Travels in Africa

Fred and Donanne Hunter


When Maurice Count Lippens was offered the Governor-Generalship of the Belgian Congo, he felt himself an odd choice for the job. It was late 1920. Members of the king’s cabinet explained that the palace wanted a man with no links to King Leopold’s Congo Free State and the atrocities that had so severely embarrassed Belgium. They wanted a man who would take a new approach to the colony. It did not matter that he had no experience of Africa. Out of patriotism, the count accepted the appointment.
Everything in Boma, the colony’s capital, seemed exotic and new to the count. In Europe he had never experienced a river of such width and thrust as the Congo. What power it had! It surged into the Atlantic, an indomitable, unstoppable onrush, pushing silt miles into the ocean.
Nor had he ever known a sun like the one that shone over Boma: its strength and brilliance, its relentlessness beating down. The Congo sun hung close to the earth. It seemed twice as large as the sun he had known in Flanders where he had recently lived, serving as governor of the Belgian province of East Flanders
As the count and his wife settled into their home, they were almost overwhelmed by the green of the landscape, the warmth and humidity of the air, the verdant lushness of the vegetation, the taste and profusion of fruits they had always regarded as exotic: bananas, mangoes, pineapples, papayas. Their nostrils adjusted to the smell of burning vegetation carried by evening breezes from nearby villages. But it took longer to become accustomed to the people, black as night, who lived in huts made of grass. They cooked over open fires, beat drums for hours, and went about virtually unclad. Naked people in the millions! How extraordinary!
Two months after Count Lippens arrived in the Congo, something extraordinary happened: a prophet emerged. The information he received reported that a Congolese moving through a village not far from Boma came upon a woman lying desperately ill on a pallet outside her hut. She was waiting to die. Impelled by the Holy Spirit – so contended the report – the man went to the woman. As if possessed, he started trembling, laid his hands on her, and raised her from her deathbed.
A miracle! So said the Congolese. Rumors of it swept like wildfire across the region. They caused plantation workers to leave their fields. They emptied colonial churches. They caused Africans to stream into the prophet’s home village. There, it was said, the prophet healed all who came to him. He even raised the dead.
The excitement of the Congolese unnerved the settlers. The Governor-General did not know how to react to it. Nothing like this had ever occurred in East Flanders. If the people’s fervor was solely religious, he would let the enthusiasm play itself out. But what if, as the settlers assumed, it threatened the colony?
The count could well imagine why the idea of a prophet excited the Congolese. After all, they were hustled into churches and told what to believe, pushed into plantation labor and told what to do. The Belgian settlers thought it inconceivable that Congolese should be interested in spirituality. Witchcraft, yes; spirituality, no.
But, thought the count, of course, Congolese sought one of their own to lead them out of the white man’s religion and the white man’s work. And the white man’s government. They yearned for such a person. When he emerged, it would be as a prophet.
But what if religious fervor turned anti-administration, anti-colonial, anti-white? Then it would have to be dealt with.
It turned out that the prophet was called Simon Kimbangu, a Mukongo who came from the village of Nkamba not far from the capital. He sprang from a family with deep Christian roots. His father and uncle had been catechists, itinerant teachers of the principles of Christianity. So had Kimbangu. He had received baptism from the British Baptist Missionary Society in 1915, six years previously. Now in his early thirties, he had, as a result of healing the woman, begun a period of teaching and healing.
The count found no scarcity of advisers to help him deal with this situation. The chief of these was Willem Van Belle, his principal assistant. He advised watchfulness. On the other hand, Belgian settlers advised action. They insisted that suppressing the prophet was the best way to deal with him. When pressed, they acknowledged that they meant eliminating him – but by legal means, by imprisonment, trial, conviction, hanging. The count discounted such advice. He had not been sent to the Congo to execute Congolese.
The most relentless local adviser was Monsignor Van Rolse, the senior representative of the Catholic Church. Tall, imposing and in his mid-50s, he wore a white soutane, untouched by the messiness of Africa. The first time they met, the count pegged Van Rolse as a deft politician, expert at shepherding the church’s interests in the colony.
