Congo Connection - 3

December 27, 2008
Amitabh Mitra

Olusegun Obasanjo is the UN special envoy for Congo and a former Nigerian President. I saw him coming out of a tent in Eastern Congo with General Nkunda after a round of talks. The General was as usual smiling and Mr. Obasanjo looked grim. All talks have failed since then and even at the latest one held at Nairobi. The participating rebels had asked to discuss the situation in the whole country as opposed to just the conflict in the east.

Mr. Obasanjo is a failed statesman in his own country. The United Nations have done a blunder by appointing him as the mediator of a complex war involving tribes, nations and people hungry for power. The ideal person would have been Archbishop Desmond Tutu. A man respected the world over; he has an intimate knowledge of African Conflicts.

General Laurent Nkunda seems to have a plausible answer to the ongoing conflict. He has an infectious laughter and tells me of a war that would end the day he is allowed to explain his views. I believe that he should be given a chance. A government of national unity would bring the war to an end.

But the General believes that neither the United Nations nor the African Union is keen on resolving the ongoing conflict. The participating nation's army on deputation are stationed in the safer zones of the Congo war and are paid handsomely in US dollars. The Indian soldiers spend their time playing cards while trying to ward off the mosquito menace.

The eastern region is rich in minerals, such as tin ore, gold and coltan, underlining a decade of conflict in the region. Illegal mining has fanned both sides in keeping the war going by buying weapons from the proceeds of the sales of such minerals.

United Nations Resolution 1856, which commences on January 1, 2009, authorises "the continuation of up to 19,815 military personnel, 760 military observers, 391 police personnel and 1,050 personnel of formed police units."

It directs MONUC "to attach the highest priority to addressing the crisis in the Kivu province [eastern DRC], in particular the protection of civilians, and to concentrate progressively during the coming year its action in the eastern part of the Democratic Republic of Congo."

The incumbent detail of 17,000 peacekeepers have been accused by human rights groups of not doing enough to protect citizens in DR Congo, affected by increased fighting between the Tutsi National Council for the Defence of the People (CNDP) rebel forces and the army since August.

As the war continues, I stumble upon yet another famous writer, Albert Russo who is of Congolese origin. I’ve known Albert for many years, having encountered his poetry on the web pages and the print media. It was in September 2008 at the World Literature Festival in Oslo, that I actually met him for the first time in person. A great guy with a fountain of knowledge on Africa - past and present, he has written a number of novels based on Central and Eastern Africa.

His nonsense verses, I liked the best but the best I believe is yet to come. In his own words

Albert Russo was born in what is now Zaire, of an Italian father (who was born in Rhodes during the Italian occupation of the Greek Dodecanese) and an English mother (brought up in Rhodesia, today's Zimbabwe), which makes him neither Zairois, Italian, Greek, Rhodesian, Zimbabwean,or English. After primary and secondary education in francophone and anglophone Central and Southern Africa, he spent four years obtaining a degree at New York University; which does not make him American. During his seventeen Zaire-Rwanda-Burundi years he spent several months of every year in South Africa, adding up to almost four years, albeit in spaced-out installments, during turbulent times, but this does not make him South African.

He has by now spent the greater part of his life in France, but does that make him French? Jamais ! He has been translated into Greek, Turkish, German, Polish, Russian, Flemish/Dutch and Serbian, and he happens to carry a Belgian passport. Bearing in mind James Baldwin's pertinent remark, "it is perfectly possible to be enamored of Paris while remaining totally indifferent or even hostile to the French," what do all these geographic facts make of Albert Russo? Answer as a writer, he is simply uncategorizable by nationality.

Russo writes in American English and in French and has published over three hundred poems, short stories, and essays in Australia, Belgium, Britain, Canada, France, India, Nigeria, Sri Lanka, the USA, and Zimbabwe, plus more than a dozen novels published in both Anglophone and francophone countries. His poems are invariably about the human condition irrespective of geographic or national settings, and he has more than once been published in monetarily risky books of poems in English and in French within the same covers. One such book he entitled "Dans la nuit bleu-fauve" on one cover, then, turned upside down, "Futureyes" on the other. His recent collection of over 500 pages, entitled ‘The Crowded World of Solitude’, volume 2, spanning a period of 30 years, contains English and French versions of the same ten poems, and it is impossible to tell which were originally written in French, which in English; the messages are the same but the images are necessarily different, and each version sheds light on the other most interestingly, at least for those of us who are polyglots. Many of Russo's short stories have definitely American backgrounds, while others are set in Italy, Sri Lanka, China, etc. The majority of his published novels, however, centre squarely on Africa and were either adapted by himself from American English into French or written directly in French.

His sixth novel, 'Zapinette Video', which is now part of a series, has nothing whatever to do with Africa. It will be seen, then, that in terms of subject matter too, he his uncategorizable."

I was particularly interested in his education in the Congo, He writes:

I attended Athénée Royal Interracial in Usumbura (Bujumbura) for 6 years, along with Hutu, Tutsi, Pakistani, Arab and Indian students, a unique experience in colonial Africa, which gave me a cosmopolitan weltanschauung. After New York University where I majored in Economics and minored in Psychology, I spent 1 year at Collegium Palatinum in Heidelberg, Germany, where I studied German culture and literature. Then I lived 8 years in Northern Italy, before going back to NY where I worked for Unicef and taught languages to UN staff, translating for magazines such as World Press Review and publishing in US literary magazines and anthologies.

