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  • Stealing Swords in the Congo April 26, 2011

    Author: Beach Combing | in : Contemporary , trackback


    This post is dedicated to Ricardo R. whose father was there in Kinshasa on the day

    This famous image from the camera of Robert Lebeck is much anthologized as the ‘ African moment’. A gutsy young Congolese has jogged along the limousine of King Baudouin of Belgium and the Belgian Congo as then was. And, on the very eve of independence, 29 June 1960, he has reached gently down and lifted the King’s ceremonial sword and has begun to run with it.

    Looking at the photograph fifty years on there is the suspicion that in part Lebeck’s shot became famous because of the sensitive features of the thief, the fact that he was in a suit and, of course, the entirely harmless nature of his protest. In other words, this was the acceptable face of African nationalism: something to make western liberals, like Beachcombing, feel better about themselves without having to worry about African realities. Not unlike, in some respects, Macmillan’s courageous Wind [sic] of Change speech – given in February of that same year.

    Less famous are the photos that Lebeck took afterwards, photos that show the Congolese patriot being surrounded by troops, African and Belgian, disarmed, very evidently mishandled and then thrown into the back of a land-drover, destination unknown.

    The Congo itself was about to be thrown manacled into the back of a land-drover – in fact, it is still there today…

    Independent on 30 June, already by September the country was facing civil war. Its first leader, the African nationalist and pro-Soviet Lumumba was killed in January 1961 and then came the simply appalling Mobutu.

    There has long been controversy over the name of the sword-thief: Lebeck – in an act typical of photographers trying to recreate their pasts – failed to track him down on subsequent visits to the country.

    The patriot was referred to in 1960 by the German publication, Kristall as Joseph Kalonda, though this was simply invented, an African ‘Joe Blogs’.

    The first convincing name given to him was Longin Ngwada by Nack magazine. And then in 2010 another candidate was offered up and now holds the field: Ambroise Boimbo. AB was, allegedly, an electrician by profession who died in 1988 ‘victime de troubles psychiques’.

    Is this a mentally-imbalanced person that we see in the photograph or just an understandably desperate and terrified one?

    AB – if this was really the patriot’s name – was released the very same day on the order of King Baudouin, not the worst of European monarchs: the Congolese had known Baudouin in happier times as Mwana Kitoko, ‘beautiful boy’. Baudouin, after all, had only a few more hours to reign and could afford to be magnanimous.

    This begs the question though: what would Lumumba or, God forbid, that mass-murderer Mobutu have done if AB had stolen a ceremonial sword from the back of their limousines?

    Any more on the Ambroise Boimbo vs Longin Ngwada question: drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com