Monday, June 01, 2009

King Leopold and Mobutu

King Leopold II of Belgium owned the Congo in the late 1800s; it was called the Congo Free State. He treated it like his personal property. He did this suavely and charmed his European contemporaries. But terrible things were happening in the Congo. Leopold never visited this profitable African patch of land (as large as Western Europe), but he was well aware and responsible for all the atrocities. He let others, like Stanley, do the dirty work. Congolese were being enslaved by force; their hands were chopped off if they refused to cooperate in the lucrative rubber production enterprise that Leopold was running. Millions of people were murdered. Yes, millions: it is a holocaust most of us don’t even know about. Leopold, meanwhile, lived lavishly and built mansions all over Europe. (For more on this forgotten chapter of 19th century history, read King Leopold’s Ghost.)

The demons of history keep reincarnating. A hundred years later, the Congo – now renamed Zaire, a word with Portuguese roots – came to be ruled by another despot, a homegrown one: Mobutu Sese Seko Nkuku Ngbendu wa Za Banga, which translates roughly to “an all powerful warrior who goes from conquest to conquest, leaving fire in his wake.” That is how the man called himself.

The world knew him simply as Mobutu. He wore a leopard hat and carried a cane. He was America's ally in Africa's cold war intrigues. He ransacked Zaire, embezzled huge amounts of money, and built palaces everywhere. But he lavished special attention on his ancestral home, near Zaire’s border with the Central African Republic. There he created a gaudy town called Gbadolite. As Richard Dowden writes in Africa: Altered States, Ordinary Miracles:
“As if spraying his territory, he built a palace in every major town in Congo, but at Gbadolite there are three. The rest of the town is there simply to serve them. So it has an international-sized airport so that Mobutu’s family could hire Concorde to go shopping in Paris or New York and a Coca-Cola factory in case they needed a drink…

Kawele Palace was the private home. The entrance is a triumphal arch and at the back there is a vast swimming pool on two levels and a banqueting hall of royal proportions. From the terrace you can see across to what was once Mobutu’s zoo and a European-style farm with cows flown in from Switzerland and sheep from Argentina.”
In other words, an incongruous but not unusual juxtaposition: a flagrant display of wealth in an extremely poor place. A century ago, King Leopold sucked the wealth out of Congo and built mansions in Europe, but his 20th century reincarnation built mansions in Congo in addition to building some in Europe. But let me not go on and on about this – all my knowledge about Congo comes from books, and a real engagement with a place is possible only after some serious, focused travel.

Let me instead finish with an anecdote about Mobutu which shows what a bizarre life he led (the anecdote is from Dowden's book as well). Like many rich and powerful men, Mobutu had a wife and a mistress. The mistress was the wife’s twin sister. To please his wife and ensure she did not know of the time he spent with his mistress, Mobutu played an elaborate game of hide and seek:
And the middle of the town [Gbadolite] on a low hill is a palace for Kosia, the twin sister of Mobutu’s wife, Bobi. In public the twins accompanied him, dressed identically. In private, I am told by a former guard, it was a different matter. Bobi was very possessive and when Mobutu wanted to spend time with Kosia, he would tell his wife that he was going to Kinshasa. The presidential convoy would swoosh off to the airport but Mobutu would sneak back to Kosia’s palace. A Mobutu lookalike complete with leopard hat and cane, would mount the steps of the plane and wave to Bobi – you can see the runway from the presidential bedroom – then the plane would leave for Kinshasa. A few days later the process would be done in reverse. The guards at Kosia’s place were under separate command from those at the President’s house and were forbidden to talk to each other on pain of death.
Imagine that: a Concorde takes off with an impostor in it; it travels all the way to Kinshasa, 710 miles away, and then returns a few days later. Just to keep the rigmarole going. It’s both hilarious and grotesque.

Update: Please see Alex Engwate's thoughtful comment, where he clarifies where the name Zaire comes from (I have mistakenly called it a word with Portuguese roots).


Pallavi said...

Hari, I wanted to pick your brain on last part of this post. I wanted to point out that polyandry probably is not a topic to be taken in a light/er vein. Having a mistress/es or living outside a committed relationship or marriage is not openly talked but is a practice worth deploring. It's a very persistent practice and more men have indulged in it then women to this date due to the gender power structure we have had. It has also to do with the fact with the way image of women has been projected. Victims of polygamy/cheating are affected in some very serious ways so something not hilarious, I would think. So its probably only grotesque like you mentioned.

Kartikeya said...

“an all powerful warrior who goes from conquest to conquest, leaving fire in his wake.”

I guess the Indian translation of this would "Ajinkya Bhasmasur" (i apologize to anyone who actually bears that name).

