Congo Inc: Bismarck's testament
In Koli Jean Bofane
Publisher: Indiana University Press
African Library: Entry no 125
To give readers a sense of the wide reach of In Koli Jean Bofane’s brilliant choice of title for his novel [originally published in French in 2014; the present discussion uses the English translation by Marjolijn de Jager], it is best to start by citing a fairly long extract that appears fairly late in the narrative:
The algorithm Congo Inc had been created at the moment that Africa was being chopped up in Berlin between November 1884 and February 1885.1 Under [the Belgian King] Leopold II’s sharecropping,2 they had hastily developed it so they could supply the whole world with rubber from the equator, without which the industrial era wouldn’t have expanded as rapidly as it needed to at the time. Subsequently, its contribution to the First World War effort had been crucial, even if that war – most of it – could have been fought on horseback, without Congo, even if things had changed since the Germans had further developed synthetic rubber in 1914. The involvement of Congo Inc in the Second World War proved decisive.
The final point had come with the concept of putting the uranium of Shinkolobwe at the disposal of the United States of America, which had destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki once and for all, launching the theory of nuclear deterrence at the same time, and for all time. It contributed vastly to the devastation of Vietnam by allowing the Bell UH-1 Huey helicopters, sides gaping wide, to spit millions of sprays of the copper from Likasi and Kolwezi from high in the sky over towns and countryside from Danang to Hanoi, via Hué, Vinh, Lao Cai, Lang Son, and the port of Haiphong.
During the so-called Cold War, the algorithm had remained red-hot. The fuel that guaranteed proper functioning could also be made up of men. Warriors such as the Ngwaka, Mbunza, Luba, Basakata, and Lukele of Mobutu Seso Seko, like spearheads on Africa’s battlefields, went to shed their blood from Biafra to Aouzou, passing through the Front Line – in front of Angola and Cuba – through Rwanda on the Byumba end in 1990. Disposable humans could also partake in the dirty work and in coups d’état. Loyal to Bismarck’s testament, Congo Inc more recently had been appointed as the accredited supplier of internationalism, responsible for the delivery of strategic minerals for the conquest of space, the manufacturing of sophisticated armaments, the oil industry, and the production of high-tech telecommunications material.3
While Commander Kobra Zulu [a Tutsi warlord in the Congo, supplier to corrupt traders] was cornered, they had continued to perfect the algorithm somewhere between Washington, London, Brussels, and Kigali. (174–5)
With considerable simplification, but highly persuasively in its sweepingly confident claims, Bofane’s account of the world’s continuously violent history from the late 19th until well into the 21st century places the Congo centrally at its heart of darkness, then and now. The sardonic recognition of world leaders’ rapacity and ruthless power greed in the above passage is the clearest indication of a point implicit throughout the narrative: that the violent computer game Raging trade, to which the novel’s main character Isookanga is addicted, is a mere, harmless shadow of the actual and extremely bloody business involved in the “globalization” that Isookanga idolises. Isookanga is a young Ekonda [unkindly referred to as “Pygmy”] by ethnicity, from the great jungles of the DRC’s Equateur Province. Although merely in his mid-twenties, he is the designated heir to his uncle, the chief referred to (not disrespectfully, but affectionately) as Old Lomama – a man with vast knowledge of the ecology of his region (on the western border between the DRC and the much smaller Republic of Congo, an area traversed by the River Congo). Isookanga has no interest in his village Ekanga’s forest surroundings, seeing them merely as a stifling barrier to modernisation. Isookanga has two additional reasons for feeling uncomfortable in the local surroundings, for both of which his mother is to blame. Since their culture allows or even encourages polyandry, his mother had brief relations with (inter alia) a male member of the taller Mongo people, as a result of which he is about ten centimetres taller than other Ekonda men. She also failed to have Isookanga circumcised when he was a boy, as a result of which he is ashamed and has little interest in women, for they would despise him if they were to discover what is still a family secret. He is hence delighted when a huge telecommunications tower is erected in the vicinity of their village, and (ever the opportunist) when the official “inauguration” – attended by Congolese dignitaries and some foreigners – allows him to steal the laptop of a young, visiting Belgian woman who is doing anthropological research in his region. Aude Martin, as she is named, is ironically smitten with colonial-romantic feelings for Isookanga, who has no interest of that kind in her presence. As he tells a friend of his: “It’s not for me, Bwale, this forest life. I have other ambitions; I want to have a vision of things” (16).
