DURING THE INTERWAR YEARS, THE MAJOR SOCIAL UPHEAVALS that began during the first decade of the Belgian Congo continued unabated. Industry picked up its pace. More and more people left their villages and went to work for an employer. The first cities arose. There, tribes became mixed and new lifestyles gained popularity. On Sunday afternoons, people danced to the music of Tino Rossi; the generation before them had still done so to the rhythm of the tom-tom. But in the countryside, time had not stood still. The system of mandatory crops introduced during World War I was now applied everywhere. The mission posts expanded their hold over the people’s souls. Schools and hospitals were built even in remote areas. The teams combating sleeping sickness moved into even the smallest villages.
In that light, everything was tending toward expansion, a process that served both colonizer and native. Or, at least, that is how people preferred to view it. “Since the world war of 1914–18, the calm in Congo has never been seriously disturbed,” wrote a Catholic school headmaster in a Flemish backwater.
A few minor disturbances, provoked not seldom by secret sects and sorcerers, sometimes served to make a certain area unsafe . . . . The Bula-Matari, as the natives call the Belgian administration in Congo, is generally able to rely on the Negroes’ submissiveness and deference to authority, at least in so far as the persons in charge themselves attend to the requirements for a good colonial official, and excel in an orderly and virtuous life, by means of sincere charity and redoubtable willpower.”1
That was a gross exaggeration. The colonial officials could apply all the sincere charity and redoubtable willpower they pleased, they were still unable to reverse the tide of growing irritation amid the native population. This was not about “a few minor disturbances” in a “certain area,” but about significant popular movements that were able—despite heavy-handed repression by the colonial government—to expand across large parts of the colony. The fever of independence that manifested itself beginning in 1955 was not new at all, but had a very long incubation period. But to understand that, we must first pay a visit to Nkasi’s younger brother. And to the Holy Ghost.
GOD’S WAYS MAY BE MYSTERIOUS, but the roads leading to the Holy Ghost are pretty hopeless, especially now that he has moved to Nkamba. From Kinshasa to Mbanza-Ngungu, formerly Thysville, the roads are excellent. A few years ago the Europeans and the Chinese joined forces to provide Congo with at least one decent road, leading from Kinshasa to the port of Matadi. But as soon as we leave that highway, the road becomes a sandy track, the sandy track becomes a mud puddle and our progress becomes snail-like. The distance from Mbanza-Ngungu to Nkamba is eighty kilometers (fifty miles) and we finally cover that in three hours. A new speed record, people tell us later. Yet the road to Nkamba is definitely no dirt track used only once in a great while. Each year, thousands and thousands of pilgrims go up it in search of spiritual renewal. They refer to it not as Nkamba, but as the Holy City or la nouvelle Jérusalem.
Simon Kimbangu first saw the light of day on September 24, 1899, only a few years after Nkasi was born. His childhood and adolescence were not so very different from those of his contemporaries, but he would go down in history as a major prophet. Few are those who have a religion named after them, but Simon Kimbangu was to join the ranks of Christ and Buddha: today, Kimbanguism is still a living religion in Congo, accounting for 10 percent of the country’s believers.
Nkasi had said so himself: “Kimbangu, that was no magic. He was sent by God. A sixteen-year-old girl who had already been dead for four days, he brought her back to life.”
Congolese and colonizers first heard about this remarkable man in 1921, the year of the alleged resurrection, but Nkasi had known about him long before that. They came from the same area. Nkamba and Ntimansi, their native villages, were within walking distance of each other. “Oh . . . so when did I see him for the first time? Bon . . . I knew Simon Kimbangu back in the 1800s already. If he said: ‘Now we’re off to Brussels,’ then one second later he really was in Brussels. After all, he even healed my younger brother!”
The road is rough, but it is a relief to arrive in the Holy City. The area around the town is hilly. Eucalyptus trees rustle in the valleys and the shade is soothing. Nkamba itself is on a hilltop overlooking huge stretches of Bas-Congo. A lovely breeze is blowing. Still, one does not enter town just like that. References and traveling papers from Kinshasa and a young adept from Mbanza-Ngungu are required to pass the three roadblocks manned by Kimbanguist security personnel. There is something peculiar about them: they are all dressed neatly in uniform, with green berets and facings, but they are also barefooted. No boots, no clodhoppers, no sandals, nothing. Kimbanguists don’t believe in shoes. Once inside, the visitor is immediately struck by the peace and serenity of the place. Kimbanguism is the most Congolese of all religions and at the same time you feel like you’re in a different country. Everyone walks around barefooted, dressed soberly, radios and boom boxes are forbidden. No one shouts. Alcohol is taboo. What a contrast with Kinshasa with its extravagant dress, its everlasting shouting and swearing, its pushing and shoving in line for the taxi buses, its honking, and its busted loudspeakers!
The most striking building in town is the temple, an enormous rectangular thing built in eclectic style built by the believers themselves between 1986 and 1991. Putting together a building like this in five years’ time is no mean achievement. In front of it is the mausoleum of Simon Kimbangu and his three sons. First venerated as a prophet, the founder today enjoys divine status. That same status also applies to his three sons, who are nothing less than the embodiment of the Holy Trinity. A young female Kimbanguist once explained it to me at poolside in Kinshasa. I still have the scrap of paper that she scribbled all over then. “Kisolokele, born in 1914 = God the Father; Dialungana, born in 1916 = Jesus Christ; Diangienda, born in 1918 = the Holy Spirit.” The Kimbanguists no longer celebrate Christmas on December 25, but on March 25, the birthday of the second son. When the founder died in 1951, Diangienda Kintuma, the youngest of the three, assumed spiritual leadership of the movement. He kept going for a very long time: from 1954 until 1992. Now that position is occupied by a grandson, Papa Simon Kimbangu Kiangani, but the succession was not a perfectly smooth one. His cousin Armand Dingienda Wabasolele, another of the prophet’s grandsons, felt he was entitled to be the spiritual leader of Kimbanguist Church and, in addition to a schism, this contention has led to a great deal of musical rivalry. The Kimbanguists attach a lot of importance to music: in addition to beautiful choruses, their liturgy is characterized by the generous use of brass bands. In Kinshasa, the former pretender to the throne, Wabasolele, is the leader of two-hundred-man symphony orchestra; in Nkamba, his cousin, the current spiritual leader, Kiangani, prides himself on his philharmonic orchestra. I once attended an open-air performance by the symphony orchestra in Kinshasa; I have no idea where they obtained their glistening instruments in that shattered city, but their performance of Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana was a steamroller that easily outvoiced the honking of the evening rush hour. Wherever the truth lies, today it is Simon Kimbangu Kiangani who is venerated as the Holy Ghost.
That veneration is something to be taken quite literally. Darkness is already falling when I settle down on the square before the cathedral for evening prayers. I sit with my back to the spiritual leader’s official residence. To the right I see the monumental entranceway. Its pillars are hung with colorful textiles, a throne stands on carpets that have been rolled out over the concrete. A brass band plays uplifting martial music; the musicians are wearing white and green uniforms and marching in place. Kimbanguism is an extremely peace-loving religion, yet brimming with military allusions. Those symbols were not originally part of the religion, but were copied in the 1930s from the Salvation Army, a Christian denomination that, unlike theirs, was not banned at that time. The faithful believed that the S on the Christian soldiers’ uniform stood not for “Salvation” but for “Simon,” and became enamored of the army’s military liturgy. Today, green is still the color of Kimbanguism, and the hours of prayer are brightened up several times a day by military brass bands.
Those bands, by the way, are truly impressive. It is a quiet Monday evening when I find myself on the square. While the martial music rolls on and on, played first by the brass section, then by flutes, the faithful shuffle forward to be blessed by the spiritual leader. In groups of four or five, they kneel before the throne. The spiritual leader himself is standing. He wears a gray, short-sleeved suit and gray socks. He is not wearing shoes. In his hand he holds a plastic bottle filled with holy water from the “Jordan,” a local stream. The believers kneel and let themselves be anointed by the Holy Spirit. Children open their mouths to catch a spurt of holy water. A young deaf man asks for water to be splashed on his ears. And old woman who can hardly see has her eyes sprinkled. The crippled display their aching ankles. Fathers come by with pieces of clothing belonging to their sick children. Mothers show pictures of their family, so the leader can brush them with his fingers. The line goes on and on. Nkamba has an average population of two to three thousand, plus a great many pilgrims and believers on retreat. People come from Kinshasa and Brazzaville, as well as from Brussels or London.
Thousands of people come pouring in, each evening anew. For an outsider this may seem like a bizarre ceremony, but in essence it is no different from the long procession of believers who have been filing past a cave at Lourdes in the French Pyrenees for more than a century. There too, people come from far and near to a spot where tradition says unique events took place, there too people long for healing and for miracles, there too people place all their hope in a bottle of spring water. This is about mass devotion and that usually says more about the despair of the masses than about the mercy of the divine.
After the ceremony, during a simple meal, I talk to an extremely dignified woman who once fled Congo as a refugee and has been working for years as a psychiatric nurse in Sweden. She loves Sweden, but she also loves her faith. If at all possible, she comes to Nkamba each year on retreat, especially now that she is having problems with her adolescent son. She has brought him along. “I always return to Sweden feeling renewed,” she says.
THE NEXT DAY I finally meet Papa Wanzungasa, Nkasi’s younger brother, the one I came to Nkamba for. He is only one hundred years old, but still active. What a family! His 60-year-old cousin looks like he’s 45, his 126-year-old brother is one of the oldest people ever, and at the end of his first century he is still a member of the upper ministry at Nkamba and first deputy when it comes to evangelization, finances, construction, and materials supply. He has been registered with the Kimbanguist Church since 1962 as Pasteur No. 1. In 1921, when Simon Kimbangu’s public life began, he was a boy of thirteen. Kimbangu was thirty-one.
No other area in Congo was so impacted by the arrival of Europeans as Bas-Congo. Slavery was abolished, the demand for porters and laborers on the railroad severed the traditional pattern of life, farmers had to raise manioc and peanuts for the colonizer, and money and taxes were introduced. Europeans repeated time and again that they wanted to open up Congo and civilize it, but for the Africans the immediate results were disastrous. Sleeping sickness and the Spanish flu had killed an estimated two-thirds of the population, and European medicine proved powerless. That produced a deep-seated suspicion among the local population: these white people brought more sickness than they did healing.
