Ghosts of the Congo

Some places haunt you. They haunt with disturbing tales, tragedies, injustice, and outrage. They leave you with a sinking feeling, doubting humanity. Some places make you wonder how do people have faith and hope, how do they still strive to live dignified lives in the face of a long legacy of atrocities? Although I’ve never been there, ghost tales from the Democratic Republic of the Congo haunt me. I tread lightly on this subject, with full knowledge of the Western tendency to pathologize Africa. The Congo is by no means the portrait that Joseph Conrad paints in the Heart of Darkness. In his critique of Conrad in “An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad’s ‘Heart of Darkness,'” Chinua Achebe writes, “Heart of Darkness projects the image of Africa as ‘the other world,’ the antithesis of Europe and therefore of civilization, a place where man’s vaunted intelligence and refinement are finally mocked by triumphant beastiality.” It is no surprise that Conrad’s novel is part of the western canon, continually reifying an image of a savage Africa. Of course, our critiques of Conrad’s racism make our analysis of his work more nuanced.

Many people imagine the entire continent as a wild place, where lions and elephants roam. When I travelled to North Africa, I answer questions from some friends and family members about lions and giraffes. I assured them that throughout Africa, there are skyscrapers and busy streets, international ports, airports, universities, and cell phones. But there are conflict zones and failed states where the government’s monopoly on violence is only broadcasted to the perimeters of metropolitan zones. In rural outskirts, such as in Eastern Congo, citizens have little protection from rebels or the military who often become predatory and wreak havoc on the lives of innocent civilians. In places like the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), women and children suffer the most because they are the most vulnerable.

Some of us may know a little bit about the history of the DRC. It was once called Zaire and was ruled by a Mobutu Sese Seko for over 30 years. He was a US backed strong man who established totalitarian rule until his exile and subsequent death in 1997. Boxing aficionados may be familiar with the “Rumble in the Jungle,” the match between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman held in Kinshasa.
Others, more familiar with anti-colonial resistance movements and interested in CIA conspiracy theories will likely be familiar with Patrice Lumumba.

Despite our superficial knowledge of the region, the Congo Basin has a long rich history. It has had over 500 years of intense contact with the West and was comprised varieties of African societies from large states to stateless hunter gatherers. The Kingdom of Kongo was a sophisticated, centralized society that comprised of northern Angola, Cabinda, the Republic of the Congo, and the western portion of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. In the late 15th century, Christianity was the state religion. As a major source of slaves for the Portuguese and other major European powers, many of us descendants of Africans in the Americas are, ourselves, ghosts of the Congo.

Although the current conflict in the DRC has some roots in the Rwandan genocide, the instability in the DRC can be tied to the colonial legacy under the Belgians and their instability during decolonization. Adam Hoshchild’s book brings to life Belgium’s King Leopold’s exploitation of the Congo Free state from 1885 to 1908. Some estimates say that Leopold’s policies resulted in a population reduction from 20 million to 10 million. After efforts to free the Congo Free State from King Leopold’ tyranny, the Belgians ineptly ruled the Congo. They did little to help establish a firm foundation as other European colonial powers, such as Great Britain and France sought to train Africans as civil servants in preparation for self rule. Instead, they pulled out all infrastructure as they left, damning the Congolese in their efforts to establish a stable democracy.

The ghosts of the Congo aren’t just dead and buried, people today still are affected by the brutal legacy of colonialism and the outcome of transnational conflicts involving Uganda, Rwanda and The Congo. Our own government can be implicated for our own hands in supporting a brutal regime. For numerous reasons, the DRC should be a top priority on international affairs. As I mentioned, so many foreign hands were in the pot and contributed to the legacy of violence and intimidation. There is clear documentation of atrocities and a clear need for humanitarian aid. Today, in an op-ed piece by the New York Times article titled the Capital of Killing, Nicholas Kristof told the harrowing story of a young woman who had been raped repeatedly by militias who use sexual violence as a tactic in their civil war. Kirstof compares the atrocities in the DRC to the Holocaust writing:

But so far the brutal war here in eastern Congo has not only lasted longer than the Holocaust but also appears to have claimed more lives. A peer- reviewed study put the Congo war’s death toll at 5.4 million as of April 2007 and rising at 45,000 a month. That would leave the total today, after a dozen years, at 6.9 million.

What those numbers don’t capture is the way Congo has become the world capital of rape, torture and mutilation, in ways that sear survivors like Jeanne Mukuninwa, a beautiful, cheerful young woman of 19 who somehow musters the courage to giggle.

The article goes on to tell of Jeanne’s struggle with fistula, a condition when the wall between the vagina and anus are destroyed. Fistula is very common among young women who are either gang raped or give birth before their bodies mature. The violence she experienced and the threat she is constantly under just as much due to the civil war, as the colonial legacy.

