JULY 31, 2010
By Sarah J Hart
Last fall I accompanied a group of graduate students from Columbia University’s school of architecture on a research trip to the Democratic Republic of Congo. Their semester’s task was to design potential new schools for Congo. The class was inspired by economist Jeffrey Sachs, who argues that education is one of the five key areas a country must develop if it is to break cycles of poverty, and that it is the duty (and in the best interest) of wealthy nations to help poor ones achieve that.
Streets in Lubumbashi. Photo by Maximiliano Noguera
Architects are concerned with the relationship of form to function. The form of a structure is assumed to affect its function by influencing, at levels both conscious and unconscious, the people in contact with said structure. So, given that the task of school buildings in Congo is, ultimately, to help Congolese wedge out of poverty, the Columbia students’ first job was to study the relationship of education to economic and social empowerment, and then develop ideas of how that could be improved upon.
In the end, their ten-day adventure yielded conflicting ideas, revealed contradictions in the aid industry, and complexity in cross-cultural efforts of one individual or group to help another… (there’s more to be said, on all that).
When I returned, I sought the opinion of my friend, former education director of the African Museum of Art and currently producer and promoter of Congolese musicians, Lubangi Muniania.
We meet, at usual, at the VIP diner in Jersey City, where he lives. We take our habitual booth and Lubangi, as usual, sits facing the door. As a young man he was a dedicated student of kung fu. Although his mother eventually put a stop to it (“You cannot live this way”) some of the habits remain: a certain posture, a certain way listening, abstinence from drinking and smoking, and the reflexes of caution. “You’re always aware of who is around you, and what they are doing,” he says. “And,” he concedes with a laugh, “I’m the kind of guy that can’t sit in a chair without first making sure the back is solid.”
For dinner, he orders the western omelet with wheat toast and I order pumpkin pie.
Lubangi grew up in Kinshasa, the capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo. He moved to the United States when he was twenty to attend University. What I want to know, I tell him, is his answer to the question the Columbia students asked. What is the best education system for Congo? What would help Congolese citizens gain greatest agency over their lives and over the fate of their country?
As usual, Lubangi’s answer comes a bit round-about. It took me a while to learn how to listen to Lubangi – to learn that the answer would be woven from stories, and that the tempo of those stories was as intrinsic their character as would be true for music.
First, we pick up where we left off a previous conversation. The last time I’d seen Lubangi was when he spoke at a panel discussion on Congolese film. He’d said at one point that Mobutu Seseseko, the former dictator president of Congo, then called Zaire, had done a good thing for the people when, in 1974, he’d brought Muhammad Ali and George Foreman and a host of famous musicians and a great deal media attention to Kinshasa for the big Rumble in the Jungle spectacle. Someone in the audience had scoffed loudly.
“The conventional view,” says Lubangi now, “is that since Mobutu was bad all he did must have been bad. What people forget is what the things Mobutu did meant. He banned European clothes and he brought back African ones; he insisted on African names; and what he did that year, with that event in 1974, is give Zairois a sense of pride.
You have to remember that the backdrop was a people who had been colonized for centuries. And then before that, enslaved. The Zairian people had literally forgotten what it means to be free. People really did not know how to behave in this new era. What Mobutu’s actions were saying was, ‘You have an identity that’s African, and it’s better than what’s European.’
Welcoming dance. Photo by Maximiliano Noguera
In 1974 all these African American singers and stars came to Kinshasa and they said ‘Wow, you have black men on your money – in American we don’t have that! Wow, you can walk in the streets freely – in America we get hassled!’ For Zairois it was amazing to hear this. It was a magical time. At the dawn of that era I was a young teenager and to me it was normal, this was as it should be. My mother told me that in fact I was very lucky to be experiencing this – that it was a precious time.
You know what happened in 1974? Zaire was first African nation to go to World Cup. Zaire won gold metals in international boxing competitions and in other sports. Zairian music became popular around the world. 1974 was a real celebration of independence. We defined ourselves within that concept, after so long of defining ourselves within the concept of being degraded.
The big shame was that Mobutu was who he was. It would have turned out differently if it had been Lumumba [political activist, Congo’s first prime minister, murdered a year after independence with the involvement of the Belgian and US governments]. Mobutu did some of the right things, but it was coming from the wrong place. It looked like pride, but it was very shallow. With Lumumba it would have been different. The reason is that Lumumba’s had the benefit of a traditional education.
