Gesture and Power: Religion, Nationalism, and Everyday Performance in Congo

Gesture and Power: Religion, Nationalism, and Everyday Performance in Congo

by Yolanda Covington-Ward

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In Gesture and Power Yolanda Covington-Ward examines the everyday embodied practices and performances of the BisiKongo people of the Lower Congo to show how their gestures, dances, and spirituality are critical in mobilizing social and political action. Conceiving of the body as the center of analysis, a catalyst for social action, and as a conduit for the social construction of reality, Covington-Ward focuses on specific flash points in the last ninety years of Congo's troubled history, when embodied performance was used to stake political claims, foster dissent, and enforce power. In the 1920s Simon Kimbangu started a Christian prophetic movement based on spirit-induced trembling, which swept through the Lower Congo, subverting Belgian colonial authority. Following independence, dictator Mobutu Sese Seko required citizens to dance and sing nationalist songs daily as a means of maintaining political control. More recently, embodied performance has again stoked reform, as nationalist groups such as Bundu dia Kongo advocate for a return to precolonial religious practices and non-Western gestures such as traditional greetings. In exploring these embodied expressions of Congolese agency, Covington-Ward provides a framework for understanding how embodied practices transmit social values, identities, and cultural history throughout Africa and the diaspora. 

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780822374848
Publisher: Duke University Press
Publication date: 11/19/2015
Series: Religious Cultures of African and African Diaspora People
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 304
File size: 5 MB

About the Author

Yolanda Covington-Ward is Assistant Professor of Africana Studies at the University of Pittsburgh.

Read an Excerpt

Gesture and Power

Religion, Nationalism, and Everyday Performance in Congo

By Yolanda Covington-Ward

Duke University Press

Copyright © 2016 Duke University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8223-7484-8


Neither Native nor Stranger

Places, Encounters, Prophecies

Meeting Kimbangu: Everyday Encounters and Embodied Prophecies in Luozi

January 30, 2006. Wearing baggy sweat pants, an old T-shirt and sneakers, and a scarf tied over my hair, I join my friends outside, closing the door of the house behind me.

"Let's go, then," I say.

Kilanda (big sister), Pierre (brother), Suzanne (little sister), Phillipe (Kilanda's baby), and I are headed to one of the family's many fields in Luozi to plant soybeans. Up and down several winding red dirt paths, over rough troughs, past grazing goats, and through thigh-high grass, we walk until we arrive after about ten minutes in a field next to the overgrown cement foundation and half-finished walls of the future site of a bigger and better Kongo DMNAchurch.

"This is it," Pierre gestures.

I gaze at the site, shading my eyes from the bright sunlight. We put down our water jugs, baskets, and hoes, and Kilanda places Phillipe in the care of his little aunt under the shade of a colorful umbrella. Kilanda and Pierre begin to test my knowledge of plants, which is not too developed, since I am a city girl. Nevertheless, I am determined to show that I had learned something during my time in Luozi. Pierre points to the first plant.

"Saka-saka" (meaning cassava-leaves), I say excitedly. He chooses another.

"Nkovi" (collard greens — now that was an easy one).

"Et ca?" (And this?) Kilanda gestures to yet another plant.

"Nguba" (peanuts), I answer.

As they prepare for all of us to plant soybeans, I begin to take photos of the plants and the field. Kilanda notices an older woman at work clearing the overgrowth in one room of the church structure, and so we go over there to say hello. She is a member of the DMNA church and looks to be in her sixties. Her head is covered with a scarf, and she is wearing a beige sleeveless tank top with a pagne wrapped around her waist. She is deftly pulling weeds and grass from the ground by hand and wipes the sweat from her brow with her forearm as she stands to greet us as we approach the structure. Kilanda introduces me as a noire-americaine (Black American), and the woman smiles, and then spontaneously breaks into song:

Tata Kimbangu weti zieta kaka mu Afelika
Weti niku nanga nsi ye kamba vo lusiama.
Ah Ah Ah lusiama AhAhAh lusiama
weti niku nanga nsi ye kamba vo lusiama
Ah Ah Ah lusiama AhAhAh lusiama
weti niku nanga nsi ye kamba vo lusiama
Ah Ah Ah tata ye mama nge wabo kulua
simba sabala kia mpeve ye kota mu mvita

Papa Kimbangu always walks in Africa
He moves the world and says to be strong
Ahhh Be strong, be strong,
He moves the world and says to be strong
Ahhh Be strong, be strong,
He moves the world and says to be strong
Fathers and Mothers you who are called
Hold the sword of the spirit and enter the war

