Toxic Roots: Why Zambians of Congolese Origin Hide their Heritage
By E. Munshya wa Munshya
To treat a topic of this nature, a definition of terms is in order. Being of Congolese origin or heritage is a complex notion. However, in this article I use it to describe Zambian citizens with sufficient Congolese connections such as culture, tribe, family, and origins. I do not wish to use this term to describe the Luba-Lunda migrations, but to latter migrations of peoples at least after the 1950s.
Two of Zambia’s neighbours have left an indelible mark on Zambian culture and national identity. These two countries are Malawi and Congo DR. In an earlier article, I had already pointed out the influence that Malawi and her diaspora has had on Zambian political and cultural life. It is time, therefore, for me to turn to the Congo. The Congo DR shares a 2000-kilometer border with Zambia. None of the other eight (or nine) neighbours comes close to this length. Additionally, over half of Zambia’s urban towns are within 200 kilometers of the Congolese border. Zambia shares more tribes with the Congo than any other neighbouring country. The ethnic groups that are found on both sides of the border stretch from Mwinilunga to Mwansabombwe. Among these ethnic groups are the Lunda, Luvale, Kaonde, Lamba, Lala, Ushi, and the Lunda (Kazembe). The Bemba language, spoken in more provinces of Zambia, is the staple language for much of the Congo’s Katanga province. In fact, Katanga’s major city “Lubumbashi wa Ntanshi” is a Bemba term. Historically, many Zambian tribes claim Congolese origin. That is most of them are descended from an ancient Luba-Lunda Kingdom. These tribes are as sparse as the Bemba in Northern Province to some Lozi speaking peoples within Western Province.
However, in spite of all these realities, it is quite surprising that not many people in Zambia publicly admit to Congolese heritage, origin or connections. I will begin by taking politicians as an example.
When President Frederick Chiluba was running for the presidency in 1990, he was asked whether he had any Congolese connections. His answer was to the effect that his only Congolese connection was that of ancient African history, in which his people, the Chishinga migrated from the Luba-Lunda empire to their current location along the river Luapula. By giving this answer, Chiluba refused any modern Congolese connections. He instead used the same ancient argument that his only connections to the Congo belonged to the 1800s. Notwithstanding this position, however, any person who has been to Musangu or to Mwense cannot be surprised at just how close these places are to the Congolese border. And indeed, any serious student of history will discover that Chiluba’s refusal to be connected to the Congo is a serious inconsistency. Chiluba did have the Congolese connection which he refused to admit to. But why did he? This article seeks to provide part of that answer.
President Levy Mwanawasa was born of a Lenje father and a Lamba mother (Mama Miriam Mokola). For many Zambians, they may need reminding that the Lamba people exist in both Zambia and the Congo. In fact, the Congo has more Lamba speaking peoples than Zambia. The Lambas occupy much of the Congolese pedicle and they stretch from Lubumbashi down through the pedicle to Sakania. In Zambia, the Lamba are mainly on the Copperbelt.
In Amos Malupenga’s biography of President Levy Mwanawasa, he neglects to mention any Congolese connections that Mama Miriam Mokola had. The only Congolese reference that Malupenga alludes to in his book is that the young Levy was flown to Kinshasa for medical attention after a burning accident he suffered as a child. However, throughout his life, Levy Mwanawasa refused any Congolese connections. But I should here provide a few hints that may indicate that Mwanawasa too had clear connections to the Congo, which he refused to admit to.
Mwanawasa’s mother lived in the Congo after she got divorced from Levy’s father. And he, as a student at Chiwala, did visit her on the other side of the border. Malupenga mentioned nearly all the places Mama Mokola lived in, except for one place. According to Malupenga, Mama Mokola lived in Ndola, Mufulira, Ndola rural and “another village which now has ceased to exist.” It is a village without a name. Malupenga conveniently, left out the name of this village, either because he was not told about it (it was hidden from him), or knew about it and chose not to mention it for some reason. I submit that this village has disappeared from Malupenga’s book because in reality it is on the other side of the border-it is in the Congo. This village should in all probability be between Mokambo and Sakania across the border.
The reason why Malupenga did not mention the Congo is because the Congo is a toxic heritage. Many Zambians of Congolese origin simply refuse to be connected to the Congo. That is they do not want to admit to this heritage publicly.
