Beyond the War and Ndombolo

by Christina Fonthes

Lisapo, an oral history project, aims to record, preserve and share the migration and settlement experiences of Greater Manchester’s Congolese community.

First published: 13 June, 2014 | Category: Culture, History, Migration

Although Congolese people have been migrating to Britain since the late 1980s as a result of the destabilisation in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) – which was formally known as Zaïre and is not to be confused with neighbouring Congo – and the consequent civil war, there are no national archives or records of the history of Congolese people in Britain.

Lisapo – The Congolese Tales is a Congolese heritage project that aims to record, preserve and share the migration and settlement experiences of Greater Manchester’s Congolese community by creating an oral histories record for the region’s archives. Supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund, the project has been developed by Community Arts North West - a Manchester-based arts development organisation who regularly work with artists and musicians from the Congolese community through Exodus, a ground breaking programme of refugee arts.

The project is split into two phases:  phase one will see the creation of a permanent public archive of twenty-nine oral histories - consisting of audio recordings and the accompanying transcripts that will be added to the Ahmed Iqbal Ullah Race Relations Resource Centre collection at Manchester Central Library, and the North West Sound Archive.

Phase two will involve working with volunteers and local artists to organise a live, heritage-inspired oratory featuring spoken word, song and narration that will tell the powerful story of the Congolese migration to Britain.  The event will take place on Saturday 28th June 2014 to coincide with the Congolese Day of Independence - 30th June.

I initially joined the project as a volunteer to interview the participants who spoke French and Lingala, two of the dominant languages of the DRC. As a first generation Congolese migrant who identifies as ‘Black British’, I jumped at the idea of working on an arts-inspired heritage project about the DRC.  When I tell people that I’m Congolese they usually ask me to dance Ndombolo (which I can’t as I have two left feet) or they uninvitingly offer their solutions to solving ‘the war’. So, the project, for me, is an opportunity to conserve our heritage, but it is also a chance to show that we are much more than just good dancers and helpless victims of war. And working on the project has certainly opened my eyes to the diverse stories and experiences of Congolese people.

One of the things that attracted me to the project was knowing that it was being led by a Congolese national. Peggy Mulongo, the Project Manager, has been an invaluable asset to the project; her knowledge of the Congolese community and established contacts with its members has proven to be an essential resource. It was Peggy who came up with the name Lisapo - which means ‘story’ or ‘proverb’ in Lingala. Prior to Peggy’s involvement, the project was called Congolese Living Histories. It was also Peggy’s idea to end each interview by asking the participants to share a lisapo from their childhood and their recipe for pondu - a classic Congolese dish made from cassava leaves. This exercise proved particularly useful when interviewing participants who had upsetting memories. They were able to end the interviews on a positive note as they reminisced of the many pondu dishes cooked by their mothers and wives. Through the interviews, I learnt the different ways of cooking pondu (my favourite dish), each method varying from region to region.

The team’s energy and passion for the project together with my own inherent desire to be around art and creativity led me to become the volunteer co-ordinator and social media co-ordinator. I have been involved in various aspects of Lisapo and whilst I knew that it would be a worthwhile project to participate in, I certainly did not predict the imprint it would leave upon my soul and the impact it would have on my journey of ‘self-discovery’. I fell in love with the stories over, and over again and I revelled in the multiplicities of language, food, music and tradition. I heard words that took me back to my childhood, words that were only spoken at home or at church suddenly came back like a distant aunty who comes bearing gifts. Since moving to Manchester from London I had not been in much contact with elder members of the Congolese community. Lisapo has allowed me to connect - and reconnect - with my much-loved community.   

We interviewed a total of twenty-nine participants (me included). A number of the participants that we interviewed were political refugees and asylum seekers who had to leave the DRC for different reasons and they did, at times, struggle to share what they had experienced. One participant recalled her experience of having to run out of the hospital where she had been admitted for surgery when the conflict broke out in the capital Kinshasa. She shared her memories of the doctors, nurses and patients franticly running out into the streets and described the scene of smoke, burning rubber and people being set alight. Her memories fade and she doesn’t recall what happened after that. She has never fully recovered from the open wound and the unfinished surgery.

 Amongst the stories of war, there are also stories of love. Another participant shared his journey of leaving Kin – a colloquial term for ‘Kinshasa’- to study in Poland, where he ended up living for a number of years and marrying a Polish woman. The couple now live in Manchester and speak Polish at home. He describes their relationship as a union of Congolese and Polish culture.

