Narrative, phantasm and historical writings – Emery Kalema

Fig. 1 Osam dressed in rafia, Idiofa, 24 November 2013 - photo by author

Emery Kalema is a Postdoctoral Fellow in Studies in Historical Trauma and Transformation at Stellenbosch University, South Africa.

On 15 November 2013 I reached Idiofa, a town more than 650 km east of Kinshasa, the capital of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and one of the location (along with Kikwit and Kinshasa) for my doctoral fieldwork research on the Mulele ‘Rebellion’ (1963-1968). My research examines the suffering that people endured at the time, the reproduction of this suffering across time and its inscription in the imaginary of the survivors. The indirect involvement of the Congolese state and various political regimes in Kinshasa from the 1960s to the present is vital to this work. At the core of my analysis is the overall question of imaginaries of suffering. I look at suffering in various ways: as something people experienced in the concrete conditions of existence during the rebellion; suffering experienced by the body during the rebellion; suffering that the ‘body’ remembers because it carries visible marks, recognizable by the self and others; and suffering that leaves marks in the minds of the suffering subjects. My research makes a number of interventions, both in the history of Congo and (more broadly) in the history of suffering and subjectification. One such intervention relates to disciplinary methodological debate. I argue for a confluent approach, one not contained by conventional historiographical, ethnographic or philosophical frameworks. This approach can be useful to scholars working in repressive postcolonial contexts where debates, critical historical research, and dissenting views are curtailed.

Nine days after my arrival in Idiofa, Etienne Sopete, Chef de Travaux at the Institut Supérieur Pédagogique d’Idiofa (ISP/ Idiofa), introduced me to Osam [Fig. 1], an 81-year-old man and former partisan of Pierre Mulele, the leader of the rebellion. As soon as Sopete concluded his introductions, Osam stood up and said to me, in a reassuring tone: ‘Papa, Mulele is not dead. Mulele is alive.’ I initially assumed that Osam spoke figuratively. To be sure, I asked him: ‘Papa, what do you mean “Mulele is not dead”? I read in the newspapers and many books that he was murdered by the Mobutu regime in 1968.’

After a few minutes of silence, Osam shook his head and asked me, sadly: ‘They said they killed him, but where did they bury him? […] Papa, […] where did they put his body?’ Not knowing how to respond, I listened to him carefully as he concluded, ‘Mulele [was] not […] killed. For the record, […] we saw him many times appearing to us […] and giving us his instructions. […] Whenever he came back, he would go and sleep at my friend’s place.’

This mode of thinking, which entails denying the veracity of Mulele’s death that occurred fifty years ago, has been dismissed as mythical, phantasmagorical and delusional. Flavien Nkay, historian and author of La mission chrétienne à l’épreuve de la tradition ancestrale (Congo Belge, 1891-1933), explained to me that these ‘myths’ were rooted in the culture of the region. In an article published in 2010 he highlights the ‘ambiguities’ and ‘myths’ related to the celebration of Congolese independence in 1960 and describes them as a ‘sin.’ ‘Everyone had their own idea of the independence,’ he writes (Nkay Malu, 2010: 69-70). ‘These initial misunderstandings will permanently affect […] future events.’ But, ‘to who shall we attribute this original sin?’ he asks. He thereby frames, by extension, the problem of belief in the veracity of Mulele’s death, which he would later refer to as an immoral act and a transgression against divine law.

Innocent Yamb, a teacher in Kinshasa, shared this opinion when asked about Osam’s stated belief in 2015. But, unlike Flavien Nkay, who finds the root of the question in the region’s culture without explaining what this culture entails, Innocent Yamb locates the crux of the problem in what he calls ‘the sick mind,’ a mind unable to think critically. ‘To put it bluntly,’ he said, ‘this is a campaign of lies. It is further evidence that people are naive. […] Many of those living in the hinterland have not studied. They suck up whatever they hear. […] It is because I studied that I am now able to think critically. It is because of my critical thinking that I can say with confidence that Mulele is indeed dead.’