Listening to the plan for the school. Photo by Maximiliano Noguera
The way I was raised, I had access to the very best western-style education in Kinshasa. But I never relied on western education alone. Traditional African education was very important to my family.
We are of the Songe tribe, from Central Congo. Songe means pure (nge) lion (son). The Songe fought fiercely for a very long time against incursions from the west and the east. I read in school about my own ancestors. They had the reputation of being fierce fighters. They cut off the heads of Europeans. They were freedom fighters – defenders of land. To the Europeans who wrote these history books we read, the freedom fighters were cannibals. I was told another story by my family, but when I challenged my professors it was a big problem. They wanted to expel me.
Traditional educational systems were dangerous to colonial power and they actively tried to wipe them out. The reason is that, in essence, what a traditional education does is teach self-respect. Respect for self, respect for others, and respect for the world we live in.
The basics are simple – as simple as the 1s and 0s of digital communication, but with these very simple materials you can convey messages of great complexity. Traditional education is composed of simple lessons – but what they show is how to be person on this earth, and in your community. How to act right. How to think of yourself, and of others.
I remember one time when I was speaking very critically of someone I knew and my grandfather stopped me and asked me to show him my hand. ‘Which one is the best finger?’ he asked me. I said that didn’t make sense, they were all good fingers, I liked them all. ‘No,’ he said. ‘They are different. Which is the best?’ Fine, this one, I said. ‘Okay, let’s cut off the rest.’ And then I understood that he was giving me a lesson about acceptance of others – that just because someone is not like you does not mean they do not have value. That was how he taught me to value diversity. Having different fingers makes a hand strong, and having different people makes community strong.
Another time my grandfather taught me about love. When I was young I had some pet birds. Beautiful birds – very brightly colored – and I kept them in a cage. I fed them and gave them water but with time they stopped moving very much and they lost their color. ‘They are depressed,’ my grandfather told me. ‘If you love them, you should open the cage door and let them go,’ But no! I don’t want to let them go! They will fly away! I said. ‘If you treat them right,’ he said, ‘they will love you, and they will come back.’ For some days I ignored my grandfather’s advice but the birds continued to decline. So at last I did – I opened the door, took them out – and they all flew away. The next day, none returned. Same thing the day after. I felt terrible. But on the third day, you know, into my garden comes back one of my birds. And it was so beautiful, all its colors returned. This was how my grandfather taught me about love. If you love someone, let her go, let her be who she is.
Traditional education is so practical. So close to African reality – community. family, identity. Traditional education is based on answering the questions of life. That’s it, that’s all. Questions of who am I, how should I act, etc. When you give people answers to that, or help them discover them, then they can figure out solutions to anything.
House near Lubumbashi, DRCongo. Photo by Maximiliano Noguera
It was my grandfather who taught me about animals, about how I should relate to the natural world, by teaching me the traditional hunting rituals. ‘You don’t kill for nothing,’ he said. ‘You know what you need, and you focus your mind on that.’ People would say, in America, something like you put out a positive vibe. In any case my grandfather showed me that if you do this, the animal will come. It will come to you. That was the day I leaned you don’t own animals. You are not master of nature, you are part of it.
Two school boys, Lubumbashi DR Congo. Photo by Maximiliano Noguera.
A traditional education teaches by asking questions and by inviting questions. When it is time, then the answer can be understood. When they say ‘don’t speak,’ it’s because you don’t know enough yet. If you don’t have anything to say, don’t speak. Listen.
Its little things – but when you compound them over years, you say oh my god I understood so much!
Ritual. Learning by ritual is important because that’s how our brains work. The brain understands rituals better than words. With a baby you show love with behavior, with action. A baby remembers that. The body remembers that. So, for example, when a baby is born there’s a ritual of killing a chicken or goat. Of course the baby doesn’t care about that. But the ritual is for the community that is watching. It’s a ritual that says ‘this baby is special and we invite her into the community and we welcome her.’ It is much more powerful to do that than to just tell people, ‘this baby special’ etc. It’s the action that matters. Same as now – the pomp and circumstance around politicians – these are rituals that show ‘this person is important!’
