Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Germany: On the Mississippi with visitors from Kinshasa, DR Congo

While the world’s attention is focusing on Germany for the start of the Beautiful Game Championship (World Cup 2006) only 8 days away, my attention is focused on another beauty here in Germany today. This beauty is from the Democratic Republic of Congo and her name is Mama Emily. This post to Jewels in the Jungle is dedicated to her and all the mothers and grandmothers of her country who have survived years of turmoil and neglect to see a better day.

The TIME magazine cover story for the June 5, 2006 issue is a feature about the Democratic Republic of Congo titled “The Deadliest War in the World” written by Simon Robinson and Vivian Walt. The report is about the simmering conflicts and continuing atrocities and suffering of people in the eastern provinces of this vast African country that is larger than Western Europe. CNN published a summary of the TIME article on May 28th along with related features on the DRC. There has been some light coverage of the story in the blogosphere and on the Web. The TIME Magazine cover story attempts to illustrate the many dangers and complicated issues facing the people of the DR Congo before their scheduled July 30th national elections, the 1st democratic elections to be held in this country in over 40 years.

On May 24th CNN’s Jeff Koinange reported on the 1000’s of brutal rape victims being treated at the Panzi Hospital in Bukavu, a major city in the war torn eastern DRC province of South Kivu. The CNN article and video report is very disturbing as it draws attention to the plight of desperate women and children suffering at the hands of the most savage and senseless brutality against human beings imaginable. Louis Ableman of the Goma Film Project and his team have just completed the feature documentary LUMO, a film about women and girls in Goma who are the victims of thousands of incidents of sexual violence and murder carried out by various militia groups and soldiers operating in the eastern DRC province of North Kivu. Martin Bell, a former BBC News correspondent and presently UNICEF Ambassador for Humanitarian Affairs, did a feature report back in April 2006 for BBC Two Newsnight titled “No Peace for the DR Congo”.
But today I want to focus on the positive side of the DRC and move away from all of the clichés i.e. the Heart of Darkness. This is one of those all too rare stories you can read online about people from the DR Congo that has a happy ending.

Three or four years ago I had the privilege to meet and befriend a woman from Kinshasa, DRC (Democratic Republic of Congo) who lives in my neighborhood. Her name is Dédé (pronounced Day-Day) and she has been living in Germany for about 20 years. She is the mother of two lovely grownup daughters and is also the grandmother of my little friend Vanessa who has just begun school this year. Three generations of Congolese and Congolese-Europeans under one roof, all female, is a special experience all by itself. Dédé has been a treasured friend and an incredible reservoir of knowledge about life and customs in central Africa.

Some months before I met Dédé I had been researching information and news online about the DRC, so I was jubilant to have someone from the country to speak with about what’s going on down there, about the history of the country and the customs of various people who live there, about life under the longtime ruler of the country
Mobuto Sese Seko, and of course about the Congo civil wars (I and II) that have contributed to the deaths of over 4 million Congolese to date.

Until the time we first met Dédé had only one friend from the U.S.A. and I had never had a friend from the DR Congo. We are able to converse and argue about everything under the sun: global and regional politics, the War in Iraq, religion, history and culture in the Americas and in sub-Saharan Africa, our personal life stories and stories about our families, you name it. Dédé believes that Americans (N.A. & S.A.) are crazy and a very curious people. I have been able to convince her that some people back in the U.S.A. know a little something about Africa and the DR Congo. Of course she realizes that people from around the world care deeply about what is happening in her country even as we remain confused, angry, and frustrated about what we can personally do to help.

My friend grew up in
Kinshasa under the regime of the late President Mobutu. Her father worked for many years as a civil servant in the DRC since the 1960’s, so the family did not live under the extreme poverty and deprivation we so often see today as the plight of the majority of people living in Kinshasa and all across the vast country. Dédé’s mother and father hail from Province du Bas-Congo (see maps) in the southwest corner of the country where the mighty Congo River empties into the Atlantic Ocean. All six children in the family received a good education in Kinshasa right through secondary school and some were able to continue their studies in Europe. Dédé has told me some very interesting and many times funny stories about life under Mobutu in and around Kinshasa, and I’ve been told some very sad and harrowing tales about the Congo’s descent into war and chaos in 1996 as Laurent Désiré Kabila with the backing of Rwanda, Uganda, and Burundi mounted a full-scale rebellion against Mobutu Sese Seko.

