Thursday, June 9, 2011

Literary Break: Dancing in the Glory of Monsters

Kisangani, 2006. Image courtesy Flickr user Julien Harneis.

Last week I finished reading Jason K. Stearn's incredible book, Dancing in the Glory of Monsters: The Collapse of the Congo and the Great War of Africa. In less than 400 pages, this awesome volume gives a sweeping yet concise, multifaceted yet lucid history of the wars in the Congo, and their causes, characters, and consequences.

The book details several locations, especially the Great Lakes region in the east, and the capital, Kinshasa, in the far west. But the events, like the Congo River itself, turns decisively at Kisangani, the jungle metropolis of Stanley Falls, which in many ways links the two halves of the huge country.

Stearn provides a description of the city that is romantic and majestic, yet hopeless and horrifying.

While the book is hugely important in understanding the events of the Congo's complex conflicts, many of its pages take the time to describe not just the facts and events of the country, but its places and its people. Highly recommended reading.

Interspersed in the passages below are borrowed images of Kisangani/Stanleyville, as well as the fish weirs of the Wagenia.


Kisangani, c.1970

In May 1999, The city of Kisangani, later dubbed the City of Martyrs, fell victim to the worst bout of urban warfare the Congolese war had ever seen. The battle had dramatic consequences: it spelled the end of the Rwandan-Ugandan alliance and brought to the fore the plunder of the country's riches.

The city's reputation had not always been so bleak. The town of a million people was located in the middle of the country at a bend in the Congo River. In the 1960s, it had been an attractive city laid out along grand evens lined with jacaranda and mango trees. It is clear that the Belgians had had big plans for the jungle city: Italianate turrets and futuristic, Art Deco architecture; streets named after Chopin, Beethoven, and Belgian royalty; and a city divided by the great river into "Rive Droite" and "Rive Gauche" reminiscent of Paris.

Map of Kisangani, 1997. From the University of Texas Libraries Collection
Kisangani formed a trade hub with the eastern provinces by road and with Kinshasa by river. Roads branched out into the jungles to the north, where there were large ranches and coffee plantations, and merchants brought huge bags of rich palm oil down the river in dugout canoes. However, Mobutu's kleptocracy had reversed the flow of time in the town, as buildings crumbled and the jungle reclaimed land.

Building in Kisangani, built in 1925.
Image courtesy Panoramio user Jambo Sana, 2009.

The war had further sapped the life out of Kisangani. The whitewash had faded from the Art Deco facades, the pavement was cracked and overgrown with grass, and most shops were boarded up and empty. River traffic had all but ceased, as no boats were allowed up the river from Kinshasa into rebel-held territory. With no fuel or spare parts available, the only motorized traffic on the streets were a few dozen vehicles belonging to humanitarian organizations. The only means of leaving town--unless you wanted to trek on foot for a week through the forest--was by plane, so all luxury goods had the cost of an air ticket slapped on to their price tag.

Kisangani, 2008.

The isolation had its impact on the locals. Almost 10 percent of children were severely malnourished, retarding their physical and mental development and making them prone to disease. The inhabitants now had to rely on the tens of thousands of toleka ("let's go" in Lingala), the bicycle taxis with cushions bolted onto their baggage racks for passengers. Except for the parish and several hotels, which had diesel-run generators that sometimes worked, the city was left in the dark after sunset. Kerosene lamps and candles flickered in bars at the roadside.

Stanleyville, Belgian Congo, 1957

Kisangani became the graveyard of Rwandan and Ugandan reputations, where the two countries' lofty rhetoric gave way to another, more tawdry reality.

---above passages from pp.235-6

Other than finger-wagging by diplomats, there were few consequences for the occupying forces. A joint investigation by the Rwandan and Ugandan army commanders arrived in town and agreed on taking steps to prevent further fighting, but little was done…They banned toleka riders--around 2,000 in the whole town-- from working, accusing them of complicity with Wamba and the Ugandans. They even dismantled the famous scaffolding set up by the Wagenia fishermen in the Congo River; they said the fishermen had helped guide the Ugandans to safety during the fighting. The scaffolding, imposing thirty-foot-tall pieces of timber lashed together and anchored in the rapids, has been a tourist attraction in Kisangani since the first Belgian colonial postcards were made. The Rwandans certainly did not know how to make themselves loved.

--above passage from p.246

Zaïrien postage stamp, c.1973.

1 comment:

Maureen Fischer said...

Thanks for this informative post. I'm always interested in DR Congo. I just ordered Stearn's book, based on your recommendation.

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