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How Not to Catch Ebola: A Wise Traveler’s Guide

26 Oct West Africa 2014
West Africa 2014

The sign above warns people in West Africa: Attention Ebola!,  Don’t  Touch Anyone,  Don’t Manipulate Objects, The Animals You’ll Find Dead in the Forest

Last week a dear friend and neighbor called to ask about her chances of contracting the Ebola virus if she was traveling back from West Africa on an airplane. She had no intention of taking a flight to anywhere in Africa but it bothered her that she had no idea what to do if she ever encountered this situation while traveling abroad. She had heard me talk about living with the threat of Ebola while traveling through East and Central Africa and felt that the media in the United States had not told  the American public the entire truth. After I answered her questions and told her what steps she could take to keep herself safe she felt somewhat better and  more in control of her life. Then she begged me to write this post in order to educate anyone else who felt as she did. So this one is for you Diane, I truly hope the information I’ve included in this post helps save lives one day. I have meticulously researched and referenced all of the factual information presented in the post and matched it to that cited by the World Health Organization as well as the Center for Disease Control. I have also included direct  links to each of these web pages so my followers can check out this information for themselves.

So what have I learned about Ebola during my summers in East and Central Africa and what do I do to keep myself safe? First, out of all the diseases one can catch in East Africa, like AIDS, Malaria, Yellow Fever, Blackwater Fever, Tuberculosis and hundreds of parasitic illnesses – it’s Ebola that terrifies my African friends and colleagues the most. “ Three Days,” ( the time they believe it takes the virus to kill them) they whisper after I ask about Ebola then either make the sign of the cross over themselves repeatedly or shake their heads back and forth in absolute dread. When travelers meet on back roads throughout the bush, its news about Ebola they ask for first and the name, itself has the power to turn a cheerful, laughing Ugandan into a silent, nervous wreck. But knowledge is power and so there are certain things you can do to protect yourself against bringing this virus into your body and infecting you with the disease.

Ebola has been classified as a virus and as such there are a few things you need to remember about this virus in particular when traveling that can keep you safe. A person can only spread Ebola if they are in the active symptoms stage. That means they are either running a high fever, vomiting, experiencing diarrhea, severe headaches, muscle pain, weakness, abdominal pain, or unexplained bleeding around or from any opening in their body. And they don’t have to have all of these symptoms – one is enough. But these symptoms also describe other illnesses such as influenza so a blood sample must be taken and examined by a laboratory to confirm whether it’s actually Ebola or not. This makes the disease very difficult to detect and confirm especially in rural districts where lab reports are not readily available and by the time competent medical staffers have been called in an entire village could be infected. Doctors have determined that there is a definite incubation period between 2 to 21 days (time between becoming infected and the actual onset of the physical symptoms) but it is not the same length of time in all patients so this has caused a lot of confusion in the past. How would I even suspect I had the disease if I didn’t show any symptoms until 21 days later? By then most people who had come in contact with Ebola would feel they were free from the disease. Plane travel from Africa to the United States usually takes two separate flights and between twelve to sixteen hours depending on the European airport selected for the second flight. Hypothetically I could travel through the first flight symptom-free but develop stage one symptoms like a high fever during the second flight. That means I could become contagious while in-flight and have no idea what’s happening to me. And now you’re sitting next to me. So what can you do to protect yourself?

A person demonstrating active stage one symptoms of Ebola can transmit the virus through all of his/her bodily fluids like sweat, mucus, tears, saliva, urine, feces, and blood. You infect yourself when you come in contact with my Ebola-rich body fluids and bring them into you own body through any open cut/wound or bring your contaminated fingers to your eyes, nose, or mouth. So I advise when on an airplane where there is reason to suspect Ebola that you wear a surgical mask and either sunglasses that thoroughly surround/cover your eyes or clear glasses that do the same thing. You may not look like the sexiest person in Coach or Business Class but you’ll go a long way in protecting yourself from this debilitating disease. Before you hit the airport remember to examine your body closely especially any exposed areas like hands and feet making sure that all cuts, no matter how tiny- even hangnails have been thoroughly covered up by Band-Aids or adhesive strips. Make sure to bring extra ones with you and if you have a deep wound on your hand I would wear a pair of gloves while traveling. Make sure to pack these things in a carry-on bag when leaving the US for any country in Africa- you’ll never know when you’ll need them. Remember, “ an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.”

I heard a newsman on television say that you can’t catch the Ebola virus from a sneeze. Wrong, wrong, inexcusably wrong!!! Technically you can’t catch the virus from airborne particles released through your nose during a sneeze but when people sneeze they usually release some saliva from their mouths as well. Think about your last hearty sneeze- I know I do and I bet you do too. That means that saliva from an infected person’s mouth could be sprayed out onto your hands, shoulder, head, lap, or even food depending on how close he/she was when the sneeze occurred. If a person with active symptoms sneezes on you, spits on you, vomits on you, bleeds on you, or you come in contact with his/her urine or feces you’d better have any wounds covered up and your eyes, nose, and mouth covered too or you’re at risk for infecting yourself with the virus.

Now this virus can live for hours outside its host’s body so carry disposable wipes soaked in bleach with you and use them to wipe down the tray in front of you, both metal side arms; then give the cloth seat a quick swipe too before sitting down. Wipe down any earphones and touch screens before using them as well. I always take a large African scarf with me and wrap myself up in it during the flight. No airplane pillows or blankets for me. Using the bathroom can be especially dangerous if you have bleeding hemorrhoids or any other open wounds in that area of your body. Make sure to take your bleach wipes with you and make a thorough swipe of the toilet seat before sitting down. Wash your hands well with plenty of soap and make sure to wipe your hands with fresh wipes before and after using the toilette and sink. When eating your meal watch what the people on either side of you are doing. If for some reason they sneeze on your food leave it alone!!! It’s better to go hungry than sicken yourself with Ebola. And watch where you put your hands. Do not put them anywhere near your eyes, nose, or mouth without wiping them off with bleach wipes first. Once you arrive home take all clothes off immediately and throw them in the washing machine. If you have worn a suit or “dry clean only” garments place them on a hanger and put them outside in the sunlight for a day or two. Other things that can kill the virus once it’s outside of its host- hand soap, detergent, hand sanitizers, heat, and alcohol- the kind you drink as well as rubbing alcohol and hydrogen- peroxide. Remember people who tend to sick Ebola patients can be infected by handling bedding, clothes, cups, dishes, or utensils so they must take the proper precautions as they minister to them. Following these steps may make you feel embarrassed at first- even look like you suffer from Obsessive Compulsive Disorder but who cares? Would you rather be pretty or dead? Adults traveling with children will have a more difficult time enforcing many of these protocols but remember they work and have been designed to save you and your family members from a terribly painful illness you might not survive.

Stage two of the disease according to one friend, “is a journey into hell and back”. The infected person suffers from extreme bouts of vomiting and diarrhea, agonizing rashes, and gradually his/her liver as well as the kidneys slowly shut down. There’s lots of bleeding from every orifice in the body and much more pain. The very old and the very young succumb first as well as anyone in poor health at the onset of the disease. Many East Africans will tell you that anyone who catches Ebola dies but WHO maintains that the average fatality rate is more like 50 %. It all depends on the general health of the person at the onset of the disease. And according to the CDC, those people who do manage to survive develop personal antibodies that remain in their blood stream and protect them from further infection from Ebola for up to 10 years; although scientists are not sure if these survivors are immune to the four other species of Ebola or mutations of each strain as well. There is no cure or vaccine for Ebola at the moment although blood transfusions and a serum called Z-Mapp was used on the doctors who became infected with Ebola in West Africa but  is still in the experimental stage.

And now the most crucial fact in preventing epidemics like the one that occurred in West Africa. People can fully recover from the Ebola virus and still remain infectious (that means they can still infect others) as long as their blood and/or other body fluids including semen and breast milk contain the Ebola virus. Men who have recovered from the disease and demonstrate no symptoms whatsoever can still transmit the virus to others in their semen for up to 7 weeks after recovery. Doctors who have been treating male patients in West Africa who survived Ebola are advising them to abstain from all forms of sex for 30 days and to wear condoms after that. According to Mother Jones, in one 2000 study a woman who recovered from Ebola still had the virus in her breast milk weeks after she made a full recovery and her infant eventually died from the disease. It is not clear if she transmitted the virus to her infant and more research needs to be conducted before scientists can establish a direct cause –effect relationship between breast milk and the transmission of the virus.

As of October 24, 2014 five countries located in West Africa have had outbreaks of Ebola Hemorrhagic Virus in the past several months: Guinea, Liberia, Nigeria, Sierra Leone, and Senegal. Of these, Nigeria and Senegal have been classified by the World Health Organization (WHO, 2014) as “Ebola –Free” with no new reported cases of this disease for six weeks in a row. This was the largest and most complex outbreak of Ebola ever recorded with more deaths than all other outbreaks combined. To show you how contagious this virus can be according to the CDC the first case in West Africa was confirmed in March of 2014. It started in Guinea then was spread by land to Sierra Leone, after that one traveler was responsible for spreading the virus by airplane to Liberia, then one traveler spread it to Nigeria by land, and one traveler spread it to Senegal by land. It seems that the world’s attention was focused exclusively on West Africa when in fact there had also been an outbreak of Ebola in Central Africa, in Lokolia, south of Equateur Province in the northwestern region of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) as of September, 2014 with a confirmed tally of 68 cases of Ebola and 41 deaths. But Ebola outbreaks have occurred in the past in the DRC, Uganda, South Sudan, and Gabon.