It was at the mission post of Gombe-Lutete, twelve kilometers (about 7.5 miles) from his native village, that Simon Kimbangu was baptized by British Baptists and became a catechist himself. In 1919 he went looking for work in Kinshasa, just as Nkasi had. He applied for work at William Lever’s Huileries du Congo Belge, without success. But he found himself in a world of Africans who had traveled and could write and do arithmetic. Thousands of black employees there were working for some twenty companies. By that time he was already hearing voices in his head, and receiving visions that summoned him to great deeds. For the time being, though, he paid them no heed. But a year later, when he returned to his village and found that the British Baptists had appointed someone else as their official catechist, something snapped.
On April 6 he heard talk of Kintondo, a woman who was seriously ill. He went to her, wearing a hat on his head and clenching a pipe in his teeth . . . almost, one would say, like a missionary. When he arrived he laid his hands on her and commanded the deathly ill woman to rise up, which tradition says she did, the very next day. Rumors of the miraculous healing spread like fire. The stories grew wilder all the time. In the weeks that followed, Kimbangu was said to have healed a deaf man and a blind man. That’s right, and they said he had even caused a young girl, who had died a few days earlier, to rise from the dead! Here at last was someone with much more power than those white people with their injections against sleeping sickness that actually made you sicker than you were before. Redemption was nearing. From all over the region, people abandoned their fields and hurried to Nkamba.
As did the parents of Nkasi and Wanzungasa. Nkasi was in Kinshasa by then, shoveling dirt, but his brother saw it all at firsthand.
We settle down in the green leather easy chairs in Nkamba’s state chamber, to talk about that distant past. As behooves a Kimbanguist, Wanzungasa speaks in a quiet, friendly voice.
Our parents were both Protestants, they were farmers. As a child, I had a hunchback. My mother heard about a man in Nkamba who healed all kinds of disorders, the blind and the deaf, and who had even brought the dead back to life. She took me along, and we arrived here. Nkamba was full of people. They were called to the front in the order in which they came. When it was my turn, I was called up along with my mother. We knelt in front of Simon Kimbangu. He placed a hand on my head and said: “In the name of Jesus, stand up, straighten your back, and walk.” I did that, and saw that my hunchback had disappeared. It didn’t even hurt.
He tells his story calmly and factually and makes no attempt to proselytize his listener. The facts are there, for those willing to believe.
My mother was overjoyed. Simon Kimbangu said that we should go and wash ourselves in the holy water. We stayed for three more days, to be sure I was completely healed. Today the doctors say that I had tuberculosis, but that’s not true. I walked completely bent over. I was healed by my faith. That’s how it goes in my family, otherwise my brother could never reach the age of 126, could he? There were many more sick people in our village. The news of my healing traveled fast. Then everyone went to Nkamba and became Kimbanguists.2
The colonial government was worried by this sudden abandonment of the countryside. The Cataractes district of Bas-Congo was a major breadbasket for Kinshasa, but suddenly the markets were empty. Rumors even reached the big city. Some people put down their work and returned to their native regions. There, the first to become concerned were the Protestant missionaries: many of Kimbangu’s initial followers, after all, came from their mission posts. And even though the Protestants advanced a much more individual form of worship, they wondered whether Kimbangu wasn’t taking things too far. Kimbangu had ignited a fire that flashed across the countryside. All over Bas-Congo, new prophets were shooting up like mushrooms. They were called bangunza, or ngunza in the singular. Their rallies led to frenzied scenes. One Swedish missionary, who had lived in Congo for years, noted in his diary:
Today I attended the Ngunza gatherings. It is extraordinary. You should see them shudder, stretch their arms, point them in the air, look at the sky, straight into the sun. You should hear them shout, pray, beg, softly whisper “Jesus, Jesus.” You should see Yambula [one of his best evangelists] leap, run, spin on his axis. You should see how the crowd comes together, strides along, kneels beneath the shaky hands that hold the bangunza above their heads—Listen to what is happening here! Go away, cast off these graven images.3
Two aspects cannot be emphasized enough. First, the followers of the new faith did not turn against Protestantism, but in fact used it to their own ends. This was no rupture with Christianity, but a specific coloring-in, yes, an intensification of it. This was no return to precolonial religious practices; the new believers, in fact, explicitly renounced the ancestral belief in witchcraft. But at the same time—and this is the fascinating thing—the followers made use of religious symbols and gestures that hearkened back to traditional healing (trance, charms, incantations). They were against cult objects images, but behaved like native healers. What they found, in other words, was an African form for an imported faith. Second, even though this sudden religious revival was not without a link to social conditions, it was foremost an exclusively spiritual phenomenon. Kimbangu was no political rebel: he made no anticolonial tirades and his doctrines were not directed against the Europeans. But the colonial authorities had a very hard time believing that.
Less than three weeks after Kimbangu’s first public appearance, district commissioner Léon Morel sounded the alarm. That was altogether understandable: for a colonial administration that was trying to introduce a standard monetary economy and a classic work ethic in Congo, these day-long gatherings of the willfully unemployed were absolutely disquieting. Ever since 1910 the colonizers had been dividing the population into safe little chefferies; now they were suddenly converging by the thousand to take part in bizarre rituals. A meeting was organized in Thysville to which Catholic and Protestant missionaries were invited. The Catholics, most of them Belgian, agreed with the colonial rulers and accused the Protestants of laxity in their dealings with the natives. They called for a vigorous and drastic government intervention. The Protestants, on the other hand, favored a soft approach. This was, after all, a form of Christian popular devotion, they felt, and it couldn’t be all bad, could it? A number of their most cherished converts were involved, people they had known for years and for whom they felt friendship. Heavy-handed tactics would completely alienate them from the mission post. And besides, wouldn’t such repression simply serve to fan the fires?
As was often the case, the standpoints and behavior of the Protestant missionaries were a great deal more subtle and humane than those of the Catholics, but a head-on collision with the mammoth alliance of Catholic Belgian missionaries and Belgian colonial administrators was useless. On June 6 a detachment from the Force Publique, along with Léon Morel, moved on Nkamba to arrest Kimbangu, which resulted in skirmishes and looting. The soldiers stole the mats, the clothing, the chickens, the Bibles, the hymnals, and the little bit of money the faithful had with them. They fired with live ammunition. People were wounded and one person was killed. Afterward the army carted off the movement’s leaders to Thysville, but Simon Kimbangu himself was able to escape. For his followers, this was just one more proof of his supernatural gifts.
He remained in hiding for three months and continued to spread his faith in the villages where colonial officials rarely came and where no one would betray him. That says something about his popularity and about the generally mounting resentment toward the white rulers. In September 1921 he turned himself in—just like Jesus at Gethsemane, his followers felt. The ensuing trial they compared to Christ’s prosecution by Pontius Pilate. And not without reason. It was, after all, a mockery as well. That Kimbangu would be found guilty was a foregone conclusion. A watered-down version of a state of siege had even been imposed, to make sure he would appear before a military tribunal rather than a regular (and milder) civil court. This meant he had no legal representative nor any right of appeal. His fate was decided within three days. Reading the case files today, one is amazed by the tendentious nature of the magistrate’s questioning. The sole objective was to prove that Kimbangu was guilty of undermining public security and disturbing the peace; that was the only crime with which he could be charged and which bore the death penalty.
Commander Amadeo De Rossi chaired the court-martial: “Kimbangu, do your admit that you have organized a revolt against the colonial government and that you have characterized the whites, your benefactors, as being terrible enemies?”
Kimbangu replied: “I had not created any revolt, neither against the Belgians, nor against the Belgian colonial government. I have only tried to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ.”
But the presiding judge was not to be swayed: “Why did you call on the people to lay down their work and stop paying taxes?”
Kimbangu: “That is untrue. The people who came to Nkamba did so of their own free will, in order to listen to God’s word, to find healing or to receive a blessing. Never once have I asked the people to stop paying taxes.”
The judge tried a different tack, and suddenly became overly familiar. The tone grew sarcastic: “Are you the mvuluzi, the redeemer?”
“No, that is Jesus Christ, our redeemer. He has given me the mission of spreading the news of eternal salvation to my people.”
“Have you brought the dead back to life?”
“How did you do that?”
“By applying the divine power given me by Jesus.”4
Those were precisely the answers the court wanted to hear. They confirmed the suspicion that Kimbangu was a subversive fantasist. Because the hymns sung at Nkamba spoke of arms, the court tried to pin on him the charge of summoning people to violence. Kimbangu replied that the Protestant missionaries were not arrested, even though their hymns spoke of “Christian soldiers.” The court tried to trip him up by citing him as having said: “The whites shall be black and the black shall be whites.” Kimbangu said that did not literally mean that the Belgians were to pack up and leave. And besides, since when was egalitarian discourse a racist position? It was suspected that during his stay in Kinshasa he had come in contact with black Americans who were followers of Marcus Garvey, the radical Jamaican activist who believed that Africa was exclusively for the Africans. Kimbangu denied that charge: “Cela est faux” (That’s false).
But it was to no avail. It didn’t help either when, halfway through the proceedings, Kimbangu went into a trance and began raving and shaking all over. Epilepsy, we would assume today, but the court-appointed physician prescribed a cold shower and twelve lashes. The final verdict was what one would have expected after all this: on October 3, 1921, Kimbangu was sentenced to death, his closest associates to life imprisonment and hard labor. The court order made no bones about the real motives: “It is true that the animosity towards the powers that be has been limited till now to inflammatory songs, insults, forms of defamation, and a few, unrelated cases of insurrection, but it is also true that the course of events could have led, with fatal consequences, to a major uprising.”5
Kimbangu was to be made an example, that much was clear. His prosecutors would have liked to see him executed as quickly as possible but, to the amazement of all, Kimbangu received a pardon from King Albert in Brussels. His sentence was commuted to life imprisonment. Kimbangu was taken to the other side of the country, to the prison at Elisabethville in Katanga. There he remained behind bars for the next thirty years, until his death in 1951. Unusual punishment for someone who, for a period of less than six months, had brought a little hope and comfort to a few stricken villages. His term of imprisonment was one of the longest in all of colonial Africa, even longer than that of Nelson Mandela. He spent most of that time in solitary confinement. He had never committed an act of violence.
