The black woman’s burden

You stare up at this man’s face in Victoria Square, in the centre of Athens. He’s offering you a place to stay and you don’t want to think about what he’ll want in return. All you can think about is not spending another night on the street in this place, finding a doorway out of the way when it starts to get dark, being woken up at three or four in the morning by drunks and guys hassling you for attention, then picking up your things and moving away if you can. This man doesn’t speak your language but his face looks trustworthy. As it turns out you won’t be able to trust him, but you don’t have any other other options.

Before we get into the living nightmare you had to endure between the cracks of Athens’ streets, take it back a bit. How did you get to be in this room telling me this, tears dripping down your face? You were born in 1994 in a village the east of a country that was then called Zaire, the year that neighbouring Rwanda was torn apart by the genocide. Your village was around 400 kilometres away from Goma, which suddenly became site of one of the world’s largest refugee camps as a million people arrived over the border from Rwanda by mid July that year. A million people, including ordinary people who had someone survived the state-sponsored rampage of killing that set loose that spring, along with government soldiers and fighters in government-backed militias called the interahamwe responsible for the genocide who were now fleeing the Tutsi RPF army that had invaded from the other side of Rwanda to put an end to the genocide, all poured into eastern Zaire, settling on the small refugee camp at Goma. The refugee camp city at Goma sat precariously on the bowling pot of resentment and unrest that was eastern Zaire, at dying end of the regime of Joseph Mobutu, kleptocrat in chief who by now had robbed the Congo, the beating heart of Africa, of its riches, siphoning off its mineral and diamond wealth and plunging it into luxury properties around the world and a lifestyle of excess, including a private Concorde that he flew to his Gbadolite jungle villa. Mobutu’s private wealth could have paid off Congo’s national debt, as most of his people lived in abject poverty.

But how did a dull army colonel end up president of one of the largest countries in Africa let alone amassing one of the largest personal fortunes in the world? Your dad would be able to tell me this. He was born in 1960, a child of the short-lived Republic of Congo, led by African hero and leader of the nationalist independence movement Patrice Lumumba. At the moment it was born the Republic was already under threat by those who had too much to lose from an independent Congo: the Americans and their Cold War aversion to communism and Lumumba’s vision of a Congo free from external exploitation, where the Congolese could at long last take charge of their resources. The CIA boasts of its covert operations in the Congo between 1960-1968, “to stabilize the government and minimize communist influence in a strategically vital, resource-rich location in central Africa.” The government, that was, of Mobutu that it funnelled money into in the late 1950s, when Lumumba’s vision was threatening what the USA saw as ‘stability’ with his notions that Africans should actually control their national resources. And it was under threat from the Belgians, who took over from King Leopold’s bloody reign which had led to the deaths of half the population at the hands of overseers, and turned the Congo into the world’s biggest slave plantation. The Belgian state was deemed the ‘natual successor’ to Leopold, and ran the country until its independence in 1960, during which time profits from Congolese mines flowed into private Belgian companies like UMHK, an Anglo-Belgian mineral mining company and fore-runner to Umicore, operating today with a turnover of over €11billion, a fifth of the GDP of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The Congolese people voted for Lumumba’s party in its first democratic elections in May 1960, while Belgian mercenaries funnelled arms and support to rebel militias in Katanga province that less than a year later would capture, torture and execute Lumumba, in full view of the world, and with the covert support of the CIA. As CIA scholar Lobarge writes, its “program initially focused on removing Lumumba, not only through assassination if necessary but also with an array of nonlethal un-dertakings [including] … payments to army commander Mobutu to ensure the loyalty of key officers and the support of legislative leaders”.

