‘Freedom was the priest riding past on his bicycle with his cassock flapping in the wind.’

Lieve Joris and Back to the Congo

Two out of the four great contemporary Dutch travel writers – Cees Nooteboom, Adriaan van Dis, Carolijn Visser and Lieve Joris – are women, and they are by no means the least intrepid travellers. Carolijn Visser (1956-) travelled all through China, unhindered by officialdom of any kind, and wrote the sobering Grey China (Grijs China, 1982) about it. In the early eighties Lieve Joris (1953-) also braved the not exactly woman-friendly Islamic society of the oil states Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Kuwait. Her description of these societies in The Gulf (De Golf, 1986) proved so incisive that the book was immediately reprinted during the Gulf War. It was the first in her series of travel books, soon to be followed by Back to the Congo (Terug naar Kongo, 1987) and the beautiful, emotional story of a Hungary bursting at its communistic seams, The Melancholy Revolution (De melancholieke revolutie, 1990).

Born in a small Flemish village in 1953, Lieve Joris very early got the idea she absolutely had to leave her place of birth behind and go out into the big wide world. In an essay entitled ‘A Room in Cairo’ (‘Een kamer in Cairo’), she writes: ‘I spent six years gazing at the world through the windows of my Flemish boarding school. Freedom was the priest riding past on his bicycle with his cassock flapping in the wind.’ That priest, or rather ‘her uncle who was a priest in the Congo’, who had left for the heart of Africa in 1923 to bring souls to Jesus, made her decide to travel to present-day Zaire in his footsteps. Her literary guides are V.S. Naipaul and especially the Polish author Ryszard Kapusinski with his lesson: ‘Never judge immediately what you see, try to understand why it is like that.’ Lieve Joris therefore listens impassively to the stories of her Africa-bound fellow passengers on the Fabiola-ville and tries to understand why they talk about blacks in such a denigratory fashion. Or she observes all those old fathers and sisters in Zaire, the last idealistic relics of a colonial past. But she is relatively quick to leave these friends of her uncle-priest, certainly after she realizes during a visit to Yongapompe, where he lived for a while, that she is raising high expectations among the people there: they think she has come to continue his work. Shame and a feeling of unease come over her, and from then on she decides to leave her uncle the priest to the past and to observe and understand Zaire as far as possible through the eyes of the Zairians themselves. She therefore throws herself into the cites, the black neighbourhoods, and talks to their young, frustrated, enthusiastic and intellectual inhabitants. She therefore visits, in all of that vast country, eighty times the size of Belgium, the little village of Gdadolite, where president Mobutu had built a megalomaniac, hugely expensive palace in a dirt poor environment. She therefore makes the fascinating boat journey from Kinshasa to Kisangani, where whole courts are in session on deck, and where people live and die. She is also quick to discover what ‘article 15’ stands for, the corruption trick that is the only means by which many Zairians are able to provide for themselves. And she realizes that Belgium has left its former colony in a most lamentable condition, with no senior administrators and with a population subjected to mistreatment. ‘We should’ve fought a real war of independence, like the Algerians,’ she quotes Lukusa, the Zairian intellectual, ‘we should’ve killed lots more Belgians, then you’d respect us now.’ At the end of her journey she spends a brief spell in jail, but not before she has found a safe haven for her notes, which is good news for the reader, because in this way Back to the Congo could grow into what it has become: a compelling, moving, and detailed portrait of a country struggling with both its colonial past and a present ruled in the same dictatorial manner.

By Rudi Wester
Translated by André Lefevere

First published in The Low Countries, 1993