part-time musings

Tag: DRC

A diasporic tale about a song and being far from home…

A few years ago I was at a large, rambling party on a hot summer’s night in Cape Town. It was not unusual in being populated by unconnected global drifters at varying stages in their lives and futures. Cape Town is a city that has always been at ease with people just passing through.  What was unusual was that there was a small brass band in the garden playing old-fashioned dance tunes. As the night wore on I got chatting to some of the members of the band.  It turned out that they were all French-speaking and, stretching my French to its very limits, I discovered they were helicopter pilots from the DRC who had come to South Africa for training and been left stranded when Mobutu’s rule came to its sudden end in 1997.  While they waited to discover if they would have a place in the new dispensation, they made some extra cash by performing music.

The party ebbed and flowed and was still limping on at about 6 am the next morning when the band struck up a final set.  By now they’d been joined by a couple of tired and emotional Mauritians who embraced them like long-lost brothers while they sang tearfully together in French.  Their homesickness was palpable and it struck me that this suburban garden at the tip of Africa seemed like the loneliest place on earth to those guys.  The flip-side of Cape Town’s easy cosmopolitanism is that it’s full of people who are missing home.

A particular song from that morning has always stuck in my mind because it seemed both so beautiful and incongruous as it spoke longingly of the Champs- Elysées.   Over the years I’ve often thought about that morning and I’ve wondered how I might track the song down.  A little while ago I was in a supermarket queue in Brussels – a long way from Cape Town – and the elderly guy ahead of me was humming the tune.  I asked him what it was and it turns out it’s ‘Les Champs-Elysées’ by Joe Dassin.  So here it is – a song about Paris, that I first heard in Cape Town being sung by homesick Congolese and Mauritians, and which I lost, and found again in Brussels.

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A book worth reading

I hate bad writing on Africa. And there is a lot of it.  So when I come across a truly excellent book on Africa I feel I should share it.

Conrad’s phrase  ‘The Heart of Darkness’ – that stock-in-trade phrase that seems to find its way into any writing on the Congo – is in fact a reference to the darkness of the European heart; the absence of understanding and humanity in European interactions with Africa. And certainly when one reflects on the dearth of decent literature on the Congo in English, one has to admit that there are lamentably few points of illumination disrupting the Cimmerian shade of our ignorance.

One of these points of light is undoubtedly Janet McGaffey and Remy Bazenguissa-Ganga’s Congo-Paris: Transnational Traders on the Margins of the Law.  And I’ve just finished another – Michela Wrong’s In the Footsteps of Mr Kurtz – which I’d compare to a hunting lamp casting a stark bright illuminating beam over the landscape.

I’ve been aware of In the Footsteps of Mr Kurtz since it was published in 2000, but had never read a review and had, in all honestly, judged the book unfairly by its cover. It, and the fact the book seems to have found its way into the travel writing sections of bookstores, gave me the impression it was one of those ‘look I’m traveling through Africa on a motorcycle/elephant/golf buggie and aren’t the people poor/different/lovely’ kind of travelogues.  Well I got that wrong.  Not only was Michela Wrong in the DR Congo observing events in 1997 as the Mobutu era came to its dramatic and strange end, but she has also done an impressive amount of research on the personal history of Mobutu and the people around him, and on recent Congolese history.

The book offers the best account I’ve seen on Mobutu’s rise to power; on the scale of graft, nepotism, and decadence that characterized his regime; and of the events that led to his fall. And the book is infused with Wrong’s personal observations that make the characters and events come alive in the mind of the reader. Such as her description of the heavily-armed, sportswear-clad Mobutu supporters and their families gathered at the Intercontinental Hotel surrounded by their Louis Vuitton luggage waiting to make their escape as Kabila’s forces marched on Kinshasa.

I’d very much recommend this book if you’re interested in the history of the DR Congo- or the history of Belgium. And I’ll certainly be taking a close look at Michaela Wrong’s more recent books on Eritrea and Kenya.