Tomorrow is the yearly independence celebration across Congo, commemorating the end of Belgian rule and the beginning of what would reveal itself to be a rather doomed state. Belgian influence of course did not end; everything from the national educational system (or what is left of it) to the decaying train tracks offer modern-day reminders of their presence here. There are certainly more off-putting reminders of Belgium’s role in pre-independence Congo. Often times, kids joking with you in the quartiers will be warned by their grandparents to stay away from the ‘Belgian’ or risk a beating with the chicotte, which was a whip made from hippopotamus skin employed throughout colonial days. Additionally, sometimes people will not so politely remind me in Swahili of the riots and killings of foreigners (and Congolese) here during the process towards independence, and their idea that the Mai-Mai could one day repeat history for the remaining ‘étrangers.’ Though many Belgians continue to call the colonial era ‘la belle époque,’ I’d beg to differ given those lingering resonances.
In 2007, a once well-known Belgian administrator, who had spent the almost all of his 60 years in Congo, sent an email to leading aid agencies and governments working in Congo to summarize his feeling on Congolese since ‘la belle époque.’ This email commented that, while spending the grand part of his years in Congo, before and after independence, he learned that the Congolese are, ‘…incapable, selfish, lying thieves.’ This was actually the opening sentence of the letter. He went further, commenting that Congolese have done nothing since 1960 (except drink and steal), further romanticizing the rampant pillage known as the Belgian Colony of Congo. Bringing us up to date, he concluded that, ‘…across Western Europe, the Congolese living there are of course the first in line to go on welfare and waste money given to them by social services, lying about their number of children and ages to defraud European social agencies.’
Talking about this with some friends at their office about this letter, I came to some pretty startling realizations. Speaking with them, who were for the most part educated and working for humanitarian concerns, I noticed they were more or less in agreement with the administrator. They said that he writes well and does touch on a lot of problems in Congo. True, there are lot of thieves and a good number of drunks. My immediate dismissal of the administrator’s writing as the words of an aging colonizer losing his mind was purely my own.
It was in this conversation that I began to think again about these invisible cues that Western ideas and notions are very much a part of our community in Uvira. Society has been so thoroughly down and continually upset by wars since independence that the colonial era DOES begin to hold some deceptive value in some people’s opinions. Enemies WERE more clearly marked in that era, black versus white. Now days, militias composed entirely of Congolese will slaughter villages of fellow Congolese. This is new. A good meal, or one that is sufficiently nutritious, is still called ‘Chakula ya Bulaya (European meal).’ Congolese women often use dangerous chemicals to whiten their skin and straighten their hair, with many men responding to these changes (they are called ‘muzungu’ like me and get higher bride wealth).
Our neo-colonial administrator, given these realities of modern-day Congo, has deceived many (even friends of mine here) into sympathizing with him. There is, however, key missing information. The administrator neglected to consider the position Congo was left in by colonial presence. Lack of infrastructure, a pillaged resource base, a massacred population (Jan Vansina estimated that around 50% of the Congolese population died of causes directly related to colonial presence during the early colonial period)…are these not things that could carry the currently towards poverty and violent conflict, and thus towards some of the ‘evils’ described so one-sidedly by the administrator’s tirade? I believe that my friends’ general acceptance of the letter was also shaded by a failure to reflect on the aspect of colonialism that continues to burden Congolese communities. The chaos that has passed for the last 50 years would certainly have unfolded differently had communities not been shattered, resources plundered, and militias armed and delineated by many of the institutions hoisted up high by those remembering a ‘belle époque’ in Congo.
It is thus true that independence is never enough. It’s a matter of having an enabled population demanding and to take advantage of this independence. We are certainly not lacking this in eastern Congo; tomorrow there will undoubtedly be storms of people rushing down to the military zone to let administrators and soldiers know their frustration to be handcuffed from action despite their Constitution, their freedom, and their independent state. However, the real test of this freedom is the state’s response, and it’s ability to create a state capable of deflecting and disproving wholesale criticism of Congolese like that thrown out by the aging administrator.
Posted By Ned Meerdink (DR Congo)
Posted Jun 29th, 2009