Monday, January 31, 2011

Joseph Conrad's Congo

I have been reading "Heart of Darkness" by Joseph Conrad - something a bit outside of my typical took some time to get used to his prose as I generally read works by more contemporary authors. "Heart of Darkness" was written in 1902, and follows the story of an Englishman who takes a job as a ferry boat captain in Africa for a Belgian trading company. Conrad does not name the area in which the story takes place, but it's widely accepted that his story centers around the Congo River in Belgian King Leopold's Congo Free State. Surprisingly, I found out that this novella by Conrad was adapted as the story for the Apocalypse Now, with Francis Ford Coppola changing the setting to the Vietnam War.

"Heart of Darkness" has many similarities to Conrad's personal experience as a steamboat captain in the Congo in the late1800s. As such, I was interested in hearing some of the depictions of the area at that time, as he had first hand experience. Through the character of Marlow, the ferry boat captain, Conrad describes floating along the Congo River:
Going up that river was like traveling back to the earliest beginnings of the world, when vegetation rioted on the earth and the big trees were kings. An empty stream, a great silence, an inpenetrable forest. The air was warm, thick, heavy, sluggish. There was no joy in the brilliance of sunshine. The long stretches of the waterway ran on, deserted, into the gloom of overshadowed distances. On silvery sandbanks hippos and alligators sunned themselves side by side. The broadening waters flowed through a mob of wooded islands; you lost your way on that river as you would in a desert, and butted all day long against shoals, trying to find their channel, till you thought yourself bewitched and cut off for ever from everything you had known once - somewhere - far away - in another existence perhaps.
I like how, through Marlowe the ferry captain, Conrad describes it as being almost prehistoric. Considering Conrad was living in industrialized England at the time he wrote this, thinking back to his journeys 10 years earlier in remote Africa must have seemed almost unfathomable.
This reminds me in some ways of part of what I read a few weeks ago in The Poisonwood Bible, where Barbara Kingsolver at one point wrote about one character's return to 1960s America after having spent years in the
Congo and how overwhelming and shockingly different and complicated American life was. There does seem to be an element of stepping back in time to a very different physical space and lifestyle when living in the Congo, although I'm not sure if it remains quite that marked today.

Later, the same character describes the passing of a day on the river in an especially evocative section:
I brought up in the middle of the stream...The dusk came gliding into it long before the sun had set. The currant ran smooth and swift, but a dumb immobility sat on the banks...Not the faintest sound of any kind could be heard. You looked on amazed, and began to suspect yourself of being deaf - then the night came suddenly, and struck you blind as well. About three in the morning some large fish leaped, and the loud splash made me jump as though a gun had been fired. When the sun rose there was a white fog, very warm and clammy, and more blinding than the night. It did not shift or drive; it was just there, standing all round you like something solid. At eight or nine, perhaps, it lifted as a shutter lifts. We had a glimpse of the towering mulitude of trees, of the immense matted jungle, with the blazing little ball of the sun hanging over it - all perfectly still - and then the white shutter came down again, smoothly , as if sliding in greased grooves.

Here's some pix of the Congo River in which part of "Heart of Darkness" is situated, a map of its location, and a photo of a boat similar to the one described in the book:

Unfortunately, I have not completely finished the novella.....I'll finish it tomorrow and put the rest of my discussion of the book as a comment on this blog! I was just shy of finishing everything I wanted to research by the end of the month! I'll write tomorrow with my sum up of Jan and plan for Feb!

Conflict minerals in the Congo

I saw an article the other day about Conflict Minerals. I had never heard of them before, but when I researched a bit more I realized that the Congo is continuing to be plagued by so much as a result of their plentiful mineral deposits.

Basically, the Eastern Congo is rich in minerals such as gold, tungsten, tin and tantalum - minerals that are used a great deal in electronics, like cellphones and computers. Armed groups earn hundreds of millions of dollars per year trading these minerals, and they use a chunk of that money for weapons so they can intimidate and control local populations, secure trade routes, and retain control of the mines. And yup, you guessed it, part of the way they scare the local populations and control them is by using rape as a weapon.

