In the margins of a specific history, in which land and inhabitants are held hostage by the whores of capitalist extraction, Sinzo Aanza* constructs a different reading and decries the unearthing of pan Africanism in “a mining universe that never took heed of it”.
Samantha Kaj was in charge of the communications department at the mine where a friend had recommended me. Katofia Mining Company nestled in the bush, light years away from the stock markets in New York, Shanghai, Tokyo or Frankfurt, notwithstanding that these institutions knew better, infinitely better than we, what was produced there. Lubumbashi, at a good 100km south of it, knows less about it than Kinshasa, where you only go by plane, like going to Tokyo, Frankfurt, Shanghai or New York, if you want to have a good trip and arrive in one piece.
In mining, the communications department often takes over from the departments of social affairs and rural development and even the roads department by opening up territories which are closed to outside access. Often roads have faded away, and nobody from beyond the cities comes and hangs out there. All this must be communicated, and is only important to the degree that our Gazette speaks about it skilfully: the taro and the corn one plants; the roads where one deals with the potholes, which over time can swallow a complete truck; and the peasants whose glaucoma and haemorrhoids are taken care of. All that is communication and more. That is our work – we of the Gazette of the Mine – and it is more important than the work of the agronomists, the engineers or the doctors, who don’t get anything from their labour without us taking pretty pictures and without our pens making its manifestations juicy.
My work consisted of accompanying Samantha on her official business trips in order to write articles about the well-being, the satisfaction and the happiness of the peasants of Katofia, who had been delocalised further north, on land turning into a city – which they didn’t yet have a name for, because the chief of the village had preferred to remain behind and asked to be buried with his ancestors – with the giant mechanical shovels of the bulldozers which came to extract the malachite.
So I wrote. All I did was write. Articles of bad journalistic quality and with a lyricism that rang false even to my own ears. In over a year of writing, Samantha Kaj hadn’t even noticed me. She preferred to surround herself with about a dozen devoted individuals committed to the cause of international high finance, strongly symbolised, in my eyes, by our way of life and the work of the mine, and the abysmal contrast between the landscape of the mine’s industrial installations and nature, which was becoming more and more disfigured by the day. Even more so by the shabby villages, which we displaced, taking their misery far away from our business, and by the Eurodollars that are always there at the end of the pit, as we say here.
Samantha has ignored me for several months, long months during which I worked like a madman, to the rhythm of mining, meaning that my titanic efforts were mere banalities in the eyes of my superiors, among them Samantha, who couldn’t see a reason for promotion in what I did. I was just another reporter. I had become someone of the communications department. Habit, luckily, is second nature to me and I hadn’t lost my habitual discretion. I lived in relative comfort, being well paid, a fat pay cheque compared to my old job. Eight times more, to be precise, eight times what I earned at a small newspaper, which had to close because it contested the results of the 2011 elections in a scathing, but not really pertinent, not really substantial editorial – our boss being a distinguished fool – good enough, but a fool – as so often happens in the press.
Samantha, on the other hand, was the type of woman a guy like me considers purely and simply as an artificial image. An advertising image cut to size, revised and improved to create a dream. A virtual woman, immaterial, without the animalistic biology which characterises us all. That is to say, a woman who doesn’t sweat, doesn’t pee, doesn’t fart, and if she could shit, diamonds or stars would come out. An unreal woman in any case. Her skin has the bland brilliance of biscuits or of cardboard. Eyes, scintillating white, contain not irises but two shimmering gems. When they look at you, your own gaze mists up. You rub your eyes to come back to the misery of your reality. Then she goes away proudly and her body distances itself from the misery of your reality. She doesn’t even look back to note, to realise, the misery of your reality. Her long straight appetising legs push the misery of your reality to the floor with her stiletto heels, stab it, and pierce it like a broken heart of the unilateral rupture I was to know soon. And the stiletto heels move away and take away all the unreal, the virtual, the dreamed magic and the daydream of her gracious shapely legs and her publicity body.
Samantha was the whore of the great Manitou – our Sino-Canadian CO (chief operator), who had the air of having never touched a woman in his life. She whored with all the coordinators of every department of the mine; she was sent to shut the loudmouths of politician screamers with her rosy pulpy lips and her publicity body, which was totally at the service of the mine, mining several types of exploitation at once: agriculture, sentimental, human (and of man by man or by finance), hydraulic (pollution, is the right word), mental, cultural, and so on…
The body of woman mirrors the body of society. In the museum in Lubumbashi there is a wooden sculpture of a woman with uplifted breasts. A guy (it surely must have been a guy) one day vandalised the pubis, digging a small round hole in it – a big hole if one considers the proportions, as if the pubis was a kind of round hole which opens like the crater of a volcano on the wooden Mons Venus. I won’t describe Samantha to you more, since I know I am capable of similar tactlessness.