Sexual violence is one of the many atrocities that various groups have perpetuated against civilians. Whether or not we have some religious, ethnic, or historical ties, whether or not there are US interests in the region, whether or not we fully understand the complexity of the conflict, we should care about human suffering. There are countless people working to alleviate suffering. Many are trying to raise awareness to the crisis. Kristof highlited the work of one hero, Denis Mukwege. This doctor who worked to repair Jeanne Mukuninwa’s damage, as well as tens of thousands other women who have been literally ripped apart by this conflict. The following video is a thought provoking piece on Denis Mukwege’s work:

We must not turn a blind eye using some racist justification for our apathy. That was the type of apathy that allowed 800,000 people to be murdered in Rwanda. At the same time, we cannot be paternalistic in our efforts to help our brothers and sisters in Africa. It is important to listen to African voices so that we can find ways to alleviate the suffering without exacerbating the conflicts. We have to work with grass roots organizations to effect change. We have to understand the intersections between local, national, and transnational forces that have shaped the instability in Eastern Congo. And first and foremost, we must educate ourselves. In my next post, I will provide links organizations that continue to provide relief and support for the people of the DRC.

To remind us of our misguided attempts to construct an imaginary Africa, I close out with a now controversial poem written by Vachel Lindsay in 1913. Adam Hochschild borrowed a line from it for the title of that award winning book. We should remind ourselves that the racism that was prevalent in the turn of the 20th century often still rears its ugly head in the turn of the 21st century.


A Study of the Negro Race

I. Their Basic Savagery

Fat black bucks in a wine-barrel room,
Barrel-house kings, with feet unstable,
[A deep rolling bass.]
Sagged and reeled and pounded on the table,
Pounded on the table,
Beat an empty barrel with the handle of a broom,
Hard as they were able,
Boom, boom, BOOM,
With a silk umbrella and the handle of a broom,
Boomlay, boomlay, boomlay, BOOM.
THEN I had religion, THEN I had a vision.
I could not turn from their revel in derision.
[More deliberate. Solemnly chanted.]
Then along that riverbank
A thousand miles
Tattooed cannibals danced in files;
Then I heard the boom of the blood-lust song
[A rapidly piling climax of speed and racket.]
And a thigh-bone beating on a tin-pan gong.
And “BLOOD” screamed the whistles and the fifes of the warriors,
“BLOOD” screamed the skull-faced, lean witch-doctors,
“Whirl ye the deadly voo-doo rattle,
Harry the uplands,
Steal all the cattle,
Rattle-rattle, rattle-rattle,
Boomlay, boomlay, boomlay, BOOM,”
[With a philosophic pause.]
A roaring, epic, rag-time tune
From the mouth of the Congo
To the Mountains of the Moon.
Death is an Elephant,
[Shrilly and with a heavily accented metre.]
Torch-eyed and horrible,
Foam-flanked and terrible.
BOOM, steal the pygmies,
BOOM, kill the Arabs,
BOOM, kill the white men,
[Like the wind in the chimney.]
Listen to the yell of Leopold’s ghost
Burning in Hell for his hand-maimed host.

Hear how the demons chuckle and yell
Cutting his hands off, down in Hell.
Listen to the creepy proclamation,
Blown through the lairs of the forest-nation,
Blown past the white-ants’ hill of clay,
Blown past the marsh where the butterflies play: —
“Be careful what you do,
[All the o sounds very golden. Heavy accents very heavy.
Light accents very light. Last line whispered.]
Or Mumbo-Jumbo, God of the Congo,
And all of the other
Gods of the Congo,
Mumbo-Jumbo will hoo-doo you,
Mumbo-Jumbo will hoo-doo you,
Mumbo-Jumbo will hoo-doo you.”

II. Their Irrepressible High Spirits

[Rather shrill and high.]
Wild crap-shooters with a whoop and a call
Danced the juba in their gambling-hall
And laughed fit to kill, and shook the town,
And guyed the policemen and laughed them down
With a boomlay, boomlay, boomlay, BOOM.
[Read exactly as in first section.]
[Lay emphasis on the delicate ideas.
Keep as light-footed as possible.]
A negro fairyland swung into view,
A minstrel river
Where dreams come true.
The ebony palace soared on high
Through the blossoming trees to the evening sky.
The inlaid porches and casements shone
With gold and ivory and elephant-bone.
And the black crowd laughed till their sides were sore
At the baboon butler in the agate door,
And the well-known tunes of the parrot band
That trilled on the bushes of that magic land.