A PEACEFUL INTERLUDE, this interwar period? Only a few minor disturbances? The excessive sanction imposed on Simon Kimbangu showed that, behind the manly, apparently unruffled facade of the colonial administration, there was a great deal of skittishness. The colonizers were terrified of disturbances. That manifested itself in the way Kimbangu’s followers were persecuted.
From 1921 on, the government began banishing key figures in Kimbanguism to other provinces, with the intention of breaking apart the movement. Old Wanzungasa knew all about it. His uncle was picked up and forced to serve for seven years in the Force Publique. His youngest brother, still only a child at the time, was forced to undergo a Catholic mission education and was baptized against his will, making him the only Catholic in an otherwise Protestant nest. But his in-laws-to-be suffered most of all. “They were banished to Lisala, all the way in the eastern part of Équateur.” Why? Because the mother of his future fiancée was related to Marie Mwilu, Simon Kimbangu’s wife. “Her father died there in exile. My wife was only a girl at the time, she stayed here.”
Initially, the measures directly affected a few hundred families, but in the course of the colonial era their number rose to 3,200. Today the Kimbanguists claim that 37,000 heads of households were forced to move, a total of 150,000 individuals, but the administration’s records speak of only one-tenth of that. Internal exile, by the way, was one of the government’s standard punitive measures: during the entire colonial period, some 14,000 individuals were banished to other parts of the country, most of them for political-religious reasons. The official explanation was that this was for the purposes of reeducation, but in actual practice the deportations were often permanent. The details sometimes remind one of Europe in the 1940s. The Kimbanguists were taken away in closed cattle cars. Hunger, heat, and disease took their toll along the way. Many of them died as a result of the hardships during the journey itself. One man lost his three children before they could even arrive at their final destination; they were buried in a grave beside the river.6 The Kimbanguists were banned to the rain forest of Équateur, to Kasai, to Katanga, even to Oriental province. There they lived in isolated villages where their faith was outlawed. Beginning in 1940, the highest-risk exiles were sent to agricultural colonies, work camps surrounded by barbed wire where men and their families were put to forced labor and watched over by soldiers with guard dogs. The mortality rate there was sometimes as high as 20 percent.
None of this, however, had the desired effect. Kimbanguism was not crushed by these drastic measures, on the contrary. Banishment made the people even firmer in their beliefs. Each obstacle thrown up only bolstered their conviction that Simon Kimbangu was the true redeemer. Under such difficult conditions their faith provided them with comfort and something to hold on to, to such an extent in fact that it proved infectious for their surroundings. The local inhabitants were impressed by this new faith. In this way, Kimbanguism spread throughout the interior. Exile did not undermine the movement, but caused it to multiply. There were tens of thousands of followers.
Meanwhile, close to Nkamba, the religion went underground. Meetings were held by night in the forest, where Marie Mwilu, Kimbangu’s wife, talked about Papa Simon and taught the new believers to sing and pray. People even came downriver from Équateur for these gatherings. Coded messages were used to communicate with exiles in other parts of the country. This clandestinity may have been an obstacle, but it was also a fantastic learning experience that served to stimulate and consolidate the movement. The energy and fervency of those underground years is sometimes reminiscent of the experiences of the early Christians under Roman rule. As a teenager, Wanzungasa experienced it firsthand: “We could only pray at night in the jungle, amid the ‘spiders.’ Those were other Congolese who spied for the whites. During the day we took other routes through the forest, but we exchanged secret signs. At night we came together to sing. Sometimes the Belgians surrounded us during prayers. They had heard our singing, but couldn’t see us. We could see them, though, but we were invisible to them.” The early Christians in Rome during their persecution also kept up their spirits with magical stories. If the earthly powers don’t give you the respect you deserve, you look for it at a higher level.
This tough approach to Kimbanguism was one of the most serious mistakes made by the administration; the colonial authorities misjudged the situation completely. They combated symptoms, but not the cause. The real problems that gave rise to such a massive religious revival they ignored completely. Hard repression of the form took precedence over any empathetic concern about the contents. And that backfired on them. A radical version of Kimbanguism arose in Bas-Congo in 1934, Ngunzism, and that was openly anticolonial. Its adherents called for an end to taxation and for the Belgians’ withdrawal. Shortly afterward came Mpadism or Khakism, initiated by Simon-Pierre Mpadi, who added the soldier’s khakis to Kimbanguism, to say nothing of a much more radical train of thought. He turned against the colonizer, advocated polygamy, and organized gatherings where the crowd engaged in ecstatic dancing. At the start of World War II, he hoped that Congo would be liberated by the Germans. Matswanism was another phenomenon, one that blew in from Congo-Brazzaville. André Matswa (or Matsoua) was a World War I veteran who had served in France with the legendary tirailleurs sénégalais, the French colonial troops. While still in France he had set up a fraternal society and emergency fund for Africans. When he returned to Brazzaville he was venerated as a messiah and that movement made its way across the river. Matswa was ultimately deported to Chad, where he died in 1942. But, despite all the repressive measures, new messianic religions kept popping up. That stubborn resilience is telling indeed. It comprised, after all, the first structured form of popular protest and showed how many people were longing to be set free.
And it was not limited to Bas-Congo. New religious movements sprang up all over the country. In the mines of Katanga there arose the Kitawala, a corruption of “the Watch Tower,” the name originally used by the Jehovah’s Witnesses. That faith, which started in the United States in 1872, had migrated to South Africa and from there, beginning in 1920, to the Katangan copper belt.7 In Congo it took on an explicitly political character. Spreading bit by bit across the colony, it thrived mostly underground. Still, it was to become the largest religious movement in Congo after Kimbanguism. In other parts of the country, smaller, secret sectarian societies arose. In the district of Kwango there was the Lukusu movement, also known as the snake sect. In Équateur there arose the Likili cult, whose members rejected Western beds, mattresses, sheets, and mosquito netting—all items held accountable for Congo’s falling birthrate.8 Along the upper reaches of the Ariwimi in Orientale province originated the sinister Anioto society, whose members were known as the leopard people. That movement spread across the northeast of the country. The leopard people performed random acts of terror and murdered dozens of natives. Their motives were not always clear, but the tenor of the movement was clearly anti-European.9 During the 1920s and 1930s, therefore, there arose some fifty religious movements. Their methods varied from pacifistic to terroristic, but the underlying rancor was more or less the same.10 In Congo, religion was the pilipili (hot chili pepper) of the people.
“We are God’s people,” Wanzungasa said to me at the end of our conversation in the green leather armchairs of the Holy City’s state chamber. “We are not allowed to do evil, not even toward those who have done evil to us in the past. We do not demand an eye for an eye. We wield brass bands, not machetes.” He paused for a moment. I looked up from my notebook and saw his serene, lined face. He had been born in 1908, the year the Belgian Congo was established. His religion was officially recognized by Belgium only on December 24, 1959, some six months before independence. He was probably thinking back on the first half of his life, his first half-century. In a quiet voice, he concluded: “There was no freedom then. During the colonial period, people were bought and sold. We were like slaves. Truly, the only color colonialism ever had was that of slavery.”
IN KINSHASA I had the opportunity to speak at length with Nkasi about the 1920s and 1930s and the gathering resistance. He who had looked up so often to the white people later in life had to admit that those had been troubled times. “The old people were very tough. The white man, that wasn’t your comrade back then!”After his period as a manual laborer in Kinshasa, he returned to his native region. In those days very few people remained in the city permanently; wage labor was seasonal labor. After his little brother had been miraculously cured by Kimbangu, the obvious thing was for him to become a Kimbanguist as well, despite the inherent dangers. “In Nkamba, Monsieur d’Alphonse was appointed chef de poste,” he said with a singular lack of enthusiasm. That colonial official had been charged with pacifying the area after the Kimbanguist upheaval. To that end he appointed Lutunu, the freeman-boy-cyclist-drunkard-and-assistant-regent of old, as his native chef. Lutunu, after all, got along well with the whites.11 Monsieur d’Alphonse shuttled back and forth between the administrative center at Thysville and his post in Nkamba. Nkasi remembered that all too well: “I had to help carry him. On my shoulders, that’s right! There were two of us to carry his litter, and he shook back and forth terribly.” Nkasi could nevertheless laugh heartily about it now. Sitting on the edge of his bed, he imitated the white colonial’s shaking in the tipoy. He flapped his arms at his sides, sloppily and uncontrolled, as though he himself were seated in the sedan chair. Humor must have come to their assistance back then too. The journey covered more than eighty kilometers (fifty miles) and Monsieur d’Alphonse proved a harsh man. “My uncle was one of the local worthies, but Monsieur d’Alphonse gave him two hundred lashes. That was in 1924, I think. My uncle had said: ‘Mundele kekituka ndonbe, ndonbe kekituka mundele.’ The whites shall be black and the blacks white.” Lashes, most probably fewer than two hundred, for a phrase that happened to be the slogan of the Kimbanguists. “The Force Publique soldiers lashed him across his bare buttocks. My uncle had two wives, but directly after those two hundred lashes he became a good Christian, a Kimbanguist. That’s why he ended up with no lashmarks, wounds, or bruises on his buttocks, nothing at all.”
It was during that period that the Matadi-Kinshasa railroad was broadened and made ready for electrification. The slow train puffing along its narrow gauge tracks was no longer sufficient, now that Congo was industrializing at a rapid pace. And air travel, of course, was still in its infancy: the first plane from Brussels landed at Léopoldville only in 1925; it was a biplane and it had taken twenty-five days to complete the journey, more than twice as long as the packet boat.12 The work on the rails lasted from 1922 to 1931, with workdays of up to eleven hours. The route was adapted here and there, three new tunnels were dug, old bridges were replaced. The entire journey was reduced from nineteen to twelve hours.13 Nkasi, who had seen his father work on the first railroad, was now part of it again. After all, hadn’t he gained experience with a shovel in Kinshasa? “Now I had to work with a pick.” With the piccone was what he said—in Italian, because many Italians were involved in the revamping. His foreman, Monsieur Pasquale, was one of them. “I got ten francs a month and a bag of rice. But one day Monsieur Pasquale said to me: “‘Tu dormi, toi? So you’re napping, are you?’” Nkasi could still imitate the Italian’s broken French. “I told him: ‘Je travaille! I’m working!’ He took me to his home and I became his boy. He showed me how to make the bed and set the table. And for that work I got twenty francs a month!” He still beamed when he thought of it. Never in his working life had he had such a stroke of luck! “Those Italians were used to the sun. They were all single, they never had their wives with them. And they didn’t take a black woman, oh no!”
