Legendary words


Institut Français Tchad, hip-hop art, home for Voices. 2015. Photo: Mirjam de Bruijn

This winter holiday I watched movies about Congolese freedom fighter and first prime minister at Independence, Patrice Lumumba. He is one of the heroes of my friends in N’Djamena, Chad. In these documentaries, Lumumba is presented as educated, integer, socially minded, a little authoritarian, intelligent, and moving toward change, but foremost as a leader in qualm, as if he did not want to become that leader. The time of Lumumba is a time full of controversies, oppositions, and hope. It is a period in which Africa’s new leaders fight for liberation, to gain real independence, to leave the yoke of colonialism. Lumumba’s words of his unplanned speech at Independence Day formed prose that was listened to by all the people of Congo and beyond:

Excerpt from the speech held on 30 June, 1960, Independence Day of Congo

(…) For this independence of the Congo, even as it is celebrated today with Belgium, a friendly country with whom we deal as equal to equal, no Congolese worthy of the name will ever be able to forget that it was by fighting that it has been won, a day-to-day fight, an ardent and idealistic fight, a fight in which we were spared neither privation nor suffering, and for which we gave our strength and our blood.

We are proud of this struggle, of tears, of fire, and of blood, to the depths of our being, for it was a noble and just struggle, and indispensable to put an end to the humiliating slavery which was imposed upon us by force.

This was our fate for eighty years of a colonial regime; our wounds are too fresh and too painful still for us to drive them from our memory.

Who will ever forget the shootings which killed so many of our brothers, or the cells into which were mercilessly thrown those who no longer wished to submit to the regime of injustice, oppression and exploitation used by the colonialists as a tool of their domination?

All that, my brothers, brought us untold suffering. (…) Brothers, let us commence together a new struggle, a sublime struggle that will lead our country to peace, prosperity and greatness.

 We shall stop the persecution of free thought. We shall see to it that all citizens enjoy to the fullest extent the basic freedoms provided for by the Declaration of Human Rights.

 We shall institute in the country a peace resting not on guns and bayonets but on concord and goodwill.

Lumumba was killed a few months after he gave this speech, by those internationals who depicted him as communist, and by those nationals who did not want him in power. Justice was not their main wish.

Words of a hero live in the present
The words of Lumumba never left and they do still inspire young people in Africa: young men and women who are fighting for a similar cause, because the optimistic words ending the speech of Lumumba have not become reality up till now. And many of the sufferings Lumumba enumerated in his speech are lived today.


Films keep Lumumba’s words alive

His words are captured in mobile telephones as a ringtone, as I discovered during a voyage in Northern Congo in June 2014, when a young man’s phone spoke Lumumba’s 1960 words (he transferred the mp3 file into my phone). Later I came to understand that these words are listened and referred to by young men and women throughout West and Central Africa, who are fighting for recognition of today’s injustices. For them Lumumba is a hero who at least tried to bring real liberty. But they all feel that that time has not come.

Today’s powerful words
Would it be exaggerating to say that we live again in a period of intense oppositions and injustice? That we enter a new epoch in which development aid comes to an end, in which protest is taking over, be it in severe violent actions, or in popular movements in Senegal, Burkina Faso, Congo, Chad? That this will be a period of insecurity, of new élan, in which new leadership is called for!

Words have power. They make us remember and they encourage actions. Words are very present in the ‘revolutions’ or ‘social movements’ that are spreading through Africa today. Is it not a coincidence that words of songs are central in recent uprisings: ‘Y’en a Marre’ in Senegal, a coalition of rappers and journalists, or rapper Smockey who led with other rappers the movement ‘Balai Citoyen’ in Burkina Faso and all the other hip-hop artists who revive the origins of this protest art (rap and hip-hop), sing about injustice and want to raise awareness? Urban protest art has gained importance in Africa over the past decades. This is not only a consequence of increasing possibilities offered by new technology, but certainly also because there is a serious need for such voices! Slam and spoken word meet increasingly in African festivals. The words carry a message and explain the reasons to protest. Words are non-violent protest.

Words are the future history
Can words carry a revolution? Words are no longer only broadcast by the radio, as was the case in the time of Lumumba, but they are, accompanied by pictures, videos, etc. disseminated by Facebook, social media, text-messages, Bluetooth, whatsapp, etc. They are picked up by international organizations who spread the words into the ether. Words are reaching out to so many people today. Also ‘old’ words appear to be new and forceful in today’s struggles.

The new word-jugglers will never say they follow in the footsteps of their heroes. For them heroes are sacred, untouchable and hence should not be mimicked. But who knows what their words will bring? Who knows what heroes they will be? We will see which of the words of these new leaders will finally end up in the history books and will be labelled memorable by the historians of today’s Africa.

Whose minds need to be revolutionised?

Guest author: Catherina Wilson, PhD researcher in the project ‘Connecting in Times of Duress’, www.connecting-in-times-of-duress.nl, for which she travels the borders between CAR and DRC.

Sapin behind the easel at Libenge’s main market’s corner.

Sapin behind the easel at Libenge’s main market’s corner.

An artist, a historian and a researcher

Sapin is a Kinshasa based popular painter. Popular painters are mostly innate, self-taught artists who learn the art at the ateliers of more experienced painters. Since childhood, Sapin used to make sketches for his friends at school. He often recalls the anecdote of how he, at the age of ten, used to shape a crocodile out of sand each evening. The neighbourhood kids baptized this reptile the wild animal. Sapin would have liked to go into university or to study arts but was not encouraged to do so. He points to the neglect of both his parents. His father was even against the idea of an artistic career, forcing Sapin to finish his secondary school in electricity instead.

