Featured author Veronica Cecil finds much to despair of in the ‘Garden of Eden’
When my husband, David came home one dank February evening in 1963 and announced that his company proposed sending him to the Congo, I panicked. Death disease and horror flooded my mind. We were going into ‘the heart of darkness’; the ‘armpit of Africa’. Then I reminded myself that this was the twentieth century. The Congo was now an independent country. The recent murder of the democratically elected Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba was, I decided, a blip. Brought up in apartheid-ridden Southern Africa, I was young, naïve and idealistic. I honestly believed that once the Africans were freed from colonialism, they would create their own Utopia. What I didn’t envisage was that eighteen months later I would be fleeing for my life.
The Congolese describe their country as the Garden of Eden. And in many ways it is. The jungle is lush, the people ebullient and it is rich in resources. But, in the summer of 1963, we arrived to find a nation in chaos. There were appalling food shortages – a nightmare with a one-year-old – and, even more terrifying, absolutely no law and order. What’s more we were not automatically protected because we were white.
After six months, however, David was transferred to an oil palm plantation a thousand miles from the capital, Leopoldville. And, although it was the exact location of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, it was, for me, a mini paradise. Our house overlooked the vast, ever-changing Congo River; our lives were punctuated by the patter of drums. There was an abundance of fish and fruit on the trees and, above all, peace. I was pregnant with my second child and Nicholas, our servant, turned out to be a true friend as well as a mentor.
What I managed to conveniently disregard was that this was the homeland of the assassinated Patrice Lumumba. The youth had started fomenting trouble and their rebellion came to a head at the beginning of August 1964, when they captured Stanleyville, the town nearest to us, taking all of the white people hostage. That evening four men arrived and told me to pack. My infant son and I were to be evacuated immediately leaving David behind. During the two-day journey I went into labour.
Nearly half a century has passed since then. Now, whenever I go out to South Africa I come face to face with Congolese refugees. University graduates forced to earn a pittance by working as car guards and, worse, women who have been raped and violated to a degree that is unimaginable. They are victims of horrendous brutality, not from us, the erstwhile oppressors, but from their own people. And, because I speak French, they pour out their stories.
In hindsight I realise that the seeds of the Congolese tragedy were there in 1963. King Leopold of Belgium started the rot by brutalising the people in order to filch their riches. Then the Belgian government colonised the country. Since Independence, however, the multinational corporations have continued to exploit the country with few moral parameters. Now, the Congolese themselves are brutalising their people in order to get their hands not only on the gold and diamonds, but on coltan, an essential ingredient of mobile phones.
In this book I wanted to show how it really was for me, a child of the colonies, and, although it would be tempting to flagellate myself, in reality, I was just an ordinary housewife and mother caught up in history. The Congolese people never had a chance to build their Utopia, and this story is an indictment of what the modern world stands for.