Of the sixty thousand Congolese workers on the new rail project, no fewer than seven thousand died. Nkasi’s new position, however, placed him in a financial position that allowed him to start thinking about marriage. Since the introduction of currency, the price of dowries had shot up. Marriage was reserved only for the wealthy. The rich were sometimes able to take several wives, while young men couldn’t afford to marry at all.14 Nkasi was almost forty by then. In his native village of Ntimansi he met Suzanne Mbila, a Kimbanguist like himself. Their first son was born in 1924, and they married in 1926. Their family grew steadily and he found himself once again living among his own people; that situation showed no signs of changing.
Unless, of course, one took the American stock exchange into account.
The Wall Street crash of October 1929 was felt all the way to the forests of Bas-Congo. The world economy had become so intertwined that the doubts and panic of investors in New York determined the further life of a man and his family in a piddling village in Congo. The effect was, of course, not immediate. The causal chain went as follows: the stock market crisis put a drag on the economy and caused a fall in the demand for raw materials worldwide; the Congolese mining industry, motor of the colonial economy, broke down; exports from the colony fell by more than 60 percent;15 in 1929, this resulted in a gigantic budget deficit; the Belgian government, realizing that the colonial budget was too dependent on income from the mines, decided in favor of diversification; agriculture provided an alternative, particularly agriculture aimed at export; the large-scale cultivation of tobacco, cotton, and coffee, however, required time and investments; the goal of protecting companies during this time of crisis meant that an easier way to generate revenues was to raise taxes—those paid by the natives themselves, that is; a higher taxation of natural persons had an added advantage: it would cause the demand for money to rise, the Congolese would be forced to accept employment and that could only have a civilizing effect. More revenues for the state and at the same time a better grip on a population that was starting to show signs of dissatisfaction—wasn’t that what they called killing two birds with one stone?
And so it came about. In 1920 the colony yielded only 15.5 million Belgian francs in tax revenues. By 1926 that had already grown to 45 million. And in 1930, in the midst of the crisis, that sum had increased to 269 million. Within four years, tax revenues had increased sixfold. By 1930, direct taxation accounted for 39 percent of the colonial budget, while taxation on the profits of the big concerns, which had still booked enormous profits in the previous years, accounted for only 4 percent.16 What’s more, many ailing private firms were now receiving money from the colonial government, because they had originally been lured to Congo with financial guarantees: in the event of a downturn, they were to receive a fixed dividend of 4 percent from the colonial treasury.17 The hole generated by the crisis had to be filled, in other words, with money from the Congolese common man, in addition to a capital injection from the Belgian state treasury and revenues from the colonial lottery. This did not mean that every Congolese worker was suddenly required to pay six times as much (the tax pressure in the cities had already been increased gradually, but sorely), but that the tax department was now extending its tentacles farther into the interior. The bludgeon of personal taxation in this way drove thousands of people into the mines, onto the plantations, or into government service. In 1920 123,000 Congolese were on payrolls; by 1939 that had risen to 493,000.18 Anyone refusing regular employment and wishing to keep farming for themselves was forced to raise certain crops and sell them to private colonial companies. By 1935 an estimated 900,000 people were involved in the cultivation of cotton.19
Nkasi, too, felt compelled to undertake something. “Well, and then the crisis came . . . . And the lack of money . . . [W]hen the administrator of Mbanza-Ngungu, Musepenje, came by Ntimansi I applied for a job with the provincial government.”
One can hardly overestimate the portent of this. The Kimbanguists had gradually come to despise anything that reeked of the colonial government. They hid away in the forests and warmed themselves secretly at the glow of their religion. They wanted nothing to do with the whites. But now they had to go to work for them. Operation Tax Hike was a complete success.
In no time, however, Nkasi would become enamored of European culture.
He had been lucky to meet this fellow Musepenje. That, at least, was how I had scribbled down the name phonetically in my notebook. Musepenje. Muzepenjet? Whenever I heard a word that I didn’t understand during an interview, I tried to jot down the sound of it as faithfully as possible. And Nkasi was often hard to understand. “Monsieur Peignet?” I wrote next to it. At home, it took me days to figure it out. But in the colonial yearbooks for the 1930s I found a certain Firmin Peigneux, provincial administrator in Nkasi’s region, the colonial official in closest contact with the population. He traveled from one chefferie to the next, talked to village chieftains and ruled on conflicts concerning property rights. Monsieur Peigneux, in other words. Most Bantu speakers pronounce the eu as an è. I should have known. At the Africa archives of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Brussels I was able to view his personal files.20 This man, I quickly realized, was cut from a very different cloth than a brute like Monsieur d’Alphonse.
Peigneux, who hailed from the province of Liège, had gone to Congo alone in 1925 at the age of twenty-one. He quickly gained a reputation for his empathy. After his first year of service, his superior evaluated him as follows:
This official truly possesses the qualities needed to become an elite administrator in the short term . . . . In his contacts with the natives, Monsieur Peigneux exercises a level-headed policy that has won him the confidence of the chiefs and notables. He is interested in the study of social affairs and already possesses to a high degree the art of dealing in a careful and well-considered fashion with the primitives who surround us, without snubbing their secular opinions and customs . . . . The government may rightfully entertain the highest expectations for this official’s future effectiveness.”
That proved no exaggeration. Peigneux went on to build a brilliant colonial career and in 1948 was appointed to the post of provincial governor, the second-highest position in the official hierarchy after that of governor general. It reflects on his unceasing social involvement to note that, after he was sent back to Belgium for health reasons in the 1950s, he became a member of the board for the Fund for Native Welfare.
Nkasi still spoke of Monsieur Peigneux with great affection. “Musepenje, c’était mon oncle. Musepenje was like an uncle to me. He even drank palm wine with us! He and Monsieur Ryckmans, those were the only friendly whites.” André Ryckmans was the son of Pierre Ryckmans, the best governor general the Belgian Congo ever had. He served from 1934 to 1946, and stood out by reason of his great intelligence and moral integrity. In terms of appearance he bore a great resemblance to Albert Camus; in terms of humanity he did in many ways as well. His son André was a provincial administrator who also got along very well with the local population. He learned their sayings and their dances and spoke fluent Kikongo and Kiyaka. Shortly after independence, he was murdered under tragic circumstances.
And so Nkasi went to work for Monsieur Peigneux. He learned carpentry and became a cabinetmaker. A few years later, when Peigneux was transferred to the district of Kwango as assistant district commissioner, Nkasi went with him. He and his family moved to Kikwit, where they would stay for more than twenty years. His eldest son, Pierre Diakuana, himself eighty-four years of age now, confirmed that. I found him in one of Kinshasa’s back neighborhoods: “I was born in Ntimansi, but I was still young when we moved to Kikwit. The lower part of the city there, my father built that. We lived in the neighborhood for the blacks, at rue du Kasai, numéro 10. We had a big house made of unbaked brick. Papa became an évolué [Westernized African] then. I had Belgian friends.”21
Nkasi himself thinks back on the period with great pleasure. “I worked for the state. I was the chief carpenter. It was my job to build le nouveau pays des mindeles, the new country for the whites.” That was accurate enough. Kikwit had only recently been promoted to capital of Kwango district. Before that the capital had been Banningville (today’s Bandundu), in the far north of Kwango. Social upheavals, however, prompted the administration to move to the district’s center. In personal terms as well, it was a remarkable time for Nkasi. “In Kikwit I had four children, one of whom died. In 1938 my father died, on Happy New Year’s Day. He was old, very old.” During his long stay at Kikwit he got to know European culture from nearby. “I was tout à fait mindele back then, completely white. I had one wife. I had a suit with a tie and white shoes, I ate at Monsieur Peigneux’s house. I interpreted for him, from Kikongo into French. Monsieur Peigneux even went to pick up my wife at the station. I was hired as an agent of the state, as a manager, just like a European manager. That’s why they gave me the carte civique.” From 1948 on, the carte de mérite civique (certificate of civil merit), was given to those Congolese whose lifestyle was considered sufficiently advanced. Thanks to the tax pressure of the 1930s, the follower of a subversive religion from the 1920s emerged in the 1940s and 1950s as someone who could speak proudly of his quasi-European status. And he still did today, even though very little is left of that prosperity.
But Nkasi’s memories of Kikwit are especially interesting in another way. “In Kikwit I also built the prison,” he told me. “The warden at the time was Monsieur Framand, a fat man.” In the last few years I had visited the prison at Kikwit on a number of occasions. An altogether miserable place, it is still in use today. The prisoners wear rags, sleep on the floor, and can only eat because their chaplain, an elderly Flemish missionary, has set up a food-sharing system with a number of surrounding parishes. There are no toilets: the inmates squat on an empty stretch of concrete in an empty cell. Human feces lie to the left and right of them. The prisoners are all young men, with the exception of one young female, a beautiful, taciturn woman with a two-year-old child. No idea whether it was conceived before or after her internment. Chiseled in blue stone above the prison entrance is a date: 1930. Almost all the prisons in Congo were built between 1930 and 1935, a period in which the judicial system was buttressed to deal with the growing number of uprisings. More courts came, more judges, more legal actions, and more prisons.
“I built a gallows once in that prison,” Nkasi said. “It was for the hanging of two young boys. They had stolen clothing from a shop and murdered the owner, who was sleeping in the back. That was in 1935, I think.”22 In the Belgian Congo the death sentence was pronounced repeatedly and during the interwar years it was often carried out as well. In 1921, the same year in which Kimbangu was sentenced to death, a group of some ten leopard men from the Anioto sect were hanged at Bomili, in Orientale province. In 1922, in Elisabethville, a man named François Musafiri was strung up after having stabbed to death a white man who was reportedly his wife’s lover. The execution was attended by hordes of people. Some four thousand spectators arrived to see it, approximately half the city’s population: three thousand Africans, including children, and a thousand whites, almost a tenth of the entire European population of Congo.23 Public executions, it was felt, had an edifying effect. They caused the black man to toe the line and instilled in him respect for the colonial administration. One wonders whether it always worked out that way. In 1939, at the hanging of Ambroise Kitenge, things went wrong from the start. When the trapdoor fell open, the rope—borrowed from the local fire department—broke. Such bungling hardly jibed with the stern image the colonizer wished to project. How often was the death penalty carried out? The figures are incomplete, but we know that during the period 1931–53 some 261 individuals were sentenced to death and that the sentence was carried out in 127 of those cases.24 That comes down to an average of one execution every two months, but between the wars the frequency must have been higher. Important to note: not one Belgian was ever sentenced to hang.
