On Black Pain and Imagination: Patrice Lumumba and Ota Benga

Lumumba statue
Lumumba statue

The monument honouring Patrice Lumumba is inescapable, even in the thick of a humid night, as you enter Kinshasa from the airport highway route. It is an imposing structure, full of life, energy, promise and perhaps more poignantly, profound hurt.

By day, Lumumba towers over city traffic entering and leaving Kinshasa’s busiest areas. You can barely miss him. He is hoisted on a solid concrete block. Despite the temperature on this day, flirting with 40 degrees Celsius, he is immaculately dressed in a suit, complete with necktie. His right hand is raised high, palm open, and it appears as if he is permanently waving at those he faces – or those who face him. His thick-framed spectacles accentuate his face and complete the look of a perfectly-dressed gentleman oozing with youth and vitality.

Words emblazoned on the concrete block read HEROS NATIONAL PATRICE EMERY LUMUMBA 1925-1961, immortalising man, name and legacy.

Standing underneath the monument, I might have felt myself tremble and almost in tears. I was enamoured to be in Lumumba’s presence, never mind that this was only a tribute to his Memory, nothing more. Yet there I was, remembering most of Lumumba’s spoken words; words which I have internalised, memorised and consciously apply to my own activism.

This was on the September day I was leaving the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). The day before, my hosts had been gracious enough to drive me around the city in search of Lumumba memorabilia, a task harder than I thought or imagined. I could not find a T-shirt with Lumumba’s face printed on it. Not even a piece of cloth. There was, however, lots of cloth bearing religious figures and messages. I could not get books, posters or a plaque bearing Lumumba’s memory.

I was taken aback.

The two things I found, at one of the markets, were old bank notes with Lumumba’s image, and a painting – Lumumba’s portrait on canvas. In its better days, the painting must have been neat and fresh, something to behold. Over time, it had browned with dirt, disfiguring his face and the general content of the artwork. Seeing how desperate I was for anything with Lumumba on it, the vendor charged me USD50 for the old note and USD200 for the painting.

I had expected this. So we haggled for a while until I realised there was no climbing down by either of us. I didn’t buy anything and left the market somewhat disappointed.

Patrice Lumumba Speaking
Patrice Lumumba (1925-1961) speaking with supporters in his effort to regain office as Prime Minister on October 15, 1960. He would be assassinated within three months. / © 2015 Everett Collection

At Lumumba’s height, perched on that concrete block, I could not exactly see the fullness of his face. For some reason, I remembered a scene from one of the documentaries about him that I have watched. In this scene, a Belgian official, a white man, brandishes Lumumba’s tooth in front of the camera and says he kept this piece of tooth because Lumumba “had very good teeth”. This man, Gerard Soete, was one of the men who oversaw the assassination of Patrice Lumumba.

My interest in seeing Lumumba’s full face was triggered by the need to make sure, to confirm, if in this monument that had been erected, he had all his teeth. I laughed at myself for a brief moment for harbouring such ‘silly’ thoughts. Yet, if this monument was an attempt at recovering and sustaining Memory, then it had to be sure that it not only rehabilitates the mutilation that colonialism wrought, but also reconfigures truthful representation of a hero like Patrice Lumumba.

The Belgian with Lumumba’s tooth took me further back to his king, Leopold II. The mutilation of African, Black bodies is one of Leopold’s most painful legacies in the Congo. During his time, Leopold – I can’t dignify him as king for I do not recognise his throne – ordered that Africans who were not being exploited enough have parts of their bodies cut off.

The results visibly manifested themselves in mass graves, gorged eyes, chopped limbs, whole villages razed to the ground and the systematic plunder of natural resources in the Congo. For the Belgian with Lumumba’s tooth, therefore, such an act is consistent with his own country’s tradition of mutilating and destroying Black – African – bodies, ordered and delivered by his king.

Significant attempts to silence this portion of Belgian history are constantly made. Leopold is sanitised as having actually contributed to the growth and development of the Congo. Yet, as the narrator says in the documentary White King, Red Rubber, Black Death, “Until Adolf Hitler arrived on the scene, the European standard for cruelty was set by a [white European] king.”