According to historical data on Ebola supplied by the Center for Disease Control (CDC, 2014) the Democratic Republic of the Congo has experienced 7 outbreaks of Ebola in the last 38 years- more than any other country in the world and the Congo Basin has been identified by scientists as the source of several major pandemics. As far back as 1976 the first recorded cases of Ebola came out of the Congo Basin in the DRC, the second largest tropical rain forest in the world. What’s more, it is now believed that Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) emerged from the same rain forest sometime in the late 1920’s after that virus crossed from chimpanzee into human blood streams.

This has also made the doctors serving the populace of the DRC some of the most knowledgeable “ Ebola Doctors” in the world. And one of the very best is the virologist and professor Dr. Jean- Jacques Muyembe Tamfum, who heads the Institut National de Recherche Biomedicale, at The University of Kinshasa in the DRC’s capital city of Kinshasa. It was Dr. Tamfum who identified the Ebola virus 38 years ago. According to Dr. Tamfum, “Ebola is the most dangerous virus in the world at this time classified as a ‘level four’ virus and there are more just like it out there.”

Five species of the virus have been identified so far: Zaire, Bundibugyo, Sudan, Reston, and Tai Forest. And each of these has the ability to mutate. The most recent outbreak of Ebola in West Africa has been attributed to a mutation of the Zaire species which according to the CDC is the most deadly strain.

According to Jonna Mazet, global director of the US Agency for International Development (USAID) “Predict Program,” a five year project charged with identifying viruses before they become a threat and building a global database to store this information, “most of the global epidemics in the world originated in these same forest ecosystems. The three areas in the world currently classified as “Virus Hot Spots,” the Amazon Basin in South America, the Congo Basin in Central Africa, and Southeast Asia- all three have the heat, the water, and the tree cover to act as pathogen incubators. According to the latest version of the Thorndike- Barnhart Dictionary- a pathogen is “any infectious agent that can produce illness in its host and can appear in the form of viruses, bacteria, fungi, and other micro-organisms.” The medical community at large knows by now that viruses mutate easily enough inside their host, some can live outside of their host for hours on end, and all are not easily treated. Mazet goes on to say,” In the last five years we have detected over 800 viruses globally and 540 of these viruses have never been seen before. Many could be just as deadly as Ebola.” This means that a good 68% of these new viruses have the potential to be as destructive to humans and animals as Ebola and AIDS have been. Scientists have also determined that 60% of the emerging diseases that infect humans worldwide are “crossovers” that originally came from animals, especially wild ones.

An estimated 270 species of animals and 40 million people call the Congo Basin home. In a country identified by the United Nations Human Development Index as 186 out of a total of 187 countries (only Niger was given a lower score) it has the poorest quality of life in the entire world. Locals around the Basin eke out a living from the forest each day or literally die of starvation. As I discussed before in my blog on Ebola after the Ugandan outbreak of 2012 while traveling through the infected area of Uganda near the DRC/ Uganda border, primates such as monkeys and apes can catch Ebola just like humans who are also primates. Because Gorillas share 95% of their genetic code with humans it is extremely easy for the virus to cross over between the two causing prolonged outbreaks of the disease. Contrary to Americans’ preferences for red meat, the Congolese will hunt and eat wildlife in any form they find it. Animals such as bats, monkeys, chimpanzees, forest antelope, and porcupines are caught and sold in outdoor markets as fresh or cooked meat and eaten by a community that truly enjoys this cuisine. Unfortunately, these are the same animals that have been identified as the culprits responsible for spreading the Ebola virus in the Congo Basin especially into hunters who handle the infected blood, bodily fluids, and feces of the wounded or dead animals before they’re cooked. The CDC currently believes that it is a species of fruit bat living in the Congo Basin that’s primarily responsible for holding the Ebola virus in its blood stream between outbreaks.

Jonna Mazet warns that the Congo Basin is home to millions of viruses and many of them could be far more virulent than Ebola or HIV. As the rain forest in the Congo Basin is being destroyed to accommodate a growing population of Congolese citizens they in turn are coming in contact with new and deadlier microorganisms like never before and who knows what the repercussions will be for the global community at large? And for those who doubt me! In 2009 a new virus was discovered in Mangala, a small village deep within the Congo Basin’s rain forest. Three people had been stricken with a mysterious fever that suddenly spiked and began to vomit up blood. Two of the patients died within three days of demonstrating active symptoms and the third survived the disease going on to develop preventive antibodies in his blood stream. It was first thought that they had contracted the Zaire species of Ebola virus but then it was confirmed through laboratory tests that the villagers had become infected by a totally new virus. It was eventually named the Bas- Congo Virus and there have been no reported cases of the Bas- Congo Virus since. Virologists finally determined that it had been spread by insects.

Voyons ce que demain nous, mes amis!

Kat Nickerson      Kingston, RI   USA



Mbuji Mayi: First Step in the DR Congo’s Diamond Trail

26 May
The City Imbuji  Mayi

Mbuji Mayi : The City of Diamonds

According to the United States Geological Survey the DR Congo has “around $24 trillion dollars US worth of untapped deposits of raw mineral ores, including the largest reserves of cobalt and significant quantities of the world’s diamonds, gold and copper in the world.”

“The DR Congo was the second-largest producer of natural industrial diamonds in the world and accounted for about 5.5 percent of all gemstone production in 2012.  Last year, the country produced about 20 million carats, down from 29 million carats in 2006,” according to Central Bank. How can a country that holds most of the diamonds in the world underneath its surface and in its waterways continue to be the home of so many poor people? Read along with me as I retell the history of Mbuji Mayi.

Mbuji Mayi (pronounced “m’bu-jee, mee”) is a strange utilitarian settlement located on the Sanhuru River that’s sole purpose is to uncover and sell diamonds. It’s about as practical and unpretentious as its name which in the local Tshiluba language means “goat water” probably because prior to the discovery of diamonds there in 1907 there was not much else but herds of goats and the river. Currently it is the third largest city in the entire Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and the capital of Kasai Oriental Province but still remains an isolated section of the country which had developed its own unique culture and political climate removed from modern-day Kinshasa and the rest of the provinces. Located in the southern region of the country and set squarely in the middle its terrain as well as its climate especially its torrential rains are harsh and has made it almost impossible to successfully build and maintain paved, passable roads connecting it to other parts of the country. The population ebbs and flows like the river based on the ever-changing business of diamonds but as of 2013 according to the city’s loose, unofficial census, it is somewhere between 1,500,000 and 4,000,000 people.

If Mbuji Mayi is composed of lack-luster houses and huge industrial complexes spread out in a haphazard, unstructured way it’s because it was never meant to be a large city in the first place. It was not established as a real city like Kinshasa or Kisangani and lacks the imposing European architecture and stately treed avenues established by the Belgians when the country was ruled by them as the Belgian Congo.  Originally called Bakwanga, this city was and would always be a mining camp controlled by the company in charge, who made and enforced the rules for everyone and everything in the area. The first mining operation was named the Societe Minere de Bakawanga (MIBA). This corporation built Mbuji Mayi and orchestrated every detail in how life in the mining camp would play out. There was no free movement within and around Mbuji Mayi and people not associated with the mine were openly discouraged from settling in the area and physically driven out by security teams. Its rigid policies created more of an enslaved labor camp than not even though its workers received salaries. In order to enter or leave the area all of the workers needed to be issued permits and there were monitored gates leading in and out of the area where everyone was required to register by signing their names in an official log book. Merchants who were not connected to the operation were not allowed not to conduct business in or around the camp and the company did not hire on site but sent out recruitment agents who filled its employment quotas from other provinces escorting the new workers and their families back with them. The mining authorities deliberately kept the total population “ manageable” and it was still only about 40,000 well into the 1950’s.  The entire operation was based on the Belgians’ “ New Social Experiments”. (Read my May 7, 2012 Blog for more information)

By the 1960’s Mbuji Mayi ( still called Bakwanga) began to grow rapidly after Congolese independence in the 1960’s  and people from other sections of the country were now free to immigrate into this area. For a short period of time, a Luba tribal chief, declared the Kasai region its own independent nation and naming himself emperor  began ruling the province but was arrested twice and finally imprisoned by the National Congolese Army ( ANC). By 1965 the president of the newly- formed Republic of the Congo ( Leopoldville) Mobutu Sese Seko continued to closely monitor the revenues earned from the government’s mine but took no active interest in its day to day operations. By 1971 the country’s name was changed to Zaire but there were no changes at the mine and it continued to operate as before.