A few days before our false week of rest and total and absolute discretion, the management of the mine had entrusted our highly strategic department to meet with Chief Katofia in his residence, where he lived, ill-advisedly, alone, forsaken in the middle of a mining landscape. After a bit of verbal jousting with Samantha Kaj, who was getting impatient, the old chief commanded us to leave his house, without so much as an adieu, saddling us up with the ugliest fate, the malediction most inauspicious in the tradition of the forefathers. I then stepped forward, my mouth dry, but very sure of myself… and to the surprise of the whole communications department delegation the chief listened to me.
“You know, chief, you don’t reign over the land, you rule over people,” I told him in a voice finally filled with assurance.
“My ancestors have subdued this land. My fathers, the chiefs who came before me, gave it to share with my people before dying and being buried here. The soul of my people roams on this land here, and not on another where you want to bring us to wander in existential emptiness, or to an existence which we would have to rebuild…” retorted the old chief, who wasn’t stupid. None of the traditional chiefs is a fool by the way. None of the real ones at least, because it is the spirits of the ancestors who vote for a new chief in the phosphorescent urns of the other side.
“Yet,” I replied, “your ancestors, chief, have left faraway lands where they had buried their ancestors. They carried them in their heart all the way here, because the most important was the future of the people whose destiny had been entrusted to them. Those who died are not a plot of land. They are happy or unhappy memories on which one smiles, and carrying them around like a light, as reference, as a line to cross and overcome or as a line one should not cross. Your people have left, alone, without you, without chief, without destiny. Your ancestors, on the other hand, have led the march. They have cut down the scrub to show the way. They have marked the trees to indicate to the people the limits of their possessions. Your ancestors would have been the first to arrive at the new site, chief, because they weren’t living like you, in the past. In their eyes only the future of the people counted.”
The old chief looked at me while I babbled on. And he let his gaze rest on me for a long time after I had stood silent. One could have said he was reading something in my head, maybe the faraway epic of the conquest of this land by its venerable, memorable ancestors. He could hardly contain his tears in the old grey eyelashes. The delegation from the mine retreated in silence, rustling like a thicket in the face of the tears of the old man, the tears of a chief summoned to leave his land, pitting his own history against him.
“You are right, my son, I am leaving immediately.”
Chief Katofia looked down as a sign of submission, before he spoke these words. This gave me my first death wish, because his eyes looking down at the ground seemed to concede, or to recognise me as embodying, in fact, the full power of international high finance. In the eyes of this chief, the traditional chief of my compatriots, I will always and forever be the face of this high finance, until then disembodied. This formidable threat, stripped of transcendental power, insurmountable, finally incarnated in the features of a poor chap of the next village, my features, me, who could have been one of his subjects, me, who ironically didn’t get even a crumb, such was the insignificance of my part of the international high finance pie, just enough to feed a microbe, a bacterium… so little that even an ant couldn’t sustain itself.
There is something about mining Katanga that isn’t funny, or rather, if you wish, something which should not be thought of lightly. Our mine, and the enterprise which exploits it, have taken Katofia as their name. Yet none of our chiefs of departments, none of all the multimillionaires or billionaires who have invested here, not one of our administration or politicians who negotiated, cut up the concession, then gave it away, nobody in this small spangled world knows what Katofia really means. And, of course, nobody gives a shit, putting two fingers up their arse. It is, however, through the chiefs of Katofia, and their subjects, that the identity gap of dispossession becomes an abyss, to the point of even robbing them of their name. History will not remember Katofia village, nor its Chief Katofia. History will know the mine of Katofia and, later, when we have left an immense hole in the ground here, filled with water from the water table or with rain turned green by the malachite, we will speak of Lake Katofia. In the same way that other artificial lakes around the world are studied: Lake Kambove, Lake Musonoï, Lake Ruwe… all of which, before becoming part of the geological history of the mines and pits and the catastrophes they leave behind, were illustrious names, sacred points of reference, of identity for the people from whom they were confiscated.
The name of Chief Katofia is from now on the hostage of the mine, which will be the only historical, political, legal, geographical, geological, economical, linguistic, cultural reference, and this for centuries and centuries to come. Amen. Chief Katofia and his delocalised people further away, on land which they will also call Katofia, if they so please, cannot change anything. Nothing. Absolutely nothing. They can only position themselves in the margin of this specific history, turning the page and constructing a different history. That is mining in Katanga, that is the very image of this whole country; of all countries whose pants have been pulled down to their ankles. A land and people pushed to the margin of a history wanted, presented and declared to be the only real and universal one, even if certain people were deliberately excluded by the arbitrary decisions of historians with a pen to write with. That is why in my eyes the so called discourses of Dakar, or Hume, or Hegel are positively foolish, not to say downright stupid. Yet, it is not funny to monopolise the names of people, these weird names one doesn’t understand, and which are consigned to history, your history, as happy catastrophes, after making you more paunchy and us long and skinny.