Additionally, the fact that the young Levy was flown to Kinshasa gives the idea that his family should have been connected to the Congo more than we are made to believe. No Zambian, without sufficient connections to Kinshasa would send their child to seek medical attention in Kinshasa in 1960. As such, Levy Mwanawasa did have sufficient Congolese connections.
In the 2006 elections, the MMD featured two very interesting candidates. One is Jerry Mukonkela for Chingola and the other is Goodward Mulubwa for Matero. Mukonkela was more forthcoming about his “Congolese” accent. A Lunda with strong Congolese heritage, Mukonkela spent some time defending his “Swahili” accent and refusing any connections to the Congo. Goodward Mulubwa also faced the same situation. A successful businessman, he addressed the Congolese suspicions by refusing any link to the Congo. From his name, you could tell he is Ushi from Luapula Province. The above-mentioned denials typical of politicians are also true for many Zambians from different strata of society. But why do Zambians of Congolese origin or connections refuse Congolese identity. The answer is steeped in history and in the Kaunda Era demonization of everything Congolese. The following paragraphs provide part of the answer.
The first reason is with the way imperialists partitioned Africa and the identity they fostered upon Africans. Armed with a stencil and a ruler, junior Belgian and British civil servants drew a map of Africa, and then demarcated it according to their wishes. They divided up families and did not care about how the new borders would impact on a nephew east of the Luapula River. In the modern geo-political states, this demarcation has caused a false sense of citizenship that has frequently led to African tribes perceiving their own tribesmen as foreigners simply because Queen Victoria and her counterpart King Leopold II decided so. This matter requires further exploration latter.
The second reason has to do with what happened at independence. Zambia’s independence came at a time that the Congo was at war. Congo DR got her independence from Belgium in 1960. However, just months into her independence the Southern Province of Katanga seceded from the mainland, and declared independence. Katanga Governor Moise Tshombe’s military and political prowess provided a serious conundrum for Northern Rhodesian Prime Minister Kenneth Kaunda.
Kaunda believed that Tshombe had recruited his soldiers from tribes that would constitute a future nation of Zambia. If left unchecked, this would bring instability for a newly independent Zambia. Additionally, Whites in Southern Rhodesia wanted to create a federation of three countries: Southern Rhodesia, Katanga and Barotseland. Kaunda was already dealing with the Barotseland crisis and did not want any further complications. Cleary in such a political set-up there was no way Kaunda was going to be friendly to Tshombe and his Katangese agenda. These political issues would create serious suspicions on Kaunda’s part for everything Katangese or Congolese. He became suspicious of his northern neighbour such that after Zambia’s independence, Kaunda’s government would treat the Congo as enemy number one.
The third reason came as a consequence of Kaunda’s policy towards the Congo. He would treat the nation itself as an enemy. Ironically, he never extended this enmity to Malawi. Could it be that he was kinder to Malawi because they were his kith and kin? What should surprise most historians is that while KK was maintaining such animosity towards Congo, his Malawian counterpart was partnering with Apartheid South Africa. In spite of this partnership between Kamuzu Banda and the South African regime, not once did Kaunda treat Kamuzu or Malawi as an enemy.
In promoting anti-Congo policies, Kaunda ostracised many Zambians of Congolese origin. Following the enactment of the 1966 National Registration Act, many Zambians of Malawian origin easily acquired green National Registration Cards. However, this was not the case for those Zambians with Congolese heritage. Additionally, Kaunda deployed an active army on the Congolese border. There were more soldiers at Konkola, Mokambo and Chembe than those stationed at Chirundu to fight Ian Smith’s incursions into Zambia.
The National Registration Act of 1966 and its implications upon Zambians’ self-identity of citizenship should be the focus of another study. Suffice here to state that the Act itself got so misunderstood that even those who qualified to be citizens of Zambia could not do so because of this misconstruction. Zambians of Congolese heritage were the biggest casualties of this Act. It is therefore interesting to note that the Supreme Court used Chabala Kafupi’s testimony in the Lewanika v Chiluba to clarify the Act. In essence a Congolese born Chabala Kafupi who claimed to be Chiluba’s father qualified for Zambian citizenship not because of acquiring an NRC, but on the basis of his being present in Zambia at independence. It is quite unusual that Mr. Chabala Kafupi of clear Congolese heritage mustered enough strength to state this fact in the Supreme Court. But he is the exception.