Your father wasn’t strangled at birth like Congo’s democracy, instead he grew to marry at 22, your mother 18, and have 6 children, of which you were the last, and was later killed in fighting near your village when you were 5 years old. During this time your brothers disappeared into the jungle and you heard that they’re fighting now. You don’t know if they’re still alive. The war in what was now the Democratic Republic of the Congo when you were a small girl was the world’s deadliest war that no-one’s ever heard of. You don’t remember a time of much peace in your village and region of north Kivu and you stay silent about the times soldiers came to the village. Your mother told you to leave when you were 22 and you managed to get to Uganda, and then to Turkey, after working for smugglers who give you a student visa to Istanbul. Everyone tells you that things are better in Europe, that you’ll be able to have a family and maybe find work as a cleaner, earning more than you ever could even in Kenya, and you’ll never have to do the kind of work you were doing for the smugglers again. But then you find out the cost of the journey to Lesvos, and you think that at least when you get to Greece it’ll all be over. When your boat makes it to Lesvos in February of this year you realise that the ordeal isn’t over yet, as nearly 20,000 people are crammed into Moria camp and you struggle to sleep at night with the noise and the fighting and the screams that you don’t want to think about. At least you made it across the water and weren’t pushed back. When you are seen at the clinic for wounds and infection inflicted when you were raped by those men in Istanbul they put you on the list of transfers to Athens. You take your white card and your few belongings and wait for the boat to Piraeus, and then make your way to Victoria Square as the lockdown begins. It’s taken you four years to get to Athens from Kivu, your region in the DRC. You don’t have many options as this man says he has a spare room and you hope it’s for free, you hope that for once someone doesn’t want something from you that you don’t want to give. He’s got a black face unlike the men in Istanbul and even though he doesn’t speak French or Lingala you want to trust him.

You tell me that you don’t trust black men any more. I don’t know what to say I’m just glad you’re not with that man any more and would I have had the strength to run away like you did? We listen and book you appoinments to deal with the pregnancy that has resulted from the rape when you first arrived in Athens. Later on I think about your words, how you don’t trust black men. In your position I wouldn’t trust any men but I think about the white men who financed the killing of Lumumba and plunged your country into decades more of exploitation, underdevelopment and, later, the wars you’ve seen in your lifetime. And those who systematically stripped your country of its resources both before and after independence, ensuring the profits from Congo’s mineral wealth stays in the global north, first in European mining companies in Brussels or London, now in the tech companies in San Fransisco and New York. The ghost of Lumumba is haunting Europe with the truth of our richness. And what about the white architects of Europe’s border policy that made your crossing into Europe €4000 and my flight from Bristol to Athens £36. Someone told me once that we need to stop feeling guilty about colonialism like it was Europe’s original sin that could never be atoned, but I think that we as whites never tried to atone for anything. I look down at my hands because I can’t look at what’s written on your face any more and I hear you say:

le viol.

*This is a composite of a few stories I heard while I was volunteering with Khora Asylum Support team in Athens in autumn 2020. The words I heard are real but I’ve combined details of several people to respect individuals’ privacy. At the same time I want to balance this with the desire to show what results from the history of European colonialism in Africa and the Middle East, as well as the ongoing crisis that has resulted from the European Union’s systematically violent border and asylum processes. While preparing this piece I came across ‘Conversations in Calais’, a project tells stories foregrounding the voice of travellers and border crossers rather than (often white) volunteers, humanising in the face of the dehumanisation of refugees and travellers in the media reporting on the so-called refugee crisis, and drew on its narrative framing.

Sources:

Lobarge (2014) CIA’s Covert Operations in the Congo, 1960–1968: Insights from Newly Declassified Documents available here.

A doctor’s account of life in Moria in early 2020: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/feb/09/moria-refugee-camp-doctors-story-lesbos-greece

Amnesty International report ‘North Kivu: No end to war on women and children’ https://www.amnesty.org/download/Documents/52000/afr620052008en.pdf

Conversations from Calais: https://www.conversationsfromcalais.com/

The Beekeeper of Aleppo: https://www.beekeeperofaleppo.com/

The Poisonwood Bible: http://www.kingsolver.com/books/the-poisonwood-bible.html

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