“Deal with this matter quickly,” the monsignor urged. “Don’t let it get out ahead of you.”
This did not strike the count as a fresh approach. He asked, a little provocatively, “What if Kimbangu is a genuine holy man?”
The monsignor raised an index finger and waved it back and forth. “Impossible,” he declared. “He’s a savage.”
“Monsignor,” wondered the count, “how could Kimbangu be a savage? He’s a Christian! He claims that God talks to him. If He does, should we interfere?”
“My friend,” said the monsignor, “you have been here less than two months. Let those of us with experience guide you in this.”
“And how would you propose I do this?”
“Show humility, my son.” It annoyed the count to have this churchman-politician speak to him in this way. But he masked his annoyance. “Let us lead you.” the monsignor continued. “God and I talk every day. He reminds me that there is one true church and that I represent it in the Congo. My task is to resist whatever would undermine the one true church in this place. That is why this Kimbangu must be stopped.”
Before the count could reply, the monsignor asked, “Do you pray?”
The count shrugged.
“Start praying, my son,” he advised. “And listen well. You will be told that you represent the order and stability that Belgium is establishing in this place of savagery. Your responsibility is to thwart all those who seek to undermine that order.” The churchman leaned across the desk and touched the count’s hand. The count forced himself not to withdraw it. “It is a high calling,” said the cleric. “You must not back away from it.”
The count sat back, escaping the touch of the church. He said, “We cannot kill or jail everyone who sees things differently than we do.”
“No, not as individuals we can’t do that,” the monsignor agreed. “But as Governor-General it may be necessary. Your job is to maintain order and stability. We must protect the status quo.”
“Perhaps that is enough churchly wisdom for today,” observed the count, inviting the monsignor to withdraw.
“My advice for you, sir,” rebutted the monsignor, “is this: Squash this bug.” He stood, shook the count’s hand, and departed.

If the monsignor had offended him, the count realized that he must not offend the monsignor. This early in his administration, the monsignor was undoubtedly more trusted by the settlers and the palace in Brussels than he himself was.
The count ordered a young district officer to take a detachment of soldiers and go to Nkamba. He was to assess the situation, parley with the prophet, but certainly not to harm him. He was to invite the man to enter the Belgian hospital in nearby Thysville for a check-up . There the administration could observe him – and, if necessary, detain him.
The count did not expect this plan to succeed. But it would show settlers that he was taking action. He assumed Kimbangu would go into hiding. That would disrupt the fervor at Nkamba. Perhaps Congolese would return to their normal lives.
As the count expected, the expedition failed. As soon as the soldiers entered Nkamba, Kimbangu fled, vanished. The count feigned annoyance when the young officer reported to him, but, in fact, he was not displeased. Kimbangu’s disappearance made it possible for the count to turn his attention to other matters.

One night after dinner the count faced an evening reading reports. Before doing that, he proposed to his wife that they walk down to the river. They went onto the porch. As they started down steep stairs in the darkness, he turned to offer his wife a hand. In doing so, he slipped, fell, gave a cry. Holding the banister, the countess rushed to him “Are you hurt?” she asked. The count grumbled, made a joke of his clumsiness, and tried to rise. But he could not. The countess helped him to his feet. She took his right arm to steady him. He winced.
“Darling, what is it?”
“The damn thing’s shooting pain at me.”
The countess called for the servants. Runners were sent for Van Belle and the town’s best doctor.
When the doctor made his examination, he announced that the arm was broken. A clean break. It should heal rapidly. He adjusted the arm, put splints about it as a safeguard, and fashioned a sling in which the count could rest it. There was no reason, the doctor declared, why the count could not continue his normal duties. However, he must avoid feeling stress; he must take things as easily as possible. The doctor charged the countess to be scrupulous about following this advice.
After the doctor left, Van Belle studied the count without speaking, annoying him. “Tell me, man,” the count demanded, “what you’re thinking.”