The fourth reason was that Kaunda enacted an economic embargo against the Congo and consequently against the Lambas, the Ushis, the Lalas and the Lundas and their relatives across the border. Instead of encouraging trade and commerce between the Congo and Zambia, Kaunda banned the export of goods to Lubumbashi. The only, way out for Zambians to profit from lucrative business between Congo and Zambia was by “smuggling through Bilanga.” This was a dangerous way of doing business as many Zambians got killed by Kaunda’s soldiers. It is for economists to calculate how much money Zambia could have made out of trade with Congo. It is only now that government is exploiting the Congo’s business potential.
Fifth, Kaunda deployed a severe academic embargo upon Zambians. Children in Zambian schools were taught very little about Congo DR. In fact, some Zambians were shocked to learn in 1986 that some Congolese are Bemba speaking. This was when Zambia played Congo in a football match in which one of the Congo players was named Kasongo Kabwe – a typical Bemba name. It is no doubt that to date very few in Zambia know that Bemba is one of the Congo’s widely spoken local languages. In fact, only two radio stations in Africa broadcast in the Bemba language – ZNBC and Radio Congo.
Kaunda’s academic embargo also manifested itself in William Banda’s testimony against Chiluba in the famous Lewanika and others v Chiluba case. Chiluba’s connection to the Congo may have been undeniable, but then Banda went for the overkill in the testimony. Banda told the Supreme Court that he had known Chiluba as a young man who hailed from Congo and spoke the Lingala language. Banda’s testimony was probably both true and false. He might have been right that Chiluba may have had sufficient Congolese connections, but by claiming that Chiluba then spoke Lingala, he fed into a false assumption that all Congolese speak Lingala or that all Congolese are “Kasais”. Indeed if Chiluba had those Congolese connections, they could have been derived from the Bemba speaking region of Katanga near the Luapula River and not anywhere near Kinshasa where Lingala is the staple language.
But William Takere Banda is not alone in this misconception of everything Congolese. Here are some facts that might be helpful. The Bemba language is one of the widely spoken languages in Katanga. Bemba speaking peoples, however, have experienced serious problems in terms of political or cultural progression in the Congo. To date Lunda Bululu is the only Bemba speaking person to have ascended to the position of Prime Minister for the Congolese republic. In Katanga itself, Moise Katumbi is the first Bemba to be governor. Before, Katumbi, Bemba-speaking Kunda Kisenga Milundu served as Katanga deputy-governor in a power sharing government after the death of Laurent Kabila. It is now becoming a possibility that Katumbi might as well be the first Bemba-speaking President of the Congo DR.
The sixth reason why Zambians of Congolese origins deny their heritage is purely as a result of prejudice and delusions. Some in Zambia characterize all Congolese as “Kasais”. Just how Bemba speaking or Lunda speaking Congolese came to be understood as Kasais in Zambia should deserve another historical analysis. However, it should be sufficient to note here that while in Zambia, some people mistake all Congolese as Kasais, Kasais in Katanga find it difficult to integrate among the Bemba and other Katangese tribes.
Indeed, some Katangese people regard the Kasais as enemies and vultures. This idea is definitely repugnant. The anti-Kasai sentiments culminated in the 1990s when Katanga governor Kyungu wa Kumwanza, enacted the “Kubatelemusha” doctrine where the Kasais were ordered deported back to Kananga and Mbuji-Mayi. Many Kasai women and children lost their lives during this ethnic cleansing. Wa Kumwanza has to-date not answered for this crime. Some of the Katanga tribes with strong anti-Kasai sentiments are Bemba speaking.
However, while some Bemba-speaking tribes are prejudiced against the Kasais in Katanga, when the same Bemba-speaking Congolese cross the border into Zambia, some Zambians do not differentiate between them and the Kasais. As such, the prejudice against the Kasai has been exported to Zambia, except that in Zambia, every one with sufficient Congolese had been for many years characterised as “Kasai”. It is this anti-Kasai sentiment from Katanga that got fed into Zambia. This characteristically led to Bemba speaking Zambians of Congolese origin to deny any Congolese heritage so that they are not characterized as “Kasai.”
