Joseph Mobutu
Joseph Mobutu; drawing by David Levine


The Congo, which used to be a Belgian colony, is now an African kingdom and is called Zaire. It appears to be a nonsense name, a sixteenth-century Portuguese corruption, some Zairois will tell you, of a local word for “river.” So it is as if Taiwan, reasserting its Chinese identity, were again to give itself the Portuguese name of Formosa. The Congo River is now called the Zaire, as is the local currency, which is almost worthless.

The man who has made himself king of this land of the three Zs—pays, fleuve, monnaie—used to be called Joseph Mobutu. His father was a cook. But Joseph Mobutu was educated; he was at some time, in the Belgian days, a journalist. In 1960, when the country became independent, Mobutu was thirty, a sergeant in the local Force Publique. The Force Publique became the Congolese National Army. Mobutu became the colonel and commander, and through the mutinies, rebellions, and secessions of the years after independence he retained the loyalty of one paratroop brigade. In 1965, as General Mobutu, he seized power; and as he has imposed order on the army and the country so his style has changed, and become more African. He has abandoned the name of Joseph and is now known as Mobutu Sese Seko Kuku Ngbendu Wa Za Banga.

As General Mobutu he used to be photographed in army uniform. Now, as Mobutu Sese Seko, he wears what he has made, by his example, the Zairois court costume. It is a stylish version of the standard two-piece suit. The jacket has high, wide lapels and is buttoned all the way down; the sleeves can be long or short. A boldly patterned cravat replaces the tie, which has more or less been outlawed; and a breast-pocket handkerchief matches the cravat. On less formal occasions—when he goes among the people—Mobutu wears flowered shirts. Always, in public, he wears a leopard-skin cap and carries an elaborately carved stick.

These—the cap and the stick—are the emblems of his African chieftaincy. Only the chief can kill the leopard. The stick is carved with symbolic figures: two birds, what looks like a snake, a human figure with a distended belly. No Zairois I met could explain the symbolism. One teacher pretended not to know what was carved, and said, “We would all like to have sticks like that.” In some local carving, though, the belly of the human figure is distended because it contains the fetish. The stick is accepted by Zairois as the stick of the chief. While the chief holds the stick off the ground the people around him can speak; when the chief sets his stick on the ground the people fall silent and the chief gives his decision.

Explaining the constitution and the president’s almost unlimited powers, Profils du Zaire, the new official handbook (of variable price: four zaires, eight dollars, the pavement-seller’s “first” price, two zaires his “last” price), Profils du Zaire quotes Montesquieu on the functions of the state. Elima, the official daily, has another, African view of government. “In Zaire we have inherited from our ancestors a profound respect for the liberties of others. This is why our ancestors were so given to conciliation, people accustomed to the palaver (la palabre), accustomed, that is, to discussions that established each man in his rights.”

So Montesquieu and the ancestors are made to meet. And ancestral ways turn out to be advanced. It is only a matter of finding the right words. The palaver is, after all, a “dialogue”; chief’s rule is government by dialogue. But when the chief speaks, when the chief sets his carved stick on the ground, the modern dialogue stops; and Africa of the ancestors takes over. The chief’s words, as Elima (having it all ways) has sometimes to remind “antirevolutionary” elements, cannot be questioned.

It is said that the last five words of Mobutu’s African name are a reference to the sexual virility which the African chief must possess: he is the cock that leaves no hen alone. But the words may only be symbolic. Because, as chief, Mobutu is “married” to his people—“The Marriage of Sese [Mobutu]” is a “revolutionary” song—and, as in the good old days of the ancestors, comme au bon vieux temps de nos ancêtres, the chief always holds fast to his people. This marriage of the chief can be explained in another, more legalistic way: the chief has a “contract” with his people. He fulfills his contract through the apparatus of a modern state, but the ministers and commissioners are only the chief’s “collaborators,” “the umbilical cord between the power and the people.”

The chief, the lord wedded to his people, le pouvoir: the attributes begin to multiply. Mobutu is also the Guide of the Authentic Zairois Revolution, the Father of the Nation, the President-Founder of the Mouvement Populaire de la Révolution, the country’s only political party. So that, in nomenclature as in the stylish national dress he has devised, he combines old Africa with what is progressive and new. Just as a Guy Dormeuil suit (160 zaires in the Kinshasa shops, 320 dollars) can, with cravat and matching handkerchief, become an authentic Zairois national costume, so a number of imported glamorous ideas bolster Mobutu’s African chieftaincy.


He is citizen, chief, king, revolutionary; he is an African freedom fighter; he is supported by the spirits of the ancestors; like Mao, he has published a book of thoughts (Mobutu’s book is green). He has occupied every ideological position and the basis of his kingship cannot be questioned. He rules; he is grand; and, like a medieval king, he is at once loved and feared. He controls the armed forces; they are his creation; in Kinshasa he still sleeps in an army camp. Like Leopold II of the Belgians, in the time of the Congo Free State—much of whose despotic legislation (ownership of the mines in 1888, all vacant lands in 1890, the fruits of the earth in 1891) has passed down through the Belgian colonial administration to the present regime, and is now presented as a kind of ancestral African socialism—like Leopold II, Mobutu owns Zaire.


Mohammed Ali fought George Foreman in Kinshasa last November. Ali won; but the victor, in Zaire, was Mobutu. A big billboard outside the stadium still says, in English below the French: “A fight between two Blacks (deux noirs), in a Black Nation (un pays de Nègres) organized by blacks and seen by the whole [world] that is a victory of Mobutism.” But whatever pleasure people had taken in that event, and the publicity, had been dissipated by mid-January, when I arrived. I had chosen a bad time. Mobutu, chieflike, had sprung another of his surprises. A fortnight before, after a two-day palaver with his collaborators, Mobutu had decided on a “radicalization of the revolution.” And everybody was nervous.