Soon afterwards, Isookanga decamps for Kinshasa, the booming capital of the DRC, taking on the identity of Bwale in order to gain a foothold with his friend’s uncle, who has invited Bwale to come and live with him in Kinshasha (locally referred to simply as Kin’). He travels on the River Congo by boat, “every inch” of its deck space crowded with people, animals and goods:
Merchandise of all kinds to supply the capital was strewn about and dangling from parts of the vessel: bunches of plantains, stocks of dried fish, live goats, various sorts of game, sacks of coal and manioc, exotic birds, palm oil in PVC barrels, and near the bow a captive monkey with a cord around his neck. People were milling about: shopkeeping mothers, rural emigrants, Mongo streetwalkers from the Mongando clan, hair stylists, aspiring math and law professors, talisman vendors, runaway minors, discharged intellectuals, two Maï-Maï [Congolese resistance or rebel fighters active in the Kivu region] who had broken with their group, men and women of the cloth, war refugees, and more. (18)
The teeming variousness of this land is well conveyed in this lively description, with its touches of the deadpan humour with which Bofane alleviates the truly grim details of many parts of his account. The “Pygmy internationalist” (as the narrator here names him) notices “a sinking floating island, set off against the dusk’s orange and dark red light, outstripp[ing] the line of barges and vanish[ing] around a bend like a ghost: the same one that the steamer of Captain Teodor Korzeniowski, who later took the name Joseph Conrad, had rounded as he plunged into the heart of darkness” (19) – an allusion deftly illustrating Bofane’s tongue-in-cheek sophistication.
Isookanga is allowed to sleep one night at Bwale’s wealthy uncle’s home, but is ejected in no uncertain terms the next morning by the man’s wife, since they do not actually believe him to be a member of this especially tall family. After wandering through the city all day long, he finds a sleeping space on the ground in a corner of the Great Market, but is in danger of being assaulted by a crowd of street children (known locally as shégués), when their leader arrives. A skinny fourteen-year-old, she introduces herself as La Jactance, the Haughty One. Pleased with how respectfully Isookanga addresses her (as “Aunty”), she decrees that he must be allowed to stay – despite his being an adult man, the fact that he is so small, in addition to his gentle ways, suggests to her that he presents no threat. She does find his explanation of why he, a countryman, has relocated to the city somewhat strange, though the obscure remark, “I came to experience the world of high technology and globalization,” (29) does not trouble her.
Bofane fills in the background of the situation that earlier brought La Jactance (also known as Shasha; her real name is Kolo Eyoma) to the city, and drove her to live the hard life of a street child and a girl forced to sell her body to male predators – in her case, a UN “Stabilization” officer from Lithuania who is besotted with her. Not too long ago, she and her two younger brothers – around ten and three years old respectively – had spent a pleasant day in their parents’ fields somewhere in Kivu province, gathering peanuts. They returned home to find their village razed, the ground “littered” with “blood-oozing” bodies, including their parents’. Sensing that the assailants, with whom their province teems, were still nearby, the girl picked up her younger brother as they fled into the bush as fast as they could. On their harrowing journey (partly because they nearly starved and had no proper shelter against the lashing equatorial rains), the older brother contracted malaria, and so Shasha was forced to leave him behind – after initially carrying both boys as she struggled onward – with the assurance that she would return for him. There seemed to be little hope of his surviving the sickness in his weakened state. But, then, the little boy died further along the way, so Shasha rushed back in a nearly demented state and managed to locate Trésor (the older brother), miraculously (as it seemed) recovered. “I knew you’d come back,” (35) he said to her. La Jactance is evidently a well deserved nickname for Shasha, and indicates why Bofane dedicates his novel “to the young girls, the little girls, and the women of Congo” and (with savage irony) “to the UN / to the IMF / to the WTO” – organisations that have so badly failed the victims of the violent looting of Congolese resources, as world bodies and through irresponsible, arrogant, negligent or corrupt staff members.
We are soon introduced to another important character, Zhang Xia, the lowly employee, cat’s paw and supposed “partner” of his Chinese employer, the entrepreneur (and crook) Liu Kaï. The boss takes Zhang Xia with him to the Congo for supposed construction work, consisting of obtaining and exporting (back to China) masses of soil samples that are undoubtedly tested for the mineral wealth of many kinds dispersed throughout the DRC, and in order to draw up a reliable geological map to indicate where gold, copper, coltane, oil, etcetera are to be found. But, then, the supply of funds to Liu Kaï (the employer) is unexpectedly cut off – the reader can later work out that this is because, back in Chongqing in China, the new governor of Szechuan Province and the city’s new police chief are co-operating to crack down on the corrupt officials who keep China’s criminal economy on the go. Liu Kaï flees to Kinshasha, taking Zhang Xia with him, but soon afterwards he disappears, leaving the poor young man stranded, pining for his lovely wife and little son in Chongqing, but quite unable to make his way back there without funds. He, too, has been roaming the Kinshasha streets, barely surviving by selling water sachets and sleeping in a nook in the company of a kindly Congolese security guard, Old Tshikunku (Old Tshitshi for short). We have also learnt that before he left, Liu Kaï persuaded the unsuspecting Zhang Xia to sign several documents as supposed director of what is later found to be a bogus company named Eternal Dragon. The narrator comments drily: “No one had told him yet but Zhang Xia was a straw man. Straw comes in handy. It’s isolating, ecological, biodegradable … and it burns fast and well” (38). Before he disappeared, Liu Kaï gave Zhang Xia a CD-ROM to deliver to an associate. Unable to find the man, Zhang Xia has kept this item hidden on his person in a leather pouch worn under his shirt – for on the disk, though of course written in Chinese, is a map of the Congo showing where most of its many enormously valuable, strategically important and rich mineral deposits are located. This detail is revealed quite late in the narrative.
