These words are difficult to write. Fifty years ago, the people of what is now the Democratic Republic of Congo drifted in a purgatory between independence and continued Belgian control. It seems like only yesterday that nationalist leaders like Patrice Lumumba climbed a mountain of severed hands to point their people toward a new future. The Congolese enjoyed a brief moment of unity and democracy until the “Free World” ensnared them. Today, the people of the Congo exist at the bottom-step of the Inferno, unified by exhaustion, trapped by a series of resource wars resembling battles that have raged across the last few centuries. Millions have died; millions are dying. Yet, amid our ceaseless twittering and texting, almost no one speaks of it. My heart is heavy from the stone that it is carrying.
These words should flow since so many like them have already been written. In 1890 George Washington Williams, an African American Civil War veteran and minister, visited the ironically-named Congo Free State and wrote a letter to King Leopold protesting the atrocities he witnessed. Williams, who used the term “crimes against humanity” generations before Nuremberg, died on his trip home. Fortunately, others took up the cause. From 1885 to 1908, King Leopold imposed “forced labor” on the Congolese and enforced his rubber quota by having his Belgian and African surrogates hack off the hands of the Congolese who failed to bring in their designated share of the harvest. Naturally, this sadistic exchange led to wholesale torture and slaughter. Leopold and his cronies made a monstrous fortune until the Belgian Parliament forced him to cede control of the colony in response to an international human rights movement that exposed the atrocities. But the change in “management” did more than exculpate the Belgians; it turned the Congolese into the collateral damage of a rogue monarch’s empire-building project. The voices of Sir Roger Casement, Vachel Lindsay, William H. Sheppard, and the Congo Reform Association had barely ceased to echo when at least 10 million Congolese corpses vanished from history. Do you feel me?
During the mid-1940s, the Belgians placed the entire productive capacity of the Congo at the disposal of the British, the French, and the Americans in order to defeat the Axis powers. Immediately after World War II, the Congolese – like many peoples across what we now call the “Global South” – demanded to control their own destinies. By 1958, Belgian officials feeling the pressure of empires collapsing around them ceded limited autonomy to the Congolese in the form of municipal elections. After riots and protests, arrests and government crackdowns, the Belgians believed that they could shift their embrace of the Congo by offering swift decolonization. Lumumba and his political party, the MNC, prepared for a future that the people could control. But Moise Tshombe – backed by the biggest mining conglomerate in Belgium – “led” a secession of the mineral-rich province of Katanga, the southeast quadrant of the nation.
Lumumba and the MNC were the glue seeking to hold the fledgling nation together, a multi-ethnic, multi-lingual political force that comfortably straddled the huge colony. Lumumba first appealed to the U.S. for economic and military aid to preserve the union. When American officials balked – they believed, among other things, that Lumumba was a Communist – Lumumba turned to a startled Soviet Union. According to the research of Lisa Namikas, the Soviets had studied Lumumba and concluded that he was not the politician to lead a Marxist revolution in the center of the continent. Thus, when the Kremlin learned that the Eisenhower administration had turned down Lumumba, Nikita Krushchev reportedly said to a subordinate “Why?…explain to me why. Really, are the Americans that stupid?” For a few months, Lumumba’s government fought successfully against the “rebels” and their Belgian supporters until he was throttled by his former MNC colleage Joseph Mobutu. Mobutu – backed by the CIA – helped to kill Lumumba politically and physically, then eliminated all political rivals in order to share in the spoils of renewed Western hegemony.
The Eisenhower administration found in Mobutu Sese Seko the “strongman” it needed to hold still the Congo for “Free World” exploitation. However, the reality is that through the destruction of Lumumba and the emerging democratic order in the Congo, Eisenhower and his successors played the “big man” in central African politics. They refuted all Lockean ideals. Instead, they made real the idea that the West was entitled to the Congo’s resources and that the Congo’s people had to bear the weight of the Cold War when they preferred to shoulder the burden of creating their own nation. In other words, the Congolese state did not exist to serve the needs of its people; the Congolese state existed to serve the needs of the “Free World.” And once insurgents overthrew Mobutu and forced him into exile in 1997, the “Free World” no longer needed a Congolese state. Holla!
Chaos has become a necessary element of life in the Congo, as inescapable as the stench of some rotting thing hidden just out of sight. The state no longer functions effectively enough to prevent its citizens from being raped with impunity. The armed men of the various fighting forces splay the women of the Congo as a ghoulish rewind, as a matter of course, as a matter of terrorizing populations so that they submit to new industrial needs, to new power configurations. Yes, Congo’s leaders bear some responsibility in all this but how much can we blame them for lacking integrity and political will when they can see King Leopold’s ghost over their shoulders?
Today, researchers like Cranston Knight tell us that the Democratic Republic of Congo is the center of new resource wars and that more people have died there in the last ten years than in any conflict since World War II. In addition to the uranium, tin, gold, and diamonds that mining conglomerates have been harvesting for years, global business interests are fighting to control the supply of a metal known as tantalum or, generically, “coltan.” Coltan is an essential element in today’s consumer products, personal computers, pda’s, gaming systems, and automotive electronics to name a few. A few dozen companies are competing through proxy militias and armies from Burundi, Rwanda, and Uganda for a preponderance of coltan. They stand at the top of the well of gems and minerals while at the bottom dwell child and adult miners – lacking anything close to a fair wage, protective gear, or safe working conditions – who toil with hammers and chisels to free the metal from its subterranean deposits.
These words are difficult to write because of the banality of such terror. Our history reveals this as the sum of a classic cost-benefit equation in modern Western civilization. The lethal calculus has repeated itself so often over space and time that it almost feels natural. It’s not just the body count but the collective silence that staggers, since men are maimed, women literally ripped apart, and children starved for anti-lock braking systems, faster download speeds, and the convenience of carrying all of our “apps” in our pockets. The blood from the Congo flows right to my cell phone and yours, reminding us that Black life remains cheap in our post-racial world. Can you hear me now?
These thoughts are difficult to articulate because the images are so grotesque. Nearly one hundred years ago, soldiers in Belgium’s “Force Publique” massacred a village protesting the rubber quota. They decapitated the men and hung the heads from the village palisades. They then hung the bodies of the women and children from the same structure, in the form of a cross. Once again, bones are crying in the Congo because six million Conoglese have died in the last ten years. George Washington Williams, E. D. Morel, and Mark Twain have morphed into “Friends of the Congo,” Eve Ensler, and Congolese Ob-Gyn Dr. Dennis Mukwege. Spleens are bursting and children are shattering to red dust. How many will die before we release the yoke of our inexpensive, modern conveniences, the hunger of our wants, the weight of normalcy? Bones are crying in the Congo and there is little that can make my chest rise when my heart is this heavy.
Keepin’ your head above water, hustlin’ to survive
Some people chasin’ a dream, others just chasin’ a high
Some people blind leadin’ the blind, they chasin’ a lie
Some people chokin’, backs broken, barely makin’ it by
But still they workin’ all they life, they pushin’ for the light
Givin’ everything they got to stitch them swooshes on ya Nike’s
Puttin’ pockets on our jeans, minin’ diamonds for them rings
Rewarded with small change and bullets in the brain
And it makes me feel strange everything we take for granted
At times I feel stranded on this planet of mine
Now should I pull the hammer, clap it out, and laugh about it
Or stand up, be counted while I cast my ballot?
When the undertakers’ busy and the prisons is crowded
People livin’ in fear because they vision is clouded
But the sky’s the limit, I ain’t cryin’ you a river
Got to move me a mountain, I’ma get up and shout
- “Why,” by The Roots, from the 2004 album The Tipping Point