In November 1973 Mobutu had nationalized all businesses and plantations belonging to foreigners—mainly Greeks, Portuguese, and Indians—and had given them to Zairois. Now, a year later, he had decided to take back these enterprises, many of them pillaged and bankrupt, and entrust them to the state. What, or who, was the state? No one quite knew. New people, more loyal people? Mobutu, speaking the pure language of revolution, seemed to threaten everybody. The 300 Belgian families who had ruled the Congo, he said, had been replaced by 300 Zairois families; the country had imported more Mercedes-Benz motor-cars than tractors; one third of the country’s foreign earnings went to import food that could be produced at home.

Against this new Zairois bourgeoisie—whom he had himself created—the chief now declared war. “I offer them a clear choice: those among them who love the people should give everything to the state and follow me.” In his new mood the chief threatened other measures. He threatened to close down the movie houses and the nightclubs; he threatened to ban drinking in public places before six.

Through the Belgian-designed cité indigène of Kinshasa, in the wide, unpaved streets, full of pits and corrugations, between mounds of rubbish sometimes as high as the little houses in Mediterranean colors, in the green shade of flamboyant, mango, and frangipani, schoolchildren marched in support of their chief. Every day Elima carried reports of marches de soutien in other places. And the alarm was great, among the foreigners who had been plundered of the businesses and had remained behind, hoping for some compensation or waiting for Canadian visas, and among the gold-decked Zairois in national costume. Stern men these Zairois, nervous of the visitor, easily affronted, anxious only to make it known that they were loyal, and outdone by no one in their “authenticity,” their authentic Africanness.

But it is in the nature of a powerful chief that he should be unpredictable. The chief threatens; the people are cowed; the chief relents; the people praise his magnanimity. The days passed; daytime and even morning drinking didn’t stop; many Africans continued to spend their days in that red-eyed vacancy that at first so mystifies the visitor. The nightclubs and movie houses didn’t close; the prostitutes continued to be busy around the Memling Hotel. So that it seemed that in this matter of public morals, at least, the chief had relented. The ordinary people had been spared.

But the nervousness higher up was justified. Within days the axe fell on many of the chief’s “collaborators.” There was a shake-up; the circle of power around the chief was made smaller; and Zairois who had ruled in Kinshasa were abruptly dismissed, packed off to unfamiliar parts of the bush to spread the word of the revolution. Elima sped them on their way. “The political commissioner will no longer be what he was before the system was modified. That is to say, a citizen floating above the day-to-day realities of the people, driving about the streets and avenues of Kinshasa in a Mercedes and knowing nothing of the life of the peasant of Dumi. The political commissioners will live with the people. They will be in the fields, not as masters but as peasants. They will work with the workers, they will share their joys and sorrows. They will in this way better understand the aspirations of the people and will truly become again children of the people.”


Words of terror. Because this was the great fear of so many of the men who had come by riches so easily, by simple official plunder, the new men of the new state who, in the name of Africanization and the dignity of Africa, were so often doing jobs for which they were not qualified and often were drawing salaries for jobs they were not doing at all; this, for all their talk of authenticity and the ways of the ancestors, was their fear: to be returned from the sweet corruptions of Kinshasa to the older corruption of the bush, to be returned to Africa.

And the bush is close. It begins just outside the city and goes on forever. The airplane that goes from Kinshasa to Kisangani flies over 800 miles of what still looks like virgin forest.

Consider the recent journey of the subregional commissioner of the Equator Region to the settlement of Bomongo. Bomongo lies on the Giri River and is just about 100 miles north of the big town of Mbandaka, formerly Coquilhatville, the old “Equator station,” set down more or less on the line of the equator, halfway on the Congo or Zaire river between Kinshasa and the Stanley Falls. From Mbandaka a steamer took the commissioner’s party up the main river to Lubengo; and there they transferred to a dugout for the twenty-mile passage through the Lubengo “canal” to the Giri River. But the canal for much of its length was only six feet wide, full of snags, and sometimes only twelve inches deep. The outboard motor had to be taken up; paddles had to be used. And there were the mosquitoes.

“At the very entrance to the canal,” according to the official report in Elima, “thousands of mosquitoes cover you from head to ankles, compelling you to move about all the time…. After a whole night of insomnia on the Lubengo canal, or rather the ‘calvary’ of Lubengo, where we had very often to get out in the water and make a superhuman effort to help the paddlers free the pirogue from mud or wood snags, we got to the end of the canal at nine in the morning (we had entered it at 9:30 the previous evening), and so at last we arrived at Bomongo at 12:30, in a state that would have softened the hardest hearts. If we have spoken at some length about the Lubengo canal, it isn’t because we want to discourage people from visiting Bomongo by the canal route, but rather to stress one of the main reasons why this place is isolated and seldom visited.”

Ignoring his fatigue, bravant sa fatigue, the commissioner set to work. He spoke to various groups about the integration of the party and the administration, the need for punctuality, professional thoroughness, and revolutionary fervor. The next morning he visited an oil factory in Ebeka district that had been abandoned in 1971 and was now being set going again with the help of a foreign adviser. In the afternoon he spoke out against alcoholism and urged people to produce more.

The next day he visited a coffee plantation that had been nationalized in 1973 (the plantations in Zaire were run mainly by Greeks) and given to a Zairois. This particular attribution hadn’t worked well: the laborers hadn’t been paid for the last five months. The laborers complained and the commissioner listened; but what the commissioner did or said wasn’t recorded. Everywhere the commissioner went he urged the people, for the sake of their own liberty and well-being, to follow the principles of Mobutism to the letter; everywhere he urged vigilance. Then, leaving Lubengo, Bomongo, and Ebeka to the mosquitoes, the commissioner returned to his headquarters. And Elima considered the fifteen-day journey heroic enough to give it half a page.

Yet Bomongo, so cut off, is only twenty miles away from the main Congo or Zaire River. The roads of the country have decayed; the domestic services of Air Zaire are unreliable; the river remains, in 1975, the great highway of the country. And for nearly a hundred years the river has known steamer traffic. Joseph Conrad, not yet a novelist, going up the river in the wood-burning Roi des Belges in 1890, at times doing no more than eight miles in three hours, halting every night for the cannibal woodcutters to sleep on the river bank, might have thought he was penetrating to the untouched heart of darkness. But Norman Sherry, the Conrad scholar, has gone among the records and in Conrad’s Western World has shown that even at the time of Conrad’s journey there would have been eleven steamers on the upper river.