Since it's incredibly difficult to find out the full supply chain of these minerals, it is basically impossible for consumers to be able to find out if our personal technological devices contain these conflict minerals. There do have rankings for certain companies to see if they are better or worse at policing their supply lines. Check out this ranking

The "Raise Hope for Congo" non-profit awareness group has a ton of info on their website, including this video:

If you are interested in joining voices with those who are speaking out about the need for conflict mineral-free technological devices, visit their action page

Also, if you are interested in donating to an organization that helps rape victims in the Congo rebuild their lives, check out "Women for Women International"

Monday, January 24, 2011

The search for Congolese art

Finding Congolese art is a bit tricky....first off, I discovered that the universities and museums in the Congo are way less tech-connected as U.S. museums. I know, I know, what was I expecting? Anyways, I tried to figure out what museums would have collections of Congolese art, and I realized that since Belgium was mining the Congo for it's natural resources in the 1800s and early 1900s...certainly they also mined their cultural resources and brought back some items for Belgian musuems. Lo and behold, I stumbled on Belgium's fascinating Royal Museum for Central Africa (formerly known as the Congo Museum).

The museum traces it's roots to the 1897 Brussles International Exposition. King Leopold II used the fair as an opportunity to promote his pet project - The Congo Free State. Leopold had several Congolese villages created for the fair, as well as numerous displays, including one that featured the freshwater fish of the Congo. After the fair, Leopold established the Congo Museum on a site named "Tervuren" that he further developed as his own mini-Versailles complete with Japanese and Chinese pavillions, French gardens, and a conference center.

After Congo's independence in 1960, the museum was renamed to the Royal Musuem for Central Africa, and they extended their field work and collections. The museum collections boast thousands of insect and animal specimens, samples from plants and fish, ethnographic items, film footage, thousands of photographs, and about 4,000 works of art. In describing where their collections came from, they mention "Before 1960, mainly military men, missionaries, colonial administrators, traders and scientists laid the foundation of the current collection. " Hmmmmmmm.....I'm guessing the villagers weren't paid for many if ANY of those pieces...but it sounds like they are totally legit today in the way that they acquire objects.

Today it seems they are attempting to, in some limited ways, initiate dialogue around the complexities of Belgium's relationship with the Congo. They have numerous tours and talks about the Colonial era in the Congo, and they have music making workshops to keep traditional music alive. I was most impressed by some of their cultural partnerships, including one where 15 Belgian artists of Congolese origin are involved in dialogue and related artmaking about topics such as maintaining links to their cultural heritage, how they experience shared history, coping with multiple identities, etc.

Anyways, here's a selection of some of the items that caught my attention from the museum's collections:

This is a mask from the Songye peoples that was "acquired" by the museum around 1910.

This scultpure is typical of many created in the 1930s-1950s. There were some typical poses, such as this one - "the thinker"- that particularly appealed to European taste. The leopardteeth necklace and headress indicated that a chief is being depicted.

The museum asked one photographer to document dwellings such as those in this village.

This village member is playing a flute that the museum purchased
and still has in their collection.

This photograph documents a former French soldier/missionary who stayed on in the Congo and started a family. I love the print of the textile she is wearing!

During the 'interbellum" period there were congolese labor camps that looked like an attempt ad suburbia to me. yikes.

In the 1950s the growing Congolese middle class shopped at European owned stores that were often staffed by Congolese women - one of the few jobs they could find.

So, I still haven't found much about Congolese art in particular, but I have found
an interesting museum! I'll keep digging and see what else I can find!

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Congolese Feast!!!

After postponing due to sickness (cough cough, blurgh) over the weekend, I finally hosted a Congolese Feast tonight!! I was going to cook just for myself, but Dad inspired me to share this experience, even though I had no idea how it was going to turn out, which makes me super nervous. But, all in all, an excellent evening was had by all (I hope!).

I did some research online, and decided to make saka saka, legumes en sauce Z'ara, Liboke ya Mbisi (bundle of fish), the excitingly named "Banana Condiment," Peri Peri marinade, and, of course, FUFU!

