My grandmother likes to begin a story by looking into herself. She sips from her tea which is sometimes chai, other times orange pekoe, decaf – seeing as she drinks multiple cups a day and we realized how much caffeine that was – laced with honey, just a touch of it to sweeten her words. She closes her eyes.
She speaks of my grandfather in the days before he passed, how he was quiet and liked to read. He locked the big gates in front of the house one night when my uncle, senior to my mother, missed curfew, spending the night elsewhere.
“You see, your grandfather was a quiet man. He was gentle and slow to anger, but like all men, he wanted to be respected. What man allows himself to be disrespected by his own children?”
Knowledge fits her like a crown; she is most regal when telling a story – it sits atop her brow, supported by her proud jaw, the long lines of her neck. I like to borrow her voice when I tell stories, because what memory could I speak of that didn’t whisper of her own?
I am a relic of a more complicated time. I was born five years before Congo got its independence, in 1955. Had I been born some decades prior – say in a year preceding the Conference of Berlin, where King Leopold II of Belgium took claim of Congo and her precious rocks, the not-so-precious ones that lay below her waterbed, and the people that drank from it – certainly I’d be part of Bambudye. Bambudye formed a secret group of elders both living amongst society and hiding from it. Using the memory board called the lukasa, with its wooden body, beads and shells varying in colour and meaning, they preserved genealogies, war protocols, the origin story. They disciplined the kings and their abuses of power by reminding them of a time when they had none. So, you see that had I been alive back then, I would wield the mnemonic instrument, and I would be one.
The Luba Empire ruled over the Katanga region for many years. By the 18th and 19th centuries, when its rule had reached its peak, Baluba had developed one of the most reliable government systems on the African continent. A two-tiered complex, wherein the Mulopwe (sacred king), by way of his Balopwe (clan kings) ruled over subjects. They were collectively held accountable by the Bambudye and lukasa. Luba people understood the need for balance – power, once handed to a ruler who was swift to act and seldom did so with empathy, easily became manipulation.
Baluba were – and still are – amongst the greatest ethnic groups the world has ever seen. Our ancestors were unparalleled in self-reliance; we were often scorned by neighbouring clans, like Badundu and Bangala, who accused us of being pretentious with our haughty speech and refined manners. I don’t blame them; every great Congolese man comes from Baluba.
Take, for instance, Patrice Lumumba; he too was one of us. He became leader of the Mouvement National Congolais in 1958, first democratically elected Prime Minister of République du Congo by 1960. His mandate was short-lived: he was assassinated by the Belgians, who subsequently dissolved his body in acid, and in 2000 a police commissioner confessed to having kept two of Lumumba’s teeth. It was a symbolic gesture that is typical of mundele – when they are hungry, they eat diamonds, deny them seconds and they’ll settle for bone.
A Hawaiian spider plant sits on my windowsill. It has long narrow leaves that develop a glossy sheen and a champagne-coloured streak running down the middle of them, showing that the plant is healthy. This unique trait differentiates the Hawaiian spider plant from other spider plant varieties – which tend to have streaks running along the external edge of the leaves. I named my plant after Patrice Lumumba. Patrice (the plant) is my lukasa. His colour echoes worn-out clichés, like the one about grass being greener on the other side, the other about sticking to familiar waters – when it rains, it pours. His fruitful foliage speaks on the efficacy of plant root systems; his name reminds me of where I came from. My grandmother, too, is like the lukasa. She is an object of fixation; her every move speaks volumes. In her displacement away from our ancestral land, she brought many things with her – an appreciation for rain songs, for beckoning one’s memory to shore, for tending to the landscape with light strokes and copper tones. Her voice runs deep and all at once – rich like coffee beans turning to juices, forming ripples at the surface, undulating like vocal cords when she speaks of our kin.
Some of her stories have an illusionary aspect; words spoken too quickly, details stumbling into one another. Like say, the fact that Patrice Lumumba was not from the Baluba, but rather of the Tetela ethnic group. Nevertheless, something about Lumumba’s politics is undeniably reminiscent of the Baluba governance system, Bambudye, and their use of the lukasa – Lumumba understood that a monopolization of power would lead to the detriment of the people, that the head of state needed to be held accountable. His name was appropriated by black liberation movements across the globe, freedom fighters like Malcolm X who had just enough time to declare him “the greatest black man who ever walked the African continent” before bullet holes were shot through his polemic, courtesy of white supremacy.
There is a tendency, among ex-colonials, to assuage their guilt with sidewalks. On June 30th, 2018, the city of Brussels inaugurated Lumumba square, laying the colonialism ordeal to rest in the streets renamed in honour of their former colony’s hero. Thus, the way was paved for neocolonialism to come in full stride, making it difficult to remember where they came from. This past June – as police killings in the United States sparked a global resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement along with pressures to remove monuments honouring European colonizers, and statues of King Leopold II were vandalized – his descendants were prompted to deny the dead monarch’s involvement in the abuses acted upon Congolese people, arguing that he “never went to Congo himself,” and so it was hard to see “how [Leopold] could have made people there suffer.”
History and storytelling are complimentary in constructing a digestible truth. For my grandmother, recounting anecdotes is second nature, for others, it can leave a bad taste in the mouth, a bit of prejudice on the breath. I wonder what it was like for the Luba people to have two governing bodies simultaneously ruling over each other, two narratives streaming into public consciousness – did it allow for greater peace? Were their losses any easier to stomach? It seems the only way to get people to remember is by striking a nerve; make them see just how little they should rely on muscle memory. In any case, knowledge is at the heart of the oral tradition, and we immortalize our heroes by upholding the custom, and when settlers drew maps of the Katanga region, the Luba were speaking in tongues.