Let me digress here to address the issue of anti-Kasai sentiments in Katanga. Obviously, the Kasai people have strong ethnic patriotism. Even in Katanga they still look to their Kasai regions with nostalgia. Of all the tribes in Congo, the Luba-Kasai are the most travelled both within and outside the Congo. The Ba Yuda du Congo singing group paints the Kasai region as “the blessed land subdued with good rain.” The singing group also casts, in the Luba (Kasai) language, the Luba-Kasai as the “bantu ba bulayo”. Which means a people of promise. The extent to which this patriotism leads to anti-Kasai sentiments in Katanga deserves another analysis. However, it is interesting to note that in spite of the Congo’s instability, no Luba-Kasai has taken to arms to rebel against the government in Kinshasa. As such, the peaceful nature of the Kasai shouldn’t be doubted. Interestingly, of all the Congo’s warlords none is a Kasai. In fact, even when they had the numbers and the infrastructure to lead a successful rebellion in Kinshasa, no Luba-Kasai has ever exploited this channel. In the recent elections, the Kasai Ettiene Tshisekedi lost an unfair election to Joseph Kabila, and yet Tshisekedi never agitated for war or violence against Kabila.
The challenge therefore for the Bemba speaking Congolese is to begin changing their attitudes towards their Kasai counterparts. As these attitudes in Katanga change for the better, this will get fed into Zambia as well. The people of Katanga shouldn’t give into the Wa Kumwanza ideology, not now and not ever.
Back to Kaunda’s attitudes towards the Congo, by the time he had realised that he was too ruthless against the Congo it was too late. Zambians had lost faith in him. But in spite of the general negative against the Kasai, Zambians loved the music done by one of the Kasai’s most famous sons – Luambo Makiadi (aka Franco). It was in the waning years of his rule that Kaunda invited Luambo Makiadi to come and visit Zambia so that KK can benefit from Franco’s popularity. For his part, Luambo Makiadi did not disappoint. His dancing queens and princes penned a song for Kaunda in Swahili, asking Zambians to vote for KK. Franco sung, “President Kaunda, papa wa oliya” – the father of peace.
After Kaunda left the presidency, President Frederick Chiluba succeeded him. Chiluba’s sufficient Congolese connections are obvious as testified to by a Mr. Kafupi (and by Mr. William Takere Banda. Mr. Kafupi claimed to have been Chiluba’s father and his resemblance with Chiluba was unusually striking. With this heritage, one would have expected a change in attitude towards the Congo. But Chiluba, in spite of his clear Congolese connections, refused to normalise relations with the Congo. It was still a toxic heritage.
Psychologically then, Chiluba had internalised Kaunda’s aversion for the Congo such that he too started acting like Kaunda. First, Chiluba refused to admit to have ever been to the Congo. Second, he even rejected a Mr. Chabala Kafupi a Zambian of Congolese heritage who claimed to have been his father. Third, in spite of his village being just a few hundred meters from the Luapula River and consequently from the Congolese border, Chiluba refused to have ever seen or grown up in the Congo. Fourthly, Chiluba cleared the few Zambians of Congolese heritage still serving in Kaunda’s government.
Chiluba, however, softened latter in his presidency towards the Congo. Moreover, the fact that he openly embraced current Katanga governor Moise Katumbi and granted him both asylum and a Zambian diplomatic passport goes to show that Chiluba was tired of hiding his Congolese heritage. The choice of Mwanawasa could have also played in this redeemed attitude. Chiluba as president had information about the full heritage of candidate Mwanawasa. He chose to go with it because Congolese heritage should not be despised any more.
In the age of T.P. Mazembe Football Club and in the days of open business between Lubumbashi and Lusaka, attitudes towards the Congo are changing. Zambians of Congolese origin, who had been living in shadows and fear, have started to openly embrace their heritage. Indeed this is good for Zambia and for the identity of perhaps a million of her citizens. It shouldn’t hurt to be a Zambian of Congolese heritage. It has definitely stopped to hurt for a Zambian citizen to openly embrace those family members separated from her simply because King Leopold and Queen Victoria had so decided. Zambians can do nothing about the past, but for the future they are hurriedly affirming: toxic no more.