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December 14, 2009


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The New York City Math Teacher

In my teens, I found Victor Lasky's _The Ugly Russian_ in my grandfather's bookcases, where I heard of Patrice Lumumba, Moise Tshombe, and Joseph Mobutu for the first time. For Lasky, of course, Tshombe was a mix of Harry Reardon, Frederick Douglass, and George Washington. Any sign of the existence of Tshombe left in Lubumbashi/Elisabethville?

Doug M.

Little. Tshombe is remembered by the locals, but the central government obviously wasn't a fan of the great secessionist. Apparently there's a modest square named after him, and that's it.

There are a lot of Moishes here, but I think it's just a common name.

Doug M.

Tony Zbaraschuk

"Deferred maintenance" is a frightening phrase.


Um, are you using the phrases "docile labor force" and 'unfree' as euphemisms for 'slaves?' If so, why are you so impressed with extravagant physical constructs made from slave labor?

Just asking...

Doug M.

What euphemisms? They weren't slaves -- nobody owned them, they couldn't be sold. But they couldn't leave at will, either.

By the mid-colonial period, it was a mix of corvee (labor as substitute for taxes and fines, mostly for small local projects) and "contract" labor. The latter involved, of course, grossly unfair contracts. The native workers were paid a pittance and forced to work long hours, often in appalling conditions. Contract labor in the Belgian Congo involved liberal use of the "cocotte", a lash made from hippopotamus hide, and men with guns as the final backup.

That said, at the end of the contract, the workers could go home. Of course, contracts often lasted for years, and the Belgians tried to set things up so that a steady stream of workers were forced by economic circumstances into signing.

So, "unfree" is not a euphemism, but shorthand.

Why am I so impressed: apparently I failed to communicate my very strongly ambiguous feelings here. My bad.

Doug M.


Having lived in Elisabethville (now Lubumbashi)in the Congo and in Ndola as well as Kitwe in Northern Rhodesia from 1950 to 1968, I can tell you this: I hear that to this day, the "workers" there are nostalgic for the good old days before independence when they got paid on time for their work and earned enough to live on without having to worry about inflation that makes their currency worthless soon after it's issued. Sure they have been freed, but what good is that to anyone except the head of state and a handful of his cronies? The fact is that independence came too early in most African countries. Too early in the sense of their not having enough people with a sufficient education and sense of justice for carrying out civil servant responsibilities. What they have instead is corrupt officials that exploit the population and keep it in the worse misery imaginable. Moreover the military consists of illiterate, unprincipled youngsters that are rarely paid their salary by the government. As a result, the military consider it normal to rob and loot civilians even in peace time.

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