AiW Guest: Connor Pruss
Arjun Appadurai notably explained that globalization is marked by a new role for the imagination in social life in which the world may consist of regions (seen processually), but regions also imagine their own worlds. The philosopher explains that the phenomenon deemed as globalization not only increases the distribution of material and economic goods but it also circulates cultural, intellectual, and social concepts as well. Appadurai’s perspective highlights that new regional spaces, no matter how seemingly isolated, begin to conceive of themselves as an essential and unique part in an interconnected global network as a result of this phenomenon.
In Koli Jean Bofane’s novel Congo Inc.: Bismarck’s Testament addresses the consequences of these overlapping globalized networks that extend from the rural villages of the Congolese forests to the capital city of Kinshasa, and later to China and the United States. The author introduces the main character, Isookanga, who leaves his family deep in the forest of the Congo to explore the world of commerce and technology in Kinshasa. Isookanga’s story unveils the ways both globalization and technology affect a wide cast of characters from all sections of society as well as across geographic and national borders. Most importantly, the novel exposes how the Congolese people and region are exploited by this transnational economic system, while at the same time, they have been and continue to be vital to this system’s success.
Originally published in French in 2014, the first English translation of Congo Inc. was published in Jan. 2018 by Indiana University Press’s Global African Voices series, which brings the literary work of writers of African descent to English language reading audiences. Bofane’s novel is translated by Marjolijn de Jager, who deftly recreates Bofane’s original French text with frequent inflections from various regional languages of the Congo, and it is introduced with a forward by the series’ editor Dominic Thomas. Thomas explains that the series has already published several books by writers from the Republic of Congo (Congo-Brazzaville), such as Emmanuel Dongala, Alain Mabanckou, and Sony Labou Tansi, yet Congo Inc. is the first text in the series by a writer from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC/Congo-Kinshasa). The setting of Bofane’s country of origin is foundational to the novel’s critique of the exploitation of the Congo’s natural resources from the initial dividing up of Africa by European countries at the Berlin conference in 1884 to the ongoing industrial scale mining operations to excavate minerals and precious metals by Asian and Western companies. This region and population of people, which is so often represented as existing on the peripheries of the global markets and social order, inhabit one of the most significant economic and geographic spaces in the modernization of the 20th century: Thus the novel’s title, Congo Inc.
The theme of globalization provides a framework in the novel to demonstrate how local Congolese communities incur the (often violent) consequences created by the free-for-all to extract natural resources as well as to examine the ways these communities employ the global markets and technology to survive (and sometimes succeed). On an individual level, Isookanga, the protagonist, tries to reject the traditions of his rural upbringing as a member of the Ekonda clan, sometimes referred to as Pygmies, in favor for a lifestyle at the forefront of the global community. After a communications company installs a cellular tower in the forest by his village causing the locals to question the effects on the ecosystem, Isookanga expresses support for the tower and wonders, “I have to put up with old-world monkeys in the forest. Is that what life has in store for me? I am an internationalist who aspires to becoming a globalizer” (11). The main conduit for Isookanga to explore his identity as a globalizer is through an online video game called Raging Trade that allows players to use diplomatic, economic, and militaristic methods to conquer large expanses of territory. The video game functions as a metaphor in the novel for a hyper-globalized world run by an elite class with the means to manipulate geo-political events. The image of absolute globalization is underlined by the fact that the game is set in Gondavanaland after the former region of Godwana during the Paleozoic era when Pangea and the supercontinents existed.
Bofane’s Congo Inc. portrays an international cast of characters to represent the Congo’s focal position amongst global financial and social networks. The characters range from the children fleeing the violence of the countryside to UN agents and Chinese nationals whose stories overlap in a web of events revealing the worldwide economic and political status of the Congo. When Isookanga first arrives in Kinshasa, he joins a group of street children, known as the shégués, who have experienced military raids on their rural villages, domestic abuse, and prostitution. It is the shégués who adopt the slogan “Chance, eloko pamba” (“luck is nothing”) to illustrate the need for self-preservation. He also befriends Zhang Xia who has been left in the Congo by his business partner from China without the financial means to return. This array of characters shows the imbalance in the distribution of wealth that exists. Not only does it facilitate the exportation of Congolese resources, but it also inures the subsequent financial gains remain amongst an exclusive ruling class. The most powerful example used by the author to exemplify the Congo’s contribution to 20th century world history is seen in the excavated Congolese uranium used in the atomic bombs by the United States during their attacks in WWII on Hiroshima and Nagasaki contributing to the post-war growth in the West. This perspective re-centers the people and the region of the Congo as an influential and active component in the networks of the globalized communities.
Congo, Inc. is available from Indiana University Press here.
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.
Connor Pruss is a Ph.D. student at UCLA, studying Francophone writers of an African origin. He is interested in the way these writers evoke themes of education and migration. Specifically, his research examines how discourses and themes of education are used to critique colonization as well as the migrant experience. Additionally, he is interested in literary journals as a cultural and educational form in post-colonial Africa.