The story of the Democratic Republic of Congo casts a long, disturbing shadow. The legacy of colonialism thrusts malevolent roots into the kingdoms of the Congo basin, which sustains the second largest country in Africa. Congo’s tragic history towers over most other stories of colonialism, exploitation, human sacrifice and chronic chaos.
The March 2017 deaths of United Nations workers Michael J. Sharp, Zaida Catalan and Betu Tshintela in Congo have called people with Africa on their hearts and peacemaking in their souls to reread history and rethink our connections to this recurrently violent location. For a window on the period of independence, Congo Shadows is recommended reading.
Out of his personal experience in Congo, novelist John B. Franz has chosen the key years of turmoil that followed independence from Belgian rule, 1960 to 1964, to create a work of social and political history and a fictional story of tragedy and intrigue.
Franz, of Fresno, Calif., served with Mennonite Central Committee in Congo in the mid-1960s, teaching at the American School of Kinshasa. He and his wife, Betty Jean, returned as dorm managers for the Africa Inter-Mennonite Mission children’s hostel in the mid-1970s. His two previous memoirs, Congo Dawn and The Mango Bloom, describe those experiences.
In the opening story, a metaphor for all that follows, children swimming in a branch of the great Congo river are attacked by a crocodile. From that moment forward, reptilian violence pursues national and expatriate alike.
The prologue, which offers a concise history of the birth of the Democratic Republic of Congo, should be read carefully as preparation to understand the events that crash about the characters. One needs to know how Henry Stanley’s 1874-77 expedition upriver established stations and claimed British ownership, how the 1884-85 Berlin West Africa Conference carved up ownership of land the participants did not own and gave the Belgian King Leopold II personal control of “Congo.” Leopold then gave his private army free reign to slaughter entire families of any resistant men, women, the aged and the young — cutting them down mercilessly and cutting off the hands of children whom he allowed to live.
Out of these decades of atrocities came leaders like Patrice Lumumba, President Kasavubu, Cyrilie Adoula, Moise Tshombe and, in particular to this story, Nicolas Olenga and the “Simba” warriors. Regional, tribal, religious, economic and political cords weave a choking rope of terror. The political scene becomes clear as the rebels’ cause advances.
Franz unfolds a terrifying story of four years that became a major determinant of all the horror that follows. In choosing the genre of a novel, he holds our attention through the exhausting march from first jungle uprisings to the flash attack by foreign powers to rescue captive expatriates in Stanleyville. The lives of missionaries and their expatriate colleagues make for a tense drama as the Simba warriors claim area upon area.
Franz does not avoid uncomfortable issues nor evade troubling questions. Do evangelical missionaries collaborate with the American government’s intelligence gathering and influence buying? Is their nationality a contradiction to their intended witness to the reign of God?
How does the pacifist presence and service of the MCC-affiliate character differ from the attitudes and practices of his peers who identify with the fictional Congo Evangelical Mission?
How does one practice nonviolence in a setting where violence is assumed necessary? Where is God in the midst of cataclysmic revolution? How does one pray when all seems lost?
Franz’s story accelerates in multilevel chapters that reveal personal, social and political layers of intrigue and the colliding tsunamis of massacres and executions. Accumulated rage at the legacy of colonial oppression erupts from the forests of the Congo basin in the Simba rebellion. “Congo for the Congolese,” becomes the volatile cry.
The historical account that serves as background is as gripping as fiction. One could hardly create a story like this even if fueled by paranoid fantasy. Yet a phoenix of hope rises for a people seeking to determine their own destiny while looking out through the bloody face of retribution and revenge.
Franz does not resolve the dilemmas that constitute the plot of his story: colonialism’s assault on the soul of a people; the nuclear explosion of independence, creating a vacuum that sucks all frayed controls into a vortex that atomizes morality; the all-or-nothing response that follows a nothing-means-anything time of anarchy.
His characters struggle with the moral and theological conundrums of an absent God versus a control-obsessed God who never gets it right. Or is there, in fact, a Jesus-like God who suffers with us?
Rarely does one appreciate an ending author’s note as much as the excellent one at the end of Congo Shadows. It reveals the author’s desire to advance the conversation about violence and nonviolence. It recognizes the social location of the author’s voice and its limitations. It confesses his inner debates about God and the world, God and humankind.
The Congo basin may be the microcosm that reveals what sort of stuff we are all made of. Franz unflinchingly holds it before us, showing us human nature, our nature, with the clarity of a mirror.
David Augsburger is senior professor of pastoral care at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, Calif.