30. Courage in the Congo (Brazzaville) during 1995-2000
JUN. 17, 2021
Get inspired by tales of courage from the Congo and learn how to hunt an elephant (spoiler – very carefully). Pete takes Ryan to central Africa to uncover stories of bravery and discover the remarkable lifestyle of the country’s forest foragers.
Congo Brazzaville, 1995 to 2000. Courage
The Republic of the Congo is also known as Congo-Brazzaville in an effort to distinguish it from it’s neighbor the Democratic Republic of the Congo, which is confusingly just across the river. The river Congo.
All this area takes its name from the original kingdom of the Kongo which existed in this area on the arrival of the European colonisers.
This central African country is about 342,000 sq km, about half the size of France, but with a population one tenth that of France.
The Congo story begins with a pattern we’ve seen before on History Happened Everywhere – the area was first settled by forest foragers, who were then displaced by the Bantu migrations who established agriculture and dominated the area until the arrival of Europeans.
1482 marked the first contact with Europeans, specifically the Portuguese, but despite this, and an early engagement with Britain, this land actually became a French colony.
In 1880, Pierre Savorgnan de Brazza arrived in the area to develop a French colony. Unusually for colonisers he believed in development and free trade. So unusual, in fact, that his efforts to trade honestly with the locals caused him to be sacked and replaced by people who were more comfortable with the ‘kidnap and threaten people to work for you in a culture of fear, intimidation and murder’ approach that was so profitable albeit disgustingly immoral, in the Belgian Congo.
Eventually, the horrors of the area were revealed and de Brazza made something of a comeback to conduct an investigation into the situation. Despite being interfered with and obstructed at every turn, and the dysentery he felt was literally killing him, de Brazza produced his report and sent it to the French government.
They suppressed it and carried on as normal.
On his death, de Brazza was given a state burial in France, although is wife then had his remains exhumed and moved to Algiers. This wasn’t the end of his post-mortem travels though, as in 2006, he was dug up again, and this time returned to Congo where he remains today in a purpose-built mausoleam in Brazzaville.
After World War II, African nations desire and agitation for independence grew and in in 1960 Congo became independent.
In 1970 the nation became a Marxist state after a coup, becoming the People’s Republic of Congo. In 1979, Denis Sassou -Nguesso was appointed the president. Keep an eye on him, we’ll be seeing more of him.
The country remained Marxist until 1992 when elections were held, with Pascal Lissouba taking the top job.
In 1997, the Republic of the Congo Civil War started and, supported by French oil money and Angolan troops and weaponry, Dennis Sassou Nguesso emerges again to lead the country.
He went on to win big in the 2002 election, with a suspiciously large 90% of the vote cast. He then also won the 2009 election and, after a constitutional amendment to let him stand again, the 2016 election.
He is still in charge today.
In the election of 1992 there were 3 main candidates, Dennis Sassou-Nguesso, Pascal Lissouba and Bernard Kolelas .Problem was they weren’t just politicians, they all had their own militia. Sassou had The Cobras, Lissouba the Cocoyes and Kolelas the Ninjas.
In 1997, in the election campaign, Sassou Nguesso took his election campaign carrying him through an opponent’s town in a traditional chiefs chair – a deliberate insult to the powers that be – a shoot out ensued. The President, Lissouba assumed this was the start of an attempted coup, so his Cocoye militia went to Sassou’s Brazzaville residence to arrest the Cobras.
Fighting broke out and a civil war began. Lissouba joined forces with Bernard Kolelas so the fighting was between now Ninjas and Cocoye against the Cobras. The Cobras had the advantage of French money and Angolan soldiers so when fighting finished in December 1999 they emerged the winners.
The legacy of the conflice was whole areas decimated, with wholesale looting leaving nothing behind, even down to corrugated metal roofs stripped from homes.
And despite the apparent peace, some areas were still controlled by militias, including an area called the Pool, which continues to be run by the Ninjas.
Cassie Knight was an worker for an international agency in Congo and she wrote about the country in her book, Brazzaville Charms , magic and rebellion in the republic of Congo.
She was kind enough to talk to History Happened Everywhere and describe some of her experiences. This included a journey to the home town of a Ninja faction.