NKASI NEVER MENTIONED IT ONCE, but the reason Kikwit suddenly became the district capital had everything to do with an extremely serious popular uprising in the surrounding area, so serious that the government fearfully kept it hushed up. In 1931 a revolution was sparked off among the Pende, leading to the worst disturbances of the colonial period before the struggle for independence. The Pende were an ethnic group, many of whom were employed by Huileries du Congo Belge, the Unilever subsidiary. That company worked a region with an extreme abundance of palm trees but also an extreme paucity of workers. In the area where the Pende lived, however, the situation was reversed. The Pende were forced, often at gunpoint, to enter service as bearers or harvesters and transferred to another part of the country. The work was extremely strenuous. The men were expected to deliver thirty-six clusters of palm nuts each week; if they did so—on top of their measly wage of 20 centimes per kilo (2.2. pounds)—they were then given a 2.10 franc bonus and three kilos (6.6 pounds) of rice. This meant that they had to find five to eight ripe clusters each day; to harvest them they had to scale the branchless trunks of the palms to heights of sometimes more than thirty meters (nearly one hundred feet), and cut down the clusters with a machete. The Unilever operators assumed that all blacks had the ability to perform such acrobatics effortlessly, while in fact it required a highly specific set of skills not given to all. Fatal accidents occurred. And once the clusters were on the ground, the work was not over yet. The nuts had to be carried to the collection point; in actual practice, this meant that Pende women often had to cover up to thirty kilometers (about nineteen miles) on foot along forest trails, balancing a cluster of twenty to thirty kilos (forty-four to sixty-six pounds) on their head.
When the economic crisis broke out, Unilever took a beating as well. A kilo of palm oil went for 5.9 francs in 1929; by 1934 that was down to 1.3 francs.25 The company felt obliged to recoup a portion of the losses from its workers. By the mid-1930s, they were paying only three centimes per kilo of palm nuts, rather than twenty.26 That led to a great dissatisfaction. The state boosted taxes while the company scuttled its compensation. Things could not go on that way for long.
Here too, socioeconomic unrest manifested itself in the form of popular religion. After a woman named Kavundiji began receiving visions, the Tupelepele (literally: floaters) sect arose. The actual leader of the movement was Matemu a Kelenge, who went by the nickname Mundele Funji (White Storm). Its followers hoped for the return of the ancestors, who would restore balance and ring in a new era of prosperity. In anticipation of that, the followers were to throw off all things European. Identification papers, tax receipts, banknotes, and employment contracts were tossed into the river. On the banks the people were to build a shed in which the ancestors would leave behind goods for them, miraculous goods, such as peanuts so fertile that one needed to sow only one to cultivate an entire field. The hope of redemption could hardly have been expressed more poignantly. One inhabitant of the region at the time summarized the situation lucidly:
The whites have turned us into slaves; to get palm nuts from us, they have not hesitated to whip or beat us. They entertained themselves with the women and girls from our villages. Our lives were no longer those of men, but of beasts. Our whole existence stood in the service of working for the white people: we slept for the whites, we ate for the whites, we got up for the whites and for the white man’s work. We were tired of always having to work for the white man, who subjected us to inhuman conditions. That is why we heeded and accepted the messages of Matemu a Kelenge, later known as Mundele Funji, when he asked us to stop paying taxes, to stop working for the white man and to chase him away from us.27
Just as they had in the case of Simon Kimbangu, the colonial authorities sent in troops. The situation seemed under control until June 6, 1931, when Maximilien Balot, a young Belgian official, went to the region by car to collect taxes along with a few African assistants. In the village of Kilamba he drove onto the road leading to the shed where the ancestors were expected to return. There he happened upon Matemu a Kelenge, the sect’s leader. Kelenge shouted that there was no more money, and that he would kill the white man and his henchmen. At that point, Balot fired a shot in the air. Many of the people ran away, including most of his own assistants. A second shot wounded a villager. “You see? The whites want to kill us!” Matemu shouted. “So kill me!” Balot fired and missed. Matemu scrambled to his feet and slashed the white man across the face with a large knife. Balot then pounded him senseless with the butt of his rifle and walked away. But an arrow shot by one of the villagers caught him in the neck. Matemu ran after him and hacked with his machete at the white man’s shoulder. Balot’s arm was now dangling at his side. Three villagers, including a chieftain, took aim with their bows and shot at him. When Balot fell to the ground, the chieftain saw that he was still alive. He cut off his head and took it as a trophy. The next day Balot’s body was cut into pieces and distributed among the dignitaries of eight different villages. His bags were plundered.
Never before had an official of the Belgian Congo been slaughtered so brutally in the execution of his duties. The colonial administration’s reaction was grim. It set out to grind the uprising beneath its heel. A punitive expedition, unlike anything seen since the worst years of the Free State, headed for the Kwango. Three officers, five noncoms, 260 soldiers, and seven hundred bearers occupied the region for months. Heavy fighting ensued. Rebels were captured and brutally tortured; even women were taken prisoner and raped. An investigative committee of the Belgian government later confirmed the gruesome tally. At least four hundred Pende had been murdered, perhaps many times that number. The Pende uprising had been broken, but the people’s frustration was none the less for it.
When she arrived back in Brussels, Balot’s widow, with an almost preternatural mildness and grandiosity, said: “The agents of the private companies treat the blacks badly and exploit them. People need to know that. What happens there must stop, otherwise there will be uprisings everywhere. Private companies have granted themselves rights that should be reserved only for the government. What’s more, many district officials have not behaved as they should. My husband has paid for those others.”28
IT MAY COME AS SOMETHING OF A SURPRISE that the first forms of popular protest took place in the countryside, among the farmers of Bas-Congo and the palm-nut harvesters of the Kwango. A thoughtful observer traveling around the country in 1920 would probably have predicted that the fires of unrest would first ignite in the cities, with their rudimentary workers’ camps and their hard and unhealthy labor. But that was not the case. Why not?
There are, roughly speaking, two answers to that: the quality of life in the cities was improving, so that many Africans had begun feeling at home there, and the European population did everything to keep the masses calm. For as long as it lasted . . .
During the interwar period, the proto-urban agglomerations grew into real cities. Their populations showed a spectacular increase. Between 1920 and 1940, the population of Kinshasa doubled to fifty thousand inhabitants.29 The population of Elisabethville grew from sixteen thousand in 1923 to thirty-three thousand by 1929, a doubling in the space of only six years.30 More and more Congolese were moving to the cities. The forced recruitment of laborers was coming to an end, but many migrated of their own free will. In Kasai, Maniema, the Kivu, and, yes, even in Rwanda and Burundi, thousands of villagers let themselves be talked into going to the Union Minière mines in Katanga. In 1919 that company employed some eighty-five hundred local workers; by 1928 their numbers had grown to seventeen thousand.31 From Bas-Congo and Équateur, people went to Léopoldville; Stanleyville owed its growth largely to the arrival of workers from Orientale province.
Most of those who packed their bags and went to work for a boss were young people. What made working in a mine, on a plantation, or in a factory so attractive to them? Often they were anxious to get out of the village with its poverty, its corrupt chieftain and powerful elders who married all the young women. Away from a miserable farming existence and the raising of state-ordained crops. Away from mandatory road building and primitive village life. Away from that world of deprivation, with no future in store for them.32
What’s more, the cities and mines were no longer the horrors they had been until recently. The mortality rate at Union Minière in Katanga fell dramatically. In 1918 20.2 percent of the workers had died of the Spanish flu; one year later the mortality rate had fallen to 5.1 percent and by 1930 to only 1.6 percent.33 Mineworkers also contracted fewer illnesses.34 They were inoculated against smallpox, typhoid fever, and meningitis. Hospitals and medical centers were built. Housing, clothing, and nutrition improved considerably. The same went for the diamond pits in Kasai. A worker in the gold mines of Kilo-Moto in those days received a daily ration of 179 grams (about 6.25 ounces) of fresh meat or fresh fish, 357 grams (about 12.5 ounces) of rice, 286 grams (about 10 ounces) of beans, and one and a half kilo 3.3 pounds) of bananas, in addition to salt and palm oil.35 In his village, he could only dream of such a rich and varied diet.
In addition to health standards, the pleasure quotient also improved. Life in the workers’ camps of Katanga took a major turn for the better from 1923, when Union Minière began allowing workers to bring along their wives and children. In 1925 18 percent of the mineworkers were married; by 1932 that proportion was 60 percent.36 The feeling of being uprooted, which had characterized an earlier generation, was dwindling rapidly. Many chose to prolong their contracts voluntarily. Beginning in 1927, mineworkers were allowed to sign three-year contracts, as opposed to the six-month maximum only a few years before. Many workers took advantage of that: by 1928, 45 percent already had a longer-term contract; in 1931 it was 98 percent.37 Working in the mines was no longer an ordeal. When the economic malaise of 1929–33 forced the company to lay off three-quarters of its personnel, the protests were aimed not so much against the sudden unemployment, but against the prospect of having to return to the villages. The laid-off workers had to leave their company houses, but rather than return home they chose to settle in the immediate vicinity of Elisabethville, where they cleared fields and turned to farming until the economy recovered.38
The Katangan mining industry was no longer peopled by overworked young men who lodged for a few months in gruesome workers’ camps, but by young families who felt quite happy in their new surroundings. Wages rose; in the camps children were born who knew the village of their parents and ancestors only by word of mouth. Elsewhere in Elisabethville, the cité indigène swelled to become a lively, multiethnic universe with a dynamism and atmosphere all its own. Unlike the neat, increasingly comfortable workers’ camps housing the employees of the big mining companies, the cité was inhabited by a ragtag population: carpenters, masons, woodworkers, smiths, and craftsmen, as well as nurses, clerks, and warehouse foremen. The operators of small- to-medium-sized businesses lived next door to government personnel.39 The population density there was five times that in the white city center.40 There arose, in other words, an extensive and permanent urban population of African origin. The colonial administration, at first, was less than enthusiastic. Wouldn’t such a protracted gathering of proletarians lead to a subversive or, even worse, Bolshevist climate? Fear of the red menace was deeply rooted within the colonial government. Or, to put it more succinctly: “The fear of the black went in the guise of fear of the red.”41
In 1931, however, the colonizer realized that communities had now been formed that were no longer traditional villages and would not become such. Their existence was recognized with a monstrous bit of officialese, a fit of jargon at which the colonial administration was, in fact, quite expert: the centre extra-coutumier, the extra-legal center, as it were. Those centers were given a structure similar to that of the classic chefferie, and a chief was appointed to act as intermediary between the masses and the powers that be.
