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).

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

Maman Entombodji Restaurant

The yet to be plastered and painted restaurant building was dedicated during a visit of two leaders of the German partner Church

Our thoughts and prayers accompany the 8 Indiana Disciples who on Sunday begin their journey to Mbandaka for a two week visit. With the aim of strengthening the partnership ties of the Indiana and Mbandaka Regions of the Disciples, the group is led by Susan McNeely and the Partnership Chair Rev. Bob Shaw. Follow Susan’s report and commentary on the trip at her blog

http://kyvoyageur.blogspot.com

While in Mbandaka they will likely be among the first visitors to dine at the new

Maman Entombodji with paper in hand stands with Maman Leale, another past Director of Disciples Women's Department, on her right, outside Mbandaka III cathedral sanctuary in 1971

Restaurant Maman Entombodji next to Disciples headquarters. Running along the south wall of the Secretariat building, this is an income generating, training project of the Disciples’ Department of Women and Families.

Head of the Women’s Department, Rev. Christiane Ikete Engelete, envisions the Restaurant generating revenues for the Department’s programs of literacy education, micro-credit and agricultural cooperatives. Built with the help of funding from the Disciples/U.C.C. Global Ministries and the German United Evangelical Mission, the building comprises the main dining hall, kitchen, office, pantry and interior and exterior rest rooms.

Papa Joseph and Mme. Ikete, parents of Rev. Christiane Ikete Engetele, current Director of Disciples' Department of Women and Families

Restaurant Entombodji was dedicated May 12, forty years after Rev. Christiane’s father participated in the dedication of the dormitory at the Disciples’ CAP (Centre Agro-Pastorale) farm in the village of Ikengo. A dedicated Disciples layman at the time, Joseph IKETE served as volunteer Protocol Chief for the occasion. Now in his 70’s Joseph continues to serve the Disciples as Chief Administrative Assistant in President Bonanga’s office.

In closing, a heart felt “Bon Voyage/Kende Malamu” to the Indiana Disciples as they prepare for their long journey beginning Sunday 5/22. They go with our gratitude for helping strengthen the partnership of U.S. and Congo Christians and our trust that their visit will also strengthen the mission witness of churches in both countries.

Micro Credit Training for the HIV Positive

 

 

Nathan Weteto, Micro Credit Trainer and Organizer

 

From the blog of Nathan Weteto http://natana.tumblr.com as translated by Dr. Gene Johnson from the French 

 

46 Persons Living With HIV Ask for Micro Credit

Yesterday, December 9, 2010, the Community of Disciples of Christ in Congo completed the launch of the micro – credit for people living with HIV (PVV). Planned for 40 people, the project welcomed the first 44 and
then 2 more were added making a total of 46 beneficiaries.

 

In fact, the CDCC, with the support of the United Evangelical Mission (MEU) has turned to a new category of persons as part of its program of micro – credit. After women in general and the wives of pastors, it’s the
turn of PVV

The MEU has provided funding for making two kits for the administration of micro – credit as well as U.S. $ 800 as seed money for PVV..

After 3 days of training on the administration of a group of micro -credit, 2 groups of 23 persons each were formed and the beneficiaries have saved, before receiving aid, a sum of 285,000 FC, slightly more than
U.S. $ 300. The cycle thus started will end in June, 2011. We hope that everything will go well, and to the great satisfaction of the beneficiaries.

 

Read more about the Disciples’ organizing of micro-credit groups in the article “Banking in Mbandaka” on this blog. Enter that title in the search window found in the upper right of the home page.

 


 

 

Banking in Mbandaka

Thursday, August 5, 2010

When I hear of breakdown and regression in Congo spoken of from now on I will think of the banking system in Mbandaka. There is a large, well maintained building housing the Banque Centrale in downtown. But it apparently serves only as a clearing house for the export overseas of earnings by the largest companies and businesses operating in the Province. Smaller businesses, including most of the storeowners in the capital, as well as the general public are left to their own devices.

Those devices are many and varied I am sure but none seem to be attracting as much attention these days as the “caisse et epargne” (credit and savings) groups organized by the Disciples. Both clergy and lay leaders of other faith traditions have been requesting training in this system of micro credit lending and banking.

The principles and process are simple. With two contributions to the group’s fund per month, you as a member earn the right to one monthly credit withdrawal. The following month you are to pay the loan back with a five or ten per cent, depending on the group, rate of interest. Training for the original 25 members of a group includes discussion and critique of each individual’s plan of action. Few to no women have failed to repay the loans in the five or so groups organized to date.

The biggest impact of the credit system comes every six months with the emptying of the cash fund and distribution of the interest earnings plus principal among the members. The “Disciple Mamas’ Cooperative of Credit and Savings” in the poorest quarter in town distributed $1,888 June 30 this year. A pastor’s wife in another group is helping pay the costs of their four children attending university with her earnings and profits. Her sidewalk convenience store offers a host of items purchased with the loans from her “caisse et epargne” group.

The financial insecurity of most Congolese is most apparent among the older adults. Even those fortunate to have a job must delay retirement as long as possible as the expected pension is either small or non existent. “Papa Jean” is now saving to put metal roofing on his house; even at his age of 64, saving for retirement will have to wait.

The four workers, including “Papa Jean”, at the “maison des missionaires” have set up their own savings bank informally known as a “likelemba”. Each of the workers contribute a third to around half their monthly salary to the group fund which is held by the Disciples headquarters’ finance office. Once every four months each of the participants receives their “likelemba” amounting to the total of the contributions received that month. Debts are paid, long deferred projects undertaken and school expenses especially are paid the month of the “likelemba” good fortune.

Contrast this banking among friends with the scrounging of the poor by the “Banques Lambert”, the private money lenders charging fifty to one hundred per cent interest to the unfortunates resorting to this ready source of cash. No one seems to know the origin of the term “Banque Lambert” but a Belgian banker in colonial days no doubt earned a reputation for lending at such exorbitant rates of interest.

I can’t complete this report on Mbandaka’s financial services without mention of where you change your dollars for Congolese francs. Small tables with “Change” painted roughly in the vicinity mark the spot. At first sight, I was astonished to see a two foot high pile of cash on a table in front of Disciple headquarters. There didn’t seem to be anyone near the table but I was assured that even in poverty- stricken Mbandaka it was not “our way” to steal so openly.

News Flash as I complete this posting:

Workers at Disciple headquarters will have to wait until next week to be paid. Funds expected from Kinshasa did not arrive on today’s plane from the capital. The “carrier” who had been enlisted, a Catholic sister, reneged when she learned the amount of cash she would be delivering. The five per cent charged by the two money wiring services is an unacceptably large expense for the Church to bear.