The steamers have continued, the Belgian OTRACO being succeeded by the Zairois ONATRA. The waterway has been charted: white marker signs are nailed to trees on the banks, the river is regularly cleared of snags. The upstream journey that took one month in Conrad’s time now takes seven days; the downstream journey that took a fortnight is now done in five days. The stations have become towns, but they remain what they were: trading outposts. And, in 1975, the journey—1,000 miles between green, flat, almost unchanging country—is still like a journey through nothingness. So little has the vast country been touched: so complete, simple, and repetitive still appears the African life through which the traveler swiftly passes.

When the steamer was Belgian, Africans needed a carte de mérite civique to travel first class, and third-class African passengers were towed on barges some way behind the steamer. Now the two-tiered third-class barges, rusting, battered, needing paint, full of a busy backyard life, tethered goats and crated chickens packed tight among the passengers, are lashed to the bow of the steamer; and first-class passengers sleep and eat outside their cabin doors in a high, warm smell of smoked fish and smoked monkey.

The cabine de luxe, twice as expensive as first class, is used by the sweating garçon as a storeroom for his brooms and buckets and rags, and as a hiding place for the food, foofoo, he is always on the lookout for: securing half a pound of sugar, for instance, by pouring it into a pot of river-brewed tea, and secreting the tea in the wardrobe until nightfall, when he scratches and bangs and scratches at the door until he is admitted.

The curtains of the cabine hang ringless and collapsed. “C’est pas bon,” the garçon says. Many light bulbs are missing; they will now never be replaced; but the empty light brackets on the walls can be used to hang things on. In the bathroom the diseased river water looks unfiltered; the stained and leaking washbasin has been pulled out from the wall; the chromeplated towel rails are forever empty, their function forgotten; and the holes in the floor are mended, like the holes in a dugout, with what looks like mud. The lavatory cistern ceaselessly flushes. “C’est pas bon,” the garçon says, as of an irremediable fact of life; and he will not say even this when, on an overcast afternoon, in a temperature of a hundred degrees, the windows of the cabine de luxe sealed, the air-conditioning unit fails.

The bar is naked except for three bottles of spirits. Beer is terminé, always, though the steamer is full of dazed Africans and the man known as the maître d’hôtel is drunk from early morning. There is beer, of course; but every little service requires a “sweetener.” The steamer is an African steamer and is run on African lines. It has been adapted to African needs. It carries passengers, too many passengers for the two lifeboats displayed on the first-class deck; but it is more than a passenger steamer. It is a traveling market; it is, still, all that many of the people who live along the river know of the outside world.

The steamer, traveling downstream from Kisangani, formerly Stanleyville, to Kinshasa, stops only at Bumbe, Lisala, and Mbandaka. But it serves the bush all the way down. The bush begins just outside Kisangani. The town ends—the decayed Hotel des Chutes, the customs shed, the three or four rusting iron barges moored together, the Roman Catholic cathedral, then a large ruin, a few riverside villas—and the green begins: bamboo, thick grass spilling over the river banks, the earth showing red, green and red reflected in the smooth water, the sky, as so often here, dark with storm, lit up and trembling as with distant gunfire, the light silver. The wind and rain come; the green bank fades; the water wrinkles, the reflections go, the water shows muddy. Jungle seems to be promised. But the bush never grows high, never becomes forest.

Soon the settlements appear: the low thatched huts in scraped brown yards, thatch and walls the color of the earth, the earth scraped bare for fear of snakes and soldier ants. Boys swim out to the steamer, their twice-weekly excitement; and regularly, to shouts, the trading dugouts come, are skillfully poled in alongside the moving steamer, moored, and taken miles downstream while the goods are unloaded, products of the bush: wicker chairs, mortars carved out of tree trunks, great enamel basins of pineapples. Because of the wars, or for some other reason, there are few men here, and the peddlers and traders are all women, or young girls.

When the traders have sold, they buy. In the forward part of the steamer, beyond the second-class w.c.s, water always running off their steel floors, and in the narrow walk beside the cabins, among the defecating babies, the cooking and the washing and the vacant girls being intently deloused, in a damp smell of salted fish and excrement and oil and rust, and to the sound of gramophone records, there are stalls: razor blades, batteries, pills and capsules, soap, hypodermic syringes, cigarettes, pencils, copybooks, lengths of cloth. These are the products of the outside world that are needed; these are the goods for which such exertions are made. Their business over, the dugouts cast off, to paddle lightless upstream miles in the dark.

There can be accidents (a passenger dugout joining the moving steamer was to be overturned on this journey, and some students returning from the bush to Kinshasa were to be lost); and at night the steamer’s searchlights constantly sweep the banks. Moths show white in the light; and on the water the Congo hyacinth shows white: a water plant that appeared on the upper Congo in 1956 and has since spread all the way down, treacherously beautiful, with thick lilylike green leaves and a pale lilac flower like a wilder hyacinth. It seeds itself rapidly; it can form floating islands that attract other vegetation; it can foul the propellers of the steamer. If the steamers do not fail, if there are no more wars, it is the Congo hyacinth that may yet imprison the river people in the immemorial ways of the bush.

In the morning there are new dugouts, fresh merchandise: basins of slugs in moist black earth, fresh fish, and monkeys, monkeys ready-smoked, boucané, charred little hulks, or freshly killed gray or red monkeys, the tips of their tails slit, the slit skin of the tail tied round the neck, the monkeys bundled up and lifted in this way from the dugouts, by the tails, hold-alls, portmanteaus, of dead monkeys. The excitement is great. Monkey is an African delicacy, and a monkey that fetches six zaires, twelve dollars, in Kinshasa, can be bought on the river for three zaires.

