To the sound of machine gun fire and the smell of burning flesh, award-winning author In Koli Jean Bofane leads readers on a perilous, satirical journey through the civil conflict and political instability that have been the logical outcome of generations of rapacious multinational corporate activity, corrupt governance, widespread civil conflict, human rights abuses, and environmental degradation in Africa. Isookanga, a Congolese Pygmy, grows up in a small village with big dreams of becoming rich. His vision of the world is shaped by his exploits in Raging Trade, an online game where he seizes control of the world's natural resources by any means possible: high-tech weaponry, slavery, and even genocide. Isookanga leaves his sleepy village to make his fortune in the pulsating capital Kinshasa, where he joins forces with street children, warlords, and a Chinese victim of globalization in this blistering novel about capitalism, colonialism, and the world haunted by the ghosts of Bismarck and Leopold II. Told with just enough levity to make it truly heartbreaking, Congo Inc. is a searing tale about ecological, political, and economic failure.
About the Author
In Koli Jean Bofane was born in 1954 in the northern region of what is today the Democratic Republic of Congo and currently resides in Belgium. His novels have received numerous awards, including the Grand Prix littéraire de l’Afrique noire, the Grand Prix du Roman Métis, and the Prix des Cinq continents de la Francophonie.
Marjolijn de Jager is a trilingual (Dutch, English, French), award-winning translator of works by Werewere Liking, Tahar Djaout, Ken Bugul, and Camille Laurens. She also translated Gilbert Gatoré’s The Past Ahead for the Global African Voices series.
Read an Excerpt
LANDS AND TIMES
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For more than an hour the exasperation the innocent little bugs had been causing Isookanga had stimulated his senses, enabling him to make his way more quickly through the forest, avoiding low branches, creating gaps in the foliage with the same determination as an icebreaker's bow at a time of global warming. Between the towering trees, cathedrals resting on their gigantic root foundations, the young man's outline seemed insignificant. He was dressed simply in shorts made of pounded bark. From time to time the canopy would open shafts of light that made the dangling moisture droplets shimmer. Insects danced in their midst, competing for space with ferns of the Pleistocene era, lianas dangling down from nowhere, and dying trunks fighting against decay. In this tangle of life and death, while the sap struggled to rise, implausibly colored orchids were smugly showing off in the drizzle, saturated with fragrances of fluids, the odors of organic waste, and of the spray animals left behind to mark their territory.
The screeching of parrots and toucans from the treetops couldn't compete with that of the monkeys, masters at disturbing the peace. A cuckoo tirelessly repeated a monotonous, two-note song, echoed back through the clutter of vegetation. Not much chance of hearing the large wild animals, except occasionally through the vibrations a solitary elephant would make on the ground or when a wild boar scraped its skin against the roughest bark it could find.
On the ground and below, in the kingdom of porcupine and armadillo, ant and scolopendrid — venomous centipedes — invisible, sprawling empires were ceaselessly being built and demolished under the iron rule of greedy and omnipotent sovereigns that reigned over populations without light.
"This really isn't the time, shit! Skulls and Bones Mining Fields are threatening me from every side, Kannibal Dawa has dropped me like a hot potato, that bitch from Uranium and Security keeps taking points away from me, and in the meantime, what am I doing? Couldn't eat corned beef like everyone else? Open a can of sardines? Caterpillars! And right this very moment, too! Yesterday, yesterday, always yesterday! That's what the ancestors said! That's what tradition demands! 'Nephew, instead of starting that video game of yours, better go and catch me some of those little invertebrates in the forest, and make it snappy!' Why not keep up with the times and make some progress, for God's sake? Feed yourself and start thinking like the rest of humanity. Fucking uncle! Just because he's chief of the Ekonda? Yeah, chief of the caterpillars is more like it!"