“That it’s good this happened in the dark. So Congolese could not see you lying on the stairs like a bird with a broken wing.”
“Why do you say that?”
“When you sent an officer to Nkamba,” Van Belle noted, “Kimbangu eluded you. Now you’ve fallen downstairs and broken an arm.”
“Meaning what?”
Van Belle shrugged. “What will they think? Kimbangu has bested us.”
The count studied his assistant. “How long have you been out here, Van Belle?”
The assistant smiled. “You think it’s too long?”
“I don’t believe in magic,” declared the count.
“I believe in being careful,” said Van Belle. “I suggest you carry on as usual. But keep your contacts with Congolese to a minimum.”

The arm did not heal quickly. Nor did Count Lippens adjust easily to having a “wing in a sling,” as he sometimes referred to it. His left hand rebelled at holding both a fork and a pen. He tried not to appear in public, certainly not where there would be Congolese. He just wished the damn thing would heal.
He gave little thought to the prophet. Occasional reports claimed that he was teaching here or preaching there. The count was content to have him “out there” where he could not be found. Kimbangu became a problem low on the Governor-General’s list.
But he was high on the list of others. Monsignor Van Rolse regularly visited to complain that too little was being done to find the man. Planters reminded the count that work on their plantations had virtually ceased. Amadeo DeRossi, chief justice of the high court, warned that Kimbangu’s real intention was to undermine the state. Leaders of settlers groups echoed this concern.
Count Lippens assured them all that Kimbangu was not forgotten. The more difficult the meetings, the more likely was his injured arm to ache. He often asked himself, “Why doesn’t it heal?”
One morning Van Belle knocked on the door of the count’s office and entered, grinning so expansively that the count grinned himself.
“Here’s something you won’t believe, sir,” Van Belle announced. “Simon Kimbangu has turned himself in.”
“How amazing!”
“It seems God told him to surrender. He’s in our custody.”
“God did!” The count stood. He reached out his left hand to shake hands with Van Belle. He said, “I would like to meet this man. Quietly, of course. Can that be arranged?”
“I’ll see to it.”
“In total secrecy.” Van Belle nodded. The count added, “I suppose it’s necessary to get this news to the palace in Brussels.”
“It is, sir,” said the assistant. “And hopefully before our friend the monsignor beats us to it.”
After Van Belle withdrew, the count went to the window and gazed out over the landscape. He had felt a kind of exultation on learning that Kimbangu was in the custody of the state. But now he thought: Damn! The prophet has jumped well up the list of matters I must deal with. His injured arm began to ache. The prophet in the state’s custody created problems. What was the state to do with him? How should it regard him? The monsignor and his party would argue that he must be tried and executed. But Kimbangu had sought protection. Was the state willing to give him that?
The count felt that, until he was convinced otherwise, he had a responsibility to guarantee Kimbangu’s safety.

The news that Kimbangu had sought the protection of the state caused visitors to descend upon the count. Monsignor Van Rolse was the first. “Rid the colony of this pest!” he exclaimed. The leaders of settler groups came to plead that the prophet be hanged. The chief justice visited to propose dates for Kimbangu’s trial. The charges would be sedition
“What evidence is there of that?” asked the count.
“We will find evidence.”
Or concoct it, thought the count. He said, “Not so fast. I want to consult the man.”
DeRossi looked aghast. “Consult a Congolese?”
The monsignor visited again in a state of high excitement. “You must not meet Kimbangu!” Obviously DeRossi had run to him bearing tales. “He is nothing!” cried the monsignor. “Think of the prestige meeting you gives him! The power!”
The count’s arm began to ache.
Van Rolse raised a warning hand. “You’ll weaken your position. DeRossi is setting up a trial. Kimbanngu will be convicted. Sentenced him to death.”
“I won’t permit that!”
“You have no say in the matter. It’s DeRossi’s trial.”
The count did not understand what he was hearing. The two men stared at each other.
The pain in his arm made the count take refuge across the room.