Had I experienced this same situation when I first arrived in the Congo, I probably would not have understood the implications of her impromptu song and cultural performance. However, months before this, in September, as I walked through Luozi with Ne Nkamu, my chief cultural consultant, music/Kikongo language tutor, and friend, we passed through the yard of an older couple. When Ne Nkamu introduced us, the elderly gentleman took off his hat, smiled, and said something about the prophecy coming true. A few days later, Ne Nkamu and I crossed the path of a group of men at work on constructing a building. As I introduced myself and tried my fledgling Kikongo by asking them their clans, some of the men responded and then asked me the same question. As Ne Nkamu stepped in to explain that I don't know my clan because of slavery and the slave trade to the Americas, another man chimed in about the prophecy of Simon Kimbangu, and some of the others nodded. Moreover, on my first meeting with representatives of Bundu dia Kongo in Luozi, the same comment was made, and they explained to me that this particular prophecy of Kimbangu was recorded in their sacred book, and they have created a list of regulations to govern the impending return of African Americans to the Congo.

Over and over again, especially during my time in Luozi, people associated my presence, my very body, with the fulfillment of the prophecy of Tata Simon Kimbangu. The prophecy that Simon Kimbangu supposedly made during the colonial period basically said that Black Americans would come back to the Congo to help liberate it, and also teach the Congolese all the technical knowledge and skills they needed to be more successful than their colonial oppressors. Although there doesn't seem to be any text that Kimbangu actually wrote himself proclaiming this, the prophecy has been immortalized in eyewitness accounts, colonial government documents, song lyrics of the Kimbanguist Church, the sacred book of Bundu dia Kongo, and in the memories of Kongo people. What exactly was this prophecy and what did it have to do with me?

An informant told anthropologist Wyatt MacGaffey the following prophecy, saying it dated to 1921: "Pray to your brethren who were sold in the ivory and rubber to the country of the Americans. The Lord will send them to this country to teach crafts and give skills surpassing those of the whites" (1968, 177). Writing from Luozi in June 1921, colonial administrator Léon Cartiaux conveyed the claims of Masamba and Kinko, two BisiKongo carpenters who went to the town of Nkamba and said they heard Kimbangu say publicly that "for so many years the Belgians are our rulers and haven't done anything for us till this day, but before long Americans will arrive here in order to make war with the Belgians and become our rulers." Kimpianga Mahaniah cites Belgian author Maquet-Tombu, who reported a deported prophet as saying that "the black Americans will soon come and conquer the Congo" (1993, 411). Joseph Van Wing, a Belgian Catholic missionary and longtime inhabitant of the Congo, also mentioned a variant of the prophecy when he wrote about Mpadism, another Kongo-based prophetic movement influenced by Simon Kimbangu, which occurred from 1939 to 1946. Clearly drawing on the implications and antagonisms of WWII, the prophecy foretold a war won by the Germans, who will give the Congolese access to arts and sciences, and then, "after twenty or thirty years ... the German king would make Black Americans come to the Congo. He will kick out all the foreign missionaries and allow the Blacks to pray to God among themselves" (1958, 600). MacGaffey also discusses the prophecy as shown in a hymn of the Kimbanguist Church:

If the King of the Americans comes
To restore the King,
The chiefs of this world shall pass away.
If the King of the Americans comes
The troubles of this world shall pass away
If the King of the Americans comes
The King of the Blacks will return.

This prophecy is notable because it is about not only Americans, but Black Americans in particular, coming (returning) to the Congo with technical know-how and skills, to teach and aid the Congolese in gaining their independence from the Belgians. Several authors have linked this reference to the spread throughout Central Africa of the ideas, publications, and movement of Marcus Garvey. This is particularly poignant because at least one Congolese intellectual, John Panda Farnana, had been identified as a Garveyist agitator, while other Congolese had been found to have Garveyist publications in their possession. Kimbangu himself worked for a time at Huileries du Congo Belge, a British owned oil refinery, alongside Black Americans and Anglophone Africans who discussed ideas of Pan-Africanism (Kodi 1993, 263–88; Mahaniah 1993, 414–16). Thus, Kodi posits Marcus Garvey as the "King of the Americans" who is mentioned in the prophecies (1993, 278). Moreover, both Mahaniah and Kodi link circulating rumors of the arrival of a ship on the Congo River signifying the end of Belgian rule, with the Black Star Lines of Marcus Garvey (Kodi 1993, 279; Mahaniah 1993, 415). The actual presence of African Americans at the Huileries du Congo Belge and their interactions with Europeans there affected Congolese perceptions of African Americans as a group. According to Makidi Kuntilma, an informant that Kimpianga Mahaniah interviewed, even in the 1920s African Americans had a reputation for rebelliousness and had a great influence on his uncle Massamba, who also worked at the oil refinery. "He [his uncle] was so influenced by black American culture that he could speak Pidgin English. Even his temperament was affected. He respected no one, even Europeans, with whom he had many fights. ... The black American was seen as heroic and was very much admired for challenging Europeans" (Mahaniah 1993, 416).

