A Miracle in the Congo – an xmas message

TP Mazembe’s journey to the final of the World Club Championship paralysed the DRC. It increased Katumbi’s chances of success in the elections. The fervour was not confined to Lumumbashi, the wealthy capital of Katanga, where everyone votes for him. It spread to the entire country, which was 168th out of 169 in the UN’s development programme. And 60% of whose population live in absolute poverty. Where about 45,000 people die every month from hunger, malaria and AIDS. Numbers that contrast sharply with the the wealth of diamonds, gold and copper, as well as coltan, a key material for the mobile phone and computer games industries. “Historically, the source of the various conflicts in the Congo has not been the racial or ethnic question so much as it’s been the country’s enormous mineral wealth,” wrote Kambale Musavuli. While Avatar, James Cameron’s box office smash, may be set on Pandora in the year 2154, the same story of multinational companies raping a country for its resources is taking place now in the Congo.

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To balance out our indignant attack on Argieracism last week, today we bring you an, er, equally indignant tale of mass murder, starvation and football but one that shows Argiejournalism in a somewhat better light. While arguably not so topical nearly a week after the final, and we daresay aimed more towards Argentines since anyone writing in English would be more likely to parody Kurtz than invoke him, it’s a well written piece from one of the few sports journalists in Argentina who practices the essay and essays  (ahem) to raise the bar, Ezequiel Fernández Moores.

It’s actually the second piece of his we’ve translated over the past few months, and that piece, too, was titled A Miracle in Polokwane, after Palermo scored against Greece. While Fernández Moores, or his sub-editors, may have a thing for miracles, though, the piece seems to contradict the idea that TP Mazembe’s victory was all that miraculous, or that it really matters given the sheer scale of the misery in the DRC. In any case, we thought it noteworthy.

A Miracle in the CongoEzequiel Fernández Moore, La Nación (21/12/2010)

They looked like footballs. They were decapitated heads. They were being collected by Kurtz, Joseph Conrad’s mysterious character in The Heart of Darkness, and surrounded his hut in the jungle. Conrad never said as much but Kurtz was probably based on Leon Rom, the man in charge of the Belgian troops when the Congo was the private property of King Leopold II (1835-1908). Rom decorated his bed with human heads. So Adam Hochshild tells us in his book King Leopold’s Ghost. He says the Belgian King’s brutal regime led to the deaths of between four and eight million people in the Congo. And that a further five million died in the latest war, which is why what is now the Democratic Republic of Congo currently features the UN’s largest peace-keeping force. The country that suffered centuries of colonialism, murder, ransacking and starvation, knocked out the South American team for the first time in the semi-finals as TP Mazembe Englebert made it to the final of the World Club Championship in Abu Dhabi. Javier Zanetti’s Inter won easily. With eight South Americans in the starting eleven and the Cameroon striker Samuel Eto’o as their standout player. No Italians. Hardly even any Europeans.

El sueño del celta (‘The Dream of the Celt’), the latest novel by Mario Vargas Llosa, tells the story of Irish nationalist Roger Casement, one of the only personages in Hochschild’s book to come out with any credit for being one of the few people who publicly denounced the murderous activities of King Leopold in the Belgian Congo. Claiming to be on a humanitarian mission, the Belgian king controlled with the utmost brutality territories extending over more than 2.5m km² – an are larger than England, France, Germany, Italy and Spain combined. The enslaved natives who did not meet the required quota were mutilated and whipped with hippopotamus hide, which would often be fatal. If they escaped, their families were raped and tortured. Vargas Llosa spoke of ‘genocide’ on Spanish television. He also said that Casement added a fourth C to the three staples of the colonising mission: Christianity, civilisation, commerce. The fourth was covetousness (codicia in Spanish). Leopold ended up leaving but four Belgian companies remained on in the Congo, no longer managing rubber plantations rather seeking out minerals such as the uranium that the United States used to make the first atomic bomb. In 1941, 28,000 Belgians controlled the fate of 15 million Congolese. A ‘model colony’, schools and hospitals began to appear in the Congo. Education remained in the hands of the religious missions, who also encouraged the growth of football. The Jesuit Raphael Kethulle was honoured in 1997 when a stadium in Kinshasha was named after him, the same stadium that in 1974, under the name ’20th of May’, was the backdrop to the Ali-Foreman showdown. In 1939, Benedictine monks founded FC Saint Georges, now known as TP Mazembe.

The powerful copper mine union (Union Miniere du Haute Katanga – UMHK) was behind, along with the Benedictine monk Gregoire Coussement, the foundation of the first Congolese FA. The UMHK, David Goldblatt says in his book The Ball is Round, pointed out that football was a good way of distracting the workers. Until, that is, in 1941 when state troops killed hundreds of striking workers at a football stadium in Lubumbashi. In the town formerly known as Elizabethville, capital of Katanga province, TP Mazembe was founded. In 1950 the religious authorities at the club stepped down and it became Englebert FC, owing to the club’s new owners, a Belgian tyre company. Englebert FC and Vatican FC, from Katanga and Johannesburg respectively, played the first ever international game with all black players in front of 40,000 people in 1950 in Lumumbashi. A few years previous, black players were allowed to play against their white counterparts, but they had to do so barefoot. Paternalistic colonialism was best expressed in the Tintin comic Tintin in the Congo: “Today i’m going to tell you about the Fatherland: Belgium,” Tintin says in one of his famous comic strips, in which he calls the natives lazy and ignorant and insists that even the elephants speak better French than they.