Here are some pictures of the process:

This is when I was assembling the "Liboke ya Mbisi" - bundles of fish. I have never worked with banana leaves before, but I think I'm going to again - it was kinda fun to assemble and cook food this way!!!

Tying them up was a bit of a challenge:)

I put Kevin to work, stirring up the Fufu. Ok, so the Fufu was really strange, but I looked up fufu online and the pictures online look nothing like the fufu I made, so maybe I made a mistake, but it was literally just mixing the fufu flour with boiling water,
so I don't see what we could have done wrong!!
Help!!!! Does anyone know the proper way to make fufu??
It basically had the consistency of chewed gum. Yikes!
And why did it turn purplish grey? I can't believe we ate it!...well, some of it:)

This is how the Liboke ya Mbisi looked after it came out of the oven.

It was fun to cut it open and see it all cooked inside! I want to cook everything this way now! It's like opening food presents!

So here's the finished product. At the top right you'll see the oh-so-delicious fufu (eeek!)
which everyone tried a little bit of, and Brandon actually ate an entire serving of -
I was quite impressed by his stamina:) Underneath that is the Vegetables in Z'ara sauce,
which was a favorite, and beneath that is the banana condiment.
To it's left is some Salmon with Peri Peri marinade, and above that is Saka-Saka on rice
(yes, of course, there were the absolutely necessary "Congolese-a Rice" jokes),
and above that is the Liboke ya Mbisi removed from the Banana Leaves.

Whew! It took me about 5 hours from when I started to cook it all, eat and clean up, and I didn't even have to pound Manioc for fufu flour - I don't know how the Congolese women do it!
Quite an adventure. and I'm gonna try some stuff again...but not the fufu...definitely not the fufu:) Don't mind Shannon's look of disgust in this picture, she loved everything, including the fufu...ok that's a lie, but she did like some things, I swear!

Those of you who are new to my blog - I'm researching a country each month, and this month it's the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Check out some of my other posts!

Monday, January 17, 2011

Patrice Lumumba: the 50th anniversary of the assassination of the Democratic Republic of Congo's first democratically elected leader

While reading Barbara Kingsolver's "The Poisonwood Bible," I was continually impressed with her research - not only into the lifestyle and flora & fauna of the Congo, but also into its history - specifically the fall of the Belgian Congo and democratic election of Patrice Lumumba. In her novel, one character went to see the inauguration ceremony, and describes it as such:

After the King and the other white men spoke, they inagurated Patrice Lumumba as the new Prime Minister. I could tell exactly which one he was. He was a thin, distinguished man who wore real eyeglasses and a small, pointed beard. When he stood up to speak, everyone's mouth shut. In the sudden quiet we could hear the great Congo River lapping up its banks. Even the birds seemed taken aback. Patrice Lumumba raised his left hand up and seemed to grow ten feet tall, right there and then.
The character witnessing the event could understand only parts of the speech as it was in French, a language in which she was not a fluent speaker, however she goes on to say:

Much of the rest of it began to come to me in bursts of understanding, as if Patrice Lumumba were speaking in tongues and my ears had been blessed by the same stroke of grace. "My brothers," he said, "Mes freres, we have suffered the colonial oppression in body and heart, and we say to you, all of that is finished. We are going to make the Congo, for all of Africa, the heart of light." I thought I would go deaf from the roaring.
I spent a little time trying to figure out online if the quotes were directly from Lumumba's inauguration speech, but I couldn't find the full text, however in reading some other quotes of his from that speech and others around the same time, the passages in Kingsolver's book certainly seem to echo his sentiments and passion.

The newly formed Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) is a country both blessed and cursed by its wealth of natural resources. The Belgians had hoped to continue collecting profits from mining and the output of plantations, however Lumumbu was determined that the people of the DRC reap the rewards of such work, which had been diverted out of Congo for decades. The US had benefitted during the colonialist rule in the Congo, as they had used uranium from Congolese mines in creating early atomic weapons, such as the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In addition, many influential US corporations had major interest in retaining control over their investments in the mining and export of copper, cobalt, diamonds, gold, tin, manganese, and zinc.

