54 years ago this week, Congo seized independence at lightning speed. Granted, this had followed decades under an oppressive colonial regime, but within five swift years Congo went from welcoming Belgium’s King Baudouin with raucous cheers on his 1955 tour, to exploding in furious riots in January 1959. In 1960, 17 African countries gained independence and Congo did it in style. On 30th June of that year, the Palais National filled to the brim with Belgian parliamentarians and African dignitaries parading their finest ceremonial outfits. Prime Minister Lumumba gave one of the greatest speeches of the 20th century:
“… no Congolese worthy of the name can ever forget that this independence was gained by struggle, a daily struggle, a fiery and idealistic struggle, a struggle in which we spared neither our efforts nor our hardships, neither our suffering nor our blood. That struggle, which was one of tears, fire and blood, fills every fibre of our being with pride, for it was a noble and a just struggle, an inevitable struggle to end the humiliating slavery that had been imposed on us by force.”*
Granted, nothing in Congo passes without debate, and the motivators, delivery and consequences of independence are hotly contested by everyone from taxi drivers to the market-dwelling mamans to the shoe-shine boys. But on Monday, Congo partied en masse.
Not ones to miss an opportunity for a party, the Kimbilio team put on our own celebration last week, hosted by the Cercle Hellenique (the Greek club) and attended by almost all the volunteers, staff and kids who drive the Kimbilio project. It was a great opportunity for the kids to have some fun in the playground, burn off some competitive energy on the football pitch and even shoot some hoops. Indeed, frère Thierry was a bit of a star on basketball court.
It was also a rare chance to find out from the children themselves what independence means to them. Bearing in mind that these are children with disrupted education, who have been cut off from mainstream society for long periods of time, their responses were enlightening. When asked what independence means to them, a couple replied: “it means that we are coming out of slavery” and “we are not slaves” evoking Lumumba’s own words. These children know little detail of the political instability, economic turmoil and security crises that have followed independence, but they have certainly felt the sharp edge of the poverty, violence, and corruption that still plague their country. Nonetheless, they are proud, excited and hopeful citizens of a vast and complicated territory. We are proud to work and celebrate with them.
*Quote taken from ‘Congo: the epic history of a people’ by David Van Reybrouck.