She explained to the podcast who might join a militia, and she noted that these were people finding their courage from a charismatic leader, Pastor Ntumi. Ntumi believes he is son of God – his mother got pregnant whilst her father was travelling, and he invokes both the Christian saints and a Congolese historic figure, André Matsoua
Matsoua was a 1920s outspoken opponent of French injustice. He died in prison in 1942 and in order to avoid protests the French buried his body in secret. This backfired somewhat and instead people believed he had escaped and he became a kind of saint believed by some to return one day.
Pastor Ntumi also gives his followers courage with his magical powers. Secret rituals are believed to protect his followers and they make cuts on their wrists and rub them with special powder before fighting. This gives them such courage that children sent to the front lines can advance with nothing but saucepan lids to scare the enemy and no means to defend themselves other than the magic of Ntumi’s rituals.
As well as the courage of battle, though, Cassie encountered numerous examples of everyday courage, including sister Marie-Therese, who lived in Brazzaville when the fighting was raging – taking care of 10 children who had no other carers, right in the space between the two warring factions.
There was also Placide Milongo, who was forced to flee Brazzaville and trek for days over many kilometres on foot with his family to escape the war. After he escaped to safety in Kinshasa, he actually returned to the dangers of Brazzaville to continue the humanitarian work he left behind.
Cassie also talked about the Sapeurs - the Society of Good Timers and Elegant People, a sub culture of the stylish and well dressed found in both Brazzaville and Kinshasa.
Meanwhile, in Northern Congo, an anthropologist named Jerome Lewis was living and learning from the Yaka pygmy people of the forest between 1994 and 2001.
The Yaka are forest foragers who DNA studies indicate have been living in the region for at least 55,000 years.
These people lived as one with the forest, and Lewis lived with them, learning how to walk in the forest, to hunt and even becoming a Konja wa mokondi or forest spirit controller.
The Yaka presented a massive contrast with the authoritarian civil warring rest of the country. These people were a tribe without leaders or authority to enforce rules. Instead, mockery and teasing are used to control and critique behaviours. This is especially the job of old ladies who would reenact events in a comic mocking way whilst everyone laughs and commentates on what went on.
Sadly the Yaka are under threat from logging, as the sapelli trees of the area that provide nutritious caterpillars at a difficult time of year from hunting are also the source of valuable wood.
In a final exemplar ‘things that require courage’ Pete and Ryan talked about how the diminutive Yaka people would hunt and kill elephants with spears.
Yaka elephant hunters are known as Tuma, and to be known as a tuma you must have killed several elephants.
However, an elephant hunt is actually called “mwaka ya baito” (a women’s hunt). This is because an elephant hunt is embedded in a ritual process - the success of the hunt is dependent on women’s ritual work at the start of the process.
Whilst men prepare their spears, women first ritually “spear” the elephant by singing Yele long into the night. They drink a special herbal potion and sing together to help some of them enter a trance. They fly over the forest seeking to locate and “tie up” an elephant with their mystical power (gundu).
With the elephant metaphorically speared, the men set off to finish the job.
TO do this, they utilise:
o A fibre string (mokodi) tied around the forehead of the tuma to guide his senses and improve his awareness.
o A paste called Moombi paste, kept inside a horn, smeared on the crown, forehead, chest and calves to make the tuma invisible to the elephant,
o A black rope called ekooηga worn around the waist or over head and shoulder and is said to be a medicine from the creator Komba that gives tuma the ability to kill elephants and protection when doing so,
o the esoηgo necklace that keeps the wearer safe by providing foresight to anticipate accurately what will next happen.
o The mondaaηga braclet worn on the wrist, like a remote control that allows the tuma to adjust the position of the elephant, turning its body as the tuma turns the bracelet on his wrist, to get it to stand in the safest position for the tuma to approach.
Then, with elephant dung spread all over you to mask their human smell, they go in search of the beast.
There are three or four main ways to spear your elephant, but in any event, it requires the hunter not to throw the spear, but to approach very close to the elephant and thrust the spear home. Various techniques are available, none of them very safe.
If successful, the killing of the elephant is a cause for great celebration. The elephant is cut and packed up to be taking back to the camp for a feast. Celebratory drumming takes place - alerting nearby camps that an elephant has been killed and that they are welcome and for the daytime signs made of a hooped liana the size of an elephant’s footprint are left at key junctions on forest paths to tell others where to go.
People often come from other camps to join the feasting and spirit-play, in a celebration that can last as long as a couple of weeks.
Just enough time to get you through to your next episode of History Happened Everywhere.