And then in 1986 Jonas  Nzemba was appointed the Chief Operating Officer(CEO) of the Societe Minere de Bakawanga (MIBA) ultimately becoming  the most influential leader in the region. Along with running the  mine he began to provide for the region in ways that the government would not by paying soldiers’ back-wages, repairing roads, and trying to stabilize an extremely fragile infrastructure in order to supply electricity and fresh water to the entire population of the city. But to do so he had to take care of the current president of the country paying Mobuto upwards of two million US dollars per month to keep the dictator appeased and out of his way.

Nzemba was an effective leader with a heart who stood by the Congolese people in the newly- named city of  Mbuji Mayi when other corrupt government officials looked out only for themselves. He survived as the government changed hands between two wars and three presidents into becoming one of the most respected men in the region. By the time he had left his position he had formed an economic development group to guide growth in the area and helped establish the University of Kasai. Nzemba became such an influential and highly respected politician that he ran for president against Joseph Kabila during the 2006 presidential elections. He lost that election but in his province of Kasai he is still remains their –“main man.”

But Nzemba and MIBA could not keep an entire city running efficiently by themselves and the Congolese government although it continued to take millions out of the mine in revenues each month put almost nothing back into the city’s coffers. The government that had taken  millions in revenues out of the mine refused to invest anything back into the city’s infrastructure and the lack of maintenance became so bad that the state-run power plant was permanently out of commission by 1990, leaving the only source of power, the small hydroelectric plant run by MIBA. The poorly maintained roads also eroded way under the torrential rains until in 1991 there was only about 19.7 kilometers of paved roads inside the city. The university buildings were in ill-repair and people reverted back to the “old” methods in order to light and heat their homes such as candles, kerosene lamps, and charcoal stoves.

In time the MIBA was given a new title Societe Congolaise d’Investissement Minier Sprl ( SCIM) but that did not increase their profits. By January 2007 a report issued by the mine itself claimed that their export totals had fallen by 80% making it impossible for them to pay their miners and their suppliers. And a host of other bogus mining companies many from India absconded with their mining profits without paying taxes leaving the people of Mbuji Mayi doubly bereft.  SCIM stated that they exported only 545,000 diamonds from June to December 2006 as compared to 2.5 million diamonds in June to December 2005. The injustice of it all caused the angry, unpaid miners to riot and destroy some of the more expensive machinery the mine had just invested heavily in to help turn things around. Then a miners’ strike shut operations down completely until the company paid its workers months of back wages using an $11 million loan to do so. By the time the mine began producing again they had only managed to collect 100,000 carats per month and so by 2008 the MIBA/SCIM, of which 20% was currently owned by the London-based firm Mwana – Africa, closed its doors $7.7 million US dollars in debt. In 2011 the company’s representatives visited Cape Town, South Africa looking for between 150-200 million in investment capital in order to renew it mining operations once more.

But in order to reach its full production potential, MIBA/ SCIM had to first solve its chronic energy problems and in order to succeed it needed vast amounts of electricity with which to power its advanced machinery. In the past it had been using diesel generators to power these machines which did not produce the voltage needed to run the newer models of diggers and their fuel was subject to sudden price increases.

Only new hydroelectric plants would generate the power to run the machinery that would clear the diamonds from the ground.  The power plants currently operating at Mbuji Mayi run at only 25% capacity and the electrical current is undependable under optimal conditions. It would cost millions to bring the city and the mine into the twentieth, let alone the twenty-first century.

But maybe things are not as grim as they seem. According to Bloomberg, in the spring of this year a joint venture between the Chinese Anhui Foreign Economic Construction Group and the government of the DR Congo could save the DR Congo industrial diamond industry producing upwards of 6 million carats a year by 2016.  Anhui has agreed to pay $4.2 million then a signing bonus of $61 million, and what’s more has committed to investing at least $100 million in the city’s infrastructure especially in the development of electrical power plants.

The mine will be called the Societe Anhui- Congo d’Investissement Minier Sprl( SACIM) and will eventually be listed on one of the world’s stock exchangesThe mine has been granted two exploration permits located about 30 miles outside of Mbuji Mayi. The company has already determined that there is a large diamond reserve of about 158 million carats in this area. And Anhui has agreed to construct a 4.6- megawatt hydropower plant next to the mine as well as help the DR Congo secure a loan from the Chinese government to build another 15-megawatt hydroelectric plant and a new road leading into to Mbuji Mayi.

This may not seem like a big deal to the rest of us but between the infusion of paying jobs, the increase in the flow of a stable electricity, and dependable roads in the area this new mining venture could just be what the residents of Mbuji Mayi need to increase their quality of life one hundred fold- literally bringing them out of the “dark” ages and into the light. And maybe this time around the government- operated mine will use its profits for more than lining the pockets of the  politicians in Kinshasa?

Kat Nickerson    Kingston, RI     USA

Cannibalism in the Congo: A New Take on an Ancient Practice

14 May




“Nearly all the tribes in the Congo Basin either are or have been cannibals; and among some of them the practice is on the increase. Races who until lately do not seem to have been cannibals, though situated in a country surrounded by cannibal races, have, from increased intercourse with their neighbors, learned to eat human flesh. There is not the slightest doubt in my mind that they prefer human flesh to any other.”

Sidney Langford Hinde (former captain of the Congo Free State Force), The Fall of the Congo Arabs, Methuen, 1897

This post is not meant to be an expose on the practice of cannibalism in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DAR). Cannibalism has existed there for generations and still takes place in the bush. The latest practice of cannibalism morphed into a demoralization technique employed by rebel armies during the first and second  Congo Wars in order to keep the villagers subservient and according to my sources was directly related to the number of skirmishes between rebel and governmental forces  in the Eastern part of the country. No one who has spent time in East Africa would deny the  existence of cannibalism in the Congo but most individuals consider it a delicate topic, like incest and politely refrain from discussing it unless specifically asked  to do so. Yet the latest concern with the practice of cannibalism has extended beyond the question of morality and now centers around its  connection to a  fatal disease called Kuru; the implications of which have  just begun to be understood by the World Health Organization. It seems that this disease “bites back” by killing the living who prey upon the dead.

What is it about the practice of cannibalism that invariably stops the most civilized people in their tracks and upsets their normal sensibilities?  It is a topic begrudgingly acknowledged but not openly discussed especially among friends when in more intimate social settings. Yet anthropologists suspect that the eating of human flesh is not a new practice at all and has existed since the “Dawn of Man”. The practice of humans ingesting humans has been directly connected to a wide range of culture-specific needs such as: man’s attempt to capture the human spirit, grieve over the death of a loved one, survive in the face of famine, triumph over one’s enemies after physical conflict, and for the sheer taste  of human flesh. According to Tim White in “Once We Were Cannibals, there is irrefutable evidence to support the claim that cannibalism existed in the Neolithic Period in Europe and in North and South America. White discovered crushed cranial bones in Neanderthal skeletons inside burial sites in Croatia which when analyzed proved that other human beings had tried to crush the craniums attached to the spinal columns in several places in order to remove the brain tissue inside the skulls. He also collected further evidence from among the skeletons to confirm that these bodies had been systemically roasted over an open fire.

Anthologists have identified two major forms of cannibalism as it has been practiced around the world for the past two hundred years. The first category is referred to as ritualistic or exo- cannibalism.  In this type of practice human beings outside of one’s own tribe are consumed usually for offensive and defensive reasons most likely associated with some type of tribal warfare. The victorious members of one tribe eat the flesh of the vanquished in order to demonstrate their superiority and their disdain for the people they have defeated. The use of violent actions such as murder and torture are employed to dominate or scare away potential enemies who might otherwise consider challenging this tribe. It has also been used to reduce the number of slaves residing in a particular village so they have no chance of threatening the welfare of the villagers who reside there. Many tribal cultures believe that as they digest their enemy they also take in the courage and the talent the victim once possessed during his lifetime; this practice  remains one of the most total acts of domination possible.

Many reports of cannibalism practiced by severely disturbed individuals support the notion that they may also have  incorporated a spiritual as well as a ritualistic dimension into their crimes. Serial killers and sex offenders such as Ottis Toole in the late 1970’s and Peter Bryan between 1994 and 2004  defended their criminal actions by explaining that when they consumed their victims they too believed that they became  one with their victims and absorbed their strength.

The second type of cannibalism, mortuary or endo-cannibalism promotes the consumption of a member within one’s own culture or tribe. It is more often associated with rituals established around the burial or internment of a dead member of the tribe and lately anthropologists like Beth Conklin have proposed that this form of cannibalism is very closely associated with the process of grieving that occurs in family and friends after a loved one dies. Dr. Conklin, associate professor of anthropology at Vanderbilt University, conducted an intensive study into the cultural practices of the Wari people, a grouping of tribes who reside in the Amazon rainforest and who once practiced cannibalism. According to Conklin, “The Wari were an unusual ethnic group because they practiced two distinct forms of cannibalism; one during warfare and the other during funerals. However, the two practices were very different and had very different meanings. Eating one’s enemies was an intentional expression of anger and disdain. But at funerals, when they consumed members of their own group who died naturally, it was done out of affection and respect for the dead person and as a way to help the survivors cope with their grief.”

