Colonialism in the Congo

2009-10-14 00:00

AUTHOR Veronica Cecil becomes more and more angry as she watches events unfolding in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

“I am angry because I think what has happened there and what continues to happen is directly our fault,” she says.

Cecil was in Cape Town to promote her book, Bongo Bongo Bongo, I Don’t Wanna Leave the Congo, a memoir of her life as a young wife and mother in the Belgian Congo during the sixties. The book takes the reader on a journey with Cecil, aged 25, with her husband who took up a position with a large multinational company, and her baby son.

Despite her initial optimism, she is met with a country in turmoil after Patrice Lumumba’s murder — and is forced to deal with food shortages, complex national politics, as well as deep tensions between the Congolese and the colonials living there.

The book sees Cecil move from the capital, Leopoldville, to a large plantation in Elizabetha on the banks of the Congo River, about 200 kilometres from Stanleyville. Here she experiences a beauty and a calm, despite growing political unrest in the bigger cities. When Stanleyville erupts, Cecil is part of a group of women and small children who are the first to be evacuated in boats and small planes back to Leopoldville.

While on the move, she goes into labour with her second child, and finds someone to look after her other child while she gives birth.

Cecil, a mother of four and a grandmother of nine, was born in ­India and has lived in Rhodesia, the Congo and South Africa. She now lives in ­London, but visits southern Africa regularly. On her return to the United Kingdom, she began writing plays for radio and television, and then, in 1988, became a successful radio journalist.

Cecil, who watches events in the Democratic Republic of Congo closely, believes that “big business” and “world powers” are largely responsible for the crisis in today’s DRC.

“It is the greed of world powers and big business that are responsible for what is happening there,” she says. This viewpoint was reinforced at a meeting she attended recently of Congolese people living in London. In her book, she describes how, while in the Congo, she became increasingly concerned about the role played by big companies and international powers in their bid to stake their claim to the country’s wealth.

“I felt relieved that what I felt is, today, being confirmed by the Congolese people themselves,” she says.

“I heard recently about a woman in east Congo who watched her son being shot dead because he refused to rape her. When he refused they shot him and stuck a plank in her. This is a commonplace story.”

As happened in South Africa, the Congo has had a background of ­appalling violence since King Leopold’s day. “I believe that all ­victims become dangerous. People turn on someone weaker. It is in their bones.”

Whenever she visits South Africa, Cecil makes a point of speaking to as many Congolese people as she can. “I speak to the car guards in French. They are always so happy to chat about where they come from and who they are. I met a man the other day who has married a Xhosa woman. He hates being called a refugee. He has been offered a job in a call centre but he cannot take it up ­because, due to a Home Affairs glitch, he has been described as Korean on his ID document. He cannot get them to change it. It’s Kafkaesque, isn’t it?”

Cecil says she wrote Bongo Bongo because she believes that, as a witness to major events in the Congo, she had a story to tell.

“I am a colonial. I am torn between my identities as English and African. But I was a witness to events in the Congo. I can only be as honest as I can about what I saw and felt. I was just an ordinary person in the country at an important time in its history. I thought no matter how nonpolitically correct I might have appeared — as a white woman coming from South Africa and writing as a colonial in the Congo — I still had a story.

“It was emotionally cathartic to write the book. I tried to go into all the ambiguities I felt in the book — and concluded that there are no moral absolutes.”

She believes that what she saw and experienced during her time in the Congo is directly relevant to the political situation in the country today.

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