On the throbbing steel deck the monkeys can appear to be alive and breathing. The wind ruffles their fur; the faces of the red monkeys, falling this way and that, suggest deep contented sleep; their forepaws are loosely closed, sometimes stretched out before them. At the stern of the steamer, on the lower deck, a wood fire is lit and the cooking starts: the dead monkey held face down over the fire, the fur burned off. In the bow, among the goats and hens, there is a wet baby monkey, tightly tethered, somebody’s pet or somebody’s supper (and in the lifeboat there will appear the next day, as a kind of African joke, a monkey’s skull, picked clean and white).

So day after day, through the halts at Bumbe, Lisala, and Mbandaka—the two-storied Belgian colonial buildings, the ochre concrete walls, the white arches, the green or red corrugated-iron roofs—the steamer-market goes on. On the river banks bamboo gives way to palms, their lower brown fronds brushing the yellow water. But there is no true forest. The tall trees are dead, and their trunks and bare branches stick out white above the low green bush. The lower vegetation is at times tattered, and sometimes opens out into grassy savannah land, blasted-looking and ghostly in the afternoon heat mist.

The river widens: islands appear; but there is no solitude in this heart of Africa. Always there are the little brown settlements in scraped brown yards, the little plantings of maize or banana or sugar-cane about huts, the trading dugouts arriving beside the steamer to shouts. In the heat mist the sun, an hour before sunset, can appear round and orange, reflected in an orange band in the water muddy with laterite, the orange reflection broken only by the ripples from the bows of the steamer and the barges. Sometimes at sunset the water will turn violet below a violet sky.

But it is a peopled wilderness. The land of this river basin is land used in the African way. It is burned, cultivated, abandoned. It looks desolate, but its riches and fruits are known; it is a wilderness, but one of monkeys. Bush and blasted trees disappear only toward Kinshasa. It is only after 900 miles that earth and laterite give way to igneous rocks, and the land, becoming hilly, with sharp indentations, grows smooth and bare, dark with vegetation only in its hollows.

Plant today, reap tomorrow: this is what they say in Kisangani. But this vast green land, which can feed the continent, barely feeds itself. In Kinshasa the meat and even the vegetables have to be imported from other countries. Eggs and orange juice come from South Africa, in spite of hot official words; and powdered milk and bottled milk come from Europe. The bush is a way of life; and where the bush is so overwhelming organized agriculture is an illogicality.

The Belgians, in the last twenty years of their rule, tried to develop African agriculture, and failed. A girl on the steamer, a teacher, remembered the irrational attempt, and the floggings. Agriculture had to be “industrialized,” a writer said one day in Elima, but not in the way “the old colonialists and their disciples have preached.” The Belgians failed because they were too theoretical, too removed from the peasants, whom they considered “ignorant” and “irrational.” In Zaire, as in China, according to this writer, a sound agriculture could only be based on traditional methods. Machines were not necessary. They were not always suited to the soil; tractors, for instance, often made the soil infertile.

Two days later there was another article in Elima. It was no secret, the writer said, that the agriculturists of the country cultivated only small areas and that their production was “minimal.” Modern machines had to be used: North Korean experts were coming to show the people how. And there was a large photograph of a tractor, a promise of the future.

About agriculture, as about so many things, as about the principles of government itself, there is confusion. Everyone feels the great bush at his back. And the bush remains the bush, with its own logical life. Away from the mining areas and the decaying towns the land is as the Belgians found it and as they have left it.


APERIRE TERRAM GENTIBUS, to open the land to the nations: this is the motto, in raised granite, that survives over the defaced monument at Kinshasa railway station. The railway from the Atlantic, the steamer beyond the rapids at Kinshasa: this was how the Congo was opened up, and the monument was erected in 1948 to mark the first fifty years of the railway.

But now the railway is used mainly for goods. Few visitors arrive at the little suburban-style station, still marked Kinshasa Est, and step out into the imperial glory of the two-lane Boulevard that runs south of the river, just behind the docks. In the round-about outside the station, the statue of King Albert I, uniformed, with sun helmet and sword (according to old postcards, which continue to be sold), has been taken down; the bronze plaques beside the plinth have been broken away, except for an upper fringe of what looks like banana leaves; the flood-lamps have been smashed, the wiring apparatus pulled out and rusted; and all that remains of the monument are two tall brick pillars, like the pillars at the end of some abandoned Congolese Appian Way.

In the station hall the timetable frames swivel empty and glassless on a metal pole. But in the station yard, past the open, unguarded doors, there is a true relic: an 1893 locomotive, the first used on the Congo railway. It stands on a bed of fresh gravel, amid croton plants and beside two traveler’s trees. It is small, built for a narrow gauge, and looks quaint, with its low, slender boiler, tall funnel, and its open cab; but it still appears whole. It is stamped No. 1 and in an oval cartouche carries one of the great names of the Belgian nineteenth-century industrial expansion: Société Anonyme John Cockerill—Seraing.

Not many people in Kinshasa know about this locomotive; and perhaps it has survived because, like so many things of the Belgian past, it is now junk. Like the half-collapsed fork-lift truck on the platform of one of the goods sheds; like the other fork-lift truck in the yard, more thoroughly pillaged, and seemingly decomposed about its rusted forks, that lie in the dust like metal tusks. Like the onewheel lawnmower in the park outside, which is now a piece of waste land, overgrown where it has not been scuffed to dust. The lawnmower is in the possession of a little boy, and he, noticing the stranger’s interest, rights his machine and skillfully runs it on its one wheel through the dust, making the rusted blades whir.

The visitor nowadays arrives at the airport of Ndjili, some miles to the east of the city. Zaire is not yet a land for the casual traveler—the harassments, official and unofficial, are too many—and the visitor is usually either a businessman or, if he is black, a delegate (in national costume) to one of the many conferences that Zaire now hosts. From the airport one road leads to the city and the Intercontinental Hotel, past great green-and-yellow boards with Mobutu’s sayings in French and English, past the river (the slums of the cité indigène well to the south), past the Belgian-built villas in green gardens. A quiet six-lane highway runs twenty or thirty miles in the other direction, to the “presidential domain” of Nsele.