The new lifestyle that arose in the cities was different from village culture, but it was also more than simply a copy of European urban culture, if only because the new African agglomerations in no way resembled their European counterparts. The colonial city was an entirely new experience, even for Belgians! There was more space and freedom, the distances were greater, the lanes broader, the lots roomier. From the very start, these cities were planned with the automobile in mind. It had something American about it, many whites felt. Léopoldville with its various urban nuclei but no clear city center looked more like Los Angeles than like the medieval towns of Belgium or the nineteenth-century middle-class neighborhoods of Brussels or Antwerp. The colonial city did not trot along in pursuit of the European model, but took the lead over it. When a Belgian journalist saw white women in Congo taking a plane to Léopoldville to have their babies, he crowed that in the colony “a new society, a new Belgium with new ideas is being born.”42In the Congo of the 1920s, it seemed as though the 1950s had already begun.
For the Congolese as well, the colonial city constituted a new universe with a material culture of its own. An imaginary young family from Kasai who moved to Elisabethville, where the father went to work in the mines, moved into a brick house. The wife began preparing meals in enameled pots and pans rather than in terra-cotta, even though she retained her preference for cooking out of doors rather than in the dark kitchen at the back of the house. The family began using tables, chairs, and cutlery. New ideas arose concerning care of the body and personal hygiene: people wore European clothes, sometimes even shoes; they washed themselves with soap and used latrines. The parents slept beneath blankets that came from England; if their children fell ill they were given medicines from Belgium. If the woman became pregnant, she went to have the child in a maternity ward run by black nurses or white nuns. When the family on rare occasions visited their former village, they took their relatives such novelties as needles, thread, scissors, safety pins, matches, mirrors, and money. But during those visits it also became clear how much distance had grown up between them. As a salaried employee, the young father had acquired a new sense of autonomy. He was less impressed by what the village chieftain and elders told him. They listened to him now! He told them about the iron discipline in the mine, about the siren that called the workers in each morning, about working six days a week. His audience laughed at that, of course. Six days a week? He would have been better off staying in the village, then his wife would have worked the fields! They were only envious, he knew. Everyone viewed his clothes admiringly; he had noticed that already. On the way back to town he felt more energetic and motivated than ever. If he could only make his way up in the hierarchy of Union Minière, he may have thought, as a mechanic or machine operator for example, then after saving for a long time he could buy his family a bicycle, a sewing machine, or even, imagine that, a gramophone! On Sunday morning they could ride to church together, on the bicycle. He would sit on the saddle, his wife on the baggage carrier, the children on the crossbar and the handlebars. That was what was called prosperity, and it felt good.43
The moment in the week when the new lifestyle was truly celebrated was on Sunday afternoon. In Elisabethville, the miners went to watch the white man’s teams play soccer.44 In Boma, the dockworkers went out strolling, wearing starched collars and straw hats and carrying canes. Their wives wore flowery cotton textiles and hats that had long been out of fashion in Europe.45 In peaceful Tshikapa, close to the diamond mines of Kasai, the tenor voice of Enrico Caruso could be heard coming from some of the huts.46Someone else played jazz records and Cuban tunes on his gramophone. At four o’clock in Léopoldville, the Apollo Palace quickly filled with dancers.47 Western trousers were all the thing: the men gathered there in long trousers, short trousers, cycling shorts, jodhpurs, or soccer shorts, as long as they wore trousers. And the women wore dresses, long skirts and fancily draped pagnes (skirts), all of them dancing in heels, sometimes twelve centimeters (just over four and half inches) high. The occasional male wore a tuxedo with patent-leather shoes, but most of them went barefooted. The dancing proceeded carefully and in great earnest, fearful as they were for all those spiked heels. An orchestra played merengue or rumba music, complex, syncopated African rhythms beat out on bottles and drums. But one could also catch snippets of fandango, cha-cha, polka, and Scottish music, in addition to echoes of martial music and hymns.48 The most important influence of all, however, was Cuban: 78 rpm records brought back music that felt somehow vaguely familiar to the Congolese. It was the music the slaves had carried with them across the ocean centuries before and that now, enriched with various Latin influences, had come home again. Singers in Léopoldville liked to sing in Spanish, or in something that passed for it. The clear vowels sounded like the phonetic patterns of Lingala: all you had to do was toss in a corazón or a mi amor now and then. The guitar became the most popular instrument, in addition to the banjo, the mandolin, and the accordion. Camille Feruzi, the greatest accordion virtuoso of Congolese music, composed peerless melancholy melodies. And aboard the boats bringing people from the interior to Léopoldville, young Wendo Kolosoyi tirelessly strummed his guitar: he would grow to become the founder of the Congolese rumba, the most influential musical style in the sub-Saharan Africa of the twentieth century. Léopoldville in those years was a kind of New Orleans where African, South American, and European popular music fused to form a new genre: the Congolese rumba, irresistible dance music that would wash over the rest of the continent, but that could be heard at that time only in the bars of the new capital. It was music that made people laugh and forget, that made them dance and flirt, that made them happy and horny. It was Saturday Night Fever, but on a Sunday afternoon. Why would you want to protest against such a dazzling, uproarious life?
BUT THE ADMINISTRATORS STAYED ON THEIR TOES. At a table in Elisabethville’s Cercle Albert in the 1930s, one could often see three men engrossed in conversation.49 Three white men. They spoke quietly and their expressions were serious. Their voices: basso continuo. Their conversation: completely inaudible. Above their heads floated clouds of cigar smoke, occasionally dispersed by a burst of good-humored laughter from their own midst. Officially, Africans were not forbidden to eat in European restaurants, but the extremely chic Cercle Albert was an exception. Still, it was here that decisions were made about the lives and futures of the black population. The three men were Amour Maron, provincial commissioner of Katanga, Aimé Marthoz, director of Union Minière, or one of his successors, and Félix de Hemptinne, bishop of Katanga. Hemptinne’s stately white beard had the African population convinced that he was the son of Leopold II. Three Belgians. Each of them stood at the head of one of the pillars of colonial power: government, finance/industry, and church. The “blessed colonial trinity” it was sometimes called in jest. Who knows whether the bishop was able to laugh about that.
These three men had joined forces to ensure that life in the mining town of Elisabethville was run in an orderly fashion. Their respective agendas converged in many ways: industry wanted submissive, loyal employees; the government wanted no repeats of the Kimbangu affair or the Pende uprising; the church wanted to deliver pure souls in the hereafter—and that meant producing obedient citizens on this side of the divide. At other places in the colony, the three administrations became tightly intertwined as well. Although there were often tensions between the pillars of the colonial triad, there was one thing about which they were in full agreement: if the step from a tribal to an industrial lifestyle was not to end in bitter defeat, they had to keep a close eye on their black fellow man. Gradually, and above all circumspectly, the new urban Congolese citizens would be kneaded into willing workers, docile subjects, devout Catholics.
If no large-scale uprisings took place in the cities, then, that was due not only to the pleasurable prosperity experienced by the workers, but also and above all to the sophisticated arsenal of strategies employed by the colonial trinity to keep tabs on, to discipline, and if need be to punish the population. There may never have been anything like a grand master plan, but in actual practice church, state, and big money frequently toed one and the same line. Their philosophy—how do we keep them under control? how will they produce best? how must we instruct them?—manifested itself in a host of ways. In Léopoldville, the authorities were anxious about all that dancing and strongly advocated illuminating the streets of the cité at night, for how else could they “effectively supervise an agglomeration of twenty-thousand souls, with a handful of policemen lost in the dark?”50 At Elisabethville they succeeded in imposing a lingua franca, Swahili, a language that was not indigenous and almost no one’s native language, but which made it easier to exercise control over the ethnic melting pot.51
Schooling was still a privilege held exclusively by the missionaries, and it became a powerful instrument to mold the masses in the desired shape: the pupils were taught everything about the Belgian royal family, but nothing about the American civil rights movement. Even the French Revolution had to be handled with utmost care. European textbooks were too inflammatory: “There, the revolution is often not regarded with a properly critical eye. Some reforms, liberties, etc., condemned by the church are applauded too readily,” wrote the influential missionary and school inspector Gustaaf Hulstaert. The pupils were in danger of becoming “liberal, then disinterested and atheistic.”52
Meanwhile, African clerks also began reading French-language newspapers. Communist papers like the Belgian Le Drapeau Rouge were banned as from 1925, as were magazines with such evocative titles as Paris Plaisirs, Séduction, and Paris Sex-Appeal.53 A similar urge to excise content became manifest following World War I, when the first movie theaters appeared. Film was seen as a dangerous medium, one that could cause foment among the lower, unlettered masses. In 1936, therefore, a separate film censorship board was set up especially for African audiences, which resulted in separate showings for Europeans and Congolese. Usually this meant that those films considered unsuited for white children were forbidden for black adults as well.54 “Tous les coloniaux seront unanimes à declarer que les noirs sont encore des enfants, intellectuellement et politiquement” (All those in our colony are unanimous in stating that the blacks are still children, both intellectually and politically), said the official papers that set out the new media policy.55 In terms of civilization, as the recurring metaphor had it, the African was still a child: he could not be left to his own devices; his development had to be watched over carefully. Ultimately, the colonial trinity aspired to a form of emancipation, but only in the long term, in the very long term if need be. Things must not be allowed to become too exuberant. Dominer pour server was the motto of Pierre Ryckmans, governor general at the time: to rule in order to serve. Paternalistic? Far from it: that “to serve” sounded dangerously progressive to many. “To discipline” would have been better, or perhaps “to educate.”
