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Lumumba and Dashiki: Reflections on the culture of the Democratic Republic of the Congo

In June 2019, Temple University’s Center for Language and Culture welcomed high school students from across the world to participate in EducationUSA Academy, a State Department program to help international students learn about American culture and how to apply for American universities. During their stay, Freely Magazine held an essay contest asking students to reflect on cross-cultural experiences and their own culture. Thank you to honorable mention Emmany Kabulo for sharing his story.

After long years of struggle, in 1960 my country became independent. I am from Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of the Congo and while searching about my country’s history for Education USA’s culture share, I noticed that there was someone who had such a consideration for his brothers and sisters that he gave up his life for their independence. That man is Patrice Emery Lumumba and he inspires me to connect more with my own culture.

Born on July 2nd, 1925, and assassinated on January 17th, 1961, Lumumba is the first Prime Minister of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. He is one of the principal figures of the Belgian Congo independence and is also considered the first national hero of the country. After a misunderstanding that falsely accused Lumumba of stealing money from postal funds, he was tired of injustice in his country against the Congolese by the Belgians. He created the National Congolese movement in 1958 to fight against this injustice.

Lumumba took part in a conference in Accra where he met Kwame Nkrumah who shared his ideas about tribalism. Tribalism means to have a stereotype about a certain people and not treating them as another human. Belgians were treating Congolese people as slaves according to their origin and skin color. They thought of Congolese as inferior and “apart”. The main target of the Congolese Movement and organization was to fight against human exploitation. 

One day, in the middle of one of Lumumba’s largest meetings, the police started shooting the citizens and killed about 30 people. Lumumba was incarcerated for 6 months in jail because of the incident. Belgium organized a meeting but the other members of Lumumba’s movement refused to participate in the meeting without Lumumba. He was freed to attend the meeting and as a consequence it’s throughout that meeting that colonies set the 30th of July 1960 as the date of independence and Lumumba was named Prime Minister. On July 30th, during the independence ceremony, Lumumba delivered a speech  accusing the Belgium political governance since 1885 and stated that the independence he requires is one which will end human exploitation and discrimination and begin a new era of peace and liberty. Still fighting for his fellow citizens, Lumumba died after Mobutu Sese Seko became the president after an overturn. Lumumba’s ideas were different from Mobutu’s so on January 17th they brought Lumumba to Katanga where he was delivered to the local authorities who tied up and executed him in a small house . They threw Lumumba’s body into acid but Congolese still remember this man’s brave actions and thoughts.

Although this political history is sad, it has inspired me to reflect on a cultural aspect of the Democratic Republic of the Congo that I am proud of. This aspect is clothing. In the culture shares for Education USA academy I always wore a dashiki-style long shirt from the Democratic Republic of the Congo. I am proud to have the ability to choose what to wear instead of being forced. A long time ago, Congolese people dressed with raphia, clothing that comes from palm and bark tissue. This is a facet of my culture that I am really proud of. This style was popular until the colonisation when the style had moved from local dress to a Western style.

Despite that change, raphia and bark tissue have stayed the principal clothes during certain ceremonies and some ritual events. On the other hand, President Mobutu came with the idea of of Zairianization, or the principle of rejecting Western names, clothes, etc. Women shouldn’t wear trousers but instead, they should only wear traditional cloth and  men should no longer wear a suit with a tie but they should dress with an Abacost which is a suit style instituted by Mobutu himself. When Mobutu left the presidency in 1997, Congolese became free to choose what to wear: Raphia or Western clothing.

My country is also known as the one which gave birth to the Sapologie which is, according to Elvis Guérité Makouezi, an art, a way of being, to dress, to behave while integrating non-violence. It helps people express themselves through colonial clothing that african people used in a way that could be attributed to them. In sapologie, looking handsome is not enough–that’s why they have to fight for the honor of each piece of cloth by using bold colors and respecting the diversity of the colors. In short, a stylist must know how to amaze people and be bold. I connect strongly with this bold aspect of my culture and that makes me feel special.