A HISTORY: The Democratic Republic of the Congo is a rich and scenic place. Part of the country is bursting with minerals; much of it is lush with misty mountains, broad rivers, dense greenery. And pretty much all of it is brimming over with death and destruction and murder and rape and starvation and sadness…and life going on.
Like all college students I read “Heart of Darkness” but even though Africa was central to some vague travel future I didn’t think beyond the book’s literary value which would have to be accounted for in a term paper. Many years later I received an invitation to be part of an international delegation to Kinshasa, Zaire that would discuss how African artists could create a continent-wide touring network. I was surely among the least important of international arts presenters but it was an invitation not to be refused. It would be the first of many trips to the astounding continent of Africa.
Since that time I have not been back to what became the Democratic Republic of the Congo with the overthrow of Mobutu in 1997. But my membership in and travel with the Africa Contemporary Arts Consortium and friendship with Faustin and Virginie Lineykula of Kisangani, DRC has kept me aware of the sad news from there.
Bad and sad news has been pretty much non-stop since the Kingdom of Kongo became the Belgian Congo and King Leopold’s personal and extraordinarily brutally-run estate. There was a brief moment of hope when a leader of the fight against colonialism, Patrice Lumumba, was elected to become the first Prime Minister of the Republic of the Congo. He said “We are proud of this struggle, of tears, of fire, and of blood, to the depths of our being, for it was a noble and just struggle, and indispensable to put an end to the humiliating slavery which was imposed upon us by force.” (Kamalu, Chukwunyere. The Little African History Book – Black Africa from the Origins of Humanity. page 115, courtesy Wikipedia) Unfortunately he refused to become an American puppet, even accepting help from the Soviet Union, our arch cold-war enemy. He was soon assassinated courtesy of the U.S. and Belgium. Eisenhower told Dulles (CIA) that Lumumba should be eliminated and, although the Belgians actually did the killing they were fully supported by the American government. Adam Hochschild’s brilliant book King Leopold’s Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism in Colonial Africa is my source for this. (page 302 of the Mariner Books paperback) There are any number of accounts of U.S. complicity in Lumumba’s death; it is a fact.
No good news since that time.
AN ARTIST’S STORIES: In the last years, Faustin Linyekula has been my guide to stories from the Congo through his dance pieces, Festival of Lies and more more more…future (which have both been performed at our North Fourth Art Center). This fall, I had the pleasure of seeing Faustin’s Le Cargo at Danse l’Afrique Danse in Johannesburg. Le Cargo is an exquisite and moving solo. This remarkable dancer/choreographer is also storyteller, singer, family man and Congolese—and we get them all in this one carefully framed quiet story-dance. Faustin shares a tale of returning to the village in which he lived as a small child. He sings with an unexpectedly beautiful voice and dances—but only a little. It really is a story in the old-fashioned full-of-words sense. Faustin lives much of the time in his home, where his extended family still lives, in Kisangani. But sometimes it is too dangerous to be there, as it surely is now. Then he must go back to France, his wife Virginie’s home and where his sons can live in safety.
NINETEEN EIGHTY-NINE: I am somewhat ashamed of my one trip to the DRC, to Kinshasa the capitol. I was there however and here is the story of that trip in 1989.
I left from San Francisco where I lived at the time. Flights took me to NYC, Paris and then, on Air Zaire’s only internationally-flyable plane to Zaire, with a stopover in Douala, Cameroon where three days of small adventures passed the time. I stayed at a French hotel and ventured out around the city and down to the river with a French-speaking driver so we used our shared few words over and over and I’ve never known the significance of anything I saw. I was always back in the evening at my safe French haven for quiche or pasta or bifteck and French wine. That was actually my first time on continental soil, a pure tourist experience but it felt like a big world travel step. Even though it was all in French!
Back on Air Zaire to Kinshasa. It turns out that the man in the next seat was a Cameroonian attending the same meeting—which was fortunate because my airport/hotel information was missing. This helpful gentleman offered to share a cab to the conference hotel for which he had all of the necessary information. The hotel was charming, old, much of it of wooden construction, high ceilings, fans stirring the warm tropical air, right on a main street in downtown Kinshasa. Brilliant I thought, I’ll just have some soup and a beer in the restaurant downstairs, maybe walk a bit and be off to sleep, all rested for tomorrow’s gathering.
This was Mobutu’s Zaire where the U.S. was pouring in money to buy the devil’s loyalty to ‘our side’ in the cold war that made America stupid for a very long time. And the French ‘owned’ West Africa culturally—at least on the surface. I knew about Mobutu, I disapproved of Mobutu, my liberal do-gooder self said we Americans/westerners needed to stop supporting him, but there I was, extraordinarily dumb about the reality of it all.
The next morning, just as I stirred about my oh-so-comfortable room, happy with the street sounds and smells and air and light of this foreign place, there was a knock on the door and a rather officious French woman bustled in, informing me that I was at the wrong hotel—I was to go to the Kinshasa Intercontinental. I refused until she finally informed me the conference would not pay my expenses if I stayed where I was because ALL Europeans were staying at the Intercontinental—only African delegates would be here, she said! So I moved. After all, while we were proud of owning Mobutu politically, the French were equally proud of ‘owning’ Congolese culture!
That was the end of my first actual experience of Africa. The rest was the gilded cage life of the European delegates (all white people—except for one black Brit) at the very swank Intercontinental Hotel with luxury vans to take us all to Mobutu’s Palace of the Arts for our meetings.
There was one outing to Mobutu’s very own park where soldiers leaped out with guns drawn when our driver approached the entrance too quickly. The park was greenly luxuriant and devoid of all humans. For Mobutu Sese Seko Kuku Ngbendu wa Za Banga only.
Finally there was a grand ceremony at the Palace with costumed dancers and drums beating and fake smiles and damp handshakes amidst all of the trappings that ‘Big Men’ throughout the world use to impress and intimidate.
It was surreal. We all drank a lot and tried halfheartedly to make arrangements to get out of the hotel into the city, to sign up for some tours even. But there was no help from the French or African hosts and we, Europeans, Americans (3) and Canadians were too inexperienced and awestruck by the very fact of our being in this far and distant place to actually break away.
Then it was the last day and everyone flying airlines other than Air Zaire left. The Air Zaire plane had broken down and would stay in Paris until repaired. So a few of us were two or three more days in Mobutu’s Zaire and, I am ashamed to say, we never did have the gumption to go wherever we wanted—discouraged by our hosts who said “mais non” to the idea and our apparent lack of determination.
I want very much to go back. I have thought about somehow getting to Kisangani and seeing the places Faustin has carved out to make dance and inspire youngsters to make a life with art. But now, as fighting renews and all looks hopeless again after a brief semi-peaceful time, it doesn’t seem that anything, including art, will ever make a difference. If anything ever does it will be people like Faustin who gain some authority over the thugs. How likely is that?