At the age of twenty, Chéri Chérin, one of Kinshasa’s famous popular painters, took Sapin under his wing. Sapin started developing skills and meeting people. Through his art, Sapin has befriended many mindele (whites). The relation with researchers like us who visit Kinshasa, is partly linked to his art, and to the knowledge he has of his city; walking with Sapin in Kinshasa is like walking with a living encyclopaedia, one that jovially mixes historical facts, personal anecdotes and lyrics of anciens succès (Congolese ‘golden oldies’). Sapin is a great storyteller and entertainer. On a deeper level, Sapin’s relationship with researchers finds its roots in an innate thirst for knowledge.

Observing Sapin has taught me that he is not just an artist, but also a researcher and a historian at heart. Curiosity is the first prerequisite for being a good researcher. Sapin is curious and has showed at several reprises an urge to delve into the past. Experience is another asset in the researcher’s repertoire and it has taught Sapin. As mentioned before, Sapin has accompanied researchers at various occasions during their data collection; instead of standing by idly, he observes and participates, he notes down, he asks questions and makes interviews, he pushes the researcher to think. It was Sapin who first came up with the idea of what would later be called a ‘painting performance’. When I asked him what a researcher is, he responded: someone who understands something in order to share it with others. What he most admires in the researcher is the latter’s courage. Sapin’s lack of studying has become a weight on his shoulders, a hindrance, however, by meeting up with researchers he has learned to be courageous too. He now dares to ask questions himself, he dares to know, and thus to quench his thirst.

Papa Henri’s project in Libenge: An incentive for the imagination

A couple of months ago, I told Sapin the story of Papa Henri in Libenge, where I did research. Libenge is an awkward little city is the northern Congo, along the shores of the Ubangui river, at the border between Congo and the Central African Republic. On the one hand it is a jewel in the jungle – old colonial houses, roads bordered with ancient mango trees, and home to Congo’s first international airport. On the other hand, Libenge is a thorn in the heart. Decay and forlornness have become too painful to observe. The best example of this are the carcasses of what was supposed to be the Panafrican University, built during Mobutu’s reign: 25 auditoriums, eleven student homes, an autonomous electricity central… all looted, forgotten and eaten by the jungle.

Balancing between glory and forlornness, Libenge is a historian’s paradise and Sapin’s enthusiasm motivated me to conduct a joint project around Papa Henri. In the past, Sapin had worked around a student insurgency that took place in Kinshasa in the 1960s. This experience motivated him to relate important yet unknown stories of his country to his compatriots. Now it would be Papa Henri’s turn to, perhaps, enter history. Papa Henri’s passion for his work inspired Sapin: “He is irregularly paid and works in a dead airport, yet despite of his age he fosters a love for his job. Why is he still working? And what has become of the first international airport on Congolese soil?”.

Sapin started his painting at the premises of the Libenge airport.

Sapin started his painting at the premises of the Libenge airport.

Sapin considers himself as a big absent of the past, a missing witness. His imagination was triggered by the airport’s history. Libenge received Congo’s first international flights. It was here that the first airplanes from Brussels landed, and it was here that, for instance, in 1960 Kasa Vubu, Lumumba, Tshombé and others took the plane to attend the famous Table Ronde in Brussels, announcing the eve of independence.

 30 June 1960, then Congolese delegation (L to R): Kasa Vubu, Lumumba, Bomboko and the Belgian King Baudoin at the Brussels airport. Did the plane at the back pick up its passengers in Libenge? Source: http://www.lecongolais.cd/quavons-nous-fait-de-lindependance/

Congolese delegation (L to R): Kasa Vubu, Lumumba, Bomboko and the Belgian King Baudoin at the Brussels airport. Did the plane at the back pick up its passengers in Libenge? Source: http://www.lecongolais.cd/quavons-nous-fait-de-lindependance/

For the occasion, African Jazz wrote the celebrated Indépendance Tcha Tcha, one of Sapin’s favourite ancient succès.

Alternative methods, alternative ways of ‘writing’

The purpose of Papa Henri’s project was to collect data in an alternative way, through a visual method. A painting elicits conversation and discussion among people. Discussion can be fruitful for understanding. A painting performance allows those who do not normally take part in the discussions to participate, for instance children. It was a way to share this great episode of history with Libenge’s own children, both young and old.

Research is often presented in written documents. Being able to write well (implying: proficiency of language in terms of spelling and grammar, but also access to computers) is another requisite for good research. Writing empowers the researcher to analyse, to understand and to share with others what s/he has collected in the field. But what does writing mean? There seems to be correct and erroneous writing systems. Moreover, writing is institutionalized and politicized. The Congolese educational system is in crisis, making writing dysfunctional. Does this imply that many Congolese are excluded from a life as a researcher? Are there other semiotic systems through which knowledge can be shared? Is our Western vision on how data should be analysed global, encompassing and fair?

During our visit to Libenge I gave an introductory course on anthropology, which consisted of a theoretical and a practical part. During the practical part, Sapin posed his easel in front of the students and painted, as he had been doing elsewhere in Libenge. I asked the students what type of data one could collect through a painting performance that one could not through an interview? To which one of the them replied: “In short, we can conclude that painting is the monument of speech. Painting materializes what speech expresses ephemerally. Words are carried away but that which is written (painted) is kept.”[1]

Through painting Sapin shared our research with others, mixing historical facts to social commentary. He ignited conversation, he ignited thought. A painter is a popular igniter. In the case of Libenge, he ignited conversations on how the country was and how it is today. But in me, he ignited more than that. Sapin ignited the question of the various possibilities to display research, of which writing is only one…

[1] “Bref, on peut conclure que la peinture est le monument de la parole. Elle matérialise en concrétisant ce que la parole exprime par l’air volatif comme on a dit tantôt : La parole s’en va mais les écrits (peintures) restent.”