Lumumbu's determination to achieve genuine independence, and to see that Congolese resources benefit the people of the DRC was something that the US and Belgium found worrisome. Keep in mind that we are talking about 1960 - a time when the Red Scare and McCarthy's inquisitions were still fresh on American minds, and when the threat of Communism profoundly affected people's judgement. Lumumbu was seen as someone to be watched very closely as many were concerned that some of the DRC's resources might fall into Communist hands. Shortly after he took office as prime minister, the C.I.A., with White House approval, ordered his assassination and dispatched an undercover agent with poison.

Patrice Lumumbu was assassinated on January 17th, 1961, not by C.I.A. agents - they couldn't get close enough - but by rival politicians to whom the U.S. and Belgium covertly channeled money. He was beaten, tortured, and shot by his own countrymen. Although Lumumbu dedicated himself to providing better opportunities and democracy for his fellow countrymen, he was unable to fully shake off the talons of the foreign lords who continued to reign over the Congo, despite its brief interlude of democratic freedom.

There is much, much more to this historical comments here are brief and share only some of what occurred. I had a history teacher once who was the type who felt it his duty to share with us all of those bits of U.S. history that many would like to sweep under the rug, and I know this is one of many instances that can be used to attack the U.S. and our foreign policy. I don't want to turn this post into a diatribe though...I'm not sure what would come of that. What I do hope, however, is that we become more aware and recognize that this is one of many events that have led to some of the continual problems facing the people of the DRC, and throughout the continent. I take today to honor Patrice Lumumba and his democratic ideals. My thoughts and prayers are with the many in the DRC who are mourning the loss of what "could have been," and my hope is that out of this time of consideration and remembrance a new generation of strong Congolese leaders will emerge and work to better the lives of those living in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Getting ready to make a Congolese feast!!!

I basically think about food all the time - I barely finish one meal before I start thinking about my next, so an exploration of Congolese food seems very fitting as part of my "armchair traveling". San Diego has no restaurants featuring food from the Congo (at least none that I could find online - if you know of one, please let me know!), so I'm attempting to make a few dishes on my own. I'm going to make "Liboke ya mbisi" (a fish stew of sorts), "Legumes en Sauce Z'ara" (a veggie stew with peanut butter base....this one scares me a bit....), "Saka Saka" (cassava leaves - kind of like spinach), and of course, FUFU!

I went to an African-Caribbean grocery store today with my friend Kevin (who luckily is always up for an adventure) and I picked up a few specialty items (red palm oil, ground cassava leaves, fufu flour, and banana leaves), and I also checked out what manioc is like in it's original form...I definitely will not be buying any to pound into fufu flour, that sounds like W-A-Y too much work for this girl:)

I'll be cooking tomorrow and will absolutely photo document my culinary adventure!

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

bummed I missed this play last month - and the stories of some local Congolese refugees

The La Jolla playhouse presented "Ruined" last month - a Pulitzer Prize winning play centering around a Congolese brothel and sharing the story of women affected by the war. The article linked below (written by PLNU alum Kelly Bennett) shares the story of a group of local African refugees who were able to see the play and then share their stories through the article. In my research about far-off places, it hit me pretty hard to realize that there are people living in San Diego right now who went through some of what I'm reading about, and who were able to find refuge right here in San Diego. The article mentions the "Alliance for African Assistance" - a non-profit here in San Diego...stay tuned, I'll be sure to write up a post about their local work soon!

share - check out the full article!

Friday, January 7, 2011

Bill Gates and the Congo

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation just announced they are giving $1 million to help fight a recent outbreak of polio in the Republic of Congo (money being administered through UNICEF).

Here's more info:

I'm insanely jealous of Bill Gates' money, but glad he's using it in such positive ways!

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Congo: Ant invasions!!!

