Our cross forest trip to Camp Bonobo started at Lokando, an ancient port on the Lualaba/Congo. Our dugout pulled up at the beach; we unloaded our motorcycles and headed towards the forest. Immediate impression: these ruins are remarkable! Not often do you find ruins in Congo’s tropical forest; not often was there an infrastructure sophisticated enough to resist the tropical decay that sets in as soon as upkeep stops.
The ruins of Lokando recall the greatest glory of the Belgian colonial era. The Belgians won the Belgo-Arab war, here in the center of Congo, in the watersheds of the Lomami and the Lualaba in the last decade of the 19th century.
King Leopold II published this map in 1894 right after his troops claimed victory in the Belgo-Arab war. It documents the campaigns, battles, and martyrdom. Riba-Riba on the Congo River is present-day Lokando.
The great church of Lokando, built in 1907, was built to commemorate the site where the murder of Hodister, an ivory merchant, on 15 March 1892 catalyzed the war.
Even in the clarity of a tropical morning, with goats on the shady sweep of stairs, it was clear these cathedral ruins were not only of high church but of lofty ideas. This church was meant to rise up on the ashes of African-Arab strength and to proclaim the God of the Christians and the dominion of the Belgians.
The cathedral never quite did that – Lokando is now only a village and primarily an Arab village. But in the end it was not a Christian-Arab conflict that doomed the church to ruin. It was the rebellion of the 1960s that followed independence.
At Lokando’s church I asked about the Riba-Riba of the Belgo-Arab war (see maps), after all that is the name of Lokando on the old maps, King Leopold II’s early maps. It was one of the Arab sultanates of 19th century Congo.
I was introduced to two elderly men, both called Riba-Riba. Their grandfather, Chief Riba-Riba, was murdered during the all-country rebellion of the 1960’s. Here is their story:
“Our grandfather was born just before the Belgo-Arab war and given the name Riba-Riba by his father, a great MuKusu warrior who had been brought to the post of Riba-Riba by the Arab Sultani, Nserera. Our great grandfather, Okongwa Wema, then changed sides (like Ngongo Lutete) and fought alongside the Belgians to defeat the Arabs.”
Although Nserera started the Belgo-Arab war here at the post of Riba-Riba with the massacre of Hodister and his caravan, Nserera, himself, was not captured until 1894. His court martial and subsequent death marked the end of the war.
A close-up of the 1894 map above shows the old Arab slave/ivory route across from Bene Kamba on the Lomami River to Riba-Riba (now Lokando). Bene Kamba still exists, now a village of a couple dozen families.
“The Belgians then made our grandfather, young Riba-Riba, the Customary Chief and gave him medals to show his authority. When independence came in 1960 our grandfather was still chief and still loyal to the Belgians.”
The post-independence rebellion of 1964 spared no supporters of the past. With a wish for some new ill-defined equality, the troops of Pierre Mulele swept out of Bandundu, stormed Lokando and massacred the ruling Riba-Riba family. As the surviving Chief Riba-Riba told me:
“The general of the Wa-Muleles took my grandfather RibaRiba and his three sons, including my father Adolfe, to the military camp. When my Aunt Furaha Riba-Riba heard that they would kill her father, she ran and stood in front of him saying, ‘Kill me. Kill me. Leave my father’. They threw her aside and said they wanted nothing of women.”
“The first shot hit grandfather Riba-Riba and he turned into a bird; then he became a whole man again. The second shot hit grandfather Riba-Riba and he turned into a termite mound; then he became a whole man again. Frustrated the Wa-Mulele turned to his sons. They shot and killed the oldest Ramazani, they shot and killed the second son Shabuni, then they shot and killed my father, Adolfe. After the murder of his sons, grandfather Riba-Riba turned to his daughter Furaha and said, ‘I too will die. But you must save the home and save the village.’ He then showed the soldiers of Pierre Mulele where to point their guns, and they killed him.”
“While they were killing Papa, our mother ran with all of us children into the forest. And that is how, now after the death of Aunt Furaha, I am Chief Riba-Riba of Lokando.”
Lokando is a town of many ghosts, alive and dead. May they rest in peace; may they live in peace; may Lokando be born again.