Van Rolse followed him. “Come to terms with your responsibilities, man,” he challenged. “That is why your arm does not heal. Make peace with executing Kimbangu. Then your arm will get well.”
When the monsignor left, the count paced about his office. He did not intend to execute Kimbangu. But he reminded himself that he must not antagonize the church.
He wondered how much of the opposition he faced was personal. Some of it certainly. He saw that speaking of the prophet’s right to protection poisoned his relationships. It might damage his ability to accomplish his goals. And in the end would it do anything to save Kimbangu? No. If they meant to execute him, they would. As Governor-General, the count could not act freely. He must act for the colony. He must make his peace with that.
So he would order that Kimbangu be arrested. He would agree to a trial. But he would insist that a lawyer be found for the prophet, either a local man, if one was willing to do the job, or a defense attorney brought out from Europe. Probably no reputable man would take the job, seeing that it was a charade. Still he would make the effort. Even so, he realized, he could do almost nothing to save the doomed Kimbangu.

On the morning that Simon Kimbangu was to visit him, the count had his wife help him dress. She took special care with the sling that held his injured arm. As she did, he wondered: Why are we taking special care? The man was an African, a prisoner. He had caused innumerable problems.
A tension spread across he count’s chest. Why was that? What was he expecting to happen? He had not met many Congolese. A few chiefs. They had struck him as outlandish, otherworldly. He wondered: Would this man Kimbangu be different? Probably not. So why a tension?
At the office he paced back and forth. He wondered what would Kimbangu think of him. A strange thought! Could that matter? Kimbangu was merely an African. But a special one, yes. He felt a throb of pain from his arm. The sling made him feel vulnerable.
A knock came at the door. The count felt a catch of breath. Van Belle entered to announce, “Simon Kimbangu is here. The guards have removed the manacles.”
“Give me a minute,” requested the count. “Then show him in.”
Stand or sit? He had given that no thought. Standing would suggest a willingness to pay the prophet respect. Was that wise? But if he sat, KImbangu would look down at him. Could he allow that? He adjusted his arm in its sling. Ow! He grew quiet for a moment, preparing himself. Again the knock. He remained standing. He straightened up to his full height.
Van Belle entered. At his side walked a man of medium height who carried himself with dignity. “Simon Kimbangu, sir.” Van Belle turned to glance at the African, then gestured with his hand, “His Excellency Governor-General Maurice Count Lippens.”
Kimbangu moved into the room walking with the steps of a man whose ankles had been chained. He stopped. He measured the count with an expression that offered no challenge, no provocation. The men regarded one another.
The count said nothing. His first reaction was to wonder why he had indulged himself earlier that morning with a fairy tale about this man being in any way distinguished. He was simply an African, somewhat stocky, standing erect, but not stiffly, in work pants and a tunic that came to his neck.
Strangely, as the two men studied one another, the count felt that, in fact, Kimbangu might be an authentic holy man. That idea startled him. Where had it come from? He had no idea what a holy man might look like. He knew, however, that if Kimbangu were an authentic holy man, they two would be equals.
Equality had not occurred to the count. To take control of the moment, to assert his authority, he walked completely around Kimbangu, inspecting him from every angle. When he ended his circuit, he asked, “Why did you turn yourself in?”
“I did not want to be assassinated. Or betrayed.”
“Did you think you could trust us?”
Kimbangu made no reply.
The count finally observed. “You have caused me a great deal of trouble.”
The prophet smiled. “Sir, you have caused me a great deal of trouble.”
The count nodded, then once more circled the visitor, inspecting him. Finally he said, “They say you talk to God.”
Kimbangu smiled; he had heard this charge before. “God talks to me,” he corrected. “I listen.” As he measured the count, Kimbangu’s eyes softened. “You have great responsibilities,” he said. “Does He not talk to you?”
The count smiled at this inquiry, but made no reply. With patience Kimbangu waited for his interviewer to respond, but there was no challenge in his manner. Finally he said, “He has a very loud voice.” When Kimbangu said “He,” there was no question to whom he referred.