Has there ever been any wealth created without brutality? I wonder!

Hari said...


There’s been a slight misinterpretation. The humor in the excerpt – in my view at least – comes not from Mobutu having a mistress, but the manner in which he played this game of hide and seek. It shows that the man was a coward. I was laughing at his cowardice, not at the fact that he had a mistress. There is further irony in the setting: the people around Gbadolite are miserably poor, yet there are these palaces for the ruling elite; a Concorde takes off from such a town just to set up a smokescreen. Just as the joke cannot be about the poor around Gbadolite or the guards who could die if caught leaking information, in the same vein, it cannot be about the victim of Mobutu's infidelity. Rather, the joke is about the antics of the man.

I agree completely with you that the gender power structure has always been skewed, and in my opinion, it is still skewed. The strange part is that there is little discussion about it in the mainstream (or, it's just that I am not aware of it). The way men behave, the way they look at women is accepted without a whimper in many societies. In some sense gender is like race, but perhaps the discussion on gender has not gone as far as it should. But these are thoughts for a different post. I also have to say that I haven't read enough about the topic to claim much knowledge or insight. Perhaps you could suggest me something...

10:12 AM

Pallavi said...

I apologize about my misinterpretation. Your response does make me feel better. Your second example of palace in middle of dire poverty reminds of Ambani's new house which is being built in Mumbai, which will be donned, down under by underbelly of India. Its the ugliness of richness at its peak. But India's distributive nature of wealth (or lack of it) is a topic in itself.

Regarding specific books on gender issues, I cannot think of any book specific, right now, but can share some online resources, if you are interested. I have gained an awful lot through discussions and through personal experiences of growing up majority of it in India, cutting through layers of social implications and expectations.

You might be aware of Vagina monologues...

and take back the night stories..

But again, these are stories of physical violence being talked about and I have to yet come across an active forum for passive abuse (eg., infidelity) that women go through.

Issues related to gender are so many and I can share resources to topics of your specific interest, if you are interested.

Hari said...

Thanks, Pallavi, for sharing these links. It will probably take me a while to learn about these issues - but that's true, I guess, for a serious engagement with any issue.

Alex Engwete said...

Your statement,"Zaire, a word with Portuguese roots" is not correct...

Zaire is a distortion of a word of the Kongo language--the Kongo being an ethnic group that Portuguese explorer Vasco de Gama met in 1492 at the mouth of the Congo River.

Incidentally, the same ethnic group--which was then a kingdom spanning the territories of southwestern Congo-Kinshasa, northern Angola and southeastern Congo-Brazzaville--has also today lent its name to the 2 countries in the region mentioned above.

At the sight of the River Congo, the 15th-century Portuguese explorers asked the natives what the river was called, while frantically pointing at the river.

One of the baffled natives, in turn, pointed at the river and exclaimed: "It's a river, Sir!"

The word "river" in the Kongo language is "nzadi," which the Portuguese wrote down as "zaire"--thereby naming for the first time a nameless river for the natives and giving the whole surrounding area the name "Zaire" till the end of the 15th-century when they then started calling it the "Kingdom of Kongo" and the river "Kongo" (there was even an exchange of ambassadorships with one prince of the Kongo Kingdom becoming a Roman Catholic bishop.)

By the way, different tribes along the river gave various names to it. In the Katanga province, where the river has its source, local ethnic groups named it the Lualaba.

At any rate, in 1972, when Mobutu, with his Afrocentrist semiotic fraud called "Authenticity," forced Congolese to change their Christian names to "Authentic" African names, he also reverted to the 15th-century name "Zaire" for the country and the river--a way for him to show the middle finger to Belgium with whom he then had bad relations.

Hari said...

Thank you Alex -- I appreciate the clarifications you have provided.

Alex Engwete said...

You're most welcome, Hari. I stumbled upon your blog post while googling the following: "from Leopold II to Mobutu"... I then discovered that your blog has a wealth of interesting posts. It goes without saying that I immediately bookmarked it. Keep the fires up!

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Naviboy said...

Even though Mobutu occasionaly used the Concorde, I would find it hard to believe that it was used for trips from Gbadolite to Kinshasa. The Concorde was just too fast and too expensive to cover that "short" distance. The Concorde also required a lot of maintenance. The maintenance could only be done in a good equipped airport (Paris, London). I am pretty sure that Mobutu chartered smaller planes to fly between Kinshasa and Gbadolite. Nevertheless, Mobutu did have a preference for a lavish and grandeur lifestyle. It is very common for people in power to lose touch with reality and spend and act beyond their means, especially if they stay too long in power.