It is a kind of cruelty that can be forgotten because it does not fit into the dominant narrative of European civilisation in Africa. The perpetrator is a White man from the royal family. Today, Belgium is not thought of as having presided over such brutal history in the Congo – the mass murder of children, women and men, displacement of whole villages and in recent times, the assassination of liberation hero, Patrice Lumumba.

In fact, the circumstances of Lumumba’s murder mirror the pattern of Leopold’s tactics. After having endured days of physical and psychological torture, Lumumba and two of his aides are finally strapped to a tree and shot dead. Their bodies fall into a shallow grave and are retrieved later by Belgian soldiers who chop parts off and finally pour acid on them, to dissolve them.

There is something disturbing about this form of destruction of the Black body; the desire to completely do away with everything it is and stands for, while cheering and jeering in a frenzy of racial pride and superiority.

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A few weeks after standing in front of Lumumba’s monument, I was at the National Museum of African Art in Washington DC. On this day, a film screening was taking place, to be followed by a discussion. The film, Ota Benga, “documents the life of a Congolese man exhibited at the 1904 St Louis World Fair and the Bronx Zoo”.

The story of Ota Benga’s capture in the Congo follows the standard set by Leopold – violence and death. Ota Benga’s village is razed to the ground, his family disappears and he is forcibly brought to the United States of America, where he is passed from one post to another until he finds himself the centre of attention in an exhibition.

At the Bronx Zoo, Ota Benga attracts large crowds of up to 40,000 people. But he is caged, together with the animals in the zoo; he is treated like an animal, not a human being. His height and other features are a source of amusement and with each ‘view’, his dignity is continuously stripped. Although there is some form of protest against the exhibition of a human being in a zoo, this practice continues for a while longer.

Ota Benga’s pain is not recorded. He receives no empathy because he is not seen as a human being but as an artefact, as an object. There is a longing within him to go back home to the Congo but there are stumbling blocks. The one time there’s a clear chance for him to do so, World War I is breaking out and he is unable to travel. Eventually – the story goes – he takes his own life, perhaps as a final act of escape and redemption.

This is one of those stories that just leave you numb.

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The discussion that ensued was invigorating, moving between themes of colonial anthropology, media revisionism (in latter years, The New York Times distanced itself from its previous derogatory reporting of Ota Benga), over-sexualised representations of black bodies in sports and white people’s collective fear of Black people, especially Black men.

Ota Benga in 1904 / Jessie Tarbox Beals

The latter was quite potent and poignant in terms of what the USA is currently going through with the #BlackLivesMatter movement. Indeed, as Michael E. Dyson, a Black Public Intellectual, remarked: “the people who put Ota Benga in a cage are the same people who are lynching Blacks in America.”

They do so because of a collective fear that Blacks will do to them what they (white people) have done to Blacks. This is not a point to be dismissed. The imagined horror of a Black presidency in the USA gave way to some ghastly racism direct at Barack Obama ahead of 2008. Then, the fear was that a Black president would not guard and protect white people. In 2015, it can be successfully argued that Obama has done more for white people than he has for Black people. Michael E. Dyson, again, actually stated that Obama was the modern-day Ota Benga, placed in zoo called Congress to perform for white people.

In all of this, how can Black people educate white people on Black Pain? Indeed, how come white people are never interviewed when a Black person is killed?

The answer to these questions came from an unexpected source, a white male who was in the audience. He rose and spoke from the heart – at least that’s what it felt like.

“As a white man, your sense of thriving is reinforced by the destruction of another psychology,” he said, adding that white people only thrive because someone has to be deprived of something.

He went on: “The psychological burden of Whiteness lies in the subconscious but it is kept alive and visible by a system of values that refuses to confront the fears of confronting oneself.”

Then: “Black people have been problematised in a system that benefits from their Oppression.”

This problematisation of Blackness is the reason why Black people have to explain themselves all the time. Why do Black people always have to give reasons? Why is there such persistence on the need for Black people to explain themselves?