Kimbangu raised his voice as if to illustrate his point. “When He speaks, it’s so loud your head trembles.” When the count did not reply, he continued, “When He first spoke to me, I ran away.”
A flicker of interest passed across the count’s eyes.
“To Kinshasa,” explained the prophet. “I found employment as a domestic.” The count nodded ever so slightly. “Later I worked at an oil refinery.” Kimbangu smiled rather sheepishly. “I was hiding. But God had no trouble finding me.”
The count cocked an eyebrow as if to ask why he was hiding,
“I thought I might be insane.”
The count nodded.
“So I returned to the village of my birth.”
“Nkamba,’ said the count.
Kimbangu smiled at the count’s honoring him with speech. “Yes.” The men watched one another, Kimbangu outwaiting the count.
“Did God instruct you to do that?” There was genuine curiosity in the tone of the count’s question.
“On my way there I passed through a neighboring village. A woman on her deathbed cried out to me.” Kimbangu regarded the count with a look of genuine bafflement. “Why me?” He shrugged as if still unable to explain why the woman chose him. “I found myself approaching her.” He gazed at the floor as if again seeing the woman. He glanced at the count. “Unless I laid hands on her I knew that she would die within the hour.”
He spoke as if urging the count to share his dilemma. “I did not choose to approach her. I was told that I must do it.” Kimbangu glanced again at the floor as if beholding the woman. “There was expectation in her eyes.” He looked back at the count, mystified again. “Where did that come from?”
The count listened without responding.
“I laid my hands on her shoulders.” Kimbangu’s arms moved forward, his hands outstretched. He brought the arms back against his body. He watched the count intently as if his expression could make the explanation. “A strange influence came over me: the Holy Spirit. It took possession of me. There were holy voices shouting in my head.”
The count sensed a tension in the room. For just a moment Kimbangu’s body stiffened, as if responding to some power outside it. “I began to tremble,” he explained. The tension passed. His body relaxed.
The count did not know what to think. He had not expected this.
“The woman sat up,” Kimbangu said, still surprised at what had occurred. “She smiled at me. She stood.” He looked at the count as if wanting assurance that he understood the ambivalence he had felt. “I wanted to run. But I was still trembling.”
Kimbangu spoke very quietly. His trembling caused a tightening along the count’s arms and across his chest. His instinct was to retreat. But he did not move. Kimbangu shook his head as if to throw off some confusion. “I could not run. I wondered if I were insane.” He looked genuinely puzzled. “But how could I be insane if she was healed?”
He watched the count as if truly hoping for some answer. The count did not move.
“’The word was made flesh,’” Kimbangu said, his account of the incident ending. “I knew that I could not run away from God any longer.” The count nodded. “I felt that He was pleased with me.”
The count turned his back as if to break a spell and removed himself several paces. “And the trouble began,” the count said.
Kimbangu smiled. “A woman was healed. How is there trouble in that?”
The count ignored the question. “Tell me more.”
“I went home,” Kimbangu said. “People followed me. They crowded outside my domicile. I tried to ignore them.” He gave a shrug as if to ask, “What could I do?”
The count had grown tired of standing, but he would not sit while the visitor stood. He wondered if it were appropriate to invite a Congolese to sit. He could not remember ever seeing a Congolese seated with a white man. “Should we sit down?” he suggested.
He moved to a pair of easy chairs before his desk and indicated for the prophet to take one of them. The prophet hesitated. The count understood that Kimbangu could not imagine sitting with him. “It would please me if you would sit with me.”
The count sat. He watched the Congolese move to the empty chair and gingerly lower his body to the front edge of it. The two men looked at one another a long moment. “What was I saying?” Kimbangu asked.
“You said that crowds followed you.”
“Yes,” he said, remembering. “The sick came. For me to lay my hands on them.” Kimbangu started to speak, but appeared uncertain of his perch on the front edge of the chair.
The count said, “I think you will be more comfortable if you sit farther back as I am doing.”
