Chapter One : Congo
At the start of things, God travelled the world
placing precious minerals in the earth, a little
gold here, some diamonds there. When he came
to Congo he was tired and lay down and left
everything that he had beneath the soil.
Papa Marcel, Congolese boxer
On a blowy evening in August 2016, I met Papa Marcel and a gang of his old boxing buddies outside a quiet street bar in Kinshasa. The last time I had met him was at the Fédération congolaise de boxe, where cockerels pecked around an old punching bag slung over a wooden frame that looked like a gallows. Papa Marcel was the federation’s secretary, a former amateur boxer whose sixty-five years had reduced him in volume but not in spirit, and left his giant frame poking through his zoot suit like a sack of elephant bones. On that occasion he had been silenced by a retired army officer who told him never to speak with journalists, but the subject matter had proved just too enticing.
Now he was among friends, lounging on plastic chairs around a carton of cheap red wine, pensioners, several of them, passing an uneventful Saturday on a patch of dust beneath a shady tree. When I told them where I was going, all six folded themselves into the back of the Land Cruiser and began shouting directions.
In the bowels of what used to be called the 20th May Stadium is a cavernous dark space full of broken furniture and scraps of cardboard. ‘This is where he stood,’ proclaimed Papa Marcel. ‘This is where Muhammad Ali prepared himself,’ and at the mention of his name they all began jabbing and sparring as if, somewhere in the urine-soaked shadows, a giant brass bell had been struck. The whole room was filled with those noises boxers make, ‘Phhtt, phhtt’, and they were back there, upper cut, jab to the jaw, ‘Ali, bomaye! Ali, bomaye!’ The chant in Lingala means ‘Ali, kill him!’ and it swirled around the stadium as Ali emerged to take on George Foreman for the world heavyweight championship, the fight forever known as the Rumble in the Jungle, the most intoxicating bout in boxing history. ‘Over there,’ pointed one of them. ‘That is where he entered the stadium.’ He made a long guttural noise like the gathering roar of a plane, and the whole carnival of dancing Alis jostled towards a square of light, up a short flight of stairs, and out onto the turf, wheeling and jabbing while a group of uninterested youths hoofed a heavy ball around where the boxing ring used to be. The old men pointed high up on the concrete terraces, trying to recall their places on that humid October night in 1974. From up there, right at the top, the ring had looked like a raft on a tempestuous sea. Floodlights struck it from every direction. Knots of officials clambered on board and squinted towards the tunnel, looking for the two fighters. It was 3.45 a.m. and still nothing. The start was tailored for US television schedules, and the crowd was becoming restless.
John Matadi, a restless antelope of a youth who would have fought himself given half the chance, was midway up the terrace, near to Ali’s corner. And what a few weeks he had just had. Since Ali’s circus had moved into town it was like half of America wanted a ride in his cab. There were men in perma-shades and sheepskin coats, bantering journalists wearing Stetsons and women’s heels, TV producers handing out hundred-dollar bills. Some of the guys even said they had seen James Brown, who was headlining the rock concert at the president’s private amphitheatre. And now it was Matadi’s turn. He was waiting for a fare outside the Intercontinental Hotel and Muhammad Ali himself had walked out onto the pavement! There was a proper maul, all of them trying to catch a glimpse, a handshake even, but John Matadi had stood taller than the rest because of his giant Afro hair, and Ali had pointed at him and bellowed, ‘You! Who do you want to win?’ The cameras were flashing, the hangers-on grinning and gesturing. ‘Foreman!’ shouted Matadi, all mock defiance. ‘ONE HUNDRED PER CENT FOREMAN!’ Ali widened his eyes like a demon. Left hook, jab, jab, his head was down and he was sparring with the spindly taxi driver, the crowd cheering them on. Another driver, Pierre Mambele, wanted a bit of it too. He squeezed between them, hands in the air like a referee. ‘Break… keep it moving… keep it clean.’ Ali danced around, waiting for Mambele’s signal, and the two men were at it again, Matadi parrying and bantering like a pro, ‘Foreman, he gonna win,’ he kept saying, and Ali’s fists were so close he could feel the swish of air across his face. Matadi was an Ali supporter really – they all were. He just wanted to vex the man, provoke him into a performance, and a few days later both taxi drivers were in the 20th May Stadium cheering for their hero.
‘And here comes Muhammad Ali out of the dressing room! It is what Muhammad Ali lives for…!’