Early in the morning Samantha called. She wanted me to look at an article by Binyavanga Wainaina titled, “I am not an afropolitanist, I am a panafricanist”. She wanted it echoed in the Gazette, thinking about the cosmopolitan character brought by the mine to a city like Lubumbashi, for instance, and analysing the identity troubles this presupposes, or the panache about one’s identity at different levels and the different kinds of legitimising one’s identity towards this mining space shared by people who arrive from all over the world. She wanted mainly that I find in the different symbols, or in what one calls the symbols of Lubumbashi and mining Katanga, elements referring to pan Africanism: The slag heaps and scurries, for example, or the chimneys of the factories of the Gécamines, which, in my eyes, remind one rather of obelisks and the crematoria of Nazi concentration camps. The slag heap could be the accumulated earth of a communal pit remained open, sinking the whole year under our eyes, which don’t see it, or prefer to see it as a motif for false pride.
I understood all that after having seen a bunch of old men gathering every Friday for 10 years, to dream of Santa Claus, like their three-year-old great-grandchildren. The state, prostituted by the World Bank (it is the elders who said it this way), decided, in an unusual programme with the name “Voluntary leaves”, to throw them out of Gécamines. This enterprise had a lot of mouths to feed, too many mouths that were no longer useful, had unproductive arms, immobile, immobilised by the crises. One had to restart the economy of the country, beginning with the copper economy. All these expensive mouths, with sclerosis, rusted like the rest of the production machinery; these mouths – always hungry for fufu, for fish and bread which they haven’t produced for a long time – were not good for business. Thus, out the window they went, given something to eat and live on for a few days. A miserly payment, compared to the 25 or 40 years they produced copper, closing their eyes to the small and relative material security, ridiculous like ours, like mine at Katofia Mining. These old men were the living dead, zombies, vegetables. They were stacked, piled and packed in the common grave, leaving a gaping, stinking hole by this mountain of slurry, accumulated with their hands. It was an equal rebus, since the mining industry also produces human waste. Their soul and their human dignity had been left in the crematorium of the immense chimney, without doubt the highest in Africa, if one wants pan Africanism at any price.
My wife had left with the children, and, after a stupid sleepless night, I had to pass an idiotic day unearthing pan Africanism in a mining universe that never took heed of it. Binyavanga Wainaina is a Kenyan intellectual sacralised by an American-type show business as the greatest African writer of his generation, that is to say the under-50-year-olds. However, Binyavanga is only a polemicist who doesn’t necessarily have more literary talent, or depth, or clarity of mind than writers like Helon Habila, NoViolet Bulawayo, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, like Felwine Sarr, Namwali Serpell, Léonora Miano, like Noo Saro-Wiwa, Edem Awumey, Doreen Baingana, or Fiston Mwanza, Teju Cole, Gustave Akakpo, Kaouther Adimi, like Saphia Azzeddine, Dieudonné Niangouna, Julie Wangombe, or Darrel Bristow-Bovey, Billy Kahora, or Katty Nivyabandi, Aka Dj Koroni, Mamle Kabu, Sinzo Aanza and many more – even if Sinzo Aanza is a small poet who defiles memory and paganising in his poetry and in all the rest. What is more, one day, I saw him lying in the bushes behind the Polytechnic Faculty on the campus of Lubum, next to an artisanal brick-making place, installed there by the university for reasons of self-care, self-financing. The minor poet, surrounded by other small punks, was under the influence of cockroaches who search out the inveterate drunks smoking weed after drinking cubic metres of bad South African vodka, or wetting oneself with Indian or East African whisky which is even sold in small bags. One cannot become a good writer if one doesn’t take oneself seriously. That requires ego. So a bloke who goes around wallowing in the dust of half a bush, with other potheads, cannot be a great writer. And from that point of view, Binyavanga is an immense writer, because he doesn’t think he is shit.