In a related article by Ellie Shick, Mortuary Cannibalism Practiced by the Wari, she identified a more humane desire. “Upon consumption of the deceased group member, the spirit of the dead was believed to be absorbed by the entire tribe and was considered by them to be one of the most respectful ways to treat a human body.” Peggy Sanday in her book Divine Hunger, proposed that cannibalism was viewed as a holy act, in which the adult males of the tribe were granted divine powers bestowed upon them by their gods in gratitude for their actions. 

Survival cannibalism is the most recognized form of cannibalism in the Western World. Stories abound about expeditions by American and European adventurers who had no choice but to eat dead comrades in order to survive. Accounts of the doomed whale ship Essex in 1820, the destiny of the Donner Party in 1847, and the tragedy of the Greely Expedition of 1881 were extensively circulated in newspapers and magazines of the time. Every account both shocked and fascinated their readers. In each case the men accused of these heinous acts swore under oath that they had been revolted by their deeds but were left with no other alternative. They had resorted to cannibalism only in order to save their own lives and the lives of their men. Anthropologists have proven that the Aztecs approved of cannibalism in times of great famine. During the famine of 1920-1921 people in the Soviet Union were forced to eat anything they could find and ultimately ate one another in their attempt to survive. Acts of cannibalism were also reported during the famine in the Ukraine between 1932-1933. As far back as the Great Famine in northern Europe 1315-1317 and again in the Egyptian Famine of 1201  acts of cannibalism were noted in official records that detailed the extent of the damage that occurred during each famine. 

Cannibalism is not a crime and is still not considered an illegal act in most countries. People who have been arrested for eating human flesh are more likely to be charged with the crime of manslaughter, first or second degree murder, or desecration of a dead body. In the twenty-first century the practice of Cannibalism has not been exclusively the domain of populations residing in Third World countries either.

 Armin Meiwes shocked the world in 2001 when he admitted to killing a man whom he said had formally consented to being killed and eaten. This unusual story began with Meiwes seeking out a man to eat on the internet. According to Meiwes, he found the man after he posted an add for a “well-built man who would consent to be killed and eaten”. Meiwes also informed authorities that there were over 400 cannibal-related web sites and chat rooms on the internet and that many were devoted to epicurean cannibalism. Meiwes testified that around 200 men had responded to his ad but  in the end he chose, killed, dismembered, cooked, and ate Brandes.

Historically, reports describing cannibalism were cited by colonial officials in order to justify their domination of the natives in the Congo who they viewed as thoroughly immoral individuals incapable of demonstrating civilized behavior and therefore unable to rule themselves. Although the people of the Mangbetu tribe located in northeast territory along the Bomokandi River were grestly admired by “the whites”for their tribal structure and remarkable artistry, most Europeans of the late 1880’s mistrusted the actions of the tribes and considered them to be nothing more than an “immoral group of savages”. First-hand descriptions of the brutal, uncivilized, and repulsive behaviors of men and women of the Congolese tribes were sent home in letters written by scandalized Baptist missionaries stationed in the Congo. Their stories were confirmed by European explorers and Belgian traders who further damaged the integrity of the tribes. Several European historians have proposed that this was the primary reason a meaningful alliance between the “White” Belgian Colonialists and the “Black” Congolese tribes was never forged in the early 1900’s. Tales of cannibalism and savagery combined with images of exotic weapons and the semi-nude attire of the natives so fascinated yet offended the continental Europeans’ rigid sense of morality that they refused to even consider the notion that over time the native peoples in the Congo could ever develop  the skills needed to govern themselves. 

In the case of the Mangbetu tribe, the most damning evidence of their savage nature was cannibalism. Reports of Mangbetu cannibalism attracted a wave of negative sentiment throughout  Europe because their motives were regarded as particularly “crude and boorish”.  Their reason  for  eating human flesh was in no way connected to the more spiritually- acceptable desire to communicate with the gods. Europeans had been introduced to this form of spiritual cannibalism practiced by some of the other  tribes in the Kongo and if not outright supportive of their actions, at least they were able to identify with the religious intentions. But in the case of the  Mangbetus, their simple preference for the taste of human flesh was considered a  reprehensible and unforgivable act by the majority of Belgian colonialists living in the area and was a critical factor in why the colonists never seemed comfortable forming close relationships with individal members of this tribe.

Ngombe/ Doho execution swords also referred to as Ngombe cult weapons were highly collectable items prized by colonial administrators and military officers. The knives were created to symbolize the inevitability of death. These remarkably balanced swords were not created for use in punitive events but for religious ceremonies.The back side of the blade was used like a panga for cutting. The front side of the extremely sharp blade if used properly detached the victim’s head from his neck in one swift blow. This ritual was carried out in very precise steps. The victim was usually a slave but any member of the tribe could ask to be chosen as an execution victim. The victim was positioned on the ground in a clearing with his legs set straight out in front of him. A young tree was bent over until it touched the top of the man’s head. Then the victim’s head was firmly secured by leather straps to the end the sapling. The ritual leader, chosen by the group, swung  the sword  in one powerful downward stroke  slicing off the victim’s head. As soon as the head had been removed from the victim’s body the taunt tree snapped back into place causing the victim’s head to careen through the air where it would land somewhere deep within the tropical forest. The tribes believed that the person, although dead, could still sense the ultimate freedom of flying through the air to meet his ancestors. The victim’s body was then dismembered and cooked in order to feed the members of the village who had witnessed the ceremony.

 The practice of cannibalism has returned to Eastern Congo and has been associated  with the actions of rebel militias during the two civil wars in the Congo and the revolution in Sierra Leone. In 2003 the United Nations Security Council released an official statement condemning the massacres and human rights violations, including cannibalism that were inflicted upon the populace by rebels in the Democratic Republic of Congo and in Sierra Leone. In July 2007 a UN report declared that the abuses of Congolese women and children go “far beyond rape” and include sexual slavery, forced incest, and cannibalism.” Marginalized groups such as the Pygmy have been far more vulnerable to the threat of cannibalism by the rebel forces than other tribes because of their smaller size and lack of  guns. During the Civil War in Uganda from 1980’s until 2007 Kony’s Lords Liberation Army was continuously accused by children who had escaped from his camps of having  engaged in cannibalistic  rites in order to ensure victory for his soldiers in upcoming battles.  

The Truth Behind the Cannibals of the Congo

 In 1986 Jean Bedel Bokassa dictator of the Central African Republic, was tried for several cases of cannibalism in which he supposedly killed and ate a number of primary school children although he was never formally convicted of the crime. In the spring of 2012 the International Criminal Court (ICC), Hague Netherlands did find the former Liberian President Charles Taylor guilty on 11 counts listed in the indictment that related to the aiding and abetting of war crimes in Sierra Leone’s civil war. It was the first conviction of a head of state by an international court since the Nuremberg trials of Nazis right after World War II. He was found guilty of “aiding and abetting rebel forces” and in supporting their practices such as murder, rape, sexual slavery, conscripting children younger than 15, and the forced enslavement of miners to extract diamonds (blood diamonds) in order to support a range of military activities. Taylor denied eating human flesh in his secret society and several witnesses testified under oath that his soldiers in the National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL) deliberately engaged in cannibalism in order to terrorize and demoralize the villagers. Taylor will be sentenced on May 30, 2012 and prosecutors have asked that he be given the maximum sentence of 80-years. This means that the 64 year old ex- Liberian president could spend the rest of his life in prison.

The tribes of Papua, New Guinea practiced both endo- and exo-cannibalism until the 1960s. The majority of women in these tribes consumed their dead relatives’ bodies and brains as a way to demonstrate their grief and as a sign of respect for their dead relations. Eventually medical researchers confirmed that these women were dying from a strange disease named Kuru caused by their cannibalistic rituals with dead bodies. Then a scientific team led by Carleton Gajdusek and Baruch Blumberg discovered that it was these diseased mothers who were passing this sickness on to their children.

Kuru is a disease that causes severe deterioration in the human brain and nervous system similar to that of Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease ( CJD). The variant form of CJD is believed to be the human equivalent of  Mad Cow Disease discovered in livestock in the late 1970s and which appeared in cows as Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE). The disease was caused by an infectious agent found within the human tissue in the brain of dead people. Kuru is a highly infectious disease that is transferred to others through a variety of daily actions such as contact with bodily fluids. The spread of the disease stopped only when the practice of cannibalism ceased in New Guinea but individual cases of Kuru were reported for several years afterwards because of the disease’s long incubation period.

The symptoms of Kuru include: arm and leg pain, lack of motor coordination that increases over time, difficulty walking, severe headaches, difficulty swallowing and eating leading to malnutrition and starvation, tremors and muscle spasms (myoclonus). The average time from exposure to physical symptoms (incubation period) is between 10 to 13 years, but incubation periods of 30 years or even longer have been reported. There is no known treatment and death usually occurs within one year after the first symptoms appear.