Here, in what looks like a resort development, flashy but with hints of perishability, distinguished visitors stay or confer, and good members of the party are admitted to a taste of luxury. Mohammed Ali trained here last year; in January this year some North Korean acrobats and United Nations people were staying. There are air-conditioned bungalows, vast meeting halls, extravagant lounges, a swimming pool. There is also a model farm, run by the Chinese. Nsele is in the style of the new presidency: one of the many grandiloquent official buildings, chief’s compounds, that have been set up in the derelict capital in recent years, at once an assertion of the power of the chief, and of the primacy of Africa. In the new palace for visiting heads of state the baths are gold-plated: my informant was someone from another African country, who had stayed there.

So the Belgian past recedes and is made to look as shabby as its defaced monuments. Elima gives half a page to the fifteen-day journey of the Equator subcommissioner to Bomongo; but Stanley, who pioneered the Congo route, who built the road from Matadi to Kinshasa, has been dethroned. In the museum a great iron wheel from one of the wagons used on that road is preserved by the Belgian curator (and what labor that wheel speaks of); but Mount Stanley is now Mont Ngaliema, a presidential park; and the statue of Stanley that overlooked the rapids has been replaced by the statue of a tall anonymous tribesman with a spear. At the Hotel des Chutes in Kisangani the town’s old name of Stanleyville survives on some pieces of crockery. The broken coffee cups are now used for sugar and powdered milk; when they go the name will have vanished.

The Belgian past is being scrubbed out as the Arab past has been scrubbed out. The Arabs were the Belgians’ rivals in the eastern Congo; an Arab was once governor of the Stanley Falls station. But who now associates the Congo with a nineteenth-century Arab empire? A Batetela boy remembered that his ancestors were slave-catchers for the Arabs; they changed sides when the Belgians came and offered them places in their army. But that was long ago. The boy is now a student of psychology, on the lookout, like so many young Zairois, for some foreign scholarship; and the boy’s girl friend, of another tribe, people in the past considered enslavable, laughed at this story of slave-trading.

The bush grows fast over what were once great events or great disturbances. Bush has buried the towns the Arabs planned, the orchards they planted, as recently, during the postindependence troubles, bush buried the fashionable eastern suburbs of Stanleyville, near the Tshopo falls. The Belgian villas were abandoned; the Africans came first to squat and then to pillage, picking the villas clean of metal, wire, timber, bathtubs, and lavatory bowls (both useful for soaking manioc in), leaving only ground-floor shells of brick and masonry. In 1975 some of the ruins still stand, and they look very old, like a tropical, overgrown Pompeii, cleared of its artifacts, with only the ruins of the Château de Venise nightclub giving a clue to the cultural life of the vanished settlement.

And it is surprising how, already, so little of Belgium remains in the minds of people. A man of forty—he had spent some years in the United States—told me that his father, who was born in 1900, remembered the Belgian rubber levy and the cutting off of hands. A woman said that her grandfather had brought white priests to the village to protect the villagers against harsh officials. But, ironically, the people who told these stories were both people who might have been described as évolués. Most people under thirty, breaking out of the bush into teaching jobs and administrative jobs in Kinshasa, said they had heard nothing about the Belgians from their parents or grandparents.

One man, a university teacher, said, “The Belgians gave us a state. Before the Belgians came we had no state.” Another man said he had heard from his grandfather only about the origins of the Bantu people: they wandered south from Lake Chad, crossed the river into an “empty” country, inhabited only by pygmies, “a primitive people,” whom they drove away into the deep forest. For most the past is a blank; and history begins with their own memories. Most record a village childhood, a school, and then—the shock of independence. To a man from Bandundu, the son of a “farmer,” and the first of his village to be educated, the new world came suddenly in 1960 with the arrival in his village of soldiers of the disintegrating Congolese army. “I saw soldiers for the first time then, and I was very frightened. They had no officers. They treated the women badly and killed some men. The soldiers were looking for white people.”

In the colonial days, a headmaster told me, the school histories of the Congo began with the late fifteenth-century Portuguese navigators, and then jumped to the nineteenth century, to the missionaries and the Arabs and the Belgians. African history, as it is now written, restores Africans to Africa, but it is no less opaque: a roll-call of tribes, a mention of great kingdoms. So it is in Introduction à l’Histoire de l’Afrique Noire, published in Zaire last year. So it is in the official Profils du Zaire, which—ignoring Portuguese, missionaries, and Arabs—jumps from the brief mention of mostly undated African kingdoms to the establishment of the Congo Free State. The tone is cool and legalistic. King Leopold II’s absolute powers are spoken of in just the same way as the powers of older African kings. Passion enters the story only with the events of independence.

The past has vanished. Facts in a book cannot by themselves give people a sense of history. Where so little has changed, where bush and river are so overwhelming, another past is accessible, better answering African bewilderment and African religious beliefs: the past as le bon vieux temps de nos ancêtres.

In the presidential park at Mont Ngaliema, formerly Mount Stanley, where the guards wear decorative uniforms, and the gates are decorated with bronze plaques—the bad art of modern Africa: art that no longer serves a religious or magical purpose, attempts an alien representationalism and becomes mannered and meaningless, suggesting a double mimicry: African art imitating itself, imitating African-inspired Western art—on Mont Ngaliema there are some colonial graves of the 1890s.

They have been gathered together in neat terraces and are screened by cypress and flamboyant. There, above the rapids—the brown river breaking white on the rocks but oddly static in appearance, the white crests never moving: an eternal level sound of water—the pioneers grandly lie. The simple professions recur: commis, agent commercial, chaudronnier, capitaine de steamboat, prêtre, s/officier de la Force Publique. Only Madame Bernard is sans profession. Not all were Belgians; some were Norwegians; one missionary was English.

