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).

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

Moringa at Ikengo

Ikengo Farm Director Rio Bosala and visitors next to the Farm's Moringa grove

“And the leaves were for the healing of the nations…..”   (Rv 22:2)  Ten years ago Church World Service’s West Africa Director Lowell Fuglie began promoting the growth and use of the moringa leaf to combat malnuturition.  Today the tree is widely know across Africa as a drought resistant, fast growing tree used for treating a variety of ailments, including malnutrition.  A recent article on the properties of moringa observes, “It is commonly said that Moringa leaves contain more Vitamin A than carrots, more calcium than milk, more iron than spinach, more Vitamin C than oranges, and more potassium than bananas, and that the protein quality of Moringa leaves rivals that of milk and eggs.”

The bark, seeds and pods of the moringa are also used with the seeds providing a low cost water purification technique. According to the same article, “ The journal Current Protocols in Microbiology published a step by step extraction and treatment procedure to produce “90.00% to 99.99%” bacterial reduction. The seeds are also considered an excellent source for making biodiesel.”

Two or three years ago someone brought some moringa seeds with them on a visit to the Disciples farm at Ikengo.   The

Ikengo's malnourished infants may soon be given daily doses of moringa powder

resulting moringa grove caught the eye of Equateur Province’s Governor who exclaimed that he uses the moringa leaf for his diabetes.  And the Provincial health ministry is now interested in obtaining leaf powder for treating malnourished infants. 

A Mbandaka native son now Professor of Biology at the Ecole Polytechnique in Paris was fascinated by moringa’s water purifying capacity.  Wanting to see the trees, M. BOETSA accompanied me on my return to the Ikengo farm this past summer. More about the reason for his return to Mbandaka in the next posting.  For now, those interested in more on the amazing moringa tree can go to the Wikipedia article at:

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

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

New Drumming on the Tshuapa River

 

Ceremony of Ordination of Rev. BOOLA

The Congo Disciples blog (read it in French at http://weteto.tumblr.com ) notes that women in the pastorate have brought gender role changes in aspects of the traditional culture as well as in the life of the church. Rev. Regine BOOLA of Bokungu, drumming in the picture above, and Rev. Suzanne INGOY of Boende were ordained last month in their home parishes with the Disciples President Rev. Eliki BONANGA presiding.

 Blog editor Nathan Weteto wrote this week: “according to tradition, only men can sound the “Lokolé, an instrument formerly used for communicating between villages (such as the telephone today)”.  Weteto tells us that churches in Congo have in recent years adopted use of the lokole.  And so an increasing number of women like Revde. BOOLA, “play the Lokolé as pastors in their parishes to call the faithful to worship”.

It is also cause for celebration during this special week that the photos accompanying this blog were received the day after they were shot in a remote area of the Congo.  I was astonished last Monday on seeing that Weteto was able to post them to his blog

Palm Sunday Yalusaka Parishoners Greet the Visiting Pastors After Worship

following the Palm Sunday worship at Yalusaka, by his estimate some 1000 kms. from Mbandaka.  The remote village is in the Mondombe Disciples’ post region, one of several posts on the Tshuapa River. All the Disciple posts along the Tshuapa have been pillaged and terrorized by successive waves of rebel armies using the River to make their way from eastern Congo to Kinshasa.

 The rebel looting has accentuated the importance and the difficulty of the Disciple posts’ providing the only medical and the only education services, both primary and secondary schools, for the people living along the Tshuapa. Surely Rev. BOOLA and Rev. INGOY’s ordination in two posts of the area promise an even stronger response to the church’s call to the local population to build more schools, clinics and hospitals.

Footnote to this posting:  Dr. Gene Johson, translator of the Weteto blog postings and responsible for Disciple medical services in the Tshuapa region for several years in the 1960’s and 70’s, informed me that Bokungu, nearest Disciple “poste” to Mondombe, has a cell phone tower and therefore may well offer internet service also.

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.

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