I just read part of The Poisonwood Bible where there is an ant invasion that absolutely creeped me out. eeekkkkk....makes my skin crawl!!!! Cousin-Roomate and I had our own bug invasion (on a much smaller scale) a few years ago when we had a fly invasion in our old apartment - we killed 150 in a night and it was the closest I've ever been to being in a horror movie. Sooooo, with that being said, the ant invasion in the book was plague level and completely terrifying! In the novel, a character describes the invasion by saying: "Every surface was covered and boiling, and the path like black flowing lava in the moonlight. Dark, bulbous tree trunks seethed and bulged. The grass had become a field of dark daggers standing upright, churning and crumpling in on themselves." That sounds absolutely terrifying. I tried to find pictures or videos on line of ant invasions in the Congo, or even anywhere in Africa, and had little luck. That might be for the best...I have a feeling ant invasion scenes could be the stuff of nightmares for me. No thanks! It does make me wonder why there is no footage though. I suppose ants don't have regular migratory patterns, so you couldn't really guess where they would attack next. It also probably has to do with weather patterns I'd imagine, and I'd doubt many people in the villages would have any recording devices to capture imagery at the moment...although, maybe I'm misjudging the spread of technology to the Congo. Anyyyyways....I guess I can see why there isn't much footage available.

It was definitely interesting to read about though. The ants, which the locals in the book call Nsongonya, attacked at night. Man, that would make it so much worse to be woken in the middle of the night by ants biting you and invading your room and bed...eeeuuughh. The whole village immediately fled for the river, basically the only safe place. When they came back they found animal bones with all the flesh eaten off.

I wonder how often invasions of the magnitude happen?

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Heartbreaking stories from the Congo

I set up a google news alert for the Congo to find out about some current events, and I was horrified/heartbroken when I read some of the recent articles about the wide spread sexual attacks on women over the last decade or so in parts the Congo. Rape has been a brutal weapon of war, with devastating consequences. Rwandan rebel attacks have often left villages devastated, with the gang rapes being used to show the husbands, families, and entire villages that they are powerless.Many husbands leave their wives after they have been raped, as it is the custom that a man will not take back his wife after she has had sex with another man, even if she was raped.

Women are scared to be out on their own, which has lead to decreased ability for them to travel to nearby villages to trade for food. As a result, there are growing concerns of malnutrition linked with the danger of potential sexual assault.

In the articles I read, it sounds as if there are growing resources for victims of rape, in the form of medical care and counseling, and there are efforts to educate everyone involved to improve the lives of victims and retore family unity.

This recent article from the New York Times shares the experience of a Congolese man who did not leave his wife after she was raped, and speaks to the hope for restoring family life in the Congo after some of the atrocious acts that have taken place:

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Congolese Music

I was searching for Congolese music on my lunch break and found this video - enjoy! All Things Congo: SECRET YA LA VIE MUSIQUE CONGOLAISE RUMBA ET NGWAS...:

I researched Congolese music a little bit and found out that during WWII a great deal of musical fusion, particularly with Latin styles, occurred in much of Africa. This music was often called "soukous" which is a derivative of the French word "secousse" which means to shake. Soukous is also sometimes referred to as African Rumba. The Congolese music scene was vibrant in the 60s and 70s, with the soukous' tempos being sped up and more influenced by rock n roll over time.

Many musicians migrated to other countries, or left for Paris in the 70s as the political conditions deteriorated. Since the 1990s, Congolese popular music has declined significantly. The president at the time (Mobutu) repressed indigenous music, and Paris became a major center for Congolese music.

Does anyone know of any contemporary Congolese music I should check out???

Sunday, January 2, 2011

The Congo: Fufu for everyone!

Right now I'm reading Barbara Kingsolver's The Poisonwood Bible - a novel about a campmeeting Evangelical pastor uprooting his family and moving them to the Congo for an ill advised attempt to prostletize 1960's Belgian Congo. I've enjoyed being transported by Kingsolver's vivid descriptions, and the culture shock the characters experience is far beyond any other similar story I have read recently.

I know basically nothing about African culture in general, let alone in the Congo, so I figured I'd begin my armchair traveling in this south central African nation. Haha...well, just in looking up maps of the Congo, I've already learned something I didn't know (a sign of how un-knowledgeable I am about geography and world events) - there's not just one Congo right now - there's the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and the neighboring Republic of Congo. Ok, adding that to my list of things to research a bit more....good thing I started this project!!!