In one kind of imperialist writing these people are heroic. Joseph Conrad, in his passage through the Congo in 1890, just before those burials began on Mont Ngaliema, saw otherwise. He saw people who were too simple for an outpost of progress, people who were part of the crowd at home, and dependent on that crowd, their strength in Africa, like the strength of the Romans in Britain, “an accident arising from the weakness of others,” their “conquest of the earth” unredeemed by an idea, “not a sentimental pretence but an idea; and an unselfish belief in the idea.”

“In a hundred years,” Conrad makes one of these simple people say in “An Outpost of Progress” (1897), “there will perhaps be a town here. Quays, and warehouses, and barracks, and—and—billiard-rooms. Civilization, my boy, and virtue—and all.” That civilization, so accurately defined, came; and then, like the villas at Stanleyville and the Château de Venise nightclub, vanished. “Acquisitions, clothes, pretty rags—rags that would fly off at the first good shake”: this is from the narrator of Heart of Darkness (1902). “No; you want a deliberate belief.”

The people who come now—after the general flight—are like the people who came then. They offer goods, deals, technical skills, the same perishable civilization; they bring nothing else. They are not pioneers; they know they cannot stay. They fill the nightclubs (now with African names); they keep the prostitutes (now in African dress: foreign dress is outlawed for African women) busy around the Memling Hotel. So, encircled by Africa, now dangerous again, with threats of expulsion and confiscation, outpost civilization continues: at dinner time in the Café de la Paix the two old men parade the young prostitutes they have picked up, girls of fourteen or fifteen. Old men: their last chance to feed on such young blood: Kinshasa may close down tomorrow.

“Everyone is here only for the money.” The cynicism has never been secret; it is now reinforced by anxiety. With this cynicism, in independent Zaire, the African can appear to be in complicity. He too wants “acquisitions, clothes, pretty rags”: the Mercedes, the fatter prostitutes, the sharp suit with matching handkerchief and cravat, the gold-rimmed glasses, the gold pen-and-pencil set, the big gold wristwatch on one hand and the gold bracelet on the other, the big belly that in a land of puny men speaks of wealth. But with this complicity and imitation there is something else: a resentment of the people imitated, the people now known as nostalgiques.

Simon’s company, a big one, has been nationalized, and Simon is now the manager. (Expatriates continue to do the work, but this is only practical, and Simon doesn’t mind.) Why then does Simon, who has a background of bush, who is so young and successful, remember his former manager as a nostalgique? Well, one day the manager was looking through the pay-sheets and he said, “Simon isn’t paying enough tax.”

People like Simon (he has an official African name) are not easy to know—even Belgians who speak African languages say that. Simon only answers questions; he is incapable of generating anything like a conversation; because of his dignity, his new sense of the self, the world has closed up for him again; and he appears to be hiding. But his resentment of the former manager must have a deeper cause than the one he has given. And gradually it becomes apparent, from other replies he gives, from his belief in “authenticity,” from his dislike of foreign attitudes to African art (to him a living thing: he considers the Kinshasa museum an absurdity), from the secretive African arrangements of his domestic life (to which he returns in his motorcar), it gradually becomes apparent that Simon is adrift and nervous in this unreal world of imitation.

It is with people like Simon, educated, money-making, that the visitor feels himself in the presence of vulnerability, dumbness, danger. Because their resentments, which appear to contradict their ambitions, and which they never satisfactorily explain, can at any time be converted into a wish to wipe out and undo, an African nihilism, the rage of primitive men coming to themselves and finding that they have been fooled and affronted.

A rebellion like this occurred after independence. It was led by Pierre Mulele, a former minister of education, who, after a long march through the country, camped at Stanleyville and established a reign of terror. Everyone who could read and write had been taken out to the little park and shot; everyone who wore a tie had been shot. These were the stories about Mulele that were circulating in neighboring Uganda in 1966, nearly two years after the rebellion had been put down (Uganda itself about to crumble, its nihilistic leader already apparent: Amin, the commander of the petty army that had destroyed the Kabaka’s power). Nine thousand people are said to have died in Mulele’s rebellion. What did Mulele want? What was the purpose of the killings? The forty-year-old African who had spent some time in the United States laughed and said, “Nobody knows. He was against everything. He wanted to start again from the beginning.” There is only one, noncommittal line in Profils de Zaire about the Mulelist rebellion. But (unlike Lumumba) he gets a photograph, and it is a big one. It shows a smiling, gap-toothed African—in jacket and tie.

To Joseph Conrad Stanleyville—in 1890 the Stanley Falls station—was the heart of darkness. It was there, in Conrad’s story, that Kurtz reigned, the ivory agent degraded from idealism to savagery, taken back to the earliest ages of man, by wilderness, solitude, and power, his house surrounded by impaled human heads. Seventy years later, at this bend in the river, something like Conrad’s fantasy came to pass. But the man with “the inconceivable mystery of a soul that knew no restraint, no faith, and no fear” was black, and not white; and he had been maddened not by contact with wilderness and primitivism, but with the civilization established by those pioneers who now lie on Mont Ngaliema, above the Kinshasa rapids.


Mobutu embodies these African contradictions and, by the grandeur of his kingship, appears to ennoble them. He is, for all his stylishness, the great African nihilist, though his way is not the way of blood. He is the man, “young but palpitating with wisdom and dynamism”—this is from a University of Zaire publication—who, during the dark days of secessions and rebellions, “thought through to the heart of the problem” and arrived at his especial illumination: the need for “authenticity.” “I no longer have a borrowed conscience. I no longer have a borrowed soul. I no longer speak a borrowed language.” He will bring back ancestral ways and reverences; he will re-create the pure, logical world.”

“Our religion is based on a belief in God the creator and the worship of our ancestors.” This is what a minister told teachers the other day. “Our dead parents are living; it is they who protect us and intercede for us.” No need now for the Christian saints, or Christianity. Christ was the prophet of the Jews and he is dead. Mobutu is the prophet of the Africans. “This prophet rouses us from our torpor, and has delivered us from our mental alienation. He teaches us to love one another.” In public places the crucifix should be replaced by the image of the messiah, just as in China the portrait of Mao is honored everywhere. And Mobutu’s glorious mother, Mama Yemo, should also be honored, as the Holy Virgin was honored.