[With pomposity.]
A troupe of skull-faced witch-men came
Through the agate doorway in suits of flame,
Yea, long-tailed coats with a gold-leaf crust
And hats that were covered with diamond-dust.
And the crowd in the court gave a whoop and a call
And danced the juba from wall to wall.
[With a great deliberation and ghostliness.]
But the witch-men suddenly stilled the throng
With a stern cold glare, and a stern old song: —
“Mumbo-Jumbo will hoo-doo you.” . . .
[With overwhelming assurance, good cheer, and pomp.]
Just then from the doorway, as fat as shotes,
Came the cake-walk princes in their long red coats,
Canes with a brilliant lacquer shine,
And tall silk hats that were red as wine.
[With growing speed and sharply marked dance-rhythm.]
And they pranced with their butterfly partners there,
Coal-black maidens with pearls in their hair,
Knee-skirts trimmed with the jassamine sweet,
And bells on their ankles and little black feet.
And the couples railed at the chant and the frown
Of the witch-men lean, and laughed them down.
(O rare was the revel, and well worth while
That made those glowering witch-men smile.)

The cake-walk royalty then began
To walk for a cake that was tall as a man
To the tune of “Boomlay, boomlay, BOOM,”
[With a touch of negro dialect,
and as rapidly as possible toward the end.]
While the witch-men laughed, with a sinister air,
And sang with the scalawags prancing there: —
“Walk with care, walk with care,
Or Mumbo-Jumbo, God of the Congo,
And all of the other
Gods of the Congo,
Mumbo-Jumbo will hoo-doo you.
Beware, beware, walk with care,
Boomlay, boomlay, boomlay, boom.
Boomlay, boomlay, boomlay, boom,
Boomlay, boomlay, boomlay, boom,
Boomlay, boomlay, boomlay,
[Slow philosophic calm.]
Oh rare was the revel, and well worth while
That made those glowering witch-men smile.

III. The Hope of their Religion

[Heavy bass. With a literal imitation
of camp-meeting racket, and trance.]
A good old negro in the slums of the town
Preached at a sister for her velvet gown.
Howled at a brother for his low-down ways,
His prowling, guzzling, sneak-thief days.
Beat on the Bible till he wore it out
Starting the jubilee revival shout.
And some had visions, as they stood on chairs,
And sang of Jacob, and the golden stairs,
And they all repented, a thousand strong
From their stupor and savagery and sin and wrong
And slammed with their hymn books till they shook the room
With “glory, glory, glory,”
And “Boom, boom, BOOM.”
[Exactly as in the first section.
Begin with terror and power, end with joy.]
And the gray sky opened like a new-rent veil
And showed the apostles with their coats of mail.
In bright white steele they were seated round
And their fire-eyes watched where the Congo wound.
And the twelve Apostles, from their thrones on high
Thrilled all the forest with their heavenly cry: —
[Sung to the tune of “Hark, ten thousand
harps and voices”.]
“Mumbo-Jumbo will die in the jungle;
Never again will he hoo-doo you,
Never again will he hoo-doo you.”

[With growing deliberation and joy.]
Then along that river, a thousand miles
The vine-snared trees fell down in files.
Pioneer angels cleared the way
For a Congo paradise, for babes at play,
For sacred capitals, for temples clean.
Gone were the skull-faced witch-men lean.
[In a rather high key — as delicately as possible.]
There, where the wild ghost-gods had wailed
A million boats of the angels sailed
With oars of silver, and prows of blue
And silken pennants that the sun shone through.
‘Twas a land transfigured, ’twas a new creation.
Oh, a singing wind swept the negro nation
And on through the backwoods clearing flew: —
[To the tune of “Hark, ten thousand harps and voices”.]
“Mumbo-Jumbo is dead in the jungle.
Never again will he hoo-doo you.
Never again will he hoo-doo you.”

Redeemed were the forests, the beasts and the men,
And only the vulture dared again
By the far, lone mountains of the moon
To cry, in the silence, the Congo tune: —
[Dying down into a penetrating, terrified whisper.]
“Mumbo-Jumbo will hoo-doo you,
Mumbo-Jumbo will hoo-doo you.
Mumbo . . . Jumbo . . . will . . . hoo-doo . . . you.”

This poem, particularly the third section, was suggested by an allusion
in a sermon by my pastor, F. W. Burnham, to the heroic life and death
of Ray Eldred. Eldred was a missionary of the Disciples of Christ
who perished while swimming a treacherous branch of the Congo.
See “A Master Builder on the Congo”, by Andrew F. Hensey,
published by Fleming H. Reve

3 thoughts on “Ghosts of the Congo

  1. Salam Alaikum,
    Do you mind if I share this blog post with some friends of mine? I think they might benefit from it.(I will cite it of course.)


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s