One of the things that caught my attention in the book was the description of a staple food item - fufu. I know I know, of course I am writing about food before anything is what usually interests me first/most about other cultures! Anyways, fufu is mentioned in Kingsolver's book as being an essential part of the Congolese diet, and it is a gluey paste derived (after a ton of work) from a giant tuber. See photo below:
After the arduous work of digging the tubers (known as manioc) up, soaking them in the river, drying them in the sun, and pulverizing them, creating a dough of sorts, then the pasty substance is either steamed or put into soups.

One of the characters in the book refers to how fufu is one of the only dependable and readily available sources of food, to the extent that the word fufu becomes another word for food, and anything else is considered something somewhat extra-ordinary.

Well, I'm going to try out some Congolese recipes, but I doubt I'll be able to find any manioc to try out making it sounds SUPER hard to make! If anyone knows of any restaurants in SoCal that have food from the Congo, let me know!

Saturday, January 1, 2011

it takes a long time to plan a trip around the world

In the last few months I fell into reading a bunch of books about other countries, starting with two vivid accounts of life and food in Europe- Under the Tuscan Sun by Frances Mayes, and My Life in France by Julia Child. I've always appreciated European culture, and the experiences of both women were pretty ideal - beautiful homes (eventually!), lavish meals, and the opportunity to pursue their passion. They were enjoyable reads, and started me daydreaming.

A devoted fan of fiction, I next read a novel and a set of short stories by Indian-American author Jhumpa Lahiri. The Namesake traced the path of a first generation American man from his birth to recently immigrated Bengali parents, through his various rebellions and separations from his culture and through his coming to terms with his heritage. Lahiri's writing and storycrafting is impeccable, and I was drawn to her characters despite their flaws. I had never really considered the experiences of newly emigrated peoples and their first generation progeny, and I have begun to ask more non-natives about their experiences with living in America.

Next, I followed Karen Muller's exploits through Japanland. Although the descriptions of martial art traditions and buddhist spiritual journeys were intriguing, what I found most interesting about her book were the times when she shared her culture shock and accompanying frustrations. Her goal was to go to Japan, learn about various subcultures, and create a documentary, but in the process she learned so much about herself and about being a Westerner in Japan. It was interesting to consider what I might learn about myself if I were ever to live in such a foreign place.

Most recently I have been fascinated with learning more about Islamic countries, particularly Afghanistan and Pakistan. Through Khaled Housseini's novels, the Kite Runner and A Thousand Splendid Suns, I learned, basically for the first time, about groups like the Mujahideen and the Taliban, the extent of restrictions placed on women, the complex relationships between people groups such as Pashturns and Tajiks, as well as issues of class division. I never really had had an interest in any of these topics, however, through Housseini's poignant and sometimes horrifying stories I developed a respect for the women who push forward in the midst of such limitations, and the men who develop independent thought and respect for all people, regardless of gender, class, and ethnicity.

I shifted from Housseni's fiction to Greg Mortensen's account of his quest to promote peace through education in Pakistan and beyond. Mortensen came upon this passion through chance, when the small village of Korphe in Northeastern Pakistan showed him great generosity and kindess after his failed mountaineering expedition. Although originally intending to return and build one school, Mortensen developed a passion for helping the people he encountered on his trips Pakistan, and continued developing schools throughout the area, despite the challenges and personal danger that he encountered after 9/11. Mortensen firmly believes that the education of women is essential to the betterment of society in areas with extremist influences.

Through reading these varied accounts of life in other countries, I found myself trying new recipes, looking up photographs of various cities, and reading newspaper articles I normally would have bypassed on my way to the Entertainment section. I like those changes, and I want to keep up with learning about people and places that I am unfamiliar with. Eventually I hope to go to some of these places in person, but for now, I'm happy to be an armchair explorer, and I would love to have you join me on my journey!

My goal is to spend each month investigating a country/region/subculture etc. I plan to try recipes, look up pictures, listen to music, research history, read books about their culture, etc. I will document what I find here, and I hope you join me on my journey!