So Mobutism becomes the African way out. The dances and songs of Africa, so many of them religious in origin, are now officially known as séances d’animation and are made to serve the new cult; the dancers wear cloths stamped with Mobutu’s image. Old rituals, absorbed into the new, their setting now not the village, but the television studio, the palace, the conference hall, appear to have been given fresh dignity. Africa awakes! And, in all things, Mobutu offers himself as the African substitute. At the end of January Mobutu told the Afro-American conference at Kinshasa (sponsored by the Ford and Carnegie foundations): “Karl Marx is a great thinker whom I respect.” But Marx wasn’t always right; he was wrong, for instance, about the beneficial effects of colonialism. “The teachings of Karl Marx were addressed to his society. The teachings of Mobutu are addressed to the people of Zaire.”

In Africa such comparisons, when they are made, have to be unabashed: African needs are great. And Mobutism is so wrapped up in the glory of Mobutu’s kingship—the new palaces (the maharaja-style palace at Kisangani confiscated from Mr. Nasser, an old Indian settler), the presidential park at Mont Ngaliema (where Africans walk with foreigners on Sundays and pretend to be amused by the monkeys), the presidential domain at Nsele (open to faithful members of the party: and passengers on the steamer and the barges rush to look), the state visits abroad, intensively photographed, the miracle of the peace Mobutu has brought to the country, the near-absence of policemen in the towns—so glorious are the manifestations of Mobutu’s kingship, so good are the words of the king, who proclaims himself a friend of the poor and, as a cook’s son, one of the petit peuple, that all the contradictions of Africa appear to have been resolved and to have been turned into a kind of power.

But the contradictions remain, and are now sometimes heightened. The newspapers carry articles about science and medicine. But a doctor, who now feels he can say that he cures “when God and the ancestors wish,” tells a newspaper that sterility is either hereditary or caused by a curse; and another newspaper gives publicity to a healer, a man given confidence by the revolution, who has an infallible cure for piles, an “exclusive” secret given him by the ancestors. Agriculture must be modernized, the people must be fed better; but, in the name of authenticity, a doctor warns that babies should on no account be fed on imported foods; traditional foods, like caterpillars and green leaves, are best. The industrialized West is decadent and collapsing; Zaire must rid herself of the plagues of the consumer society, the egoism and individualism exported by industrial civilization. But in the year 2000, according to a university writer in Elima, Zaire might herself be booming, with great cities, a population of “probably” 71,933,851, and a prodigious manufacturing capacity. Western Europe will be in its “post-industrial” decadence; Russia, Eastern Europe, and the Indian subcontinent will form one bloc; Arab oil will be exhausted; and Zaire (and Africa) should have her day, attracting investment from developed countries (obviously those not in decadence), importing factories whole.

So the borrowed ideas—about colonialism and alienation, the consumer society and the decline of the West—are made to serve the African cult of authenticity; and the dream of an ancestral past restored is allied to a dream of a future of magical power. The confusion is not new, and is not peculiar to Zaire. Fantasies like this animated some slave revolts in the West Indies; and today, in Jamaica, at the university, there are people who feel that Negro redemption and Negro power can only come about through a return to African ways. The dead Duvalier of Haiti is admired for his Africanness; a writer speaks, with unconscious irony, of the Negro’s need for a “purifying” period of poverty (unwittingly echoing Duvalier’s: “It is the destiny of the people of Haiti to suffer”); and there are people who, sufficiently far away from the slaughter ground of Uganda, find in Amin’s African nihilism a proof of African power.

It is lunacy, despair. In the February 7 issue of Jeune Afrique—miraculously on sale in Kinshasa—a French African writer, Seydou Lamine, examines the contradictions of African fantasy and speaks of “the alibi of the past.” Mightn’t this talk of Africanness, he asks, be a “myth” which the “princes” of Africa now use to strengthen their own position? “For many, authenticity and Negroness [la négrité] are only words that stand for the despair and powerlessness of the man of Africa faced with the discouraging immensity of his underdevelopment.”

And even Elima, considering the general corruption, the jobs not done, the breakdown of municipal administration in Kinshasa, the uncleared garbage, the canals not disinfected (though the taxis are, regularly, for the one-zaire fee), the vandalized public television sets and telephone booths, even Elima finds it hard on some days to blame the colonial past for these signs of egoism. “We are wrong to consider the word ‘underdevelopment’ only in its economic aspects. We have to understand that there is a type of underdevelopment that issues out of the habits of a people and their attitudes to life and society.”

Mobutism, Elima suggests, will combat this “mental plague.” But it is no secret that, in spite of its talk of “man,” in spite of its lilting national anthem called the Zairoise (Paix, justice, et travail), Mobutism honors only one man: the chief, the king. He alone has to be feared and loved. How—away from this worship—does a new attitude to life and society begin? Recently in Kinshasa a number of people were arrested for some reason and taken to Makala jail: lavatory-less concrete blocks behind a whitewashed wall, marked near the gateway Discipline avant tout. The people arrested couldn’t fit easily into the cell, and a Land-Rover was used to close the door. In the morning many were found crushed or suffocated.

Not cruelty, just thoughtlessness: the visitor has to learn to accommodate himself to Zaire. The presidential domain at Nsele (where Mohammed Ali trained) is such a waste, at once extravagant and shoddy, with its over-furnished, air-conditioned bungalows, its vast meeting halls, its VIP lounges (carpets, a fussiness of fringed dralon, African art debased to furniture decoration). But Nsele can be looked at in another way. It speaks of the African need for African style and luxury; it speaks of the great African wound. The wound explains the harassment of foreign settlers, the nationalizations. But the nationalizations are petty and bogus; they have often turned out to be a form of pillage and are part of no creative plan; they are as shortsighted, self-wounding, and nihilistic as they appear, a dismantling of what remains of the Belgian-created state. So the visitor swings from mood to mood, and one reaction cancels out another.