Meanwhile, the likes of Leopold, Gerard Soete and other white men who have inflicted Black Pain do not have to say a word, not even issue an apology. On the contrary, their legacies are upheld and respected as instructive for the future of humanity. This privileged history perpetually undermines the Humanity of Black People. Further, the Sociology and Anthropology that governs most people’s thinking on social, political and economic issues undermines Black People and denies them Agency.

Therefore, Black People’s Humanity is constantly at stake, denied form, evolution and weight. Within broad perspective, we – Black People – are all Ota Benga, denied even the Right to Anger. When our anger is expressed, it is characterised as irrational, uncouth and violent.

Black People have a Right to assert themselves. We need to do this in order to recover our Memory, Pride and Dignity. In doing so, however, we must be aware that there are consequences, most of which result in Death. Yet, we can hardly afford to remain silent, to not regain our Humanity. This was the main thrust of Lumumba’s leadership in the Congo.

This is how Belgian diplomat, Jacques Brassine, once described Patrice Lumumba: “He was dangerous. He wasn’t open to the solutions WE sometimes wanted to apply.”

Justifying Lumumba’s murder, Belgian spy, Louis Marliere said: “He [Lumumba] chose the wrong side.” Here, “wrong side” refers to the BLACK people of the Congo. How can it be that a liberation leader is characterised as having chosen the “wrong side” when he is siding with his People, when he is trying to afford his People dignity and decent living.

Confident Black People like Lumumba who could assert not only their BLACKNESS but CAPACITY had to be MURDERED because they provided the anti-thesis to the narrative of Black incompetence. In murdering them, the idea was to silence their Voice and to prevent other Black People from following in their footsteps.

Patrice Lumumba, on the eve of Independence in the Congo confidently declared: “We are certain that we know where we are going.” And he was certain. There is something about the Colonial Wound – the Pain of Colonialism – that can inspire a form of leadership that can alter the course of history. Lumumba was on to something.


On the day to mark the Independence of the Congo, Belgium’s king Baudion delivered a speech: “The Independence of the Congo is the crowning moment of the mission conceived by the genius of King Leopold II, undertaken by him with courageous tenacity and pursued with great perseverance”

Lumumba was not scheduled to speak on this day but as a CONFIDENT, YOUNG BLACK LEADER, he knew he had to respond to the blatant lies Belgium was telling about Independence. So he rose to speak:

“You who have fought for Independence and today are victorious, I salute you in the name of the Congolese government,” he said. “I salute all our friends who fought relentlessly at our side. We’ve been subjected to insults and sarcasms, to the blows we had to endure from morning to night just because we are Africans. We learnt that the Law was never the same, according to whether it was applied to whites or Blacks. Who will ever forget the shootings, or the barbarous jail cells awaiting those who refused to submit this regime of injustice and exploitation.”

Patrice Lumumba
Lumumba raises his arms, injured by shackles, after his release from prison in January 1960 / Nationaal Archief, Den Haag

There is something powerful in this act that young Africans must not only notice but emulate – asserting oneself whilst standing on truth.

Lumumba was only 36 years old when he was murdered. Ota Benga is said to have been 23 years old when he was captured but some historians claim he was much younger, possibly a teenager. Leopold’s victims in the Congo were mostly children.

What is it about the destruction of young black bodies at the hands of white oppressors?


Lumumba’s monument should stand, for time immemorial, in unending defiance to the brood of traitors and assassins. To us, the Africans who live, this defiance should inspire hope and courage, the defining sources of the Imagination Lumumba possessed for Africa when he said, “Africa will write its history, and it will be a history of glory and dignity.”


  1. Brilliant. Thank you for this platform & contribution to a great man. The African man’s burden today is to bring dignity to our people against a violent elite who acted in concert with former colonisers. Africa today is held back by privileged Africans and foreigners who actively thwart the hopes and aspirations of the masses for selfish purposes.

  2. As a 36-year-old myself, I’m genuinely concerned. Looking at the achievements of people who had to fight for their liberation, the Lumumbas and Sankaras and Bikos, and what they had done, said and written by my age … I can’t help but wonder what I’ve done personally to further their emancipation ideals. They’re not coming back, and we need to finish what they started.

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