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.
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.