The symptoms for Nodding Disease start with a continuous nodding of the head that eventually leads to convulsions, staring spells, difficulty walking, difficulty swallowing and eating leading to malnutrition and starvation, deterioration of mental capacity, deterioration of fine then gross motor coordination, and eventually debilitating seizures . This condition affects children between the ages 3 to15 years and has been reported in East Africa, specifically in the countries of South Sudan, northern Uganda, and southern Tanzania. No child has ever recovered from this disease and there is no known cause or cure yet. Anti- epileptic medicines are currently being used to treat children with this disease but they only minimize the effects of the seizures. Over 4,000 children have this condition and about 170 have already died from it( WHO, 2012). Lately there have been reports that adults have contracted the disease too but this data has not yet been confirmed.

 Compare the symptoms of both diseases.

Symptoms of Kuru Disease

Symptoms of Nodding Disease

lack of motor coordination that increases over time deterioration of fine then gross motor coordination
tremors and muscle spasms (myoclonus) continuous nodding of the head, convulsions
difficulty walking difficulty walking
difficulty swallowing and eating leading to malnutrition and starvation, difficulty swallowing and eating leading to malnutrition and starvation,
severe headaches severe seizures
 deterioration in mental capacity deterioration in mental capacity

Is it possible that the children in Uganda and South Sudan are suffering from a variant form of encephalopathy, (disease of the brain),  that in some way is related to a form of Mad Cow Disease in humans? Could it be similar to the variant form of Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (vCJD) that has been proven to be related to Mad Cow Disease? Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (CJD) is a form of brain damage that leads to a rapid decrease in mental functions and movement. The infection that causes the disease in cows is believed to be the same one that causes vCJD in humans. Variant CJD accounts for less than 1% of all cases of CJD but it tends to affect younger people. However, fewer than 200 people worldwide have been identified as having this disease.

Variant CJD is caused by exposure to contaminated human tissue or blood. Other vCJD cases have occurred when people were given corneal or other tissue transplants, blood transfusions from infected donors, or through improperly disinfected electrodes used in brain surgery. Within 6 months or less after the symptoms have begun, the person is unable to care for him/ herself. The disorder is fatal within 8 months but a few people have lived for as long as one or two years. The cause of death is usually diagnosed as infection, heart or respiratory failure.

Is there a connection between what desperate people have been forced to do during war in order to survive and the appearance of Nodding Disease? The UN has confirmed that cannibalism increases when people who normally practice it are involved in conflict. There had not been one case of Nodding Disease reported in northern Uganda and South Sudan prior to the start of the Civil War in the 1980’s. At the conflict’s peak in 2005, there were 1.84 million Internally Displaced Persons living in 251 camps across 11 districts of northern Uganda to keep them safe from the rebels ( UNHCR, 2012). That is an average poulation of 7, 331  individuals living in each camp. Doctors with whom I have worked in the past have been very clear when they tell me -“whenever abnormally large groups of people are made to live closely together and there is not an adequate sanitation system in place, new forms of old diseases and totally new diseases appear in people overnight”. Plagues have been known to begin  this way. Usually these new diseases show up so quickly they have not yet been named. The doctors are not sure what course of treatment to pursue so they begin with following the  recommended dosages of antibiotics many times to no avail. And if this new disease is a virus like AIDS, what then? Could completely new diseases have been generated inside the camps? Does Nodding Disease exist as an infection in the form of prions like Kuru rather than as a virus, bacteria, or parasite?  Is it being been passed down to children by their mothers like Kuru or is it spread by ingesting infected tissue? I strongly advocate that scientists investigate the connection between Kuru, Nodding Disease, and variant CJD (vCJD) as a possible physical reaction to the practice of cannibalism. Could  a variant form of Mad Cow disease in humans be causing Nodding Disease in children after all?

Kat Nickeson                   Kingston,  RI         USA

The Grand Experiment: A Gentler Form of Enslavement

7 May

The savage only ever respects force, power, boldness, and decision.” Stanley, Henry M. (1988). Through the Dark Continent. Dover Publications. ISBN 0-486-25667-7

In 1908 the Belgian government officially agreed to manage Leopold’s Free State in central Africa and immediately changed the name of the Kongo and Katanga territories to the Belgian Congo. But not before it paid King Leopold II 50 million francs in compensation for the forfeiture of his authorized claim. Yet, other than renaming the colony not much else changed in way of administrative policies once the paperwork had been signed and sealed. Belgian officials saw to it that their governance policies continued to be supervised by Baron Wahis, previous Governor General of The Congo Free State under Leopold and they did not remove the colonial administrators selected by Leopold but reassigned them to their previous postings. In time Belgian officials would share their administrative power with three of the largest mining corporations in Katanga district, and the Catholic Church. But the Belgian parliament, although far more civilized in its approach than Leopold, did not differ in its utilization of the colony by much. It continued to view its new colony and the people within its borders as possessions that could be rearranged at will- all for the benefit of Father Belgium. And its sole purpose in developing the infrastructure within the colony was to gain better access to the vast stores of minerals and agricultural products such as palm oil, coffee, and lumber and in doing so increase its export production. There was never any mention of  a plan to systematically improve the quality of the people’s lives in any way. In the fifty-two years Belgium managed the Congo in an official capacity there was never any formal course of action taken to provide the Congolese people with the opportunity to develop the administrative, political, military, or business skills needed to govern themselves. Congolese students would not be allowed to study for advanced degrees at their own colleges or universities until the year 1954.

There was a marked shift in marketable Congolese exports even before Leopold surrendered his authority; ivory, then rubber extract, and finally raw minerals became the number export products. The Congo was rich in gold, diamonds, copper, cobalt, tantalite, columbite, cassiterite, uranium, and tin. The first mining endeavors concentrated on the extraction of copper and then on the quest for diamonds. Diamond mines were first opened in 1907 and were so successsful that by 1927 the Congo’s export quota was second only to that of South Africa. Another crucial concern was the need to transport these products out to the coast. During the first few years the Belgians made the creation of a dependable infrastructure a top priority in their Colonial Development Plan so they could more easily move their exports through the country then out for shipment to Europe. The two major modes of transportation they depended on were: 1.  by steamship on the Congo River and 2.) by railroad car. In 1911 The Société Colonial de Construction was established in order to build the first railway from Elisabethville to Bukama. That done, it went on to build a system of railway connections and depots within the colony.

The much unloved Leopold II, King of Belgium died in 1909 leaving a very reluctant King Albert I to take his place. Albert was the second son and as such had been always considered “next in line” to the throne until his older brother Baudoin unexpectedly died of pneumonia making Albert I the next king of Belgium.  The new King was a self-proclaimed socialist who looked for opportunities to implement his favorite  Marxist doctorines. One of his closest friends and advisors was Emile Waxweiler, engineer and noted sociologist who convinced Albert to let him implement his innovative labor theories through ths use of a community model that would be used to build and maintain an exclusive workforce of laborers in the Congo.  These “socially engineered” workers would ultimately employ their superior skills in a such a way that they would boost production and ensure greater revenues for the companies and the government.  After listening to Waxweiler’s compeling predictions about immense profits, Albert was only too willing to grant his request and Emile W. began his “Grand Experiment” in the Congo with the King’s blessing.

In 1906, the Union Minière du Haut Kanga( UMHK), was granted a permit by Leopold to develop its mining operation in its quest for copper. Soon after two more mining companies were formed in the same region: Forminière Société Internationale Forestière et Minière du Congo (FMC) and the Compagnie du Chemin de Fer du Bas-Congo au Katanga (BCK). But Leopold’s avarice and brutality had taken its toll. In his ten year rule of the Congo 10-13 million people had died of causes directly related to his corvee system and harsh punishments. By1908 only10 million people were left and many inland areas were very sparsely populated including Katanga District. Once the mine shafts had been secured and the passageways opened companies like UMHK (located in present-dayLubumbashi) needed hundreds of miners to remove the copper ore. In the beginning mining companies like UMHK attracted men from more distant tribes to work in their mines by offering a them a  range of lucrative incentives but they had failed to retain the numbers needed to adequately man the tunnels. But then Emile W. arrived on the scene and proposed that the executives implement his  “population management policies” in order to ensure a sufficient workforce.

UMHK was the first company to agree to implement his policies and a new “age of enslavement” commenced. All candidates were examined by European doctors and only the healthiest and strongest were hired. In the beginning all of the single men resided in barrack-like dormitories and had all of basic their needs looked after by the company. They were fed  a high protein diet, clothed in materials that would keep them warm and dry when down in the mines, and were expected to keep themselves clean. They had to obey every rule and observe the posted curfews or they were dismissed on the spot.  What’s more, they could not leave the mining compound unless they had received formal permission first. The camps were kept clean and comfortable but that did not prevent them from operating like prisons. Once a man agreed to work for the UMHK he relinquished all of his personal rights and freedoms except for what the companydecided to grant him.

