Last week marked the entry of the Democratic Republic of Congo into the East African Community (EAC) as its seventh member, expanding the territory of the trade bloc from the Indian to the Atlantic Ocean – and greatly increasing the numbers of French speakers (as well as Swahili ones) in what started as a cozy club of former British colonies in 1967.
Congolese writers like Alain Mabanckou and Ghislaine Sathoud, who both now live and work in North America, are certainly far less famous than their Lingala musician counterparts like Koffi Olomide, Awilo Longomba or M’bilia Bel, whose rumba has rocked the continent since the 1970s, starting with the likes of Franco and his T.O.K. Jazz.
By 1971, the first EAC was getting into its seventies’ spiral of terminal decline, when after Idi Amin had shot into power after overthrowing President Milton Obote, Tanzania’s Dr. Julius Nyerere said he would ‘never share a table, or (even) be in the same room’ with the Ugandan military dictator and his dangerous rhumba of police state rattlesnakes like Malia Mungu.
This, in effect, became the death knell for the East African Authority, the highest body of the EAC that in past years had had the three East African leaders meet, to resolve issues of the EAC.
It was at this time that Congo’s own strongman, then known as Joseph Desiree, and sitting 3,600km directly west of Arusha in his capital of Kinshasa, decided to launch a Congolese ‘cultural and identity revolution’ that he hoped would eventually spread across the African continent.
Five years after his own military coup against the famed Pan-African pioneer premier Patrice Lumumba, President Joseph Mobutu was increasingly aware that he needed to give his one-party State a serious ‘pimping’ up and a little bit of ideological lipstick.
Secession of regions like Katanga from Congo were always a background threat since 1960, like a figure lurking in the shadows of a morgue. Mobutu sought some philosophy to unify the Congo. In the immediate aftermath of Independence, intellectuals and leaders across the continent had ‘blossomed’ in black thought, including in the 1960s, as the Civil Rights’ movement in the USA reached its apex under Dr. Martin Luther King and radical black awareness flourished from inspiration by men like Malcolm X.
In Kenya, Mzee Jomo Kenyatta had his national rallying cry to communal self-help, or ‘Harambee!’ Next door in Tanzania, Mwalimu Julius Nyerere had launched his all-embracing ‘Ujamaa’, for self-reliance by the individual under State socialism (in contrast to Kenya’s cold capitalism, a story for another occasion).
In Ghana, first sub-Saharan president Kwame Nkrumah’s vision of black consciousness and Pan-Africanism had spread like wildfire across the continent.
And the poet-president Leopold Senghor was preaching the proud doctrine of ‘negritude’ as the intellectual exoskeleton that would free all black wo/men in the world from white racism.
As the ruler of the third largest African nation, and almightily aware that the Congo was probably the most mineral rich country on the continent, Joseph Mobutu wanted to be the cultural Grosse Legume on the table of African leaders.
Congo would subsequently play the leading role in the Non-Aligned Movement, become the Western hemisphere’s preferred interlocutor and act as a bulwark against Communism on the continent.
Soon, the auto-didactic former army sergeant launched a campaign drawing on concepts of mass mobilisation and strong leadership to take the intellectual and cultural lead in Africa.
His movement, ‘Authenticity’, was born in 1971 just as the East African Community was beginning its long 1970s death march to Bataan.
It was an attempt to recover a sense of African identity and pride, crushed by the colonial experience, especially in the Congo (where King Leopold had reigned his colony with an iron fist, literally cutting off the arms of African labourers who didn’t fulfil the quota in their own colonised rubber tapping fields).
Congo was re-christened ‘Zaire’, and the national currency and main waterway similarly renamed: a single trademark that embraced three key concepts. The Christian names brought to the Congo by missionaries were abandoned and African names revived.
President Joseph Mobutu led by example, becoming the infamous Mobutu Sese Seko Kuku Ngbendu wa za Banga – or ‘the Cock that goes from hen to hen, leaving fire in its wake ...’
Roads and squares named after Belgian notables were re-baptised after key events in the struggle for independence, and the national anthem and flag were changed.
The statues of explorer Stanley, King Leopold and King Baudoin were toppled, and ground to dust (if not of history, then town). This is refreshing, especially when one drives through African capitals like Windhoek, still bearing the names of Germans (some of whom were participants in massacres like of Herer).
“Zaire was now a ‘proper African nation.’ This country must modernise,” Mobutu said in public rallies, “but it will do so in a framework of ancestral spiritual values, not by aping Western materialism.”
Authenticity was thus the realisation by the Zairean people that they must return to their origins, seek out the values of their ancestors, discover those which contribute to its development.
“It is, in short, the affirmation of mankind, in its place, as it is, with its mental and social structures,” Sese Seko said to a United Nations, already enamoured of his leopard skin cap.
Instead of ‘imported’ Western suit, men were made to wear a high – collared jacket of dubbed the abacost (from ‘a’ bas le costume’- ‘down with the jacket’) that came in shades of either dark brown or navy blue wool, different from ‘Kaunda’ suits in nearby Zambia that were Maoist.
Ties were dabbed ‘loose nooses’ and banned from this new Utopia of African culture.
As African women in many other countries wore provocative miniskirts that reflected both the disco culture and neo-feminism in the ‘decadent decade’ of the 1970s in the West, far more staid African pagnes, or vitenges were worn in the Congo, and wigs shunned in favour of ‘natural coiffure,’ decades before ‘naturalista’ became a fad/look for black women in the West.
“If he had focalised and crystallised his thought by writing it down, there were rich ideas there waiting to be developed,” critiqued Honore Ngbanda, who later became one of Mobutu’s closest aides, in an interview. “It was a fundamental philosophical notion. But unfortunately, whether it was at the level of the Party’s central committee, the government or his own collaborators, there was no one who could take this unique and African wholesome idea and give it a smart form.”
For many Congolese today, this ‘authenticity’ culture is the one thing from the long, ruinous, kleptomaniac reign of Mobutu that they appreciate, leaving them with a sense of uniqueness among other Africans and the awareness that they were not Kasaians, Bas-Congo, Shabians or Ngbandis, but citizens of a central African nation with its own very distinct identity – DRC!
So well did this cultural ‘separation’ from the white man (and his Western ways) resonate in certain oppressed spaces around the world that the legendary poetic boxer Mohammed Ali – who had dropped his own ‘slave name’ Cassius Clay (after being hounded and prosecuted for refusing to join the army and ‘go kill little yellow men in Vietnam’) – insisted on one site that his fight versus George Foreman be fought in the hot but enlightened atmosphere, African awareness ‘center’ of Kinshasa, thousands of miles away from America.
This legendary bout, a bow to Congo’s ‘black consciousness’, became immortalized as the ‘Rumble in the Jungle.’