And there is, of course, the drama. My favourite interview was with Papy the funeral director. Born into a modest family, Papy earned his living by working at a funeral home where he managed just about everything from making the coffins to arranging the flowers. In his animated demeanour, Papy described the phenomenon of coffin-stealing in Kinshasa - a crime that has become so common that people in the industry now score the bottom of their coffins with machetes to prevent people from stealing them.  During the interview, Papy told me about his shenanigans as a party-lover and a womaniser back in Kin. He recounted his experiences of visiting a Nganga (Lingala for a person who uses traditional medicine for healing and good fortune) for love potions and gris-gris to improve his football skills.

Whilst translating one of the interviews from Lingala into English, I came across a Yombe woman (people from Bas-Congo, in Western DRC) who was recounting the story of Nimi - one of the funniest and the most bizarre proverbs I’ve ever come across. The story goes as follows: Nimi’s parents were going to work the fields and left Nimi at home to look after the baby. They left him a mbala (Lingala for ‘potato’) and told him to eat it with the baby if he got hungry. When Nimi eventually got hungry, he cut up the baby, boiled it and made it into a stew leaving the head aside. When his parents got back and asked him where the baby was, Nimi responded “I got hungry and ate the baby with the mbala like you told me to; here, I even left you the head”. The participant went on to explain that the name Nimi is often used to refer to a person who behaves foolishly.

I interviewed artists, business-owners, designers, scholars, philanthropists; each with their own story to tell, but one thing they all shared was their fond memories of home. Even for those that had fled from the violence, the communal way of life and the warmth of the people is something that they all clearly missed. Many of the women that I interviewed had joined Congolese Pentecostal churches or Congolese women’s groups to stay in contact with the community, seek support and find relief - an act of self-care and self-preservation in what can usually be an isolating and unwelcoming environment.

Through interviewing the participants, I plucked up the courage to share my own story as a Congolese-British Queer woman. In my interview (which was almost two hours long) I spoke about the multiple identities that I relate to and how they intersect.  I also spoke about the influence of LGBTQ (Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender Queer) culture on Congolese popular culture. I explained that although sex and sexuality are still seen as taboo and are not talked about in our overly-Christian and overly-conservative community – traits inherited from colonialists and missionaries – we still see images of hypersexualised men and women in music videos. And in théâtre – popular Congolese TV dramas - there are a number of characters and storylines centred around gay men and trans women. I also spoke about my discovery of same-sex practices in Southern and Western African countries through literature. Although the books were not specifically about Congo, it was comforting (and relieving) for me to – at last - read about same-sex desire within an African context.

Whilst working on Lisapo I have had the freedom to be myself. It has been both refreshing and liberating to be ‘out’ to my community and to be welcomed and accepted with the natural inquisitiveness that one has when meeting someone who is different to themselves, rather than to be shunned as we so often fear. The common misconception that African people are inherently homophobic is fuelled by our silence and our unwillingness to engage in any sort of conversation around the subject, and it is only through breaking this silence and telling our stories that we will challenge this harmful and dangerous stereotype. This is why I felt compelled to include a Congolese LGBTQ voice amongst the many unique life memories and experiences documented in the project.

One of the main reasons for the lack of documentation of the Congolese community in Britain lies in the fact that the migration of Congolese people to the UK is relatively recent. The late 1980s and early 1990s saw a substantial wave of migration due to the end of President Mobutu’s reign and the beginning of the war in the East, respectively.  Another reason is that the DRC was colonised by Belgium and as a result, the Congolese community have more visibility in France and Belgium. Former colonies are more likely to have an establishment in the countries of their former rulers, which is why countries like Nigeria, Jamaica, Ireland and India, for example, have been able to participate (to an extent) in the political and social activities of Britain, which has naturally resulted in the documentation of their histories.

The Lisapo project will no doubt be valuable educational material both for Congolese and non-Congolese people, but more importantly, it will encourage a sense of self-worth and confidence, particularly for the second and third generation of Congolese people.  Our biggest aim is for Lisapo to leave a legacy and set a precedent for more documentation of the large but invisible Congolese community in Britain.

The website which has been set up to promote the project boasts a number of articles ranging from fashion in the DRC to the topic of the sexual violence that has been plaguing the Eastern region. It also gives a glimpse into the live performance that will take place on Saturday 28th June by documenting the workshops and rehearsals leading up to it. Visitors to the website can also listen to audio extracts of the twenty-nine interviews which are in English, French and Lingala with translations.

Tickets for the live performance on Saturday 28th June 2014 can be purchased here.  

If you would like to host the archives with your organisation or want to find out more about the project, please send an email to Lisapotales@gmail.com or tweet us @Lisapotales

Christina Fonthes is a Manchester based translator/ interpreter and afrofeminist blogger. She can be found on Twitter and Musings of a Congolese Lesbian.

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