Waxweiler went on to perfect his methods based on data from his Institut de Sociologie. One of his studies identified the best discipline techniques to use in order to produce the fastest and long-lasting results. Another strove to identify a range of local food products that could be used to make the most nutritious and the cheapest meals. Every policy Waxweiler introduced helped guarantee that the laborers would work as efficiently as possible in order to extract the optimum amount of copper from the tunnels each day. Unbeknownst to the Congolese workmen his designs ensured optimum productivity levels and the highest percentage of profits.

Eventually researchers at the Institut de Sociologie determined that married men were: less volatile, happier, healthier, and lived longer than single men. These findings caused the Board of Directors to issue an order requiring  “all black miners to marry” in order to keep their jobs with the company. Mining executives combed the region visiting native families in search of eligible brides. The company established a marriage brokering service and even bought the goats and cows needed for the marriage dowry exchanges. Medical doctors thoroughly examined all potential brides and approved only the healthiest ones who they determined would make “the best wives and breeders” and who would ultimately supply the mines with the next generation of workers. If a man was already married his wife still had to undergo a physical exam and if she was not accepted the man was dismissed. The mine enforced all of its policies and would not tolerate tribal customs such as keeping more than one wife, supporting a concubine, or what the Catholic authorities defined as any “adulterous behavior” within the compound.

If a family passed their examinations they were admitted into the domestic section of the compound. They lived in identical houses equipped with a small garden on pleasant tree-lined streets along with their neighbors. The company provided the food used to prepare each meal but the wife/ mother’s food rations were docked if any infractions of the rules occurred within the household. The husband’s food rations were never touched because he needed to be kept in optimum physical shape in order to work in the mines each day. All children were required to attend school from kindergarten to the end of primary school and all families had to comply with this expectation. Boys were trained to become efficient workers and girls were trained in the skills used by good wives and mothers. Education beyond primary school was not provided because the company had already determined there was no call for advanced education in a population of miners and mothers- the last thing company administrators wanted, was to create a workforce capable of thinking for themselves or challenging the company’s policies.

Females had been identified by the sociologists at the Institut as the most rebellious members of the family group so their lives were structured most carefully. The overseers made sure that every woman complied with the rules or suffered the consequences. Women were not allowed to leave the compound unless they applied for and were granted a pass. Logs were kept on the number of outside excursions per woman and the gatekeepers denied petitions from any female who had made too many outside visits regardless of the reason. Breastfeeding was also discouraged because the company administrators wanted to keep the women pregnant and thought that while breast feeding women would not conceive as easily. Women who chose to breastfeed after their child was a year old were punished by having their food rations lessened. Mining companies trained an exceptional corps of midwives/ nurses who helped deliver the miners’ babies and the infant mortality rates in these compounds decreased significantly. The mining corporations also established exceptional medical infirmaries equipped with European doctors who provided some of the best medical care and treatment in all of East Africa. These improvements were only made in order to meet specific objectives listed in Waxweiler’s productivity plan.

Over the years the social engineering experiments escalated until at last Belgian sociologists sought to create their own special  race of Congolese laborer. They did this  in response to the age-old feuds and constant tensions that played out in the mines each day among workers from different tribes who were forced to toil together in exceptionally close quarters.  Belgian scientists reported that this new race had been named “Tshanga- Tshanga” by the Congolese people. Tshanga- Tshanga really means “Neutral or Inbetween” but I believe that the word Tshanga meant “The Unaffiliated” to the Congolese people of that time because they recognized that these “neutral” individuals would never be part of a real tribe and it was only by being affiliated with the Kongo tribes that a person could develop his/her sense of self. According to the Belgians, who could not have had the word homestly translated for them, Tshanga- Tshanga meant “The Great Equalizer”. I believe it had to have been hopeful thinking on the Belgian’s part because no East African would have interpreted the word “Tshanga” as meaning “The Great Equalizer” or would have even understood the context in which the phrase had been used. No Congolese man or woman would have approved of the Belgian’s attempt to create a new race either.

 Before they had finished with the Tshanga- Tshanga Plan,  Belgian researchers in the Congo had deliberately coerced  hundreds of young men and women into mating with one another in hopes that they would eventually produce the perfect worker for the copper mines. According to Dr. Van Nitzen, a well-known racial constructivist of the time, their objective was to “create a strong, healthy, disciplined workforce of devoted laborers.”

What they actually created was a group of social outcasts resented by the rest of the  tribes, who were only accepted in the artificial environments established in the mining camps around Katanga and Kasai. Eventually in spite of how well they had been cared for the native miners rebelled and a series of violent labor strikes occurred which only infuriated the mining authorities and the colonial administrators that much more. Eventually the colonial Governor had no choice but to capitulate and grant the workers’ demands. Actually the native miners received only slightly higher wages and a few more rights but for the first time Congolese workers had established themselves as “men capable of self-government”. The Tshanga – Tshanga experiments eventually ceased, Emile Waxmeiler was mysteriously hit by a car while crossing a London street in 1916, and“ The Grand Experiment” was abandoned once and for all.

In statements made to the world press by certain members of the Belgian Parliment  in the 1920’s it was clear that Belgium’s  primary responsibility was to “tend” to the people of the Congo and to make decisions for them like a father does for his children. The Belgian officials bristled when European journalists challenged their use of specific colonial policies especially social experimentation and criticized them for managing their workers as if they were mere “sheep or cattle”. The politicos regrouped and reassured skeptical members of the press that they had only ever worked in the best interest of the Congolese people. By the time the 1920’s ended the Colonial Governor had never once stated in any documentation that a plan existed to help the native population assume control of their own country one day. By the 1950’s members of the Belgian parliment were outraged when their ungrateful colonists began to riot and demanded the right to rule themselves and the official powers in  Belgium swiftly removed all Belgians from the Congo leaving their colonists ” high and dry” when their authority was ultimately challenged in 1960.

Kat Nickerson   Kingston   RI      USA

Death and Domination in the Congo: The First Global Shout-Out

29 Apr


“Everywhere I hear the same news of the Congo Free State – rubber and murder, slavery in its worst form.” E. J. Glave, Congo Free State administrator, Century Magazine (1897).

On November 15, 1908 Leopold II, King of Belgium formally renounced his personal control of the Congo Free State which immediately was placed under the administration of the Belgian Parliament and renamed the Belgian Congo. Leopold had no intention of surrendering his personal property without a long and arduous fight but changed his mind after he became the object of  such intense hatred and negative publicity that he succumbed to the political pressure and gave in. Even after he had signed away all rights to his possession a host of British and American newspapers continued to post headlines exposing new atrocities reported to have taken place in the Congo. Numerous articles and an outpouring of “Letters to the Editor” called for the International Criminal Court (ICC) to try him as a criminal and hang him for his “heinous offenses”.   Unfortunately the ICC was a fledgling judicial institution  in the early 1900’s and did not have the legal authority to render an official verdict or impose a sentence but numerous citizens around the world felt that it was time to give the court “some teeth” and allow it to formally try King Leopold II of Belgium and convict him for his “crimes against humanity”.

But how was it that the good citizens of the world came to hear about Leopold and his systemized exploitation of the Congo in the first place?  Reports about the “horrid enslavement of the natives” began to surface in official mission communications handed to a Dr. H. Gratton Guinness and then sent back to the Harley Missionary Training Institute in East London. These were the same missionaries who had been invited into the Congo Free State by Leopold himself to “Christianize the natives.”  Dr Henry Grattan Guinness became particularly outspoken about the horrendous abuses described to him by the missionaries in the region who were outraged by the methods employed by the Force Publique against the villagers especially the use of torture and dismemberment. Although the Belgian authorities challenged the accuracy of Dr. Guinness’ claims, the eye-witness accounts would not be dismissed so easily and were eventually turned over by the Mission Society to British journalists in London. Dr. Guinness was a highly respected physician, missionary, protestant preacher, evangelist, and author who had a large following of supporters both in England and in Ireland. He had spent a full year traveling a 3, 600 mile course on the Congo River and its tributaries charged with investigating the conditions and potential of  missionary service in that region. In his role as Mission Secretary he made visits to all of the missionary stations belonging to the Congo Balold Mission.

In 1877 The Livingstone Inland Mission to the Congo was first envisioned by the Baptist minister Alfred Tilly after he heard about Stanley’s journey into this area of Africa. Henry and his wife were members of the Mission Committee and ran the East London Training Institute for Home and Foreign Missions so they were charged with preparing the first recruits. Fifty missionaries along with Guinness and his wife left for the Congo. In 1878 the Livingston Inland Mission was the first mission to be established in this region. It had originally been planned that the mission would be self-supporting but this failed to happen. The first missionaries suffered from a host of tropical diseases, inadequate equipment, and a lack of support from the Belgian administrators in the area even though Leopold himself  had pledged his support at the beginning of the project. By1884 the lack of resources and the illness of Mrs. Guinness forced Dr. Guinness to hand the mission over to the care of the American Baptist Missionary Union and the Swiss Missionary Fellowship.