Where, in Kinshasa, where so many people “shadow” their jobs, and so many jobs are artificial and political, part of an artificial administration, where does the sense of responsibility, society, the state, begin? A city of two million, with almost no transport, with no industries (save for those assembly plants, sited, as in so many “developing” countries, on the road from the airport to the capital), a city detached from the rest of the country, existing only because the Belgians built it and today almost without a point. It doesn’t have to work; it can be allowed to look after itself. Already, at night, a more enduring kind of bush life seems to return to central Kinshasa, when the watchmen (who also shadow their jobs: they will protect nothing) bar off their territory, using whatever industrial junk there is to hand, light fires on the broken pavements, cook their little messes and go to sleep. When it is hot the gutters smell; in the rain the streets are flooded. And the unregulated city spreads: meandering black rivulets of filth in unpaved alleys, middens beside the highways, children, discarded motor tires, a multitude of little stalls, and everywhere, in free spaces, plantings of sugar cane and maize: subsistence agriculture in the town, a remnant of bush life.

But at the end of one highway there is the university. It is said to have gone down. But the students are bright and friendly. They have come from the bush, but already they can talk of Stendhal and Fanon; they have the enthusiasm of people to whom everything is new; and they feel, too, that with the economic collapse of the West (of which the newspapers talk every day) the tide is running Africa’s way. The enthusiasm deserves a better equipped country. It seems possible that many of these students, awakening to ideas, history, a knowledge of injustice and a sense of their own dignity, will find themselves unsupported by their society, and can only awaken to pain. But no. For most there will be jobs in the government; and already they are Mobutists to a man. Already the African way ahead is known; already inquiry is restricted; and Mobutu himself has warned that the most alienated people in Zaire are the intellectuals.

So Mobutism simplifies the world, the concept of responsibility and the state, and simplifies people. Zaire’s accession to power and glory has been made to appear so easy; the plundering of the inherited Belgian state has been so easy, the confiscations and nationalizations, the distribution of big shadow-jobs. Creativity itself now begins to appear as something that might be looted, brought into being by decree.

Zaire has her music and dance. To complete her glory, Zaire needs a literature; other African countries have literatures. The trouble, Elima says in a full-page Sunday article, is that far too many people who haven’t written a line and sometimes can’t even speak correctly have been going here and there and passing themselves off as Zairois writers, shaming the country. That will now stop; the bogus literary “circles” will be replaced by official literary “salons”; and they must set to work right away. In two months the president will be going to Paris. The whole world will be watching, and it is important that in these two months a work of Zairois literature be written and published. Other works should be produced for the Lagos festival of Negro arts at the end of the year. And it seems likely, from the tone of the Elima article, that it is Mobutu who has spoken.

Mobutu speaks all the time. He no longer speaks in French but in Lingala, the local lingua franca, and transistors take his words to the deep bush. He speaks as the chief, and the people listen. They laugh constantly, and they applaud. It has been Mobutu’s brilliant idea to give the people of Zaire what they have not had and what they have long needed: an African king. The king expresses all the dignity of his people; to possess a king is to share the king’s dignity. The individual’s responsibility—a possible source of despair, in the abjectness of Africa—is lessened. All that is required is obedience, and obedience is easy.

Mobutu proclaims his simple origins. He is a citoyen like everyone else. And Mama Mobutu, Mobutu’s wife, loves the poor. She runs a center for deprived girls, and they devote themselves to agriculture and to making medallions of the king, which the loyal will wear: there can never be too many images of Mobutu in Zaire. The king’s little magnanimities are cherished by a people little used to magnanimity. Many Zairois will tell you that a hospital steamer now serves the river villages. But it is where Mobutu appears to be most extravagant that he satisfies his people most. The king’s mother is to be honored; and she was a simple woman of Africa. Pilgrimages are announced to places connected with the king’s life; and the disregarded bush of Africa becomes sacred again.

The newspapers, diluting the language of Fanon and Mao, speak every day of the revolution and the radicalization of the revolution. But this is what the revolution is about: the kingship. In Zaire Mobutu is the news: his speeches, his receptions, the marches de soutien, the new appointments: court news. Actual events are small. The nationalization of a gaudy furniture shop in Kinshasa is big news, as is the revelation that there is no African on the board of a brewery. Antirevolutionary activity, discovered by the “vigilance” of the people, has to do with crooked vendors in the market, an official using a government vehicle as a night taxi, someone else building a house where he shouldn’t, some drunken members of the youth wing of the party wrecking the party Volkswagen at Kisangani. There is no news in Zaire because there is little new activity. Copper continues to be mined; the big dam at Inga continues to be built. Airports are being extended or constructed everywhere, but this doesn’t mean that Air Zaire is booming: it is for the better policing of the country.

What looked obvious on the first day, but was then blurred by the reasonable-sounding words, turns out to be true. The kingship of Mobutu has become its own end. The inherited modern state is being dismantled, but it isn’t important that the state should work. The bush works; the bush has always been self-sufficient. The administration, now the court, is something imposed, something unconnected with the true life of the country. The ideas of responsibility, the state, and creativity are ideas brought by the visitor; they do not correspond, for all the mimicry of language, to African aspirations.

Mobutu’s peace and his kingship are great achievements. But the kingship is sterile. The cult of the king already swamps the intellectual advance of a people who have barely emerged. The confusions of authenticity, which now give such an illusion of power, close up the world again and point to a future greater despair. Mobutu’s power will inevitably be extinguished; but there can now be no going back on the principles of Mobutism. Mobutu has established the pattern for his successors; and they will find that African dependence is not less than it is now, nor the need for nihilistic assertion.

To arrive at this sense of a country trapped and static, eternally vulnerable, is to begin to have something of the African sense of the void. It is to begin to fall, in the African way, into a dream of a past—the vacancy of river and forest, the hut in the brown yard, the dugout—when the dead ancestors watched and protected, and the enemies were only men.

This Issue

June 26, 1975