Thursday, March 21, 2013


It all started with a novel, The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver; a book that sketches an intriguing picture of the last bit of Belgian colonial rule, the Congo's new independence and the usual meddling of the CIA to uproot the democratically elected government and replace it with the dictatorship of Mobutu.
What shocked me most, was the fact that I had no idea about this history and I dare to think, most people have very little idea of the incredible (and awful) history of the Congo.
Belgian Red Berets, around Independence, 1960
Obviously, being Dutch, I know a fair bit of the atrocities committed by my countrymen in the former Dutch Indies and a good deal about French colonial oppression in Algeria and West Africa, likewise with the British, the Germans, the Portuguese and Spanish in their respective colonies.
But, after further reading (Basque writer) Bernardo Atxaga's Seven Houses in France, folowed by King Leopold's Ghost by Adam Hochschild, one can only conclude they were all taught by the Belgians. 
Mercenary, undermining the legitimate government of Congo
The book places King Leopold among the great tyrants of history. The death toll in the Congo under his regime is hard to pin down, both because accurate records were not kept and because many of the existing records were deliberately destroyed by Leopold shortly before the government of Belgium took the Congo out of his hands, but estimates linger around 10.000.000. 
Listening to a Zenith Trans-Oceanic shortwave receiver are Rogelio Oliva, José María Martínez Tamayo  and Guevara. Standing behind them is Roberto Sánchez
The Congo started off as a "private garden" for Leopold; he was the colonizer alone, not Belgium  until the country took over from the sole ruler under immense international pressure. 
37-year-old Che Guevara, holding a Congolese baby, 
standing with a fellow Afro-Cuban soldier during the Congo Crisis, 1965
Hochschild devotes a chapter to Joseph Conrad, the famous Anglo-Polish writer, who captained a steamer on the Congo River in the first years of Belgian colonization. Hochschild observes that Conrad's novel Heart of Darkness, despite its unspecific setting, gives a realistic picture of the Congo Free State. Its main character, Kurtz, was inspired by real state functionaries in the Congo, notably Leon Rom. While Heart of Darkness is probably the most reprinted and studied short novel of the 20th century, its psychological and moral truths have largely overshadowed the literal truth behind the story.
UN Sqn Ldr PM Wilson at the wheel of his jeep, in Leopoldville/Elizabethville
Not many berets, in the Congo, apart on the heads of foreigners; mercenaries, Belgian military, Che Guevara (exporting the Cuban Revolution)... I found one on a local, in this article of the Guardian.
Theo (with black beret), Coco (at the wheel of his bike) and Ricky (on crutches) 
of Staff Benda Bilili, Ndjili, Kinshasa, Congo (DRC), 14 september 2009. Photograph Andy Hall
Anyway, how much of this immense history can I relate here in a few lines? Fascinating reading though, highly recommended!

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