Another significant (though quite awful) character in the novel is the “former” but entirely unreformed warlord Kiro Bizimungu, actually of Rwandan Tutsi origin and a Monyamulenge – leader of the Banyamulenge [Tutsis who initially fled the Rwandan genocide towards the DRC, then began to hunt down Hutus who fled from post-genocide Tutsi-dominated Rwanda into the Congo, and eventually engaged in genocide-style activities similar to which they had been subjected, in order to dislodge indigenous Congolese groups from the area where the Banyamulenge were determined to settle]. The Banyamulenge – known for their ruthlessness – dominate in particular DRC areas, from which they strip the abundant strategic minerals (with the forced or bought co-operation of terrified, blackmailed or corrupted Congolese and western mining interests – as well as some of the supposed “peacekeepers”). Formerly part of the RPF (the mainly Tutsi fighters who “recovered” Rwanda after the 1994 genocide), Kiro Bizimungu is known by the appropriately fearsome nickname of Kobra Zulu. It was during one of the horrible raids led by him that he obtained his “wife”, Adeïto Kalisay, a young female member of the Congolese victim group, most of whom were mowed down, tortured for “display”, raped in especially brutal ways or otherwise grievously assaulted. The activities orchestrated by Kiro Bizimungu and perpetrated by his men are described in horrifying, harrowing and heart-breaking detail – a deliberate artistically and morally motivated literary enactment of the author’s fury at the damage the parties he holds responsible (which include individuals and organisations from all over the world, even those ones especially set up supposedly to prevent such vile acts and to protect local civilians, mostly peasant families) allow to happen. Kiro spotted Adeïto because she somehow retained a kind of dignity even as she was being assaulted, and he demanded that she be brought to him as his personal spoils. Initially his captive, Adeïto becomes the first and only woman to whom he is sexually addicted, and he ends up keeping her with him as his supposed spouse (still closely guarded) when peace is declared and Bizimungu moves to Kinshasha. He is given a cushy civilian post as ostensible chief administrator in the grand Kinshasha “Office of Conservation of the Salonga National Park” (47) – the very area of which Isookanga’s venerable uncle, Lomama, is the actual custodian (but, of course, unappointed, since he lacks the connections and is, in any case, incorruptible). Bizimungu has zero knowledge about the park or its ecology, and is terribly bored in the city – his only real skill being his ability to organise violent mayhem and bloodshed. He is, in fact, still unofficially but vitally connected to the armed and violent AFDL – “Alliance of Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Congo-Zaire” (so-called), which is secretly organised (according to Bofane – clearly relying on hard-earned and first-hand knowledge provided by the Congolese victims) by the new Rwandan Patriotic Army. In order to obtain “lebensraum” for their tiny, overcrowded country, and, perhaps even more importantly, to obtain the mineral wealth and other rich resources, mainly in the Kivu Provinces of Eastern Congo, they are involved in what Bofane candidly terms the “great crime” of yet another “genocide”, the “systematic and methodical eradication of a [Congolese] population” (48), this time by Tutsis and an array of internationally allied looters and killers. In sardonic contrast with starry-eyed notions of internationalisation like Isookanga’s, the narrator states: “[Bizimungu] and his faction had turned themselves into globalization’s zealous auxiliaries, and the international community had compensated them accordingly” (48, see also 84–7).
The next character of some significance who is introduced to the reader is the founder, Pastor Jonas Monkaya, of the Church of Divine Multiplication in central Kinshasha. Since many novelists have described the phenomenon of mushrooming Christian churches across much of sub-Saharan Africa – the worshipping congregations that are usually seen as gullible yet pitiable folk, whose money is milked by the unscrupulous conmen who, in most cases, run these churches – it is interesting to see Bofane’s portrayal of such a group, and the different kinds of hope, desperation and greed on which it is built. Monkaya “had once been close to the world of show business” when he was a wrestler, known at the time by the shorter name of “Monk” (because of his resemblance to the famous jazz musician). Relying on the combination of his “indisputable sense of marketing” and “the gift of the gab”, “above all” (90), Monkaya had some years ago decided that his talent for seducing women would surely make him excellent at persuading congregants to entrust their cash to him and to his church – on condition he offered them sufficient enticement. His church is the only social gathering or public place (aside from shops where needed supplies or clothing items are acquired) that Bizimungu allows Adeïto to visit – only in the company of the guards, who must always accompany her, of course. Not that this woman is in search of money; she is, however, desperate for spiritual solace and, no doubt, even for this very restricted method of escaping for short periods from her luxurious prison and demanding “spouse”. Bofane vividly evokes the flamboyant, impeccably and expensively garbed pastor: “microphone in hand, the Reverend Jonas Monkaya prayed as he strode across the stage like Otis Redding brought to life. Every now and then his voice soared over those of the faithful, imparting a tempo, uniting the multitude under the divine unction” (91). At the end of the service, Monkaya’s sidekick, Brother Kasongo, imparts the unwelcome news that their still highly lucrative takings from tithes and church donations have come down slightly; additionally, a rival pop-up church has enticed some of their members to defect. Monkaya takes immediate steps: a bogus company (“Paradizo Limited”) must be set up and the congregants told that, in a special vision which God imparted to the pastor, He has promised to multiply by a hundredfold money given to the Church of Divine Multiplication by congregants (in sealed envelopes with their names on). What he does not make entirely clear is that this will work somewhat like a roulette wheel; some few, selected persons will each week receive their reward in ready cash from Paradizo Limited, while most of the donors might have to wait a long, long time for this to happen to them! It is, of course, a brilliant plan and massively successful, with immediate expanded earnings for Monkaya and somewhat more meagre rewards for Brother Kas – but allowing him a more elevated position in the church.
