Happy Independence Season! From Columbia’s today to France’s last week, ‘tis the season for national fêtes. On the 4th of July a few weeks ago, all across the U.S. there were probably thousands of Independence Day parades, large and small. Just a few days prior, on July 1st, our friendly Canadian neighbors experienced the same thing. (Though the Québécois may have partied a tad harder on St-Jean-Baptiste Day, the 24th of June.) And just one day earlier, on June 30th, DR-Congo also celebrated their Independence Day.
I’ve heard it said that revolutions and revolts tend to happen in the spring and summer, when the weather is nicer. Plus, you know, school’s out. Hey — young people unencumbered by heavy winter clothes are probably the key to any good fight against the establishment! 😉
In 2011 we were invited to attend a local celebration of Congo’s Independence Day, their 51st anniversary. It’s too bad we just missed the 50th; that was probably an ever bigger celebration. In many ways, it was a small-town parade not unlike the ones back home, which surprised me. In other ways, it was profoundly different.
One of the memories that stuck with me the most: Before the parade began, a group of schoolkids, maybe 13 years old or so, gathered around a microphone with their teacher in front of the local dignitaries. The teacher quizzed them about the country’s history, and their reasons for separation from Belgium. The kids answered quickly, perhaps a tad mechanically after what was obviously a well-rehearsed exchange, but in an uncanny way that nailed both sides of the coin.
Teacher: “What was good about being a colony of Belgium?”
Kids: “They built us roads, and bridges, and we had good schools and hospitals.”
Teacher: “What was bad about being a colony of Belgium?”
Kids: “They forced us to work very hard, they beat us and sometimes cut off our hands and feet.”
Wow. The cutting off of hands and feet as punishment for laziness, or as a warning to others, was one of the things that made the Belgian Congo notoriously vicious during their colonial rule. Historians estimate that 10 million Congolese died — half the entire population — during the ivory and rubber heydays of King Leopold. Starvation, exhaustion, physical torture and execution were the primary causes of death.
So there was much to celebrate once Congo joined 22 other African nations in 1960 in their newfound freedom. For seventy-five years they had been someone else’s property, forced to extract the richest of resources from their own forests and hills and rivers, and to stand by while the bulk of the wealth was taken back to Europe. Those days were now behind them.
You would think that with independence would come a retrenchment of these internal resources, making the finally self-reliant Congo a wealthy nation. They still had the resources in unfathomable measures — from gems and minerals to agriculture and hydroelectric potential that could fuel the entire sub-Saharan continent. But this is the paradox of Congo, as better writers than me have pointed out: With such immense resources come immense complications.
So instead, the infrastructure that Belgium had installed in their colony began to fall apart. Internal resources weren’t retrenched but stolen again, whether by continuing foreign interests or their own homegrown dictators. These are heavy subjects that I’ve touched on from time to time, but for more information I’ll point you to excellent books such as King Leopold’s Ghost and In the Footsteps of Mr. Kurtz. Or, if you have only a few minutes to spare, watch the first five minutes of the documentary Virunga. It will give you a feel for the country’s challenges both before and after independence. (And then watch the rest of it, if you can: fascinating, beautiful, and sad. Just last week, five more rangers died protecting the resources of Congo’s national parks.)
Let’s lighten things up with a joke, shall we? It may sound inappropriate after such a heavy discussion, but Africans have a knack for using humor in times like these. I’ve heard this joke since our first year here, and in my opinion it nails the idea of taking one step forward, another one back. The country varies — sometimes the butt of the joke is Zambia, Zimbabwe, or even South Africa. It goes like this:
What did Congo use before candles?
Anyway. Forgive the low-quality snaps from whatever camera I was using back in 2011, and enjoy the parade.