Isookanga's rage had now peaked. As he came bolting out of the forest he called out to a boy, balanced the burlap sack with the small creatures on his shoulders, and ordered him to drop it off at the other end of the village at Old Lomama's. Then he hurried over to his hut. He quickly took off his tree bark shorts, pulled on a pair of Superdry JPN jeans and a T-shirt emblazoned with the image of Snoop Dogg, draped a chain with a rhinestone pendant with the letters "NY" around his neck, and slipped into blue flip-flops. Now he was ready to join the video game session that had started at least fifteen minutes earlier. And those fifteen minutes gave the other players a great advantage; staying in the game was a form of lobbying those bastards embarked on what could make you lose points in no time at all.
In front of his LCD screen, using the name Congo Bololo, Isookanga flew over a landscape controlled by an attack helicopter to locate possible enemies. Something moved behind a clump of trees; he would send off rockets to flush out a convoy of reinforcements. The young man was having a field day, shooting from his keyboard like a veritable psychopath, balls of fire exploding from every direction. On the side of the Toyota pickup trucks trying to get away he recognized the colors of that bastard Kannibal Dawa. In the hallways of the UN, Kannibal Dawa was the strongest perhaps, but he was no match for the missiles of Congo Bololo in the field of operations. Isookanga fired off a few bursts of large-caliber shells, just to increase the damage. At that moment, without any warning, the boy he had sent to Old Lomama came through the door, raising the curtain that served as a closure.
"Old Lomama azo benga yo!" he announced, slightly out of breath.
"Fucking shit! Can't they leave me alone! What does the uncle want now?"
"I don't know, man — he just said for you to hurry up."
With a heavy heart the young man had to resign himself to pausing the program, thereby freezing the virtual universe in which he was immersed.
* * *
Cautiously Isookanga took two steps inside Chief Lomama's hut. "Losako, Old One."
"Elaka Nzakomba. My son, I have to talk to you. I, who am your uncle, I'm saddened. When I think of it ... What haven't we done for my sister's son ever since she got it into her head to go running around the country doing business? Haven't we shown the necessary enthusiasm for your education?"
Isookanga knew the litany well. He was used to it. The most important thing was coming.
"Haven't we done everything within our power to provide for your well-being?"
"Did we ever demand any thank-yous for any of it?"
"Why, then, my son, are you discarding our customs?"
"But, Uncle ..."
"Be quiet! More than twenty-five years old and what have you accomplished? You bring shame upon me! First, you descend upon us one fine day with a device in your ears like a doctor. We couldn't talk to you anymore. You were indifferent to everything. What were you listening to? Isn't the voice of the ancestors enough for you anymore? When the thing broke, we were treated to that cannabis smoker you display on your T-shirt from morning to night," the old man added, pointing to Snoop Dogg.
"He's a spokesman, Uncle."
"Be quiet, I don't want to hear it! And several times a week you're now spending hours at a time alone in your hut looking at shadows on a screen. What are you learning from all these so-called modern things? Isookanga, my son, those who talk of modernity want to eliminate us. Listen to me carefully. Matoi elekaka moto te! Look at that metal tower they've put up in the forest; it will kill us all one day. And, you, what are you doing in the meantime? You enjoy it and, what's more, you even find yourself a machine to communicate with this garbage! These are bad things, believe me. It's me, your uncle telling you this. And then, too, my son, stop using that word 'fucking' all the time. Stop it! You're shocking the ancestors! Have some respect for us! And those pants you wear? Why do you wear them in such a disgraceful way? An Ekonda can walk around almost naked, but around other people he takes care to cover up his buttocks. Are you forgetting where we come from? Do you think this forest that feeds you would still exist without our customs? And what about us? Do you think we'd still be here, fearing for our future? And, Isookanga, you are that future. Remember that you'll have to start wearing chief's clothing soon."
Words of that sort continued pouring from the old man's mouth. Isookanga remained patient and listened to the very end but without any intention of taking the laments of the antiquated elder too seriously. Before long he would get back to his game and pick up where he'd left off, ridding himself once and for all of that scheming Kannibal Dawa. The young Ekonda still needed quite a lot of points to be safe. The first-aid kit that contained the stealth weapons he'd managed to accumulate throughout his sessions with the game wouldn't suffice; his adversaries were daunting. He didn't know what they were up to — those rapacious American Diggers, Skulls and Bones, Uranium and Security, the Goldberg & Gils Atomic Project, all of them making sure he'd get his just desserts, he knew that — but Congo Bololo hadn't spoken his last yet. He was going to crush them, methodically, one by one. And then he was going to think about what he needed to put in place to get to Kinshasa; there, at least, he and his friends talked about network and no network, about USB ports, and compatible interfaces. There, at least, virtual shadows didn't scare wary, retrograde old men who could prevent a serious youth from moving ahead in life as he should.