What also cannot be discounted are shared experiences of discrimination, mistreatment, and denigration. Frantz Fanon's analysis of the "fact of blackness" examines how the colonial context creates both corporeal and historico-racial schemas by which Black people come to understand themselves as objectified, inferior bodies in the gaze of whiteness (1967, 109–40). By highlighting how these schemas work in everyday life in bolstering common oppressive conditions for Blacks living under White domination across the world, Fanon allows us to also consider the role of shared experiences of racial oppression in shaping Simon Kimbangu's prophecies about African American collaborators and saviors fighting with the Congolese against the Belgians. All these factors created a greater sense of connection between Kongo people and African Americans during the colonial period.

These exchanges and encounters that I experienced bring us back to the intersection of embodiment, performance, religion, and Kongo nationalism. The fact that I was a brown-skinned African American conducting research in a West Central African country affected the reception that I received and the development of my research in very specific ways. My very physical presence in the Lower Congo evoked cultural memories of a religious movement that challenged the authority of the Belgians during the colonial period and offered hope for a future free from European colonialism. In this way, I encountered the prophet Simon Kimbangu over and over again as he was invoked as an explanation for the presence of African Americans in the Lower Congo nearly six decades after his physical death. The constant association of my embodied presence with Kimbangu's prophecy sparked my own interest in understanding the history and evolution of the religious movement that Kimbangu created and its continued salience in everyday life in modern-day Lower Congo. By privileging the body as center, my own body as a researcher is also implicated in the research process and interactions that inform this study. For some my presence was evidence of the truth of the prophecy; for others I was just an American student researcher. From my own perspective, I had come to the Congo as part of a circuitous journey that seemed to always have the continent of Africa at its center.

From the Bronx to Bas-Congo: Journeys and Methods

April, 1, 2005. I have been in the Congo for only a few days and am now living with a Luba host family in Kinshasa. I meet another African American working for the American embassy that then introduces me to a small group of African diasporans living in Kinshasa as employees of various state departments, governments, and nongovernmental organizations. I am invited to meet everyone at a friendly card game of spades, and as my new acquaintance introduces me to about eight people all seated around a large table with multiple decks of cards on display, someone asks where I was from.

"The Bronx," I reply as I sit down and accept a soft drink from the host of the party.

"What part of the Bronx? I am from the Bronx too."

Surprised to find not just another New Yorker but a Bronx native in the Congo with me, I tell him my street intersection, and he says, "Oh, you from the projects. What is the name of those houses again?"

I pause for a moment. I am shocked that he knows my neighborhood, but even more unprepared to have my background revealed for everyone to see. I must admit, for a moment, as I sip my drink in the midst of all these middle- and upper-middle-class Black folks with great jobs, I feel inferior and a bit ashamed of my background. I clear my throat and reply, "Morrisania Houses."

"Oh yeah, Morrisania. So what's up? Are you going to play or what?"

The momentary shame that I experienced at this friendly card game was directly linked to the negative stereotypes associated with both the South Bronx and with public housing projects more generally. The Congo as an imagined space suffers from similar problems of negative associations — from Joseph Conrad'sHeart of Darkness to present-day pessimistic international news coverage emphasizing death, mayhem, and despair. The Bronx and the Congo are two very different geographical spaces; one is an urban borough in the largest city in the United States while the other is a vast country — the second largest in Africa and the eleventh largest in the world in terms of geographic area. However, what they have in common are bad reputations. The Bronx, and especially the South Bronx, became the poster child for urban decay, concentrated poverty, crime, and drug epidemics during the 1970s and 1980s while the Congo conjures up images of war, violence, disease, rape, and political and economic instability after two civil wars (1996–97 and 1998–2003) and continued civil unrest, especially along the eastern border with Rwanda (Rose 1994; Nzongola-Ntalaja 2002; Gondola 2002). When I told friends and colleagues that I was going to conduct research in the Congo, their reactions were similar:

"You are going to the Congo? Is it safe?"