A major event in the narrative is the tragic shooting of one of the shégués: a troubled older boy among the street children, known by the nickname “Omari Double-Blade” because he (as the rumour tells it), in his former life as a child soldier, arrested an adult, armed enemy soldier without even using his gun, merely holding a big knife in either hand. Shasha / La Jactance took pity on him some time ago when the boy was by chance separated from his fighting unit and lost in the city; technically, Omari is considered a deserter. “He was going back to his spot near the administrative buildings when his blood froze as someone screamed, ‘Soldier Mushizi Omari!’” (62). Guessing immediately that he has been spotted by members of his former unit, the boy darts away, scattering his merchandise as he flees, but a corrupt corporal in the police force hears the shouts of the pursuers and guns down the child without a second thought. A chaotic scene ensues; because the boy is one of the best known street children among the many thousands thronging the city, a horde of furious, weeping shégués almost immediately surrounds the dead victim, the policeman who shot him and the four soldiers who had been chasing Omari, hemming them in. The corporal’s murder weapon, still held in his hand, is wrested from him by a street child, who fires a shot into the air with it, causing panic and chaos. One of the four terrified officers puts his machine gun on the automatic firing position and shoots a volley into the sky, a foolish act which “multiplied the rage of the youth tenfold. In a split second the officer was trampled like a snake” (63). No doubt, the ensuing rage of the over two thousand street children who soon gather at the scene in and around the market where the shooting happened is the result of years of harassment, victimisation, contempt and persecution by the city authorities. The seething mass of children goes on the rampage, proceeding to demolish absolutely everything in the market – stalls, shops, warehouses and goods. They manage to salvage a coffin from a nearby undertaker’s, into which they place Omari’s small body. “The children were crying with anger, the girls covering their faces with ashes to express their grief” while the boys assume fighting postures (63). Omari was known for his fierceness, but “he also had the biggest heart” and many of the street kids knew his “kindness” (64). Hearing the “lamentations” of the shégués, as well as the shooting and ensuing commotion, Isookanga arrives on the scene. He has known and got on with Omari during the brief period he has been in the city. Upset by the death, he stares silently at the body in the coffin, flanked by Zhang Xia, who understands little of what has been going on. Some of the shégués see Isookanga among them and ask him what to do; “Jacula la Safrane, a sassy fourteen-year-old girl, insists: ‘You’re the only grown-up among us, so tell us what to do’” (65). Wiping away her tears, Shasha la Jactance informs Isookanga that, since they are holding three hostages – the corporal who fired the shot and two of the soldiers, now quiet and cowed – the city authorities will be forced to negotiate with the street children. Isookanga, suddenly propelled into the role of leader in this tense situation, keeps his head and explains that, although Omari is dead and gone, the children will have to make demands in return for eventually releasing their hostages. Isookanga, in his turn, asks advice from his Chinese friend and now business partner [they both sell Zhang Xia’s water]: “Zhang Xia, you come from a country that has achieved its revolution; what’s your advice?” At first flustered, Zhang Xia cites an ancient Chinese writer who insisted that some deaths matter more than others; he concludes: “Comrade Omari’s death weighs more heavily than Mount Taishan because he was hunted and slaughtered by reactionary fascist forces. We can’t let that go” (65). The children cheer him on, and the next moment, “the Colonel” (presumably a top police officer) arrives, along with, evidently, TV crews and reporters for audiences across the globe; the children’s demands must be articulated. Isookanga will be the spokesman. Zhang Xia remains behind and unobtrusive, but the fact that the Chinaman is spotted by the authorities’ henchmen – along with the presence of the international media – means that they are obliged to “play ball”.
The Colonel thinks he can dismiss the shégués’ demands with bluster and intimidation, but Isookanga is having none of it. The balance shifts when the governor appears on the scene and is bombarded with reporters’ critical questions regarding the treatment of the city’s shégués. Zhang Xia’s presence especially worries the governor; he assumes that the Chinese Foreign Ministry is involved and (absurdly) that “they wanted to do a Tianmen Square on him”, which would be “very bad for [his] image” (72). Under all this pressure, the governor, in a conciliatory gesture, expresses condolences, promises “training and community centres”, grants the children a general amnesty for their retaliatory violence and destruction, and hands over a decent sum (which he has brought with him as compensation for damages) to Isookanga, who signs the receipt – though he issues a warning against further demonstrations of the same kind. Isookanga is filmed shaking hands, saying cleverly that he hopes (in view of the moment being filmed and recorded) the promises will be kept. He even slips in a small advertisement for the water sachets he and Zhang Xia sell! The Belgian researcher Aude Martin, soon to leave the Congo, asks Isookanga for a date – she is still fascinated or besotted with this “exotic” young man.