Growing up in the Léopoldville of the 1920s was an intelligent and sensitive boy who, after World War II, would develop into the first giant of Congolese literature: Paul Lomami Tshibamba. Shortly before his death in 1985, he looked back on the mood that dominated the interwar period:
The colonizer did everything to convince us that we were big children, that we would remain that way, that we were under his guardianship and that we had to follow all instructions he gave, in order to educate us with an eye to our gradual integration into Western civilization, the most ideal civilization of all. And we, what else could we expect? My generation no longer knew our parents’ traditions: we were born in this city founded by colonials, in this city where the life of a man was subordinate to the power of money . . . . Without money you ended up in prison. Money was used to pay taxes, to clothe yourself, and even to eat, which was unknown in the villages. It was the blank colonizer who supplied that money, so you had to submit to whatever he said. That is the world into which I was born and in which I lived: you had to bow to what others asked of you.56
Yet monitoring the urban workers’ environment alone was not enough; one had to intervene actively as well. In addition to the schools, club life and family policies were the instruments of choice. The decision to allow women and children into the work camps had a utilitarian motive: it was intended to boost the general willingness to work, to impede prostitution and alcohol consumption, to stimulate monogamy, and to promote the general tranquility of camp life. In addition, children in the work camps would grow up within the company culture. That, with the aid of the mission schools, would help groom them to become the next batch of disciplined employees.57
The church wielded an exceptional amount of political power. Around 1930 there were as many Catholic missionaries in the Belgian Congo as there were colonial officials.58 Ecclesiastical authority and worldly power meshed seamlessly, as Lomami Tshibamba well knew:
In the day-to-day life in which we grew up, the priest demanded our submission: the representatives of Bula Matari, in other words of the government or the territorial administration, all had authority and that authority came from God. As a result, total obedience was expected from us. That is what the priest advised! Being good, both to God and to the people of this new society, which was created by Bula Matari, required obedience, subjugation, and respect. We were reduced to servility—that was not the term they used, but that is what it came down to.59
Cultivating servility was also the motive behind the social policies of the big companies. Union Minière went furthest in that. Granted, the company built schools, hospitals and leisure clubs for the workers and their families. And yes, in the late 1930s a start was made with a system of retirement benefits. And indeed, the miner was surrounded from cradle to grave by the solicitousness of the company, more than with any other mining operation in Central Africa. But there can be no doubt about the fact that the company’s paternalistic benevolence was prompted more by matters of efficiency than of philanthropy. The objective was to raise perfect workers: happy and tractable.
More than an employer, Union Minière was a state within a state, on occasion even a state with totalitarian features. Every facet of life in the workers’ camp was supervised by the white camp boss. He kept a file on each worker and his family; he was responsible for the housing, the supplies, the salaries, and the schools; he mediated in conflicts and imposed disciplinary measures. The wife of a Union Minière worker who needed to go back to her native village first had to ask the camp boss’s permission, even though she was not a company employee! From the age of ten, her children were obliged to follow classes in manual training, a matter of preparing them for their work later. If they were boys, the company helped them to save for a dowry. Union Minière was a total company, with the backing of church and state.60
Native organizations were regarded with great apprehension as potential breeding grounds for social unrest: “The club feeling is discouraged in as far as possible. The camp leadership keeps a close eye on all activities organized by the natives.”61 The Union Minière found sewing circles, choirs, and home economics courses preferable to the employees’ own initiatives. The missions had churches in the working neighborhoods and were well-suited to the task. In Léopoldville this was organized largely by the Congregation of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, in Elisabethville by the Benedictines. The cathedral at Elisabethville was graced on Sundays by an excellent Gregorian-chant boys’ choir, made up exclusively of African children.
In the cities, beginning in 1922, Belgian priests saw to the setting up of the first Boy Scout troops. The paramilitary character of Scouting, a movement originally secular in nature and, so, more in line with the state than with the church, was an exclusively Catholic phenomenon in the colony. It allowed the missionary to exercise control over his best pupils even after school hours. With activities such as trailblazing, tree climbing, knots, camping, and Morse code, the young people were taught both pride and discipline. The young Scout collected badges, said his pledge and cared for his uniform. The membership was never extremely large (around one thousand members in all of Congo), but it helped to cultivate a native elite with a sense of discipline and fidelity.62
A much larger group was reached through what was probably the most successful part of Belgian missionary work: soccer. Here too, Léopoldville and Elisabethville took the lead, starting around 1920. Missionaries in their cassocks explained the rules of the game, and in no time saw children and young people practicing with homemade balls and grapefruits in the dusty streets of the cité. The first teams were set up: Étoile and League in Léopoldville, Prince Charles and Prince Léopold in Elisabethville. In 1939, Léopoldville alone had fifty-three teams and six divisions. There were teams with shoes and barefoot teams—playing in bare feet entailed milder passes, but greater agility. The matches were held on Sunday afternoons. In addition to hundreds of players, this also attracted thousands of supporters. Friends, colleagues, wives, and children screamed themselves hoarse from the sidelines. Soccer was more than recreation. It also had a formative side. A Flemish Benedictine noted contentedly: “Rather than spending their Sunday afternoons squatting in their huts and drinking pombo, or going out drinking in bars amid women of dubious virtue, they participate freely and out of doors in the sports that interest them.”63 A Marist brother was equally enthusiastic: “It keeps them, at least for a few hours, away from dancing and lolling about and, after benediction, allows them to spend a pleasant Sunday afternoon.”64 Just as soccer was propagated at the Flemish academies and boarding schools as a pressure valve for the excess sexual energy of boys, in the colony it was introduced to quell possible social unrest. In addition to an exuberant game, soccer was also a form of discipline. One had to attend training sessions, develop skills, control one’s reflexes, obey the rules and listen to the arbiter. Festive, yet restrained: an ideal colonial training ground. “Sport teaches the native . . . to comply with a discipline he takes upon himself,”65 was the way it was put.
In the streets of Kikwit in 2007 I occasionally saw a timeworn, yellow scooter race past, driven by an old white man. In itself that was quite exceptional: the few Europeans one saw always went by car, particularly the elderly among them. The scooter rider in question turned out to be Henri de la Kéthulle de Ryhove, a Jesuit of noble origin, well into his eighties and still tirelessly in action—for the last few years in particular in the fight against sickle-cell anemia, a hereditary illness. Père Henri was also the nephew of Raphaël de la Kéthulle, perhaps the most famous missionary in all of the Belgian Congo. His uncle owed that fame not to heroic proselytization deep in the jungle and not to the evangelical brightening up of a miserable leper colony, no: Père Raphaël spent his life working in Kinshasa, teaching his people to play soccer. He was a Marist educator, part of the first batch of urban missionaries. The scion of an aristocratic Francophone family from Bruges, he himself had attended Sint-Lodewijks College. (It is a detail that makes me smile: I myself attended a former branch of that same college. At my school, too, three-quarters of a century and a Dutchifying shift later, soccer was still the major religion next to Christianity. Our paved schoolyard had the outlines of five or six soccer fields painted on it, there were five volleyball nets and two basketball hoops. We had four rather than two hours of mandatory gym each week. West Flemish Catholicism, despite the influence of Guido Gezelle—our own Gerard Manley Hopkins—still had more affinity with sports than with poetry.)
“My uncle was the founder of the Association Sportive Congolaise, Congo’s first sporting club,” Père Henri said once we were seated. His white hair was still blown back from his forehead after his scooter ride. A Kikwit coiffure, as it were. “He was the greatest promoter of soccer in Kinshasa.” But that was not the whole story. “His club also promoted gymnastics, track and field, swimming, and even water polo.” Raphaël de la Kéthulle must have been every bit as indefatigable as his nephew. Besides all manner of sporting initiatives, he also founded a number of schools. He was one of the original initiators of colonial Scouting and school drama programs, and founded a brass band and an alumni association. But above all he was the driving force behind the development of a decent sporting infrastructure in Léopoldville. Père Henri knew the story by heart. “He built three soccer stadiums, a huge sports park, tennis courts, and an Olympic swimming pool, which even had its own five-meter board. In that same pool, he also organized canoeing matches!” The absolute apogee of his urge to build was the Stade Roi Baudouin, later renamed the State du 20 Mai, a soccer stadium that seated 80,000 supporters and that, at its opening in 1952, was the biggest in all of Africa. It was here, in 1959, that the riots broke out that would ultimately lead to independence. It was here that Joseph-Désiré Mobutu addressed the people after his 1965 coup. It was here that Muhammad Ali fought George Foreman in their famous 1974 bout. Today, every Kinois still knows about Tata Raphaël, Daddy Raphaël, even if that is only because the huge stadium is named after him these days and because his image, which bears a striking resemblance to the logo of Kentucky Fried Chicken, sprawls across the front of the Collège Saint Raphaël. “Yes, he was quite energetic,” Père Henri concluded, “though he did have something of a bottine légère.” A light boot? “That’s right, he was known to deal out a swift kick now and then, when necessary.”
The club life facilitated by the Catholic missions offered the urban worker not only healthy recreation, but purposefully altered the social topography as well. Out of fear for ethnically tinted revolts like those among the Pende, tribal boundaries were broken down—the very same boundaries delineated so sharply before by mission-school education! Henri de la Kéthulle told me: “In the sports, my uncle mixed up the various peoples. His football competitions always consisted of mixed teams. He organized inter-Congolese matches, even the first international soccer match. A Congolese team played against a Belgian one. Beerschot it was, I believe.”66
BLOOD, HOWEVER, WOULD NOT BE DENIED. Despite the well-intentioned sports initiatives and patronizing family policies, a certain hunger remained among parts of the Congolese urban population. The colonial administration may have shown a friendly face, but that lasted only as long as one toed the line. The masses were steered beneath the smiling countenance of the colonial trinity, but anyone stepping out of line was punished without pardon.
And so native organizations continued to exist.67 The Kitawala religion spread among the mineworkers and infiltrated large parts of the countryside. From Katanga it reached Kivu, Orientale province, and Équateur. Operating clandestinely, it provided a mixture of mysticism and revolt. When adherents were arrested in Jadotville in 1936, they said of the Bible: “This book clearly states that all people are equal. God did not create the whites to rule over the blacks . . . . It is unjust that the black man, who does all the work, must continue to live in poverty and misery, while the wages of the whites are so much higher.”68 Many followers were banished, but exile served—just as it had with the Kimbaguists—only as a stimulus to the movement.
