June 30th 2016, Congolese Independence Day, marks 56 years since the Democratic Republic of the Congo gained its independence from Belgium. The history of the Congo is one filled with both beauty and a great deal of tragedy, with the nation still undergoing conflict. Today we recognise Congolese art and literature, with poet JJ Bola reviewing Tram 83, the Man Booker International longlisted novel by fellow Congolese writer Fiston Mwanza Mujila, translated by Roland Glasser.
“Africa will write its own history, and it will be to the north and to the south of the Sahara, a history of glory and dignity” – wrote Congo’s first democratically elected Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba. His profound and heartfelt words are slowly starting to ring true. Writing is simultaneously an act of resistance and liberation; it is an awakening and discovery of self, a way to reaffirm your existence in a world that otherwise attempts to erase it.
Literature and storytelling telling has always been an integral part of African society, from the ancient Kingdom of Nubia; Meriotic script written on Papyrus scrolls, the griots of West Africa, the Mandombe, masakoli and oral traditions of medieval Kongo through to the contemporary era, and to the modern day African writers, poets and novelists who are continuing the traditions, and storming the literary world by telling their stories. One such example is Fiston Mwanza Mujila, from Lubumbashi, D.R. Congo. His novel Tram 83, with foreword by acclaimed African writer Alain Mabanckou of Congo Brazzaville who calls it “linguistic innovation” and “a masterpiece”, is a riveting tale of the underworld of a Congolese town, which could be any African city, where the local miners, drunkards, drug dealers and dreamers, and girl with the ‘silicone breasts’, all congregate and escape into enthralling endeavours.
Tram 83 is political commentary in haute creative form; it begins ‘in the beginning was the stone, and the stone prompted ownership, and ownership a rush, and the rush brought an influx of men of diverse appearance…and divised a system of mining and trading’, which could be an elucidation of Congolese history from colonialism through to the current conflict mineral war, and follows the life of writer Lucien and his burdened compatriot Requiem. The rest of the novel comes to you vividly as a melange of spoken word and lisapo in the form of Congolese oral tradition, as though you are sat around a fire in the quiet night listening to the seasoned voice of the village elder as the embers flicker into the air and paints the scenes before your eyes. Tram 83 is the harmony of Papa Wemba, the rhythm of Franco Luambo and the art of Eddy Kamounga Ilunga in literary form; you cannot help but either be arrested or moved by it.
It resonates so deeply with Patrice Lumumba’s message and that of lipanda(independence); write your own story. The independence of Congo was not just a political move, but also one relating to its culture, creativity and arts. To write your story and celebrate your artists is to crystallise the experience of a generation so that it may be passed on to the next, and never be forgotten or taken away as it once was. It is an act of self-determination, a discovery of self, which we are beginning to see once again in its finest form.
JJ Bola is a Kinshasa born, London raised writer, poet, educator and workshop facilitator. He performs regularly at shows and festivals such as Tongue Fu, Chill Pill and The Round House, as well as universities and other public institutions. His published works include Elevate, Daughter of the Sun and his latest, most comprehensive poetry collection, WORD. Find out more about him at http://www.jjbola.com