By chance, Bizimungu encounters Isookanga the next day, buying water from him for himself and his entourage. He has been impressed by the young man’s chutzpah (as seen on TV) and, upon finding out that Isookanga is an aboriginal inhabitant of the forest area he is supposed to administer, that he shares his own contempt for trees and his desire to exploit the area’s resources, and that (to crown the opportunity he immediately spots) Isookanga’s uncle is the chief in the area and possesses occult skills, he invites “the Pygmy” (as he thinks of him) to his office. As a clue to what Bizimungu is likely to have in store for the local inhabitants of Salonga National Park in Equateur Province, the narrator reminds us what he intended for those living in South Kivu: “by driving the effort [meaning the slaughter, rape and torture perpetrated by himself and the men under his command] a little further, if they managed to eradicate its population as quietly as possible, they would be able to attain the stage of master among the world’s masters” (83). But Bofane’s narrative of horror and bleakness has its complexity. Although the world’s nations may be united primarily in their leaders’ greed, power hunger and ruthlessness, his vision includes (in what might ironically be termed its globalising reach, which extends from Chongqing in China to the USA, even while distinctly Afro- and particularly Congo-centric) the few brave people who manage occasionally to put a spike in the oiled wheels of profiteers and warlords of various nationalities. Hence, following the extended description (in appalling, harrowing detail) of the earlier extermination of a village community by Bizimungu and his cronies, the narrator introduces a new character, one Chiara Argento. She is an Italian woman working in the New York offices of the United Nations Peacekeeping Operations, and is slowly but relentlessly tracking down those responsible for the killing of six UN peacekeepers in the Congo in South Kivu, an atrocity in which (she has a hunch) Bizimungu was involved, along with the man “introduced” to readers as the sexual customer or “regular” of young Shasha la Jactance, the brave street child. About Chiara, we are told the following: “Some things cannot go unpunished! she would repeat to herself” (88). However, unbeknownst to Chiara, Shasha la Jactance has her own plans for the Lithuanian Waldemar Mirnas stationed in Kinshasha for his UN work.
The next twist in Bofane’s cleverly plotted narrative begins with Isookanga, following his first visit to Bizimungu’s office, finding Zhang Xia looking especially woebegone. Not that (while trapped in Kinshasha and desperately missing his wife and son) his Chinese friend has ever seemed particularly cheerful, but he has been upset by a poignant letter from Gong Xiyan, telling him how “nothing can comfort” her in his prolonged absence, ending on the disquieting note that a “gentleman” [Zhang Xia is soon able to work out that this is a coded reference to a policeman] has “stopped by” at their tiny flat in the huge city of Chongqing. What she could not risk writing in the letter are two points: firstly, that the policeman is the top ranking one in the city and that he pointedly asked her whether she could provide proof that Zhang Xia had never returned to China since he left to work in the Congo; and secondly, that the policeman evidently finds her immensely attractive as a woman (not that her demeanour is in any way immodest or other than shy and utterly proper). It is clear that Bofane’s sympathies extend beyond the girls and women of Congo in recognising gender imbalances and their exploitation, especially in situations of class discrepancy, in other parts of the world, too. Wang Lideng, as the “visiting” police officer is called, has, by stealthy cunning and meticulous tabs kept on his superior officers, managed to get himself appointed to the top police post in Chongqing (the third largest city in China), and has formed an alliance with the newly appointed governor of the city and province to boot out the former, corruptly allied elite. He is now tracking down the crime boss (or bosses) of the bogus company Eternal Dragon. Maybe the two men will build their own empire?
