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Monday, July 07, 2003  

Poisonwood and the Congo

Having recently completed reading Barbara Kingsolver's The Poisonwood Bible, I've been thinking about the Congo. (Yes, I know I was late reading that novel.) I knew the United States may have knocked off the only democratically elected president of the Congo, Patrice Lumumba, via the Central Intelligence Agency in 1961, though some sources say the Belgians did it.

When Lumumba arrived in Katanga, on January 17, accompanied by several Belgians, he was bleeding from a severe beating. Later that evening, Lumumba was killed by a firing squad commanded by a Belgian officer. A week earlier, he had written to his wife, "I prefer to die with my head unbowed, my faith unshakable, and with profound trust in the destiny of my country." Lumumba was 35.

The next step was to destroy the evidence. Four days later, Belgian Police Commissioner Gerard Soete and his brother cut up the body with a hacksaw and dissolved it in sulfuric acid. In an interview on Belgian television last year, Soete displayed a bullet and two teeth he claimed to have saved from Lumumba's body.

What remains unclear is the extent, if any, of Washington's involvement in the final plot. A Belgian official who helped engineer Lumumba's transfer to Katanga told de Witte that he kept CIA station chief Lawrence Devlin fully informed of the plan....

I was also aware of current strife in the ill-defined country, though not the specifics.

Congolese lived the missing decades under the thumb of Mobutu Sese Seko (nee Joseph Mobutu), one of the most corrupt, Western-backed dictators to ever rule anywhere. The people starved while he erected mansions throughout Europe.

Over the next three decades, Mobutu led one of the most enduring regimes in Africa -- and, said his critics, one of the most dictatorial and corrupt.

Despite the country's obvious natural resources, including copper, gold and diamonds, much of Zaire's [the country was renamed by Mobutu] population continued to sink further into poverty. But Mobutu, known for his trademark leopard-skin hat, amassed a personal fortune estimated to be as much as $5 billion, with homes in Switzerland and France.

Mobutu died in 1997. Parts of the country had been controlled by rival Laurent Kabila for much of his rule and Kabila grasped more power, becoming President after his death. Kabila died in 2001.

Reading The Poisonwood Bible led me to catch up with the Congo. The latest plan for peace in the Congo relies on one of the most difficult of human endeavors -- cooperation for the common good.

The Defence Ministry is in the hands of a rebel organization closely linked with neighbouring Rwanda. So is the Economy Ministry. Foreign Affairs goes to a rival movement originally sponsored by Uganda, another of Congo's neighbours.

The United Nationas has been asked to increase the numbers of its peacekeeping force in the Congo. The French has dispatched 1,200 troops there. A cease fire, which appears to have mainly held, was reached in April.

President Joseph Kabila's allies retain the Interior and Energy portfolios -- but not the potentially lucrative Ministry of Mines, which goes to the peaceful political opposition based in the capital, Kinshasa.

Rural development for the sprawling country of 51 million people will fall to the Mai Mai, a pro-government militia known for its prowess with spears and bows and arrows as well as guns.

The power-sharing deal made public on Monday is aimed at keeping a lid on violence for two years until elections can be held. But success appears to depend largely on support from other countries.

There will be four vice presidents representing various factions. Uganda has lost influence in this peace plan and Rwanda has gained some.

The big winner appears to be the Rwanda-backed Congolese Rally for Democracy-Goma (RCD-Goma), a Rwanda-backed movement formed to fight against the regime of Mr. Kabila's father, Laurent Kabila, who died in 2001.

With the Defence portfolio, it will oversee the integration of rebel and government troops into the Congolese army. The group did "better than expected" in the portfolio handout, Ms. Des Forges said.

"It reflects the disproportionate power of Rwanda in the regional balance," she said.

Considering the history of the Congo, this idealistic attempt at a settlement of sorts does not seem very promising, though I hope it works.

If you are also a laggard in regard to reading The Poisonwood Bible, now is a great time to correct that oversight. The novel is about a Baptist evangelist from Georgia who takes his wife and four daughters to the Congo in 1960. At the beginning of the book, the sisters range in age from five to 15. Reverend Price's objective is to baptize as many Africans as possible to compensate for what he considers a defining failure in his own life. Instead, the family finds itself sharing the tragedies that are often the lot of its Congolese neighbors. Africa leaves its stamp on each of the daughters, though in different ways. Identification with the Congo allows Orleanna Price to finally break free of her domineering and abusive husband. Only 'Tata Price,' the reverend, cleaves to his terrible vision as a white Christian in Africa.

Poisonwood is Metopium toxiferum, a poisonous dioecious tree that grows in West Africa, the West Indies and southern Florida. Exposure to poisonwood causes a rash.

10:15 AM