Poetry! I didn’t learn poetry in the western schools. And concepts of beauty – how to see and think about beauty. It is basic knowledge that translates into endless wisdom
I also had to learn traditional medicine. And of Bishimba. The concept of Bishimba is that you are never alone – wherever you go, whatever you do, you bring with you your history, your background. You could say Bishimba is spirits – our ancestors, always around you. Or you might describe it as your DNA, or your historic memory. An awareness of Bishimba influences you. The past is what makes you, and it can help you to draw from that sense of self a strength to get through hard times. Bishimba is the sense: I am this, this is my context. It is a grounding. The African way of expressing it is so simple.
The concept of the Bishimba was taught with rituals. When you put soil on your arm it is to say you are made of the same stuff as the earth. Your ancestors are a part of it, and a part of you.
It is a philosophy, a way of understanding world. It did not really make sense to me until I came to the United States though. For the first time, I experienced racism. And when I did, that’s when I remembered Bishimba. This was how I could tolerate it and rise above. I realized, ‘they don’t know who I am. They don’t know what is around me. And that I am royalty.’
I was never taught that I was superior. Ever. But one of the things I repeated: ‘I can never be sold as slave; I can never sell another person.’ At the time, as a child, saying that didn’t make sense to me. Then, they were just rituals you said. No matter how badly you might be hurt you’d say, ‘…’ [and here, in the VIP, Lubangi begins to speak Kisonge. The words come back to him. It is rhythmic like poetry, but I do not understand. He smiles, apologizes] and you’re calling your ancestors. As a kid it didn’t make sense, but when I was out of my element, in New York and in Europe – when I was pushed in the street and given a hard time for being black – that’s when I did it, I said it. And I was thinking – these people don’t know who I am! I called upon my spirits. You remind yourself who you are. You tell yourself, you tell your spirit, so that you can stay alive.
This is what I mean by education. History. So people know what they are.
Traditional education rotates around the idea of Mutu. The Person.
When you are initiated, when you are at last an adult, you become Mukanda. That, loosely translated, means ‘pillar of community.’ It means you are ready now to be productive, independent, and to hold up the community. Community is not a building. Community is not a road. Community is people. And if you have a strong community, you can build anything! You can build building; you can build roads. If a flood comes, if someone drops a bomb and wipes it all away, no worries. The community will build it again.
What we need are custodians of culture, of knowledge. That is empowerment – to know who you are and to see the value of your community.
Lubumbashi, DR Congo. Photos by Eero Lunden.
The concept of Munda means, loosely, the grace of you inside. Your dignity. A human being is supposed to have grace and dignity. That is what it is to be alive. An adult in our culture, if you meet her, she might say, ‘Stand up, let me see you walk. Oh okay, that’s how you walk. Let me see you dance. Oh okay, that’s how you dance.’ And the point is they are seeing you alive – they are seeing how you move in the world. It’s in your actions that your grace shows. When I come to your house I want to see your grace. It’s how you treat me, it’s your spirit. And when it’s not good – when a lot of people don’t have good spirit – then you know something’s not right in the community. Something needs to be fixed.
Photo by Eero Lunden.
Around the world the image of the black person has been damaged so badly. The image of me as an African has been distorted. The image of Europeans has been distorted. And this is where education must come in to help us. In a traditional education, I call myself a mutu. And the question is, are you mutu too? If you answer yes then that means we are equal, and we must respect each other.
If you can help people gain their life back – their grace, their ndala munda – then they will build their own school.
School yard near Lubumbashi, DR Congo. Photo by Hyun Chang Cho.
Photo by Eero Lunden.
Photo by Eero Lunden.
Note: The photos in this piece are by the architecture students who went to Congo. The students too photos in different ways.
Some focused their lenses on the trash and scenes of decay or blight or what they saw as tragedy.
Always children would crowd around and delight in having their picture taken. Some of the Columbia students, standing tall, angled their cameras down on the upturned faces. In such pictures the children look large-headed, with tapering, skinny bodies and the muddy ground they are invariably standing on features prominently. One student, however, did something different. He held his camera at waste level or below. In his photos, the children tower, giant-like, and their heads are wreathed in sky.
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