit Union organizing by the Disciples in Congo by sending a check designated for “Microcredit in Congo”  to Global Ministries, P.O.B. 1986, Indianapolis, IN 46206-1986.  You can also make a gift online by going to:

http://globalministries.org/africa/projects/microcredit-congo.html

A contribution of $150 will enable purchase of a group’s “kit” – a wooden box with calculator, notebooks for each group’s three “accountants”, pens and pencils.  The more contributions received by Global Ministries, the more groups will be started with some “seed” funding as well as the “kit”.

Follow new developments in the Microcredit organizing on Nathan Weteto’s blog; English translation can be accessed at:

http://globalministries.org/news/africa/blog-congo.html

UN Aid in Congo’s Equateur Province

UN plane unloads election materials at the Mbandaka airport
UN plane unloads election materials at the Mbandaka airport

Following the decrease of rebel activity in the Congo’s Equateur Province, UN troops and service agencies now battle random banditry, poaching, a cholera epidemic and other effects of dire poverty in the vast rainforest province of the Congo. In this post we share some highlights of the UN efforts as reported on the mission’s web site http://monusco.unmissions.org.

 With the extension of the mandate for the world’s largest UN peacekeeping force for another year, there’s a much better chance that legislative and presidential elections will be held in late November this year. On a recent visit to the still ungoverned eastern Congo, MONUSCO’s (the UN mission’s official name) chief staff person Roger Meece declared, “I can assure you that everything is in place to provide security for the

"I've voted; have you?" coasters for voters in the late November elections
"I've voted; have you?" coasters for voters in the late November elections

upcoming elections.”  Security as the priority for the UN was further signaled by Meece’s commemoration on September 18 of the 50th anniversary of UN Secretary General Dag Hammarsjkold’s death in a plane crash during the early period of post independence conflict in the Congo.

In a now peaceful Mbandaka, the UN’s anti mines unit recently organized and funded the scanning of an area around the Mbandaka airport for buried ordinance.  Having declared the land safe, MONUSCO announced on September 6 that construction would begin on the construction of a new terminal for Mbandaka.

 Banditry and looting by armed former rebels continue to plague some parts of the province and UN investigators have accompanied Congolese police in efforts to maintain law and order in the villages of Ilenga and Bosenga not far from Mbandaka.  To the south, poachers hunt elephants and prey on villagers in the remote Salonga National Park and surroundings despite deployment of the Congolese armed forces (FARDC) with UN advisors.

 On the health front, the World Health Organization (WHO) reports that Equateur was hit hardest by the cholera outbreak in Congo this year.  While cases are now on the decline, WHO figures show 1981 cases were treated in Equateur with 119 deaths in 8 of the province’s 20 health zones.

A $500 grant from Disciples/UCC Global Ministries bought desks for the secondary and primary school at Monieka
A $500 grant from Disciples/UCC Global Ministries bought desks for the secondary and primary schools at Monieka

 On the opening of the new school year in September, UNICEF promised to push Congo’s Ministry of Education to improve furnishings in primary school classrooms of those provinces where enrollment is below 75 % of the school age children.  According to UNICEF figures, 1.2 million children have been newly enrolled in primary school in the six targeted provinces, with Equateur still having the lowest rate of enrollment in the country.  One can hope that UNICEF’s efforts may also result in more regular payments for teachers in Equateur Province as well as outlays for classroom furniture.  Currently, Equateur parents have to contribute to a fund in each school to keep teachers in the classroom.

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"