In the meantime, Waldemar Mirnas, “the only Lithuanian officer at MONUSCO – the UN Mission for the Consolidation of Congo” – sits down for his lunch at a restaurant table, reflecting on his luck at having been given this post (he has been in the Congo for three years, after a previous stint in Afghanistan):
At least in Congo anything was possible, and with little effort you could even change your life and climate. It was enough to lay low a bit, cash in, and go off to what were certainly more temperate lands such as Kuala Lumpur or Phuket, for instance; some place where the picture-postcard image might be hiding things that were far more intense than they seemed. And it was precisely in Congo that Waldemar Mirnas had met up with this intensity. Paradoxically, it was not on a battlefield as was to be expected, but, more prosaically, it was while wandering the streets of Kinshasha at night, driving through the Great Market area, when he first noticed the street kids, those girls with their outrageously arched tiny posteriors. Little girls, afraid of nothing, vulgar almost to the point of indecency. One night in the shadows he spotted Shasha la Jactance, the child whore, and from that moment on his blood had not stopped boiling in his veins, especially in those that flooded his head. (116)
Another great white saviour aiding the people of the Congo (like Conrad’s Kurtz), in other words. But Mirnas’s lunch is completely spoiled when his old associate, Kiro Bizimungu, unexpectedly joins him at his table. The two proceed to reproach each other, Mirnas blaming Bizimungu for the fact that six UN soldiers under his command were gunned down by men under the command of Bizimungu, while the latter declares it all Mirnas’s own fault because the UN weapons the men were supposed to supply in a trade-off for local looted minerals (perhaps gold) were far fewer than had been agreed on between the leaders; his men could not be blamed for their murderous fury at being so blatantly cheated, Bizimungu insists. Mirnas, in a panicky fury, tells Bizimungu that he wants nothing further to do with him, warning him (after a threat by Bizimungu that, were Mirnas to implicate him, it will go badly for him) that a UN inquest [we guess that it is led by Chiara Argento] is in progress and, moreover, that the International Court of Justice in The Hague probably awaits him. Despite Mirnas’s bluster, he is himself severely rattled, and the stomach cramps that have been plaguing him intensify.
A subsequent narrative shift depicts another encounter between a Congolese local and a sexually fascinated European – the latter, in this case, being the Belgian researcher Aude Martin, with Isookanga as the person she is obsessed with, he being pretty much unaware of her attitude, since he does not find her alluring or interesting, but, in fact, somewhat irritating. It is on her insistence that Isookanga meets her for a dinner and drinks date on what is her last evening in the Congo before she returns to her country and her fiancé. As the subsequent dancing and alcohol go to her head, instead of blaming her own libido, Aude fears that she has been “bewitched; something ancestral would prevent her from freeing herself from this fateful charm” (122). The latter comment continues the “stereotypical comments on Africa and Congo” that she has been uttering the entire evening, which in Isookanga evokes a rage manifesting physiologically in an erection. Still, he swears vindictively to himself that he will not satisfy her all too obvious desire – partly because his uncircumcised penis usually puts off Congolese women, and to him she is just another female. Aude requests to be taken back to her hotel and, once they enter her room, demands: “When are you Africans finally going to grab your chance …? … When you think of what this continent has to endure, how does a Pygmy handle it? With all the energy you have, why such resignation?” (123). Furious at Aude’s belittling remarks, Isookanga turns to leave, but she grabs onto his T-shirt. Aude implores him not to go, saying that she wants “only one thing: to share this suffering”, and, when he proceeds to have fierce sex with her, Aude absurdly imagines that she is somehow doing penance for a whole litany of colonial abuses. These include the whipping of Congolese and other African slaves; the severance of the hands of Congolese workers for supplying “insufficient” ivory and rubber during Belgian rule; the Belgian police commissioner Gerard Soete’s dissection of Patrice Lumumba’s corpse; the shootings of locals by “vicious neo-colonialists”; the “diktats” of the IMF; the issuing and reprinting of the Belgian cartoonist Hergé’s Tintin au Congo; French president Sarkozy’s “ill-informed” Dakar speech in 2007 [it repeated the old Hegelian claim that “the African has never really entered history”]; racist sentiments that continue to proliferate in Twitter rants (124–5). Misinterpreting Aude’s screams of passion and sexual pleasure for cries for help, the nearby hotel guests hammer on and open the (unlocked) hotel door. Embarrassed, Isookanga flees the scene while an equally embarrassed Aude sobs hypocritically that she was raped. Meanwhile, she wonders with “a delicious sense of guilt” (126) whether her sexual “martyrdom” [!] has compensated for the damage inflicted on Congolese by her ancestors.
Deep in the Salonga forest, Old Lomama, the Ekonda chief (Isookanga’s uncle), makes a highly disquieting discovery: the dead body of the great lord of the forest – Nkoi Mobali, the huge leopard who has controlled the region for decades as its undisputed ruler. Lomama, the human chief, would ask the leopard’s permission to kill for food for his family, but now the magnificent creature, always considered unassailable, lies dead on the forest floor. Investigating what could possibly have killed him, Lomama discovers a strange kind of hair in tufts on nearby vegetation. This clue (which he is able to identify), along with the many deep gouging wounds on the leopard’s flanks, leads him to the conclusion that a group of warthogs – far from their usual habitat on more open ground – must have been challenged by the leopard, finding them encroaching on his territory. Working out how fiercely and bravely the leopard initially withstood the warthog horde, Old Lomama speaks a lament and a tribute over the body before skinning it: “Ah, Nkoi Mobali! Immortal hero! … I shall speak of your courage and strength, but of your magnanimity above all. Because of your demise, people will know that the end of the world is near” (131). The old chief resolves to go to Kinshasha with this important warning sign, for the changing local ecology is the portent and proof of the damage technological innovations, modernisation and globalisation (not that these are his terms) are beginning to inflict, and, hence, of the unaffordable, lethal costs of development.