At his hilltop palace, overlooking Kinshasa, President Mobutu Sese Seko was preparing for a very satisfying night in. The event’s promoter, Don King, had been trawling the world for any government or company willing to stump up the $10 million prize money and host the event, and he hadn’t been choosy about their credentials. In Mobutu he had found a headline-grabber who was bound to attract a curious TV audience worldwide, a maverick African chief who was rumoured to torture his opponents and who dressed more wildly than James Brown himself. But Mobutu would watch the event he was paying for from the comfort of his own sofa. He didn’t want to be upstaged by Muhammad Ali, and anyway there was something nonchalantly powerful about staying away from his own party, not to mention avoiding some lunatic rebel who might be armed with a grievance and a gun. It wasn’t worth the risk. He had already milked several photo opportunities. The PR job was done and the international chorus of endorsement had been so loud, so emphatic, that the spoilsport rights groups were mere mosquitos in Kinshasa’s humid night air, their whine drowned out by 70,000 cheering fans.
‘It changed our view of Mobutu for two years, maybe three,’ says Papa Marcel, surveying the scene of his most precious memory. ‘It made us proud to be Zairians. The whole world was watching. Now everyone knew about Zaire!’ But the US government and the CIA knew exactly what Mobutu had been up to in Zaire. They had been working with him behind the scenes, funding and encouraging him, from the start.
In March 1960 a young African hurried along a breezy Brussels street bundled up in a heavy overcoat against the end-of-winter chill. He was a slight, earnest man, disorientated by his new environment, and one of just a handful of black Africans in Belgium. He also had every reason to feel conflicted. This was the home of his colonial masters, the Belgians he so passionately wanted to drive from his homeland, but it was also the home of everything he had been taught to respect and admire and, as such, it possessed an unshakeable allure.
The roads leading to the Institute of Social Studies were busy. Elegant Renault saloons cruised by carrying government officials. Men in dark suits fanned out of the Gare Centrale. Barmen tweaked tablecloths inside smoke-filled Flemish cafés. And, to the hurrying young man, everything must have seemed so orderly, so conservative, so colourless.
He was born a world away, Joseph Désiré Mobutu, under a blazing sky in a village of straw shacks and a single Belgian Catholic church. Lisala was situated on the northernmost loop of the Congo, a river whose course had only been charted two generations before by the expedition of Henry Morton Stanley. Women pounded yams and men cast off each morning from the muddy shore to fish from dugout canoes. Mobutu’s mother had been the prettiest girl in the village, by his own account, and the subject of much male attention. After giving birth to two children from her first relationship, she was passed on to a local chief and became pregnant with twins. The children died at birth, and Mobutu’s mother was convinced she was being persecuted by witch doctors hired by another of the chief’s wives. She fled into the jungle and walked for days to the village of a relative, where she met and married a local cook. He was to become Mobutu’s father.
The young and rebellious Mobutu had an itinerant schooling, usually at the hands of Catholic monks, whom he impressed with his intelligence, but less so with his discipline. He was famously kicked out of one missionary school for making a ‘little expedition’ of his own to the capital – Leopoldville back then, now Kinshasa – where he travelled in search of women and alcohol, an adventure for which the monks banished him to the army. But let’s pause there, because, in those early years, there is a scene that will help give a sense of the man: Mobutu as a child walking hand in hand with a middle-aged white lady as if he were her own son. She is Belgian, a liberal-minded progressive and the wife of a Belgian judge. Mobutu’s father is their cook, and she has seen something in the small African boy, perhaps wit, curiosity, a young mind ready to open, and she tutors him in French and lets him sit at her table, and walks with him through staring crowds; and she fills his mind with everything a young Belgian boy would have as of right.
So, when he is conscripted to the army, Mobutu finds he can speak as well as the Belgian officers. He gallivants through his training, employing his crisp and eloquent French to mock anyone trying to give him orders, failing dismally in disciplinary routines, shining in anything that requires the application of intelligence. And soon, his eye is caught by a profession known, then and now, to accommodate both indiscipline and wit. Mobutu wants to be a journalist, an opinion-writer, an agenda-setter, a person of influence. It would have been laughable just a few years before that an African could harbour such grand ambitions, but Congo was starting to change.
An irresistible force was sweeping the whole continent. What had been viewed as an extreme position at the start of the twentieth century, supported by a handful of cranks and troublemakers, had grown into a popular mainstream movement after the Second World War. Colonialism could be extinguished. It would be extinguished. Nationalist movements had won the argument. Now, it was just a matter of time. The Europeans were poised to move out. Ghana had set the pace, winning independence from Britain in 1957, and even de Gaulle was preparing to get rid of his African assets, contemplating the unthinkable by withdrawing from Algeria. But Belgium was standing firm, its leaders suggesting it would take another three decades before Congo was ready for self governance, some said even longer. In Leopoldville and Stanleyville, however, the fledgling Congolese leaders were already filling stadiums for their rallies and speeches.
by Paul Kenyon
Head of Zeus | 453 pp | £9.99