Pan Africanism, I replied to peeve Samantha, is foolishness on which I didn’t want to spend a day’s work during my week off, even if it meant being fired by the Gazette. Afropolitanism never hurt anybody, it is just an anthropological, sociological fact which doesn’t require an ideological position. Pan Africanism, however, is a utopia which almost brought down the young African states, the day after independence. They had forgotten to consolidate themselves as states. The ones with political responsibilities started dreaming like brats of a fraternity which had to be institutionalised, as if brotherhood never had a need to be consigned and co-signed in a law concerning fraternity among the peoples of Africa. I told Samantha I really wished we would come up with something like the European Union in Africa, even though it isn’t a good idea to construct very strong institutions when there isn’t enough democracy yet. The Soviet Union used to be a democracy, yet birthed totalitarianism, Bolshevism, purges and the gulags. So I told Samantha, still to peeve her, and, of course, I was not thinking. Furthermore I wondered if I could ever consider a Dogon village, or the Serengeti, or Timbuktu, or Alexandria, or Antananarivo, or Kenilworth or Casablanca, Mombasa or Kano as my fatherland.
Notwithstanding all the respect and deep admiration I feel for these different regions of Africa, I believed deep in my soul that I would lose my solid sense of identity, like Jean Améry, if they announced that my country encompassed all that. This wasn’t bullshit for me. Naive telluric security, simple but absolutely necessary, gave my being part of my place of birth and also the possession of this specific native country with its tics, its traditions, its bonobo, its stream, its okapis, its mitshopos, its tshukudu, its rumba which makes the glasses of beer foam, its long saga of political clumsiness, its Tanganyika, its Vicuñas and its women with their velvety boobs in which you can burrow your head and clear your mind.
In brief, I had blabbered on the phone, and I didn’t have the least intention to talk about this dangerous futility, the pernicious childishness, the destructive utopia of pan Africanism. I also didn’t feel I wanted to see Samantha ever again, nor to be dragged along in her bleak brilliance of a crust of bread. I had been clear. I was proud of myself. Fifi and the kids would have been proud of me if they had heard me say all these sentences, which gave me pressure making my bladder almost burst, because I was sure I would lose my job.
My job is done for the happiness of my family. In my eyes, the whole world is made for the happiness of my family: The sun, the moon, the Eurodollars of the mining company, the blue of the sky, the clouds, Hollywood, Bollywood, Nollywood, Michael Jackson, the Bible, the Koran, Amos Lee, Whitney Houston, Oum Kalsoum, Oumou Sangaré, the enchanted flute, The Thousand and One Nights, Black Skin, White Masks, “How to write about Africa”, Mahmoud Darwish, Chinua Achebe, Vumbi Yoka Mudimbe, Ngugi Wa Thiong’o, John Maxwell Coetzee, Manuel Scorza, The Master and Margarita by Bulgakov, Wole Soyinka, Hampate Bâ, Sony Labou Tansi, Ovid, the Congo River, Africa, the Chinese, the eyes of Naomi Campbell, Beyoncé, Don’t it make my brown eyes blue?, Madilu, Rihanna, Kenny Rogers, Ray Charles, the election of Obama, a beer once in a while, the photos Mémoire de Sammy Baloji, the vocalisations of Wendo Kolosoy, Tabu Ley, Kivu Lake, the smoked fish mbuta of Lake Edward, or the fish captain, or the ngolo of the stream, these three fishes with fufu of corn number one or with lituma, Facebook, Google, iPad, Mandela when he danced smiling, the requiem of Gabriel Fauré, Ferré Gola, Fally Ipupa, “Ikia” by Koffi Olomidé, the smile of Angelina Jolie since she started aging (I meant ripening), Bruno Mars, Miles Davis, Verre Cassé, Lorca, literature, the coral reefs, jasmine on the tiny winds of the night, TP Mazembe, the Nights of Alfred de Musset, Gérard Depardieu when he plays in Asterix, the parks in Kenya, the song of birds in the morning… All that has been constructed, has been made for the happiness of my family, of my children and my Fifi, whose velvety roundnesses are terribly missed by my bouncing head.
I remained seated for several more hours. Like someone illuminated. Under the darkness of confinement. Without eating or drinking. I tried to empty my head, so that I could sleep a bit. It would not empty. It was so full of black jelly that it would take ages to chase everything, to erase it with soap and brooms. I am weak. And naive. I associate this sadness with death, and Georges Bataille says that it is a naive opinion to connect both death and sadness. So let’s start with death then. For me, it is even more pathetic because I start with sadness to arrive at death. Forgive me, to go on quoting the words of others. This probably has to do with the original trauma of the girl who made me realise my ugliness, just as the existentialist philosopher Sartre became aware of his existence in Nausea. I cannot speak to people without detours, without passing through what others have said. Viscerally I need this, to reassure myself, otherwise, I am mute, frozen, daft…
* translated by Annmarie Sauer
This story features in the new Chronic, an edition in which we ask: what if maps were made by Africans for their own use, to understand and make visible their own realities or imaginaries? How does it shift the perception we have of ourselves and how we make life on this continent?