Continuing her investigation of how the massacre of the six UN soldiers in Kamituga, in the Congo, could have come about, Chiara Argento is beginning to get a stronger whiff of something fishy involving not only Kobra Zulu [as Bizimungu used to name himself], but also a specific member of the UN personnel on the ground in Africa, viz Waldemar Mirnas. It turns out that she and Celio, her mysterious Congolese collaborator in New York, orchestrated Bizimungu’s appointment to the position that brought the warlord to Kinshasha, so that he would be easier to apprehend than if he were still roaming the war-torn provinces. Chiara is haunted by the terrible death cries of the six UN soldiers, to which she was forced to listen because of the UN’s technological expertise and close monitoring of staff activities. Of course, the reader is more than likely intended to notice the huge difference between the diligence with which the deaths of a handful of UN deployees is investigated – while thousands, or rather millions, of African and other poor victims of war atrocities have their demise left unavenged, and the perpetrators [of all possible nationalities] in the vast majority of cases are allowed to remain free, rich and in power. Chiara has grown sufficiently cynical at this point to hold that “everybody was lying”, with “one hidden agenda replacing the next” (136). In a teleconference with Mirnas, Chiara gives him a broad hint that she is aware that he had some hand in the six UN men’s deaths, for his reports claim that they were somewhere far distant from where they were shot, whereas in New York they have the documentary evidence of the location of their deaths. And these men (Uruguayans) were under Mirnas’s direct command. Hanging up, Chiara speaks to Celio about the basis of her (as we know, well founded) suspicions: “There are far too many interests in Congo, Celio. They all want to line their pockets. It’s the only purpose of rebellions [supposedly arising from local, African causes]; all of our reports prove it. Our Blue Berets [the UN peacekeeping forces] act like everyone else – it’s that simple” (147–8). What Mirnas does not know is that he has another woman determined to punish him for his misdeeds in ruthlessly exploiting his Congo posting. For Shasha la Jactance, whom he believes to be his willing sex slave for the handful of dollars he pays her for her services, detests Mirnas to the point of burning hatred and fury, heartfelt feelings which intensify every time he undresses, fondles and has sex with her. She has overcome the near catatonic state in which her terrible personal history initially reduced her, and the stomach pains that Mirnas believes to be an ulcer resulting from worry, are caused by the local poison that is painstakingly fed to him in the local dishes he pays Shasha to cook for and serve to him before having sex with him. Shasha’s personal counterpart to the exhilarating sexual ecstasy Mirnas experiences as a result of her ministrations is a deep revulsion, horror and shame at his misuse of her still childish body.
Isookanga has, in the meantime, learnt of the CD-ROM with the Chinese map of the enormous mineral resources (of many kinds) dispersed throughout Congo in lucrative amounts. When Zhang Xia reveals it to him, Isookanga sees it as a wonderful opportunity, for (as he assures his Chinese friend) “Commander Bizimungu” will pay good money for the disk or the information on it, definitely enough for Zhang Xia to buy a flight ticket by means of which he can return to his country, his wife and his son, since (as he surmises) the disk is “worth a fortune” (142). It is Zhang Xia, more experienced than Isookanga in the bitter ways of the world of power, who warns his Ekonda friend against a “warlord” such as Bizimungu. Speaking of the social and ideological reforms of “the Great Helmsman” [Mao], Zhang Xia – who cannot help thinking that “globalization is crap” – informs Isookanga that the Maoist reforms “cost China millions of lives” in the resulting famine, and states: “Nothing can rationalize the suffering that was caused; you can’t justify disaster” (142). Isookanga’s uncle, much more adept at making his way in the city than the young man expected, manages to track down his nephew with a little bit of assistance from Google, which has information about the young Ekonda after the TV reports about his leadership of the shégué riot – information which the old man accesses when he happens to ask a stallholder selling (probably stolen) smartphones. He has come to Kin’ in order to alert the appropriate authorities to the death of the great leopard Nkoi Mobali, and its causes and significance, but, of course, he is also eager to reconnect with his nephew and to try and persuade him to return to their village. Isookanga is, in fact, delighted to see his uncle and duly impressed by his city know-how. Since Lomama has been told of Isookanga’s acquaintance with Bizimungu, who now heads Salongo National Park, he asks his nephew to take him to meet the man and inform him of the death. Informing Bizimungu, in his turn, about the CD-ROM, Isookanga gets him to promise two thousand US dollars for the map, once it has been translated from Chinese.
