Painting by Cheri Samba

Lokuta eyaka na ascenseur, kasi vérité eyei na escalier mpe ekomi. Lies come up in the elevator; the truth takes the stairs but gets here eventually. - Koffi Olomide

Ésthetique eboma vélo. Aesthetics will kill a bicycle. - Felix Wazekwa

Friday, February 12, 2010

Renaming the Congo (or at least its streets)

What's in a name? Congo Ba Leki reported a few days ago that Mayor Guy Shilton Baendo of Kisangani , once the country's third largest city (famously depicted in VS Naipaul's "Bend in the River"), had decided to rename the city's streets. Not a bad idea, some would say, as many names had not changed since Mobutu, who had a tendency to name streets after himself or his deeds. "Avenue of 24 November" - the day he took power in 1965; "Avenue de Kamanyola" - the village where he allegedly defeated Mai-Mai rebels in the 1960s; and son on.

Of course, the mayor didn't want so much to change the naming policy, but just to update it. He announced that there were would be streets named after the current governor of the province, Medard Autsai, the president of the provincial assembly and, most humbly, after the mayor himself.

There is a long tradition in Congolese music for shout-outs, or mabanga (stones), that musicians give to politicians and businessmen in return for cash. Contemporary songs are chock full of them, and it's one of the best ways for the cash-strapped musicians to make some cash. (For Werrason's new clip and the mabanga in it, see Solo Kinshasa's blog.) So I have no doubt that this initiative was similarly motivated. How much did it cost Governor Autsai to get his name on one of the main streets in Kisangani?

Fortunately, there was such an outcry that the mayor had to retract. Gangs of youths took to the streets to spray paint the new streets names in protest. So what did the mayor do? He appointed a commission of elders to evaluate the renaming process. Of course, the commission will get per diems and a modest travel budget....

4 comments:

Alex Engwete said...

Being from Kisangani and having received V.S. Naipul's "A la courbe du fleuve" (A Bend in the River)at the time as a prize for a short-story contest at the French Cultural Center of Kisangani, I have a beef with the author for the false depiction of people of my hometown in that stupid book. Yes, I know, he's a Nobel laureate, but in my book, the man is a nitwit in "A Bend in the River"...

Again, Kisangani or Congo as the heart-of-darkness: "the deployment of 'Africa as a setting and backdrop which eliminates the African as a human factor. Africa as a metaphysical battlefield devoid of all recognisable humanity, into which the wandering Europeans enters at his peril'."...

This is a reading of Heart of Darkness by Chinua Achebe quoted by Norwegian anthropologists Sindre Bangstad and Bjorn Enge Bertelsen who just published an article in Anthopology Today (February 2010) on the way the Norwegian media have been treating the trial in Kisangani of two Norwegians who murdered a Congolese cab driver: shifting the focus of reports from the grisly murder to the rotten place that is the Congo!...

Jason Stearns said...

Interesting, I'll have to check out that article about the Norwegians.

Yes, Naipaul's relationship with Africa is complicated, and his depiction of Africans in the book is often devoid of empathy and understanding. Not surprising, given Naipaul's controversial views about "others": women, Muslims and Africans.

But the book is great at understanding Indians in Africa, and has some beautiful descriptions of the jungle taking back the city. So I take it, as well as Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, for great works of prose, albeit steeped in reductive depictions of backward and primitive Africans.

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