Once back home Isookanga thought he'd come through it easily enough, but he was upset. "Right now I should be sweeping Hiroshima-Naga out of the game. Fortunately, I didn't let myself get distracted. With Raging Trade it's better to keep a cool head."
There weren't many compensations for Isookanga in the village, but for the past two or three months there had been one, and it was considerable: the cell tower the company China Network had installed in the area. The helicopter that had lodged the mast had made a hellish racket, but Isookanga had no complaints. The monkeys did have a few, but he was thrilled that the trees that thought they ruled over everything and everyone were finally having their tresses tousled by something stronger than they.
Obviously, since technology had made its way into the vicinity, old-fashioned minds were screaming abuses at the tower: "It's going to bring a curse upon us, the ancestors will turn their back on us!" some insisted.
"Our wives won't be able to give birth anymore," others imagined.
"We'll all become impotent," the most pessimistic among them carried on.
"What's more, the caterpillars have fled," added those who thought they were being clever.
For Isookanga it was blatant proof that those blasted little beasts had no more common sense than the members of his clan, for he had indeed been forced to walk many kilometers to find them. Such had not been the case before.
* * *
You should have seen the local officials, surrounded by important figures from Kinshasa, on the day the tower was inaugurated. Isookanga still remembered it with great emotion: the parade, the bearing of the delegation from the capital city, the white woman researcher and her laptop, which the young man had surreptitiously swiped. Without this device Isookanga certainly would have gone off the rails long ago. First he had to learn how to work it, then he had to find a place close to the village where he could recharge the battery on a regular basis. Fortunately, there was his friend Bwale, manager of the Ekanga Kutu Center. They had met as students at Wafania. The first day at secondary school, their lycée, while his classmates looked down from their full height on Isookanga with an ironic smile, Bwale had been the first to come up to greet him, and they had quite naturally forged a fast and lasting friendship.
Now he couldn't do without the computer, and the online game Raging Trade had become his reason for living. Raging Trade was the recommended game for any internationalist wanting to know how to get into the business world. It was simple. By way of armed groups and security companies, multinationals competed for a territory known as Gondavanaland. For example, the dreaded Skulls and Bones Mining Fields swallowed up any mineral they encountered on their way. Focusing on uranium and cobalt, the military-industrial multinational of the GGAP, or Goldberg & Gils Atomic Project, didn't hesitate to make off with other strategic materials if it could weaken any adversaries. Mass Graves Petroleum took care of hydrocarbon, just as Blood and Oil knew how to use firepower in the field. In the nuclear business, Hiroshima-Naga was determined to control a large part of this particularly fissionable market. Its immediate competitor was Uranium and Security, a gang of hypocrites capable of shooting you in the back a hundred times over. Kannibal Dawa was an enemy always to be reckoned with; formidable in both lobbying and negotiating, it sometimes made points without firing a single missile and was always ready for duplicity behind the scenes. In this hostile environment American Diggers had managed to become hated by quite a few players in the world: fearing neither God nor man, the team had accumulated bonuses as the days went by, and one wondered how. In this virtual universe, Isookanga represented Congo Bololo. He coveted everything: minerals, oil, water, land, anything that was good for the taking. Isookanga was voracious, a true marauder. Because that's what the game demanded: eat or be eaten.
