My Privilege to Return was my Grandfather’s Ultimate Sacrifice

In Return by Leah Mpinga

In 1993 my grandfather, Kasenda Mpinga, stood up at the National Assembly in the United Nations and quoted this parable “When our neighbour’s house is on fire, we must not ignore the flames, we must go and waft them out to avoid the flames coming to our own house.” A mere year later, he was killed in a plane crash near the airport of Kinshasa after a diplomatic engagement as Foreign Minister of Zaire, now the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Twenty years after his sudden death, I sat at terminal M26 Paris Charles de Gaulle airport, ready to board an Air Flight France to Kinshasa for the first time. I was apprehensive. Everything that I knew about Congo was based on western media outlets that described it as a war-torn corrupt country ridden by the plague of unjust and kleptocratic dictators who refused to leave no matter what the Constitution told them. However, my parents spoke of a place vastly different from what was presented to me. When my parents speak about Congo, they talk about the smell of mango trees in the morning during the wet season.

My mum has memories of watching chieftaincy meetings at her grandparents’ house on Boulevard Sendwe. Train rides from Lubumbashi to Mwene Ditu showcased the country’s rich and boundless greenery. The ability to rely on a neighbour, friends and family, a sense of community that values and respects elders are at the helm of social order. My mother danced in the rain, my parents spent time barefoot and walked amongst a hardworking and humble population. Kinshasa was vibrant: the description of cotton candy fairy tales. The site of Mohammed Ali’s the Rumble in the Jungle set a penny drop away from the Congo River, pulsing to the soundtracks of Franco’s classic rumbas and Mobutu’s revolutionary anthems. The Congo my parents knew was unfamiliar to the west and remained unfamiliar until we planned to return in the summer of 2014.

When my father told us we were going, him for the first time in 20 years, my mother for the first time in 25, my brother and I retorted, “Why do we have to go?” “I don’t want to go there!”. My school friends would be spending their summer holidays in Spain, Greece, the south of France. Conventional locations, ones that you could flaunt on Instagram and Snapchat, and I was going to Congo for three weeks where there was a possibility of no internet and no ability to drink water out of a tap. Why was I so embarrassed to go back? Was it because my Geography teacher had singled me out in class and said, “I’ve never met anyone from the Congo,” and proceeded to show us a video that stated it was the least developed country in the world? Or was it because my label as a member from the diaspora prevented me from connecting with a land I had never known and didn’t feel attached to?

By the time I was 14 years old, Congo had been a place that only existed in my imagination. It wasn’t a land I could connect to or draw any experience from. Places like Belgium had provided me with memories like eating chocolates and tarts while dipping sugar cubes into coffee in an apartment in Nivelles with my white grandmother and great-grandparents. When you live in the diaspora, there can often be a sense of alienation from how you identify, how the world identifies you and the subsequent ideas you form about the places you’re from. Belgium allowed me to connect with experiences of belonging, yet Congo placed me as the other. Stereotyping my family and discrediting their narratives of home, building up anxieties of what Congo would be when I got there and how othering the trip would make me once I got back to school in September.

Seven years later, I realized that this was an extremely privileged anxiety. Upon landing, the immigration officer looked at my brother’s passport and said, “Welcome home.” My brother bears the name of my late grandfather. There was no going to baggage claim; someone was doing that for us. There was no hailing a taxi to a hotel; my grandmother’s driver would take us through the bustling and chaotic roads of Ndjili to a gated community in the city. All of a sudden, I had landed in Congo, and I was a “somebody”. I was a Mpinga. This new reality felt like a distant picture from the institutionalised racism of the United Kingdom, where being a Mpinga just meant your name would be mispronounced. This was a return to the legacy my grandfather had built for his wife and children, one that was respected in the elite circles of Kinshasa and beyond. It was fun to see the places where my parents went as teenagers, it was cool to learn and communicate with people in Lingala, and it was comforting to have an outpouring of love from family members that I had only known by name for the past 14 years.

Nevertheless, there is something that makes me uncomfortable about this privilege of return. I am currently reading an African Studies minor at the University of Toronto. As a student, I have learnt about esteemed African intellectuals, those who left to study in Europe and fought in liberation movements across Africa during independence. Figures like Senghor and Franz Fanon birthed ideas like Negritude and Pan-Africanism but are still seen as inferior to white men. My grandfather had followed this mould, humble beginnings in the southern region of Kasai and later a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Bordeaux, by the late 60s a university professor at Lovanium. If my grandfather was an African intellectual and a believer in the emancipation of the African man from the clutches of Europe, why did he emerge as one of the prominent members of Mobutu’s Movement Populaire de la Révolution? The 37-year rule of Mobutu Sese Seko is still known today as one of the most ruthless dictatorships in not only African History but World History.

Yet Kasenda Mpinga’s words at the National Assembly echoed the importance of helping our fellow man. His early works criticized the centrality of the Zairean government. The words breathed Ubuntu philosophy “I am because we are.” Although perhaps he did not have the privilege to align with the opposition, his role as a provider meant he had to suppress his personal views to feed and educate not only his immediate family but his extended one. In a recent conversation with my father, he revealed that my grandfather had been arrested after the publication of his doctoral thesis due to its critical view of Mobutu’s military government.

My grandfather’s later positions in government, his untimely death before the beginning of the Rwandan genocide, whether a planned assassination or divine timing, ultimately appears to me as an intellectual sacrifice. A sacrifice that gave me the privilege to return. In an alternate universe, I could be like many members of the diaspora that do not have the leisure to know what home looks, tastes and smells like. My grandfather could have aligned himself with the opposition party where he would’ve been in and out of prison, or even worse, dead. My grandparents may have ended up in political exile in Europe, where his university credentials might not have been recognized. My family would have been stripped bare of any privilege his education had previously offered him. This is a reality for many people in the Congolese diaspora who have been forced or pressured to leave home due to the failings of past and present administrations. Many people in the Congolese diaspora experience all this while watching our country fall to the pressures of globalisation, western interference and devastating violence in the Eastern regions since 1997.

Today, 27 years on, these questions remain unanswered. Admittedly, as a university student, it is hard to reconcile the private Mpinga Kasenda, a gentle, generous, and kind man who cultivated a spirit of familial debate, but the public figure who might be associated to some, with a dark period of history. As I finish university and approach the age when my father lost his father, these thoughts surface now and again. It is difficult to know that I will never have the chance to question or debate my grandfather’s choices. However, I thank my grandfather for the privilege of return and the possibilities for change if I return again. I acknowledge that his legacy is also linked to charity work, honesty and good values. My privilege to return allows me to tell those who have not returned its importance. My privilege to return freed me from my shame and feelings of being an outcast in a world that brands the continent as a barren land. My privilege to return made me somebody outside the construct of borders and physical land. I am because he was the neighbour who wafted my flames.