But Chiara Argento has been busy. Needing further proof of Bizimungu’s involvement in the six UN soldiers’ killing, she finds out from the UN head that records of telecommunications between the warlord and his henchman who was on the spot can only be obtained from the Americans in the military body known as Africom, which is now Rwanda-based and no longer in Congo. The Rwandese authorities would have to be prepared to permit the sharing of the information; Chiara coolly insists that the Rwandese must be offered a carrot, such as a non-permanent seat on the Security Council. Soon, she has the proof of complicity also implicating Mirnas. She prepares the prosecutor of the ICC in Holland, and gets a UN aeroplane sent to Kinshasha to fly Bizimungu – to be arrested at night – to The Hague to stand trial for his part in the crime. By chance, Mirnas spots the plane and, having got wind of Chiara’s plans for Bizimungu, he immediately warns his associate – of course not from any concern for the warlord, but because he is well aware that Bizimungu will implicate and expose Mirnas’s own role in the death of the UN men. The call is eventually answered, and immediately the seriousness of his position penetrates the warlord’s initial bewilderment. He tells Adeïto that they must flee right away. On the way, driving blindly through the Kinshasha streets, Adeïto gives Bizimungu advice that he accepts – that they can probably take shelter at the church she attends or the home of her pastor. When they are close, Bizimungu’s car gets a flat tyre. A third secretly vengeful woman emerges in the narrative when Adeïto suddenly spots and seizes an opportunity. Opening the car door on her side, she starts running down the street towards the church, yelling first the word in the local language for “thief!” and then (improvising further and tearing her clothing) shouting out that Bizimungu has just raped her. People living nearby have rushed into the street in response to her screams. Believing the highly plausible accusations, they grab hold of the terrified Bizimungu and “necklace” him – the usual vigilante method. Recognising Adeïto, who has previously caught his eye in church because of her beauty, sadness and dignity, Pastor Monkaya (who has been futilely fantasising about making her his secretary) leads her to “safety” – which one must hope she attains and retains, despite the pastor’s little dream. Appropriately, both Bizimungu and Mirnas thus meet their well deserved fates at Congolese hands and can do no further harm.
Isookanga and Zhang Xia, who turned up at Bizimungu’s office with the CD-ROM and a French translation while the dead warlord was being searched for the next day, his burnt corpse not having been identified yet, are taken into custody on suspicion of complicity in his crimes. Isookanga is released (his public profile as leader of the street children protects him), but when he goes back to ask about Zhang Xia, he is given the worrying news that the Chinaman has been extradited to China and is no longer in the Congo. He is sought by the Chinese police there, and in all likelihood faces a firing squad for corrupting officials in Chongqing, on the evidence of his signatures on the Eternal Dragon company documents. Soon afterwards, Isookanga receives an imploring request from Gong Xiyan (Zhang Xia’s wife) that he provide documentary proof that her husband has been in Congo all along, when Eternal Dragon deals were struck in China – the only way in which an appeal against his sentence can prove his innocence. Isookanga, saddened by Zhang Xia’s situation and at not even having greeted his friend, has, in the meantime, decided to return to the village with his uncle, since he thinks running the water business on his own would not work, and much more aware now that the city is a lethal den of thieves and other predators. Old Lomama has insisted that he should now be circumcised, even at his relatively “old” age, so that Isookanga can marry and be further inducted into the Ekonda culture in preparation for the chieftainship. He attempts to send the evidence he has of Zhang Xia’s presence in Congo during the riot to China, but the signal fades as they are leaving the capital by boat on the return journey. One hopes that the telecommunications tower near his village will allow Isookanga to send the evidence in time to save his Chinese friend from imprisonment, and (on the evidence of Isookanga’s evident strong sense of loyalty) he will probably succeed.
On this note, Bofane ends his fascinating, brilliantly structured, sophisticated and profound exploration of what globalisation means for Africa in the twenty-first century. I choose to end the present account of the text by citing a slightly earlier passage, a conversation held between the uncle and nephew just prior to their departure from Kin’, to prove that Old Lomama is perhaps well ahead of young Isookanga in being “globalized” (or clued about globalisation) and has a more sophisticated take on it than his sassy mid-twenties nephew suspects:
“Did you know there’s gold, bitumen, and diamonds in the Ekonda soil?”
“Of course, Little One.” [Explaining that those of the Ekonda hunters who used guns always found metal or “mystical stones” they could use for bullets, in the soil, he adds:] “and it worked just fine.”
“But why didn’t you ever tell me this before? Especially since you never stop saying that a traditional chief must be the same as Goldman Sachs: he must know everything.”
“First of all, you’re not a chief yet. And furthermore, men being what they are, if you tell them about such things, goodbye calves, cows, pigs: nobody will want to work anymore. Little One, have you ever heard of gold fever? Of those addicted to by-products? Of those who throw themselves out of Wall Street buildings because they bet on a rising market? ‘Insider trading,’ you know what that means? All that is lethal, believe me – me, your uncle here before you. My son, I think it’s high time for you to get your ideas together and find a satisfactory wife who loves you and takes care of you.” (183–4)
And that will hopefully happen, too, even though Isookanga does still harbour somewhat grandiose ambitions of what kind of chief he, “Isookanga Lolanga Djokisa, young Ekonda and an internationalist besides” (189), could be by means of control over his area’s mineral wealth, as he still has the CD-ROM and the French translation of the information on it …
1 The “Berlin Conference” (as it is widely known) was presided over by Chancellor Bismarck of Germany.
2 An allusion to the genocidal proportions of Belgium’s colonial and brutally extractive “ownership” of Congo.
3 Alluding to coltan, a metal essential for making both cell phones and computers, mainly found in the DRC.