By May 1997 Laurent Kabila had seized the capital city of Kinshasa with various rebel militia groups and rebel Zairean Armed Forces members united under the ADFL. This march of death and destruction swept across the length and breadth of the nation, having begun in the volatile eastern province of South Kivu thousands of kilometers away from the capital. Dédé understands firsthand what it is like to be at the business end of an automatic weapon aimed at your head while marauding militias and armies are sacking a city and threatening to rape and kill you and your family. Fortunately she and her family members escaped such terror unharmed while she was visiting Kinshasa before the start of the 2nd Congo War.

What makes the TIME magazine article so relevant for me today is that after anxiously waiting for almost 8 years Dédé has family visitors from Kinshasa. Actually WE have visitors because I have been waiting to meet her family from Kinshasa too. Mama Emily (Dédé’s mother) and Jacqueline (her younger sister) are here visiting in Germany for the first time ever. I believe that I am as excited about this special visit from Kinshasa than anyone. For me it is a blessing just to be able to meet and talk with them… about (almost) everything.

Mama Emily is absolutely striking in her appearance, a grand older African woman small of stature with a face that Michelangelo couldn’t do justice to either in stone or on canvas. She has beautiful small eyes set within a petit almond-shaped face. Her dark coffee brown skin is as smooth as silk and practically wrinkle-free despite her advanced years. When I first met her last week for an “afternoon tea”, I couldn’t help but to feel humbled in her quiet presence. When I look into the face of Mama Emily I see the strong, beautiful, proud faces of my own dear grandmother’s (now deceased) back home in the U.S.A.

We had about 5 hours together to talk and get to know one another and I addressed Mama Emily as “Mama” after a short time. I communicated with her via her daughter in English and German, limited French, and my practically non-existent Lingala language skills. I think it was my great effort to speak Lingala with Mama Emily that really won her over at the beginning. A special thanks to my friend
Ali (The Malau) at The Salon blog and the Lingala language team over at Wikipedia encyclopedia for providing information about the language online.

In those first hours together it would have been very easy to ask Jacqueline or even Mama Emily about all of the bad news that we hear and read re: the DRC, but that is not what I wanted to do. I spoke briefly with the two daughters about the upcoming elections and the Congo’s history over the past 40 to 50 years while Mama Emily listened on quietly, adding a brief comment here and there. What really captured her attention during that evening is when I began to discuss the
history of the New World (the Americas) and how Africa’s and particularly the Congo’s history is so strongly linked to that of our own. You see Mama Emily had seen the renowned TV series “Roots” years ago and the film “The Amistad” more recently and Dédé told me that Mama was very sad to see the suffering of the millions of slaves who were shipped off to the Americas in Roots but was very happy to see that some had been safely returned to Africa (Amistad Case). Therefore, I had to get a few important facts straightened out for Mama Emily as things have changed considerably since those bad old days. Haven’t they?

Another highlight of the evening was when I had the opportunity to guide Mama Emily and Jacqueline through the history of my own people and family in the United States of America, proudly showing books I had brought along containing descriptions and beautiful photos of my hometown
Saint Louis, Missouri, a city along a great river just like their own home city of Kinshasa on the Congo River. I explained that the first African-American members of my family had reached the banks of the Mississippi River near Saint Louis by the year 1790 shortly after the end of the American Revolutionary War, having traveled for hundreds of miles on foot and horseback (or mule) from their former home back East. That when they arrived on the great American Midwest frontier they had traveled as free men and women, no longer living in bondage under slavery in post-Colonial America.

NOTE: So readers can get a better idea about what these territories were like back then, follow these links to the PBS special
Lewis & Clark Expedition of 1804 and the Wikipedia encyclopedia article Lewis & Clark Expedition of 1804-1806. Ironically, a key member of this historical expedition to explore the lands of the Louisiana Purchase beyond the confluence of the Mississippi and Missouri rivers was an African-American slave named York. At the end of the expedition in 1806 York asked his “master”, William Clark, for his freedom but was refused on the grounds of ‘financial hardship’. Ain’t that a b----! Learn more about this historical American journey at the PBS Living History site about the expedition.