Oh dear

Belgium was obliged to grant the Congo independence. The first free elections in 1960 were won by Patrice Lumumba. His inaugural speech, a formidable piece of rhetoric attacking colonialism and racism, offended King Baudouin. A rebellion, with the direct involvement of agents of the Belgian government and the CIA, kicked off in Katanga that led to the murder of Lumumba six months later. Four decades later Belgium apologised. Lumumba’s family are still seeking justice in the courts of Brussels. In 1965 the anti-communist Joseph Desiré Mobutu seized power. Katanha hailed the triumphs of Englebert in 1967 and 1968 and as a result added the TP top their name, Tout Puissant (All-powerful). Mobutu gets into football and invests heavily in the national team. The Congo win the African cup of Nations in 1968 and then, as Zaire (the name change was ordered by Mobutu), win the African Cup of Nations again and qualify for the World Cup in Germany in 1974. The dream ends with a humiliating 9-0 defeat to Yugoslavia in Gelsenkirchen. Mobutu survived a while longer. His personal fortune mushroomed to some $4 billion; the dead hecatombed to 200,000. The events in Rwanda in 1994, in the war between the Hutus and the Tutsis, precipitated his exit. Laurent Desiré Kabila, who had fought alongside Che Guevara in the 1960s, took power. He, too, was murdered. The war, that included Angola, Namibia, Zimbabwe. Burundi, Uganda and Rwanda and 24 different armed groups, ended in 2003. Between three and five million people died.

Today the Democratic Republic of Congo has as president Joseph Kabila, one of Laurent Kabila’s ten children. His former ally but potential rival for the 2011 elections will be Moise Katumbi, the governor of Katanga province and president of TP Mazembe. Katumbi is a kind of African Silvio Berlusconi or Roman Abramovitch. Owner of copper and uranium mines, Katumbi has pumped €8m into the team, endowed the club with an extensive sports complex, a private plane, an academy for two thousand kids as well as paying out wages of $3,300 a week in a country where the average wage is $120. For one match in the African Champions League he promised a victory bonus of $250,000. Their rivals, Monomotapa, the Zimbabwean champions, had an annual budget of $200,000. TP Mazembe’s these days is around $10m. I’m told all this by Steve Bloomfield, a journalist I met in South Africa. That World Cup was disappointing for the African countries, but TP Mazembe’s triumph has avenged those particular setbacks. Bloomfield himself saw Katumbi go down to the dressing room to give orders at half-time in one game. The French manager, Diego Garzitto, left and was replaced by the Senegalese Lamine N’Diaye. “If I have to choose between politics and the club, i’ll stay with my club,” Katumbi told Bloomfield for his book Africa United. “Any politician would say the same thing,” Bloomfield tells me.

TP Mazembe’s journey to the final of the World Club Championship paralysed the DRC. It increased Katumbi’s chances of success in the elections. The fervour was not confined to Lumumbashi, the wealthy capital of Katanga, where everyone votes for him. It spread to the entire country, which was 168th out of 169 in the UN’s development programme. And 60% of whose population live in absolute poverty. Where about 45,000 people die every month from hunger, malaria and AIDS. Numbers that contrast sharply with the the wealth of diamonds, gold and copper, as well as coltan, a key material for the mobile phone and computer games industries. “Historically, the source of the various conflicts in the Congo has not been the racial or ethnic question so much as it’s been the country’s enormous mineral wealth,” wrote Kambale Musavuli. While Avatar, James Cameron’s box office smash, may be set on Pandora in the year 2154, the same story of multinational companies raping a country for its resources is taking place now in the Congo. Avatar is the Congo, Musavuli says. “All Europe contributed to the making of Kurtz,” Conrad wrote in The Heart of Darkness in 1899. Kurtz, whose last words are “the horror, the horror.”

Finally, while this blog is supposed to be about insults and provocation and we fear we’re becoming far too hip, we shall ne’ertheless close with a rather excellent poem that really, you know, it really puts things in… in… perspective. By Carlos Germán Belli, it was sent to us by one of our legion of dear, handsome readers and immediately translated for your edification and guilt. Happy x-mas:

Segregation Poem No 1Carlos German Belli

(in the manner of a cultured yet primitive painter)

Me, my mother and my two brothers

and many ickle Peruvians

carved out a deep, deep hole,

where we shelter,

because everything above has an owner,

everything’s under lock and key,

tightly sealed,

because everything above ‘s been reserved:

the shadow of the tree, the flowers,

the fruit, the roofs, the wheels,

the water, the pencils,

and we choose to bury ourselves

in the bottom of the earth,

ever deeper,

as far as we can from the owners,

between the legs of the ickle animals,

because above

are the people who run everything,

those who write, who sing, who dance,

who speak beautifully

and, us, scarlet with shame,

we just want to turn into

dust.

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