 Edmund Dene Morel was the Head of Congo Trade for the Liverpool shipping company, Elder Dempster which had been awarded the shipping contract between Antwerp, Belgian and the port city of Boma located in the Congo Free State. Morel who had been educated in France as a child was fluent in the French language and so the company sent him to  Belgium to serve as Elder Dempster’s  business agent there. Once he had settled into their offices he was able to study the Congo accounts and cargo manifests in detail. After a careful examination of these records he uncovered the exploitative nature behind Leopold’s business practices especially in regards to his collection of rubber and ivory.  While in this position he was also privy to the first –hand accounts told to him by English traders and seamen sent by Elder Dempster to the Congo export stations to collect the shipments. They described in detail the abusive conditions endured by the villagers under the corvee system imposed upon them by Leopold’s business agents. Corvée is an unpaid labor practice used with individuals required to pay taxes but with no cash or coin with which to settle their debts. It was usually imposed upon them by a state or  ruler. It was first used in feudal times where the taxee agreed to work a certain number of days without compensation in order to pay off what was owed to the ruler or administrator. Leopold had amended this system so that  his laborers were required to work non-stop every day of their lives for  no monetary compensation whatsoever. And if they refused to comply with  his demands he killed them off or mutilated members of their families. Not only did he  distort the system but he eventually reshaped it into one of the cruelest forms of enslaved labor ever implemented by a ruler.

 Morel’s outrage over Leopold’s uncontested domination of  the Congolese people eventually led him to begin writing about the injustice of it all. In 1900, Morel repeatedly lashed out against Leopold’s polices in articles published in a weekly magazine called Speaker. By1902, Morel retired from Elder Dempster then dedicated his life to exposing the human rights abuses taking place in the Congo Free State. His articles were so well received that he was soon hired as an editor of a new periodical, called West Africa. In 1903 he founded his own magazine, The West African Mail, an illustrated weekly journal in which he conducted a relentless campaign against Leopold, his Belgian Colonialists, and the actions of the Force Publique. Morel also published several pamphlets and his first book, Affairs of West Africa. He became a passionate watchdog who alerted the British Empire to the extent of Leopold’s inhumanity to his  subjects. His horrendous descriptions so outragesd the citizens of Europe and the United States that they began to  formally petition their governments to intervene on  behalf of these “innocents” to stop the torture and the slaughter.

As certain of his articles were reprinted byAmerican and London dailies Morel became a “Man of Influence” around London. Eventually  he agreed to take part in public lectures speaking out against Leopold in community halls and private homes. He proved to be a gifted and persuasive orator and  became so popular throughout Europe that even King Leopold II was forced to acknowledge his scathing diatribes. The King was so unsettled by Morel’s relentless condemnation of him in the world press that he begged the owners of certain British tabloids to intercede on his behalf and see to it that Morel was “stopped” from defaming “his good name”.

Eventually the Aborigines’ Protection Society acted on the “disturbing news” brought back to them by the surviving members of the Congo missions. This Quaker- initiated Society was the first international human rights organization, founded in 1837 to protect the health and well-being as well as the sovereign, legal, and religious rights of indigenous peoples subjected by the colonial powers. By1832 Britain had formally abolished the slave trade and by the 1880’s there was a large population of Brits and Americans of both sexes firmly devoted to the eradication of any form of slavery around the world. The APS continued until 1909 when it became known as the AntiSlavery and Aborigines’ Protection Society. It is currently called Anti- Slavery International and can be accessed at

The APS sponsored the creation of written materials such as tracts, pamphlets, annual reports and a widely- respected journal entitled The Colonial Intelligencer. By 1889 ,the writer Henry Richard Fox-Bourne had been named editor of the Intelligencer and Chair of the Society. Bourne began collecting private testimonies about the atrocities committed in the Congo and in 1902 published his book, Civilization in Congoland: A Story of International Wrongdoing. The book was well accepted in literary circles around London and New York City and went on to further fuel the righteous indignation of more and more of the citizenry living on the Continent. Also in 1902 Joseph Conrad, a Polish-born novelist who had immigrated to England published a three part series called “Heart of Darkness” in Blackwood Magazine causing an uproar of criticism against Leopold’s brutal treatment of the Congolese villagers. In it, his hero arrives  in the Congo and observes the abject poverty and the inhuman conditions imposed on the tribes living along the river by the white colonialists  engaged in trade there. Soon after it was published as a novella and was read by thousands more in Europe and the United States.

In 1903 the British House of Commons passed a resolution in response to the recommendations of some very influential members of Parliament and at the behest of the Aborigines’ Protection Society to investigate the disturbing headlines pasted across the front pages of London newspapers and magazines at the time. The British consul at Boma, a Roger Casement, was assigned the task of investigating the charges of inhumane practices leveled against Leopold and his administrators. This was no easy task. Leopold had spies everywhere and in time all of the white traders in the area had to have been aware of why Casement was making regular visits to the surrounding villages. The Congo was full of natural dangers and the Belgians stationed around Casement had alreadydemonstrated that they were more than comfortable with causing mayhem and murder. Casement must have feared for his own life on many occasions. But in a heroic effort he pushed on and in 1904 submitted his final report which confirmed Morel’s accusations and further inflamed an already exasperated population  of sympathizers in the United States and Europe.

The entire summary was about forty pages long.  He added another twenty pages to the report filled with first-hand testimonials describing in great detail the murders, mutilations, kidnappings, and beatings of the villagers by the Force Publique in their attempt to enforce the policies established by Leopold and his colonial regulators. After the British Parliament received his original report a copy was sent to the Belgian Parliament and to the other 12 nations who were the original signatories at the Berlin Agreement of 1885. The British Parliament along with the United States of America demanded another meeting of the 14 signatory powers right away in order to review the original Berlin Agreement. When the report was made public, the Congo Reform Association headed by Morel and vigorously supported by Casement demanded that the Belgian government take legal action at once. The Belgian officials complied by forcing an outraged Leopold to establish a Belgian Committee of Inquiry. While the world waited this commission reviewed all of the evidence and ultimately agreed with Casement’s findings. In 1905 they ordered the immediate arrest and imprisonment of the colonial official who had been convicted of murdering hundreds of native workers during a rubber-collection expedition in 1903.

Despite the 1904 report and the subsequent investigation in 1905, Leopold retained official control of his Congo Free State for three more years. It took until November 15,1908 for the Parliament of Belgium to annex Leopold’s Congo Free State and assume legal responsibility for all administrative services. Leopold II, King of Belgium died in December of 1909. Several of his household staff testified that he refused to let go of the anger he felt at being made to “give away” his personal property and that he showed no remorse for his actions. Whatever the reason, the man  who had personally engineered the death of so many finally joined the ranks of his victims and by 1912 the members of the Congo Reform Association were able to disband once and for all.

In spite of or maybe because of his humanitarian efforts, Sir Roger Casement, who had been knighted by the King of England for his noble actions on behalf of the Congolese people, was hanged for sabotage and espionage against the Crown on August 3rd, 1916. It was proven  that the Irish Nationalist had met with German officials to elicit their support in a rebellion against the British government in order to free Ireland. The plot behind the revolution called the  Easter Rising was uncovered by British agents in Dublin and Casement was captured then quickly jailed.  He was subsequently tried and convicted of treason. And the British parliament who had so highly praised his actions in the service of humanity branded him a “dirty homosexual” and purposefully released his diaries. Today these are known as  the Black Diaries. Discrete entries from his diaries were released during the trial by British authorities who deliberately used them to seal his fate and ensure that he would receive the death penalty for his crimes. The mercy and respect for all human beings that Casement had worked so hard to establish during his lifetime was withheld from him by the very country he had once served so well.  And in the end Roger Casement, human rights activist,  hung from a rope on the gallows in Pentonville prison for intefering with the course of British rule while Leopold of Belgium, murderer of millions died  peacefully in his bed.

Kat Nickerson   Kingston    USA

A Legacy of Pain: King Leopold II

15 Apr



 Ntaganda Update: President Joseph Kabila of the Democratic Republic of the Congo has announced that General Bosco Ntaganda should be arrested and face a military tribunal in the DRCongo instead being made to stand trial at the International Criminal Court in the Netherlands.  (Washington Post, 4/11/2012)

The term, “colonialism” means “domination of a superior power over a weaker one” and suitably describes the exploitation and indoctrination that occurred in Sub-Saharan Africa from 1885 until World War II. Most of the civil wars that continue to plague East Africa as well the systemized rape of women, torture, and dismemberment regularly practiced by rebel militia groups and even the standing armies in the DR Congo today were initially introduced as effective domination strategies by the most powerful countries in Europe beginning in the late 1900’s as a way to “introduce and maintain order”.

It all began with the birth of “African Colonialism” at the Berlin Conference of 1885.  At this formal gathering, representatives from Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Portugal, Spain, as well the small country of Belgium sat down together to divide up and section off all of the land south of Sub-Saharan Africa except for the lands previously awarded to the countries of Ethiopia and Liberia. Belgium was a relatively new monarchy at the time having only just established its independence from the United Kingdom of the Netherlands in 1830. Great Britain and France clearly were in need of raw materials and trade alliances with which to support their countries’ growing domestic industries while Italy had joined together with Germany in 1871 forming an imposing alliance.

