At Congo’s independence in 1960, Mircea Eliade, the expert on myths and religion, had this anecdote to comment about the way Congolese people lived the event, or rather turned it into a cargo cult, in the opening pages of his book “Myth and Reality”: “In some villages the inhabitants tore the roofs off their huts to give passage to the gold coins that their ancestors were to rain down. Everything was allowed to go to rack and ruin except the roads to the cemetery, by which the ancestors would make their way to the village. Even the orgiastic excesses had a meaning, for, according to the myth, from the dawn of the New Age all women would belong to all men.” He then went on to add: “We may suppose that “mythical behavior” will disappear as a result of the former colonies’ acquiring political independence.”
Eliade couldn’t have been more wrong. With political independence now in its 47th year, a far more nefarious myth has now bugged the soul of the Congolese nation: The Holy Bible and the vicious fundamentalists totting it everywhere, even in market places and in packed and stifling “taxis-buses.”
After more than fifteen years of absence from the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), my homeland, I started going back there on a regular basis in 2003, and even living in the capital city of Kinshasa for half of the year since then. This experience was not so much a narrative of non-return than a cultural turbulence of reentry. For instance, during the Congolese presidential electoral campaign in July 2006, watching television one night, I was mystified to watch and hear a pastor who was being interviewed exclaim: “This is a special country and a special people: God had prophesied on this land and its people! Politicians better watch out.” Asking people around me what he meant by that admonition, they advised with condescension that I read Isaiah 18. And I, for one, was among those who used to claim: “No one reads anymore in the Congo.” I meant by this aphorism that the practice and performance of literature as experienced in the West has all but disappeared in the country. But I was discovering that night that I needed to amend that aphorism as follows: “The one book being read and misread in the Congo is The Holy Bible.”
Consider this other instance: On another one of my stays in Kinshasa, a cousin of mine, who had just converted to an evangelical sect, suddenly turned vegetarian. As I was jokingly warning him against the danger of such a radical dietary change in a city where daily protein intake was far from granted and the very act of getting food amounted to foraging, he told me to look up Genesis 6:19-21. I did look up this passage with him: Noah is being briefed by God who has “determined to make an end of all flesh” prior to his boarding of the ark: Noah is told to bring into the ark “every living thing of all flesh” “two of every sort,” all the biodiversity on earth if that, but God adds in the last verse of this passage: “Also take with you every sort of food that is eaten, and store it up; and it shall serve as food for you and for them [living things].”
According to my cousin, this verse clearly shows that God meant us to be vegetarian, for, why would He tell us to take all the “food that is eaten” beside “every living thing of all flesh”? My cousin’s close reading also points to the nature of The Holy Bible as an amulet in the DRC: every single passage in the Good Book, even a comma, or for that matter the actual physical printed book one carries to Sunday service, is worth its weight in gold.
All this galore could have been great materials for comic relief had it not also parasitized the political arena!
In February 2006, after years of dictatorship and more years of the bloodiest war in Africa dubbed “Africa World War,” a new constitution was enacted, following the referendum that took place in December 2005. In the run-up to that constitutional referendum, some politicians of the opposition, especially the maverick pastors Théodore Ngoy and Gabriël Mokia, known nationwide as the country’s most prolific “injurologues” (French neologism for “heapers of insults”), who were campaigning against the new constitution, claimed that a comma in the first sentence of the first paragraph of its Article 40 was a clear opening to gay marriage—an abomination, according to them. That paragraph states: “One has the right to get married with the person of one’s choice, of the opposite gender, and to set up family.”
Now, these opponents of the constitution contended, why would the legislators put a comma between “choice” and “opposite gender” if they didn’t intend to have gays wedge into official marriage through that gaping opening while leaving the subsequent fragments of the sentence unscathed? Or, as Reverend Ngoy put it in one of his televised interventions, that comma is the devil’s own highway into the soul of the Congo.
Freedom of the press is so misconstrued in the Congo that even the wackiest of fundamentalist preachers are given air time on television and, if they happen to have enough money (which they often do), they’re allowed to launch their own radio and television stations. In the presidential electoral campaign, both the opposition parties and the incumbent’s political party used and misused this medium, trading biblical prophecies and counter-prophecies back and forth.
On August 17, 2006, as the country was awaiting the publication of the results of the first turn of the presidential elections, the “communications” people of Jean-Pierre Bemba, the most formidable contender to the incumbent president Joseph Kabila, produced a narrative of the country on their party-owned television network “Canal Congo TV” (CCTV). They brought on the set this young “prophet” who “had a dream” on the outcome of the elections. Strangely, the text of the Congolese prophet was the very text of the dream of another prophet: Daniel (2:31-45).
“Show me the dream and its interpretation” (6) were the threatening words Nebuchadnezzar had thrown at the “magicians,” “enchanters,” and “sorcerers” of Babylon who were put to the ordeal of finding out not only the king’s disturbing dream but its interpretation as well. The biblical narrative goes on to say that “the mystery was revealed to Daniel in a vision of the night” by God (19), thus saving those “wise men” from destruction by unveiling Nebuchadnezzar’s dream and its interpretation to Daniel as the narrative of the Babylonian kingdom: the famous messianic “Dream of the Golden Image.” Duplicating Daniel’s process, the Congolese television prophet likewise had a nightly vision too, in which God allowed him to crack open the unfolding mystery of Congo’s future.
According to the Congolese television prophet, Nebuchadnezzar’s dream as pertaining to the Congolese situation was to be interpreted as a narrative in six installments:
1. The “head of [the] image” in “fine gold” represents the Belgian colonial regime, as gold is associated with a monarch’s crown;
2. The “breast and arms of silver” represented the administration of Congo’s first president Joseph Kasavubu;
3. Mobutu’s brutal regime was the image’s “belly and thighs of bronze”;