His book, ‘The Benevolent American in the Heart of Darkness’ is an internationally acclaimed novel trilogy, ‘The Black Ancestor’, ‘Eclipse over Lake Tanganyika’ and ‘Mixed Blood’, set in the former Belgian Congo and Rwanda-Urundi. It was published by Xlibris in 2004.

The book is a semiautobiographical novel which reveals the beauty of a part of Africa that has been incomparable, the people who lived there integrated to the environs that made them proudly Congolese and the desperate struggle in the later years to part with an identity that they have been born with. Exiled in different countries, they all share the same dream every night, happiness and laughter in a land that was once so full of hope.

Chapter one in The Black Ancestor starts like this:

I was born in a once lovely town called Elisabethville, now Lubumbashi, known as the Pearl of Katanga, Katanga or Shaba, which was and still remains the Congo's richest province. The whole country is alas, today in a pitiful state, after forty years of corruption and mismanagement.

The story is about Leodine who comes to know that she is actually colored, her great grandmother being an African-American with a light complexion. It is a riveting story of love, life and conflicts that rages within every colored person in Africa. Albert Russo has brought this turmoil of an African in a narrative that the reader finds difficult to keep down the book. As an African, I enjoyed it far more, being so close to my daily life.

The last chapter goes like this:

But the nostalgia of those carefree years - before I had learnt of my father's legacy - would then be replaced by a sentiment of solidarity, so much deeper and so much more meaningful, even if when, faced with the unbearable loss and the huge misery of the populations I visited, I could feel at times totally disarmed, and if my efforts would appear so futile in the face of their ordeal. But I don't regret a thing, except for the cruelty which humans keep on inflicting upon each other, as if they have never learnt anything from history.

Albert Russo is a master of African Literature, and, as opposed to Westerners who find it so difficult to understand the African sentiment, Albert has brought into life that period of the Belgian Congo and Rwanda which very few Congolese writers could shed light on.

My friend Brett Beiles is a well known poet living in Durban. His father was a popular medical practitioner who had the support of a clientele of every racial group and was equally loved by all. I asked Brett if he knew of any Congolese writer living in Durban. To my greatest surprise he introduced me to Jean-Marie Spitaels who happens to be a medical practitioner like me. I sent Jean the links to Congo Connection 1 and 2.

He wrote me back, 'I indeed remember you reading poetry to us and showing us your painting. I have published two books on my life in Congo. They are both written in French, ‘Le Vol d'une Hirondelle’ (Flight of a Swallow) in 2003 (Durban) and 2004 (Paris) and ’Lignes Tracées’ (Lines drawn), by Jean Cornet (my pen name) in 2007

'In the Flight of a Swallow', Jean Cornet keeps a chronicle of lacerations of his mind:

From childhood in Europe to the present days in Southern Africa, the author, a retired medical practitioner will take your hand to lead you from the slimy cobblestones of the North to the quivering swamps of the South. Forget historical or geographical accuracy but listen to a story told by a bard about events which took place in some fairy land. An infant has memories of American and German soldiers; an adolescent discovers the aloofness of bush hunting but ends up as a medical man, disgruntled in useless service. Inner peace is found at last by writing for those children whose soul has not been devoured by modern machinery.

His letter to me -

Dear Amitabh

I am not sure how I can help you any further short of translating the whole book in English and I prefer somebody else would do that.

I beg to differ about some of the "facts" reported in your articles.

1 : Patrice Lumumba was not kidnapped by Belgian paratroops but by the Congolese army under the orders of Mobutu. I was a medical student in Leopoldville at the time of (July 1960) independence and the speech delivered by Lumumba then, full of hate, reminds me of how Mugabe speaks now.

2 : Mike Hoare was a soldier, and a good one at that, he could indeed control his men, to the degree of shooting the rogue ones! He was confronted with mobs of indoctrinated (and drugged) youngsters who believed in being protected against bullets which would then be transformed into water (May in Swahili) by the sheer power of the mind. So those kamikaze men, armed with spears, charged at the mercenary shouting "May Mulele".

What would you have done in the position of Mike Hoare, Sir?

Have you been confronted by an African mob? I have.

3 : "Evil colonialism has inflicted ?"

This is a cliché!

I met wonderful men and women in Congo who dedicated themselves to uplifting the life conditions of local populations. My uncle, Franciscan missionary, was one of them.

I added my little bit.

I believe Africa, like the Phoenix, will come back reborn from his cinders when it stops blaming the "white man" for all its ailments.

Accept my apologies for being direct


Jean - Marie

General Laurent Nkunda breaks into a hearty laughter when I ask him about his possibilities of him becoming the President of Congo. Refraining from answering my question he says 'I want people like you with me who understand the heart of Congo'. South Africa lost the chance of attracting the best brains from all over the world when it resorted to democracy.

An orthopaedic surgeon in a busy hospital in East London, South Africa, I actually belong to Gwalior, Madhya Pradesh, its long summers and hectic politics. I edit a print poetry journal called 'A Hudson View' and a journal on African arts called 'Inyathi' and dream of going back to Gwalior.
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Vinod Joseph
December 31, 2008
07:25 AM

Very good.

At some point you ought to tell us why an orthopaedic surgeon from a busy hospital in East London, South Africa travels to the Congo. Are you part of a UN medical mission?

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