A column about history, culture, policy, and things in between.
Africa is a place washed in blood - both human and animal. My awareness of the continent began by reading the sweeping novels of Robert Ruark: Something of Value , Uhuru, and The Honey Badger. Though far less known than his contemporary and fellow big game hunter Ernest Hemingway, who also wrote of Africa, it was Ruark's penetrating prose that captured the searing and visceral impact of what he called MMBA - "miles and miles of bloody Africa".
The title of this article is taken from the lyrics of the song Charlie Don't Surf, from the triple-album SANDINISTA! Released in 1981 by The Clash, it is a sprawling work of music and commentary. There have been better bands than The Clash, but none more virulently political. Pictured below is the cover of their album London Calling; its still shot of bassist Paul Simonon worth more than the proverbial "thousand words". With song titles like Washington Bullets, Spanish Bombs, The Guns of Brixton, Pressure Drop, and Death or Glory, the group's song-writing tandem of Joe Strummer and Mick Jones stood atop the music scene of the early '80's. But The Clash was aptly named, for they would founder before the end of that decade in a conflagration fueled by heroin, incendiary talent, and barely suppressed rage.
The song opens with a few stark and discordant piano chords, then yields to a gentle, almost lilting line of bass. Later, Strummer softly sings:
"The war of superpowers must be over - so many armies can't free the earth.
One day the rock will roll over - Africa's choking on their Coca-Colas".
The song is tremendous but the lyrics got it wrong; Africa is not choking on Coca-Cola. The people of Africa are afflicted by the absence of the rule of law, and the societal institutions that develop under its presence. The cause of this sad reality is the accumulated filth of 150 years of unimaginable corruption, war, consciously planned and orchestrated campaigns of rape, and what can only be rightly viewed as a holocaust. There are countless memorials and photographs with the inscription, "lest we forget". But to forget something you first have to have known it, and the Congolese holocaust of the 1990's is all but unknown.
Two years ago I wrote about the demise of the Milwaukee Archdiocese, and the moral, spiritual, and financial disaster that Rembert Weakland's administration of it has been. In that article I proferred the notion that regardless of one's ecclesiastic views, the weakening of that institution has been debilitating to all of American socitey. More recently we see the lurid and horrific stories pouring out of State College, Pennsylvania, and the attendant depletion of a proud institution. For the same reasons cited in the above article, this too is bad news, regardless of what school we attended or team we root for. Healthy societies need functioning institutions, for they are they are the instruments through which order is proferred, and our cultural music is played.
So how does all of this tie back to Africa? In November I met with an American missionary living in Brussels, Belgium, and a native Congolese gentleman, Dr. David Kasali. I have since reflected what an odd combination it was; myself - an AMCCAM (aging, middle class, Caucasion, American male), a comparably aged Caucasian living in Brussels, and a Congolese gentleman who, despite having secured a comfortable life in America, has returned to his ravaged homeland to take up the overwhelming, yet sublime task of delivering the last item that Pandora released from her box. It is an item the people of the Congo have never had - HOPE.
Seated silently with us at the table, like Banquo's ghost, was a savage irony - the history of the two countries. Brussels was the capitol city of King Leopold II, who under the guise of what was then called "The White Man's Burden", systematically suppressed the people of the Congo, and plundered its vast resources. Leopold was the personification of the dark side of European Imperialism, his occupation of the Congo an odious cocktail of racism, enslavement, and greed. The evils of Imperialism have been well and rightly documented. What has been left largely untold is the appalling story of the implosion of sub-Saharan Africa in the decades since it threw off its yolk. But that is another story.
Dr. Kasali shared the story of his ravaged country. He told the horrific tale of the MILLIONS of people systematically butchered in the Twentieth Century's fourth holocaust (Stalin's Russia - Hitler's Germany - Pol Pot's Cambodia). The term "butchered" is no exaggeration, for the killing fields of the Congo ran red with blood spilled by armies of machete wielding "soldiers".
Dr. Kasali is convinced that central Africa's only hope is to raise up a new generation of leaders; men and women willing to serve their people, instead of subjugating them. And like Prometheus descending from Olympus, he and his wife have returned to the Congo to found a University, bringing the forbidden flames of education, development, and training to their country. But perhaps more valuable than those three things is the personal example of their servant leadership.
When I read the works of Robert Ruark in my teens, a desire to one day see Africa stirred within me, and next summer I will travel to Beni to work with Dr. Kasali and his staff. How does one describe this man, and the value of what he and his wife are doing? How does one get past his gentle, self-effacing smile to understand the magnitude of the horrors he has witnessed, and the heroism of his self-appointed task? I have groped for all manner of inadequate adjectives and descriptions.
But if we were to choose a single word, surely that word would be noble; an adjective that has all but disappeared from our lexicon.
Perhaps that is because we have too few David Kasali's to warrant its use.