As you can imagine, Mama Emily and her two daughters really loved hearing these stories and examining the pictorial history books about my hometown and country. Black Africans trekking through the wilderness of the New World to start a new life in freedom among
native tribespeople, virgin forests and fields full of wildlife and game, a few hundred European settlers, trappers, frontiersmen, and of course eagles soaring high above the limestone bluffs and lush green deltas of the Missouri and Mississippi rivers. I put in an award-winning performance that evening because having the opportunity to tell these tales to our distinguished visitors from the Democratic Republic of Congo was a real joy for me. I think that these stories I told and pictorial histories I shared helped to transport Mama Emily and Jacqueline thousands of miles further than they had already traveled on the flight from Kinshasa to Germany___ and back hundreds of years to a time when many of their own people had survived a difficult but yet incredible journey into a brave New World.

At the end of the evening before I left for home, Mama Emily took my hands into her own to thank me for the time together, to send blessings to my people back in America and my family, and to remind me about something that she had said earlier that evening___ that the people of the Congo still have hope. I trust and believe in what she says with all of my heart.

Melesí Mama Emily & Jacqueline. Wilkommen in Deutschland. Likamboté. I hope to be able to welcome you to America and Saint Louis, MO. one day soon so that we may have coffee and tea by the river near the great arch. Tokomónono Mama. Tokómonono.

A Happy End to a wonderful evening. To be continued…

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Kaunda said...

Thank you for this story. It brought me much joy and my eyes are wet.

One gets a little jaded scrolling through posts that reveal all the trouble in the world today. This story of connections reminds how people can be for one another. There's hope:-)

Thanks again.

Imnakoya said...

This is a masterpiece! It is magnificiently and marvelously rendered! Cheers.

Black River Eagle said...

Thanks Kaunda & Imnakoya for your kind comments. Mama Emily is the masterpiece; I'm just doing my best to describe in words what it is like to be around her. Thanks again.

Louis said...

BRE, thanks for all your support over the years and congratulations on this wonderful post, which seems to have caught a lot of attention... it looks like there's a turnaround in press attention to the Congo too. Good news all around.

Black River Eagle said...

Thanks Louis and congratulations on winning the award at the Columbia University Film Festival 2006 for your documentary film LUMO. I left a message re: updates to the CNN blog (Anderson Cooper 360°) over at your place Telegraphe Congolais today.

Louis Abelman of the Goma Film Project team laidies and gentleman! It's an honor to have you with us again at Jewels in the Jungle. Keep up the great work Louis!

Links to some of Lou's latest work online:

Anonymous said...

I am incredibly interested in the orgin of Mama Emily's name. I have been doing some family research myself and have discovered many wonderful things about my family. My great great grandparents, Emily and Charles Banks were english missionaries to the Congo (Bolenge) during the late 1800's. They lived with a village for several years (even giving birth to my great grandfather and his brothers and sisters while there). The village refered to my great great grandmother as Mama Emily. Interesting... There is actually a book written about her called White Woman on the Congo. Small world if there is a connection.

BRE said...

Thank you for the visit and the comment Khalen. Thanks also for sharing the information about your great, great parents who lived and worked in the Congo toward the end of the 19th Century. It would be interesting to learn what they thought of the Berlin Conference of 1884 and of the subsequent formation of the Congo Free State under sole ownership by Belgium's King Leopold II. In case you are not familiar with that period in the Congo's history here is the link to the Wikipedia entry on the subject:

I cannot answer your question about the origin of Mama Emily's name but I will ask her daughter about it ASAP. Come back in a few days; I hope to have an answer for you by then.

Anonymous said...

I look forward to the information about her name. I am not aware of much from that time period but I do know that my great great grandparents were also against the rubber atrosities during that time period.


BRE said...

OK Khalen, I've got the lowdown on how Mama Emily received her (Christian) name.

According to her daughter the name Emily was given to her mother by a Catholic priest. It was a common practice in the Congo during the 20th Century (and perhaps even earlier) that missionaries from Western religions would assign a "Christian name" to young Congolese babies and small children during confirmation. I'm not sure how that worked with missionaries and church leaders from other religions (for example Islam) who were living and working in the Congo during this same time period.

Mama Emily's actual name is "Makingo" given to her by her parents at birth. The name is from the Kikongo language which is widely spoken in the Bas Congo region where she was born and raised.

I hope that this information is helpful and again thank you for your visit to Jewels.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the information. It is greatly appreciated. There is probably no connection, however, in the late 1800's my Great great grandparents actually began their journey from London. They rode the Congo River up from Banana on a steamer called the Henry Reed. The trip did take them through the Bas-Congo Region. They traveled past what was known as Stanley Pool (now called Malebo Pool)and towards the equateur near where Mbandaka is. Its been nice to study this ancient history and a pleasure to share a part of my family history as I continue to learn more.