"Isn't there a war going on there?

"I heard that a lot of women are being raped there. Aren't you scared?"

I tried to assuage their worries and fears by pointing out that my research would be conducted on the western side of the country, far from the instability of the east. Professor Mbala Nkanga, associate professor of theater at the University of Michigan and my dissertation committee member and mentor, was instrumental not only in giving me contacts and bolstering my applications for funding, but also in assuring me that Bas-Congo was a very different space than the larger Congo that gripped the world's imagination. I owe my entire decision to eventually study in Bas-Congo to him. In regards to my family, I was at least comforted because they knew next to nothing about the Congo and thus didn't really object to my going there. By then, they were used to my frequent travels across the country and around the world. For most of my relatives in the Bronx, I was just going to an undifferentiated "Africa" and their good-byes to me were combined with jokes such as "watch out for them lions and tigers out there!" In short, the images of both the Bronx and the Congo that permeate most people's imaginations tend to focus on and exaggerate negative aspects while ignoring the positive. It is true that growing up in the Bronx I saw violence and drug use, but I also saw community togetherness and support; it is true that rape and political instability occur frequently in the Congo, but it is also true that people go to work, love their families, attend church, and try to strengthen their communities. The truth and everyday realities of living in either place, then, are much more nuanced and complex.

My interest in Africa did not start with my family, but rather with my fifth-grade teacher. Ms. Jackson, a young, dynamic African American teacher told my class of Afro-Caribbean, African American, Puerto Rican and Dominican students that the first people on earth, the oldest human skeletons, were found in Africa. Like my classmates, I scoffed at the idea that Africans were first in anything. As she told us that we were all descended from Africans, I found it hard to believe, for I harbored many negative stereotypes of Africans like other Americans, Black and White alike. That life-altering year in Ms. Jackson's fifth-grade class planted within me the first seeds of interest and pride in having African heritage. Several years later, when I left the Bronx to attend a wealthy, majority-White high school in Pennsylvania as a student through the A Better Chance program, this interest in Africa came with me. Later, I went on to attend Brown University on a full academic scholarship as a student in the Program in Liberal Medical Education (PLME). I was the first in my family to go to college, and I decided to major in Afro-American studies and to study abroad in Ghana. I learned about a Spelman College summer program that I could use to develop a senior honors thesis topic while talking with another American student in Ghana. I participated in the summer program in Portobelo, Panama, and studied Congo dances as performed as part of the carnival tradition in this small town on the Atlantic coast of Panama. This experience piqued my interest in examining whether the dances themselves could in fact have been brought with enslaved Africans from the Congo region to Panama.


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All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments  ix

Introduction: Gesture and Power  1

I. Performative Encounters, Political Bodies

1. Neither Native nor Stranger: Places, Encounters, Phophecies  37

II. Spirits, Bodies, and Performance in Belgian Congo

2. "A War between Soldiers and Prophets": Embodied Resistance in Colonial Belgian Congo, 1921  71

3. Threatening Gestures, Immoral Bodies: Kingunza after Kimbangu  107

III. Civil Religion and Performed Politics in Postcolonial Congo

4. Dancing with the Invisible: Everyday Performances under Mobutu Sese Seko  137

5. Dancing Disorder in Mobutu's Zaire: Animation Politique and Gendered Nationalisms  165

IV. Re-creating the Past, Performing the Future

6. Bundu dia Kongo and Embodied Revolutions: Performing Kongo Pride, Transforming Modern Society  187

Conclusion: Privileging Gesture and Bodies in Studies of Religion and Power  227

Glossary  233

Notes  235

References  253

Index  275

What People are Saying About This

Yaya's Story: the Quest for Well-Being in the World - Paul Stoller

"Gesture and Power makes very important contributions to our knowledge of cultural embodiment, African social life, and the political importance of everyday performance. This book is a deeply researched and profoundly experienced work that is the result of substantive and sensitive fieldwork in Lower Congo. Impressive in its scope, its depth, and its expression, Gesture and Power will prompt much important debate in the years to come."

Josephine Baker in Art and Life: The Icon and the Image - Bennetta Jules-Rosette

"Groundbreaking, intriguing, and ethnographically rich, Gesture and Power is a provocative and significant contribution to the study of gesture, performance, religion, and micropolitics in the Congo."

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