THE CONGO RIVER AND THE GEOPOLITICS OF THE IMAGINATION

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Mongo-Mboussa  Boniface

by Boniface Mongo-Mboussa

2015-03-23
 
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Africa, wrote Frantz Fanon, is shaped like a revolver, and its trigger is in Zaire. I no longer remember in which of his books the essayist from Martinique penned this memorable phrase. One thing is certain: it is rooted in common sense, so greatly have the crises that have wracked this country affected the continent and sometimes the world. It was at the time of the confrontation between Stanley working on behalf of Leopold II, King of the Belgians, and Pierre Savorgnan de Brazza, the French explorer of Italian origin, that Bismarck seized the opportunity to kill two birds with one stone. He convened the Berlin conference in 1885 to settle the conflict with France, inconsolable for the loss of Alsace-Lorraine and opened up the Congo River to international trade, thereby fostering the Balkanisation of Africa. The same thing happened at the end of the century when the English journalist Edmond Morel heroically pitted himself against King Leopold II, more specifically against his brutal methods of colonisation. Frantz Fanon’s insight was confirmed yet again at the time of Belgian decolonisation, which had cost the life of the Congolese Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba and a UN Secretary General, Dag Hammarskjöld, and had subsequently unsettled African consciences to the point of inspiring Aimé Césaire to write his play Une saison au Congo (1967). Recently the accuracy of this formula created by Fanon was put to the test again in the atrocious war that continues to undermine the Democratic Republic of Congo, in which several countries in the subregion are involved — and supported by Western sponsors.

But the Congo is also a river, a legendary river, that Stanley took to be a tributary of the Nile and Hegel thought was the extension of the Niger; a river, which, from its first contact with the white man, has endlessly fascinated the imagination. Meditating in his fine essay, La perception du lointain (1992) on the political and literary richness of this meeting, Bernard Piniau writes: “As soon as Central Africa was crossed by the European traveller, the relations of the West with the Congo took on a literary dimension, which continued to assert itself throughout the 20th century. The discovery of this river is as much a historical event as one of physical geography. Certain powers annexed it just as quickly, and more powerfully, than the traditional diplomatic and military powers of reality.”[1] This encounter has given the West one of its greatest classics: Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad, which (paradoxically) inspired the Nigerian novelist Chinua Achebe to write Things Fall Apart, an African bestseller.

 

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