The main reason we received the visa to DRC was because we were giving a talk at the University about the significance of matrilineal societies to African history. We arrived on campus and found Jeff Hoover. Jeff received his PhD. in African history from Yale in the 80’s when there were no jobs at all for professors of African history—therefore after doing his research in Congo on the Lunda Empire, he decided to return to Congo as a Methodist missionary. He has been there for over 35 years as both a missionary and a professor at the University of Lubumbashi. In many ways, he has played a key role in keeping the university running with almost no money or support from outside Lubumbashi. Remember the capital of the DRC, Kinshasa is almost 2000 miles away through dense forest with few dirt roads—so Lubumbashi is rather isolated. All the political turmoil has not helped. I remember when I visited Lubumbashi and Jeff nineteen years ago that he would drive to Kitwe in Zambia to pick up mail for anyone who was a missionary or affiliated with the university. Outside his house was a long list of names of people who had mail. There was no mail service in the DRC and there still isn’t much. 19 years ago, he picked me up during one of these runs and gave me a ride to Lubumbashi. He devised a clever way to get email. They were able to bounce emails from Lubumbashi to Mission Viejo in California and then bounce it back. And it all worked on Jeff’s computer.
We faced a room full of male professors who looked at us with great skepticism. Naturally, we did exactly what they did not expect. I was nominated as speaker since I was the elder. I described our research and why we were doing it. Our study of matrilineal societies is not just about knowledge, it is also a way to change how African and in particular African women are portrayed in the Western media and in Western Academia. Most articles, aid groups and scholars are searching for the ways in which African women are the most victimized in the world. Yes, this flies in the face of reality, but . . . Our work shows that historically and even today most African women are not oppressed by their traditions, but possibly the new world order. We must have opened up a huge can of worms because the questions were coming at us right, left and center. It was a wonderful time. The one woman scholar in the audience loved it. I won’t bore you with all the academic detail, but the discussion was lively.
Later in the day Olivier took us to various people to make connections the first place we went was Sampye, a society to support the history and culture of the peoples who live around Lake Mweru—the Bemba, Bwile, Bashanga, and BaUshi. The name of the Center is of a bird that the males flit around on bushes and trees whereas the females remain in the trees or bushes and when they move they rise up together. These are all matrilineal societies so I cannot help but think that this bird has a deeper meaning. Now people here communicate in their native languages, Kiswahili and French. Now my reading of French is not bad, but my spoken French is only anthropological thus my colleague did the interviews and I tried to follow as well as I can. I finally ask my colleague to ask about the first pregnancy ceremony. While my spoken skills are not great, my reading expression etc. are excellent. So, when the older woman started making motions like spitting—I jumped up because that is part of the first pregnancy ceremony in Zambia. Of course, I scared everyone and looked like an idiot, but I love it when my hypothesizes are proven. In agricultural areas a young woman at her first pregnancy, a female relative who gave birth to a healthy first child will spit flour on her to ensure a healthy pregnancy. The Bwile in Congo are fishing people and there they spit water from a river or lake instead of flour. What it really signifies is how important the first child is to the community and to the young couple. Once you have a child you are considered an adult and once you have your first grandchild you become an elder. We use age or marriage to determine adulthood—these people believe you are an adult once you have produced a child. Interesting difference.
In the afternoon, we began to search for the Ba-Zela chief who was in town. We took three cabs and walked for almost a mile before we met him. We walked through the largest local market in Lubumbashi. There were shoes, new clothing, old clothing, telephones, toys, tires, tire shoes, pink sausages. Well you get the idea. Almost anything you could imagine was there. And you could not ride a taxi into the market-so that is why we walked very far. The chief was staying in a small house, but he was clearly a very smart man. He had a scribe and other members of his court. He gave us the name of a Ba-Zela woman, Doris Ilunga Ndalam, who was the cultural leader of the BaZela in Lubumbashi. We made an appointment for the next day.
Ironically, this woman’s office was right next door to the police station. You know the one from earlier in the week—the station where the cops wanted to arrest us. Consequently, we creeped around the long way to get to this woman’s office. We had to go up several flights of stairs, but we finally got to her office. We finally got to her office around 8 am. She said she had meetings until 10 am. So, we sat in her outer office for a while. Then she told us we have to meet her bigger boss. Again, we went down three flights of steps and then went up another three. We arrive in the Associate Mayor’s reception area. We sat there for another hour and then a tough looking woman came in and said the Associate Mayor would meet with us but we had to leave our purses and computers in the reception area. We even had to leave our cell phones. We were escorted into this opulent office with heavy carpet, air conditioning and velvet chairs and couches. It was rather amazing. There were gold accents everywhere. We were made to feel that we were in the presence of royalty. We all bowed and handed her our cards. We had a five-minute audience which I guess allowed us to interview the Doris woman. We rushed back and found that everything was safe and we could now proceed to do our work. Doris chose to have her brother, Banza Kivwa Dieudonn, there who believed he was an expert at Bazela culture. Obviously, we let him tell his story and all—but eventually it was clear he was telling us what we wanted to hear.
Then we started asking her female-gender specific questions and we hit pay dirt. He was embarrassed to answer. The first was about the marriage pot—ok now I need to explain this to you—my colleagues think I am obsessed with this thing, but only in a historical way. When a young woman is initiated she is given a special small pot that she uses in her marriage for intimate cleaning (enough said ok????). Now this pot symbolizes her life, the marriage and the future children—so it is very important. Doris suddenly started laughing and said, “so now you want all my secrets.” The interview went much smoother then. We then took her and her brother out to lunch at an outdoor café.
The next morning I was supposed to meet some people from the university who would introduce me to Chokwe speakers. So I arrived at the university and there were no people in the Department of African Languages where I was supposed to meet the secretary and a professor. I waited almost an hour and then just gave up. I caught a taxi back to Lubumbashi. In Lusaka one cab per customer or customers while in Lubumbashi they squished you in and we stopped at several places. I arrived at the hotel and told them that my attempt at finding the professor who could help me with finding Chokwe speakers failed.
So we went to plan B—lets talk to taxi drivers. Since I first went to New York in 1989, I developed a “love affair” with taxi drivers. I remember in the middle of a blizzard in NYC in January 1996, I was riding in a taxi from the airport going to my friend’s place in Soho. We started talking and I discovered that the driver had been a history professor back home in Ecuador. Then as we chatted it became clear that he had never driven in a blizzard like this back in his home country—so we just both quietly prayed. I made it to Soho and again prayed that he would make it home to Queens before the roads were blocked. In 1998 in Harare I got into a cab to take me to the airport—suddenly I noticed that there was no meter and then another guy got into the cab. Something told me that this was bad situation and I started demanding that the guy let me out of the cab. He realized that I would make a scene so he let me out. I found another taxi driver who told me I was very smart to do what I did—the guys in the tax were shady. It is funny that is one of the few times I have ever felt in danger in Africa.
Ok so much for my taxi tales, we went out to the taxi stand and started asking if people knew where there were many Chokwe people. We lucked out and found a young man who was not only Chokwe, but he was very interested in Chokwe culture and history. Next blog we will discuss our adventures in the suburbs or townships of Lubumbashi.