But the critical issue continued to be the exploitation of mining resources. To this end, in real life one first had to prospect, then obtain permits from the particular governments, pay taxes, pay the workmen, build infrastructures ... The game was contemptuous of all this. To reach its objectives, the game advocated war and all its corollaries: intensive bombing, ethnic cleansing, population displacement, slavery ... Like any self-respecting game, it offered bonuses. Of course, one could acquire arms as well as foreign allies, points at the Stock Exchange, a "first-aid kit" that included peace treaties to lull the UN — because there, too, as in real life, one couldn't really run a war without being sheltered by resolutions from the international organization — conferences to play for time, satellite photographs, a jihadist-philosophers kit in case of need, and, to maintain the troops' morale, plenty of sex slaves. The war on Gondavanaland terrain was self-financed, but that didn't prevent penalties from being put into place. A lowering rate of raw materials was the critical risk. Another was the UN blocking the accounts because of some malicious lobbying. But the worst thing was placing an embargo on the weapons. "Vato," the rapper Snoop Dogg's hit, represented the mood in sound. What you heard was Run nigga, run nigga / Run mothafucker, run.
* * *
Isookanga didn't understand the logic his uncle persisted in.
"Why keep trotting out the customs of the past? It's because of people like Old Lomama that we, the Ekonda, are discredited in the country. That they've called us Pygmies everywhere we go since time immemorial. Don't the French speak of 'mental midgets' when they refer to someone who clearly lacks any vision? And don't the Mongo, who are brothers, after all, add a note of contempt at the end of the word 'motshwa,' which everyone notices? Even the Whites, whom we criticize all the time, are careful before they utter the word 'nigger.' Just because they're taller than the norm, all the Mongo clans — Mbole, Bokatola, Bolia, Bakutshu, Bantomba, Ngelantano — feel free to treat us this way. Lesser than anything. People who think only about eating, making cutting remarks all day long, and fornicating. Do such hooligans even have any right to speak?"
As for that last, presumably major, activity of the Bamongo, Isookanga felt especially incriminated, since, unfortunately for him, he'd never really known who his father was. All because of polyandry, an ancestral custom Isookanga found appalling. A barbaric tradition that drives a woman to consuming men at will, as she wants, as much as she wants, whenever she wants, and clearing her of any guilt in the process. If she had practiced the activity within the clan itself, it would certainly not have posed any insurmountable problems, but because of the marked fondness of the young Ekonda's mother for men over one meter seventy-five, and because of some rather tough encounters, what was bound to happen happened: she found herself pregnant by an unknown father and brought into the world Isookanga, who had to be a good ten centimeters taller than the tallest Ekonda.
This marked difference weighed on the young man like a true defect. "Tala ye molaï lokola soki nini!" That was the sentence to which he'd been convicted throughout his childhood and even afterward. He was constantly reminded that he was only half an Ekonda, that he was, in short, nothing more than the half-Pygmy people point their finger at. All of this had a negative effect on his character, on his trust in others and in himself, and prevented him from being part of the Mongo nation in general and of the Ekonda clan in particular. That position might have bothered him more, but somehow it forced him to find his true place, all the more so since he already took up very little space politically, socially, and, above all, physically, since his importance in the human arena was almost nil.
When you use computer bits to communicate, it makes no difference whether you speak Pygmy, Lapp, or Japanese. Being a financial burden and seducing every woman? What's the point, when it's enough to pick up a transmitted connection thanks to Wi-Fi and sample the same vibrations as anyone else on exactly the same web reflections. Tall or not, who cares when the only thing that counts is the number of gigabytes? Materiality has become totally obsolete. In the globalized universe of the virtual world, even the sky is no longer a limit. And from the height at which Isookanga contemplated the universe that suited him to perfection, his position assured him extra detachment.
Excerpted from "Congo Inc."
Copyright © 2014 Actes Sud.
Excerpted by permission of Indiana University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
I. Lands and Times
II. Who Are You?
III. Paper Tiger
IV. Inaudible Screams
V. Persistent Turmoil
VI. The Women They Kill
VII. The World Is Yours
VIII. Eternal Dragon
IX. Compromise of Principles
X. Please Read the Attached Note
XI. Chance Eloko Pamba
XII. Game Over
What People are Saying About This
"Grounded in the lived experience of dynamic characters, this novel mines the multifaceted effects of postcolonialism and globalization on individuals, attesting to the many forms of violence at work in many African countries."