‘Mythologies,’ ‘misconceptions,’ ‘sins,’ ‘lies,’ ‘naivety’: this is how Osam’s statement was understood by those who, thanks to their education, are able to think critically. Now, if we agree with Yamb that Osam’s testimonies are all ‘lies,’ what is the implication for historical writing? Clearly, there would be no history because, as a discipline whose object is the production of a rational and intelligible discourse on ‘absence,’ (De Certeau, 1973: 179) history relies heavily on what documents say (Bloch, 1954: 64-65). These revelations—that is, the evidence, the piece of information or knowledge gathered from the documents—must be true. They should reflect as accurately as possible the existing reality or the reality as it existed. But my research suggests that it is possible to write history from sources that can be described as ‘phantasmagorical’ or, to use Yamb’s words, ‘lies,’ provided that one knows how to interpret them.

Moving beyond questions of truth and falsity, Osam’s testimony can be interpreted in relation to the politics of mourning. What is at stake in Osam’s account is the impossibility of mourning. Following his assassination, Mulele’s body was, according to Ludo Martens, dismembered and mutilated (Martens, 1985). But none of his followers had personal knowledge of how this body was treated after his death: none of them saw where he was buried. These two elements—the treatment of Mulele’s body after death and the absence of any burial—led Mulele’s followers to keep the dead alive. As I show in The Mulele “Rebellion,” Congolese Political Regimes, and the Politics of Forgetting (Forthcoming, Cahiers d’Etudes Africaines), they could therefore revive him in their imagination, talk to him and interact with him. This way of keeping the dead alive, in the absence of both a corpse and a burial, evokes Jacques Derrida: ‘Mourning,’ he writes, ‘[always] consists in attempting to ontologize remains, to make them present, in the first place by identifying the bodily remains and by localizing the dead.’ (Derrida, 1994: 9). For these identifications and localizations to take place in good condition, ‘[o]ne has to know. One has to know it. One has to have knowledge. […] to know is to know who and where, to know whose body it really is and what place it occupies—for it must stay in its place. In a safe place. […] Nothing could be worse, for the work of mourning, than confusion or doubt: one has to know who is buried whereand it is necessary (to know—to make certain) that, in what remains of him, he remains there. Let him stay there and move no more!’

The impossibility of burying Mulele, as well as their inability to locate and identify the remains of his body, left many of Mulele’s followers in an interminable period of mourning and waiting, as evidenced in Osam’s testimonies.

It is true that questions of truth and falsity are important in any historical reconstruction. But one should also consider the ways in which historical actors engage themselves in problematizing what they consider as truth. Luise White has shown how this can be done by drawing on rumour and gossip as historical sources. In Speaking with Vampires: Rumor and History in Colonial Africa (2000), she wonders: ‘What better way to re-examine the way historians have thought about evidence, reliability, and truth than by studying the history of things that never happened?’(White, 2000: xii). ‘Letting […] history be as messy and meandering as it needed to be, occasioned a rethinking of the historiography that had dismissed rumor and gossip as a likely way to reconstruct the past.’


Marc Bloch, The Historian’s Craft, trans. Peter Putnam, Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1954

Michel de Certeau, L’absent de l’histoire, Paris : Maine-Repères, 1973.

Jacques Derrida, Specters of Marx: The State of the Debt, the Work of Mourning, and the New International, trans. Peggy Kamuf, New York: Routledge, 1994.

Ludo Martens, Pierre Mulele ou la seconde vie de Lumumba, Bruxelles : Epo, 1985.

Flavien Nkay Malu, ‘Dipanda : Perception autochtone de l’indépendance’, in Albert Kenkfuni Oblipe, Chrétien et patriote : Hommage à Son exc. Mgr Marie-Edouard Mununu Kasiala pour ses 25 ans d’épiscopat, Kikwit: Le palmier—Editions de l’Assedibad, 2010.

Luise White, Speaking with Vampires: Rumor and History in Colonial Africa, Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000.