Congo (Democratic Republic of): Destroyed by despots, music and food still bring joy to this tortured land
Before I embarked on my armchair travels, if I’d been asked to list the world’s most barbarous, psychotic, murderous, world-ruining people, I, like most, would have come up with the Hitler-Stalin-Mao troika. But despots are many, and evil men (the only woman I can think of adding to the list would be Mao’s wife Jiang Qing) have an terrifying ability to rise to power.
Anyway, this week I learned more about why we must add King Leopold II of Belgium, Sovereign of the Congo Free State to the list. He appeared regularly in a previous book the Scramble for Africa, as a looming deathly presence, but in Adam Hochschild’s incredible Kind Leopold’s Ghost he is front and centre, slowly but surely tearing people, cultures and borders apart in a desperate attempt to make a name for himself and a colony for Belgium. Under the guise of ending slavery and opening up free trade, he took over the heart of Africa and became one of the richest people in the world. Like Rhodes and others whose destruction was detailed in the Scramble for Africa, he managed to not only enrich himself but also ensure the tax payers of his country covered his debts.
And the Belgians still allow his bearded visage to stand proudly on statues in Ostend, in Brussels, and more. I cannot imagine a single reason why they haven’t already torn them down. They should certainly be teaching Leopold’s Ghost in school as a first step towards ending the veneration of this stain on humanity.
Not that more recent history has been that much happier. When the Congo Free State became the Belgian Congo, they agreed that “adult natives will still be compelled to work”. And the British supported that as “we do not in our own colonies say that all the land and produce of the soil belongs to the Natives.” In fact Leopold’s welcome death led to court cases about the spoils of his conquests, his family fought for their share, the Belgian government fought for theirs, sadly “there was no lawyer to argue that the money should return to the Congolese.”
There was hope for a short time when Patrice Lumumba won the first democratic election the territory had ever had. To celebrate this victory the US decided to have him killed, and the Belgians duly shot him, before cutting up his body and dissolving it in acid so as not to leave a martyr’s grave. In his place they put Mobutu, who stole even more than Leopold and after 32 years in power left life-expectancy even lower than in the Congo Free State.
Since then things have not much improved, as shown by this week’s film City of Joy, a documentary about a charity and support group for women raped and left homeless during the most recent civil war. It is hard to watch, but at least gives some hope that the future could be better than the past. But how? Hochschild’s only answer is to strengthen the position of women and end hero worship of the “strong man figure.”
One of the most powerful moments in the film is seeing the women dance and sing, and indeed through all the hardships it seems music has been a positive force. This week’s playlist gives just a taste of the varied music the country has to offer. If time were not the enemy, I would have happily devoted another day to finding more. I can’t promise that all of the musicians are from DRC as opposed to next week’s Republic of Congo (RoC), as so many people just say Congolese. I guess that isn’t surprising as this was once one land, the Kingdom of Kongo, which had the most incredible flag.
I gave up trying to find a Congolese drink and just plumped for Coconut water, so that just leaves the food. Which I am glad to say was a success! Vegan moambe chicken was easy to make and hoovered up by the children. You can get an alternative version of the recipe from Together Women Rise, which, given the earlier talk about increasing women’s rights, seems to be a good site to support. We ate it with a side of Congolese green rice, and you should too!
So that is about it, we should be heading to Republic of Congo, the much smaller country just the other side of the river.