The “Congo Conference” was hosted by Germany and the resulting General Act of the Berlin Conference was established to regulate trade and settlement practices within the colonies. In order to do this a committee of European  leaders agreed to impose new borders onto existing tribal kingdoms – many times separating centuries- old ethnic groups in the process and distorting territorial boundaries that had previously served to divide feuding clans. Each country pledged to launch immediate settlement plans, man and staff their colonial governments, and headed out to take control of their new possessions; completing this task in 10 short years between 1880 and 1890. And as for the claims and the rights of the peoples and ethnic groups already living on these lands, you ask?  Well their rights and claims were never considered at all. The residents of these lands were deemed to be incapable of ruling themselves and so as part of the colonization agreement each nation pledged to “end the slave trade, bring God to the local residents, and establish order throughout the colonies” but it was clear as one Ugandan colleague so eloquently stated that their purpose in coming was “not to elevate but to dominate”.

And no one person managed to do so with as much cruelty or avarice as King Leopold II of Belgium. It is important that the reader understand that by the conclusion of the Berlin Conference Leopold had been granted exclusive rights to the region of the world now known as the Democratic Republic of the Congo- not his country, his government, nor his people. The Congo Free State as he called it belonged to him and him alone. He set to work organizing his colony for one purpose only – to  increase his personal wealth. He hired the services of none other than Henry Morton Stanley of, “Dr. Livingston, I presume” to sign treaties with the kings of the most important tribes in the Congo in order to present undeniable evidence that they had accepted his sovereign authority over them and their people.

He then concentrated on building a private army that would enforce his rules throughout the Congo Free State which he named the Force Publique.  He presented commissions to a wide range veteran officers and mercenaries from around the world. His officers had to be white Europeans while his enlisted men, dressed in blue uniforms and red fezzes were selected from among other African tribal groups in North Congo, Zanzibar, and other countries around West Africa like Ghana and Cameroon. Leopold only hired seasoned military officers, who had actually fought in battle and he assembled a force of war- hardened troops accustomed to killing and punishing to accomplish their goals. The Force Publique resurrected a well- known set of military strategies based on the art of intimidation and subjugation. These procedures had been commonly used in European warfare when a smaller force sought to intimidate civilians living in the area into submission in order to eliminate the possibility of a whole -scale rebellion against them. The smaller force deliberately employed terrifying procedures and specific forms of psychological torture known to be so repugnant to their enemies that they would immediately “cease and desist” preventing any further threat of retaliation.

These soldiers were deliberately trained to carry out the most atrocious acts imaginable towards the Congolese people  in order to remove any semblance of self-efficacy or control and to destroy any confidence the villagers’ once had in their ability to strike back.  Lastly, the Force Publique used what was most valuable to their victims such as the threat of harm to wives and children to further control Leopold’s workers. These strategies had first been designed for use in European conflicts where troops had found themselves outnumbered in enemy territory but now they would be customized and reworked by the Force Public in order to allow them to effectively manage large groups of enslaved laborers.

“Colonial regulations” were applied with impunity against a people whom the soldiers had already determined were inferior and replaceable. Despite all of their advanced weaponry and superior military strength the Force Publique did not have the tactical advantage and they knew it. They were a small number of men residing in a foreign country surrounded by a superior force of combatants capable of waging war on them at any time. They had heard reports that some of the villages in the outer bush practiced  Cannibalism and that information further intiminated them. So they took the offense and systematically broke the “spirit of the people” around them in order to protect themselves from the threat of rebellion and to ensure that Leopold’s obsessive demands would be carried out to the letter.

Do these tactics sound familiar then? They should. These are the same techniques used by any number of rebel militia forces in the Ugandan Civil War, the First and Second Congo Wars, Darfur, and in the War for Independence in Rwanda.  Kony and his Lords Liberation Army did not create these methods but they certainly have applied them successfully.  All of East Africa has mastered subjugation procedures especially well and use them whenever they need to render a group of civilians submissive and compliant. Congolese warlords use them  as effectively today as the Force Publique did over a century ago.

Leopold’s first economic endeavor was the accumulation of ivory. His marksmen, in their quest for wealth, slaughtered thousands of male and female elephants just to hack off their tusks. The ivory itself would be eventually fashioned into jewelry and other decorative objects such as pipes, billiard balls, and piano keys. There are reports that his hunters trapped and slaughtered upwards of two hundred elephants at a time leaving their carcasses to swell and rot in the intense, tropical sun.  The train that Stanley had built had not been completed so Leopold needed a way to transport his ivory tusks to the coast. He began using local tribesmen as porters to hand-carry these tusks along dangerous pathways that had been cut through the thick rain forests in order to deliver them to his seaport where they would be loaded on ships and taken back to Belgium.  If a man became sick or overcome with exhaustion on the trip he would be left to die on the path while his friends were forced to move on without him. Leopold demanded that his ivory shipments be transported in the dry and wet seasons causing his porters to die from a host of life-threatening maladies such as mud slides, snake bites, malaria, blood infections, and wild animal attacks.

 At the dawn of the 20th century the vulcanization of rubber helped establish the bicycle and automobile industry. There was an immense need for raw rubber from which to make things such as tires, hot water bottles, and rain coats. Leopold intended to capitalize on his second opportunity to increase his wealth.

As enormous region of the Congo Free State was covered by a vast tropical rainforest that contained rubber trees. These trees could be harvested by laborers for the sap they contained.  Leopold found himself doubly blessed with an unlimited supply of raw rubber to export and an enormous work force  of tribesmen that could be used to collect the sap.  He ordered his native populations into the rain forests and if they objected he killed them and/or maimed their wives and children sometimes putting entire villages to the torch. Within a decade Leopold’s rubber extraction operation became a especially lucrative business so much so that the French in their colonies in the northwest Congo, the Portuguese in Angola, and the Germans in Cameroon developed similar rubber extraction enterprises based on Leopold’s use of enslaved labor.

Leopold was such a severe taskmaster that even his own troops were subject to stringent quota systems.  Each soldier was made to account for the use of every bullet fired by submitting one hand from the villager he had killed as proof. Many soldiers were unable to account for all of their spent bullets and so feared that their salaries would be docked for these omissions. They solved this problem by cutting off the hands of live villagers instead then turning those in to balance their accounts. Over time mutilations became the accepted mode of punishment for even minor infractions. Hands and feet were cut off in retribution for real as well as imagined offenses or because the workers had not met their rubber quotas for the month. One of the most painful photographs I have ever seen from that period was of a Congolese worker who sits looking down at five hands that have been laid out in front of him, one hand had been amputated from each one of his five daughters as punishment for not meeting his rubber quota.  

One of the reasons the Force Publique became so outrageous in the number of people it killed was the fact that it never lacked for more laborers; if one man died, another could replace him. It has been reported that when Leopold was finally made to sell the Congo Free State  to the Belgium government, a mere 10 years later between 10 and 13 million people were dead from murder, mutilation, starvation, exhaustion, or disease. 

The deliberate use of mutilation to subdue a larger group should also sound familiar. The use of torture, mutilation and rape  is currently being used by rebel armies, guerillas, and terrorists throughout East Africa. “There is nothing that crushes the human spirit so irrevocably as having to endure a piece of your body being hacked off,” stated one of my dear Ugandan friends. “I would like to see just how well Mandela (referring to Nelson Mandela) would have carried on after they hacked his nose and lips off! These are primal fears that overwhelm the simple people who have have been subjected to such atrocities. Things like that change you forever and you would do anything at all to stop it. Those soldiers know this and still they do it to innocent men, women, and children. Damn them! May they never be forgiven!”

And as one of my other sources confided, “What better way to crush a woman for good than to impregnate her with the enemy’s child?”

What should scare us even more is the reason these atrocities were committed in the first place. If I could get Kony to speak truthfully about why he harms the people of his Acholi villages, I am sure that he would not mention emotions such as hatred or revenge- he only ever acted out of fear. He struck first just as the Force Publique did a century ago.  He knows that he does not have a sufficient number of men to fend off an attack by all of the people living in an area at once so he prevents that from happening by systematically crushing them before the group realizes that it had the power to retaliate all along. But the subjugation techniques so well developed and applied  by the Force Publique never really went away.  They were perserved in detailed accounts passed down from grandfather to son to grandson around the village campfires in the evening. The horrendous tortures and brutal massacres of the Congolese people were never really forgotten and eventually were remembered best by the young men; the ones who most recently ressurected the violence and intimidation in order to wage their own unique brand of  civil war. 

I truly wish I could reassure you that once King Leopold II had been removed from power and the Belgium government took control conditions improved for the people of the Belgian Congo but that did not happen. Although the name of the colony changed- the lives of the people did not. But that explanation will have to wait until my next post

Kat Nickerson    Kingston       RI       USA

For those of you who would like to know more about this topic read  

King Leopold’s Ghost: a story of greed, terror, and heroism in colonial Africa

By  Adam Hochschild, ©1998,  Pan MacMillian    ISBN – 0-330-49233-0