Ethnic organizations in Katanga, like those among the Lulua or the Baluba, featured a conviviality and hominess unrivaled by any Scout troop. They provided assistance to newcomers and helped young people to pay their dowries. There even arose certain forms of solidarity between people with the same first name. An old man from Lubumbashi explained: “If my name is Albert and your name is Albert, then you become my brother . . . . We take care of each other. We help each other to get food, we play sports together, we support each other in every way.”69 Starting in 1929 the financial crisis resulted in intensive forms of solidarity among the Congolese. André Yav, the former boy from Lubumbashi, said of that: “Everyone was very hungry back then. Unemployment rose incredibly. But this is what we did: if a man had work, then he was the father and mother of all his friends. They came to eat at his house and they came there to get clothes.”70 Such forms of spontaneous self-organization were ineradicable.
In the 1920s there were groups that called themselves Les Belges. With no lack of humor, the members decked themselves out with titles borrowed from the colonial administration (“district commissioner,” “governor general,” “king”) and in their dances imitated white officials and missionaries. In addition to satire, they also engaged in finding housing for newcomers, distributing food, and organizing funerals.71
Following the financial crisis there also rose the first associations of Africans who had risen through the ranks. Organizations with names like Cercle de l’Amitié des Noirs Civilisés and the Association Franco-Belge brought together Congolese who had attended school, who enjoyed a decent income, and who spoke French together. They represented the start of a Congolese middle class, with all of the hopes and snobbism that went along with that. Their members often looked down on the life of the street, which they themselves had left behind only recently, and longed for a more European lifestyle, for cufflinks and respect. But if frustrated, that longing could backfire in the form of irritation and protest—which is precisely what happened in the 1950s. During the interbellum, however, their activities were not yet overtly political, although some wished to organize themselves independently of the church.
STARTING IN THE 1930S, at the border post with Rhodesia, a fascinating phenomenon could be observed several times a week.72 Whenever a train arrived from the British dominions, it would stop with a loud hiss to allow the white engineer to step down. His colleague from the Belgian Congo would then climb aboard to continue the journey to Elisabethville. Those witnessing this for the first time must have rubbed their eyes in disbelief: was that new engineer really an African? Yes, he was. In the Belgian Congo, unlike in South Africa and Rhodesia, people prided themselves on the lack of a “color bar.” Africans in the mines and factories were allowed to operate expensive and dangerous machines, albeit under the watchful eye of white foremen. Dedicated Union Minière employees could, to a certain extent, work their way up in the company. Hotels, restaurants, and cafés were, in theory, open to everyone. Only in the movie theaters was there a clear racial division. There was no formal ban on sexual relations between whites and blacks.
But the absence of a legal color bar did not mean that there was no invisible color bar.73 And that latter phenomenon was perhaps the most stubborn of all. Africans could not build their careers in a way that admitted them to the top levels of a company. In administrative service, the position of clerk or typist was the highest achievable level. The cities consisted of strictly delineated white centers and black, outlying neighborhoods, supposedly to prevent the spread of malaria. But that was a specious argument. Graveyards, too, were racially segregated, and there one ran little risk of contracting malaria. There were also no Scouting troops of mixed race. And Congolese soccer teams were not allowed to compete against European ones, out of fear for riots after a defeat or humiliation after a victory. One of the most acute observers of the colonial period wrote of this: “Remarkably enough, the fact that there was no official color bar only aggravated the racial reflexes of the whites. Denied by law, racism confirmed itself with full force in the facts.”74 And that was true enough. Today, anyone reading the colonial papers published between the wars will notice how much the thinking was determined by an us/them logic, and how much fear went hidden behind their forceful rhetoric. After a white man was murdered by a Congolese, L’Avenir Colonial Belge, one of the colony’s most popular papers, wrote:
Is our personal safety, the safety of the Whites, still ensured in Léopoldville?
One can reply in all sincerity: No! The acts of insubordination by the blacks are multiplying; their insolence is great and strikes fear into the hearts of even the bravest among us. Thefts are increasing in number and scope; the arrogance of the blacks towards the Whites is at times staggering; the fear we instill in them is null; the respect for the mundele is a thing of the past.
That is how things stand in the Year of Our Lord 1930.
But, we hear you say, is Stanley Pool a region once again in need of pacifying?
Well, why ever not?
What that repacification entailed, the paper felt, was clear enough: any African threatening the life of a white person, for whatever reason, should face the death penalty.75 Valid self-defense, mitigating circumstances, involuntary manslaughter, irresistible compulsion; none of that mattered. The courts, fortunately, were more subtle in their thinking, but that a newspaper flogging such humbug could become one of the most influential in the colony shows how the majority of whites thought about the racial question.Les noirs, that was printed in lower case; les Blancs, that took a capital.
In essence, colonial society between the wars was ruled by mutual fear: the white rulers were terrified of losing their respectability in the eyes of the Congolese, while a great many of those same Congolese were afraid of the white man’s authority and did all they could to earn his respect. It was a stranglehold of fear. How long could this be kept up?
ALBERT KUDJABO AND PAUL PANDA FARNANA spent four long years as prisoners of war in Germany, years that included much more than singing songs for ethnographers in Berlin. Years of sickness and forced labor. Years of mockery and humiliation. Kudjabo had been forced to work on a farm outside Stuttgart, where the farmer cheated him out of money. Panda ended up in Hannover, and was taken from there to Romania.
But now they were back in Belgium, the country for which they and a few other Congolese had risked their lives. And what did the veterans’ magazine Le Journal des Combattants write about them? “Let us repatriate them and send them back to the shade of their banana trees, where they will certainly feel more at home. There they can relearn their Negro dances and tell of their war experiences to their families, who sit around them on chimpanzee skins.”76
Is that what they had fought and suffered for? They weren’t about to let it go at that. A reply came: “In the trenches the soldiers never tired of repeating that we were brothers and we were treated as the whites’ equals. Nevertheless, now that the war is over and our services are no longer required, people would rather see us disappear. In that regard we are in complete agreement, but then under one condition: if you insist so vehemently on the repatriation of blacks, it would be only logical for us to demand that all whites now in Africa be repatriated as well.”77
What nerve! No one in Congo dared to adopt such a self-assured tone. The reaction was written in a French more elegant than that of the original article. A new voice was truly being heard. A few weeks before the article in question appeared, on August 30, 1919, the Union Congolaise had been set up in Brussels, “an association for the assistance and the moral and intellectual development of the Congolese race.” It resembled the organization André Matswa had set up in France. The association originally had thirty-three members, almost all of them veterans. The central figure was the former prisoner of war Paul Panda Farnana; his companion-in-arms Albert Kudjabo became its secretary. They set about helping the poor and sick, assisted in paying funeral costs, and arranged for free night-school training. But theirs was also an explicitly political line. As early as 1920 the Union Congolaise demanded that forced labor regimes be relaxed, that workers’ wages be raised, and that schooling be expanded. Above all, they called for the Congolese to have more say in the colonial administration. Once again: this was 1920! In those days the authorities consulted at most with individual village chieftains they had appointed themselves. Much better, Paul Panda suggested, would be for the Congolese themselves to elect a council to advise the colonial government in Boma.
Panda’s Union Congolaise grew steadily. Branches were set up in Liège, Charleroi, and Marchienne-au-Pont. The new members were often Congolese sailors who had jumped ship in Antwerp harbor. These young, single men, who had spent weeks in a deafening engine room as lubricator, fireman, or trimmer, rebelled against the fact that their white colleagues on arrival were paid twice as much for the same work. In Congo there were no white laborers, only supervisors, but aboard the big ocean steamers the huge contrast became visible for the first time. And while irritation on dry land led to religious ecstasy, disgruntlement on board led to more prosaic resistance: strikes. Tools were downed at the ports of both Antwerp and Matadi, especially after the African crew members were forbidden to supplement their measly wages with a private trade in bicycles and sewing machines. What’s more, once on land they were not allowed to hang about in bars. The Belgian government greatly feared them ending up in the red-light district or, even worse, in red cafes. There were enough Communists in Antwerp as it was!
At first the Union Congolaise encountered a certain degree of sympathy. Paul Panda Farnana was an extremely eloquent intellectual who had mastered the rare art of presenting radical ideas as reasonable measures. In December 1920 he was allowed to address the first National Colonial Congress in Brussels, where his speech concerning the need for political participation by natives also met with a great deal of support from the Belgians present. Grant us power, that was his bottom line. And he received applause! As a gifted orator, he had not forgotten to pepper his speech with references to historic popes.
One year later, however, Panda Farnana took part in the second Pan-African Congress, an African American initiative led by the radical American civil rights activist W. E. B. Du Bois. That gave Panda Farnana a bad reputation: the colonial press accused him of nationalism, Bolshevism, and Garveyism. Incorrectly. The Pan-Africanism of that day was out to liberate and emancipate the black race, all over the world. The congress, which lasted a week and was held in London, Brussels, and Paris, gave the lie to the accusations of Bolshevism. All the delegates wanted was to promote the equality of blacks and whites, in times of both war and peace. The delegates made a field trip to the colonial museum at Tervuren, where the African Americans were incensed by the collection, already huge by that time, of what they saw as the fruits of plunder. Panda Farnana had never thought about it that way before. The sessions in Brussels and Paris were chaired by Blaise Diagne, a Senegalese who had held a seat in the French parliament since 1914, the first African ever. That must have made a huge impression on Panda Farnana. While the French colonies were already allowed to send elected representatives to Paris, in the Belgian Congo one could attain no higher status than that of railroad engineer, choirboy, Boy Scout, or goalie. When it came to political participation, the status of chef médaillé meant nothing: that was no popular involvement, that was simply an excuse. A few years later he expressed his unvarnished, final opinion: “So far, the colonization of Congo has amounted only to ‘civilization-vandalism,’ in favor of the European element.”78
In May 1929 Panda Farnana returned to the colony, where he settled in his native village of Nzemba, close to the ocean. There he helped to set up a school and a chapel. With his rare combination of life experience, acuity, and tact, he could have been a key figure in the negotiations for a more just colonial regime. But less than a year after his return he died, unmarried and childless. The Belgian Congo had lost its most brilliant voice of dissent. He was only forty-two years old.