Kimbangu examined the count’s position in his chair and imitated it. He sat back, then leaned forward and spread his hands to explain. “The Spirit possessed me. I trembled and touched them and they were healed.” The prophet watched the count, seeking some indication that he believed him. The count gave a small nod. “They began to say that an mvuluzi had appeared to the Kongo people.”
“An mvu–?”
“An mvuluzi: an apostle.” The count nodded. “They asked me to speak to them. I said merely what the Holy Spirit gave me to speak. That I was chosen to bring the Word of Nzambi to black people.”
“God,” explained Kimbangu. “I said that Nzambi knew and loved them.” He spoke with more conviction. “They did not need the intercession of white people to bring Nzambi to the black people.”
“And you believe that?” The count asked the question as gently as possible, not as an inquisitor.
Kimbangu hesitated, as if his reply might have ramifications. “It was given to me to say,” he answered carefully. He stood. He did not feel he could explain himself while he sat. The count had an impulse to stand, but controlled it. He remained seated.
“I did not say I was Jesus Christ for the black people,” Kimbangu explained. “Or the Second Coming. Others said that. Followers came.”
The count saw the puzzlement in the prophet’s eyes. “They believed I had a power that I did not believe I had. They asked me to instruct them.” The prophet spoke with more conviction now for he was not puzzled by how he had instructed them. “I told them to give up witchcraft. To stop evil dancing. To give up the drums. I told the men to marry only one woman. They obeyed me. These were the same things the missionaries told them to do.”
“I have heard of these things,” the count acknowledged.
“Suddenly other men arose. They claimed that they also were prophets, that they, too, had been visited by Nzambi in their dreams.”
The count offered no reaction, but listened carefully for it was from these men that political trouble was likely to come.
“They trembled as I had trembled in healing.”
“Was their trembling genuine?”
“Of these new prophets I saw that some had truly been called by the Holy Spirit.”
“How did you test them?”
“Others had not been called. Many are false prophets.”
Of this, the count was certain. “I am told they preach against the state.”
“I have never preached against the state,” Kimbangu asserted.
The count rose and began to walk about the room. “The whites are sure there will be a rebellion,” he said.
The prophet watched the count and declared, “I preach obedience to the Bible. Against fetishes. Against alcohol. It is what the missionaries preach. My people do as I ask. That helps your people. This is not rebellion.”
The count turned toward Kimbangu. The atmosphere of their conversation had changed. The count did not want to force a change, but needed to make some points with Kimbangu. “My people, who are so few among your people who are so many. . . They believe that your people will attack us.”
Kimbangu stood his ground. “Our work is healing. We do as the Holy Spirit directs. We are not about killing.”
“My people fear a black Christ.”
“I never claimed to be Christ,” insisted Kimbangu. “I am a messenger.” Now out of puzzlement he asked, “For your people to be happy must all prophets be white?”
This question embarrassed the count; he knew that the settlers would make that assumption. He moved to his desk, wanting to change the subject. “May I offer you something to drink?”
“I do not drink spirits.”
“Water then?” suggested the count. “There is a carafe of it here.” The count poured water into one of several glasses on a tray. He offered it to Kimbangu.
“Thank you, Governor-GeneraL. I need nothing.” The count continued to offer the glass, assuming that after a perfunctory refusal the water would be accepted. “I know you will have to break any glass I use.” The count looked surprised. “No white man would ever drink out of it. I will take nothing.”
This truth embarrassed the count. For a moment he felt at a loss as to what to do. Kimbangu watched him with compassion. The count set the glass aside and did not drink.
“I am sorry to see your arm in a sling,” said the prophet. “A man must be careful going down stairs at night – even in his own residence.”
The count studied his visitor. His falling down the stairs had not been disclosed to the public. Ordinarily it would not be known to Africans. How would Kimbangu know this detail?
“You wonder how I know you fell,” said Kimbangu, feeling ever more comfortable. “As I approached the residence this morning, I saw you fall down the stairs. I am glad you were not hurt more seriously.”
“The arm resists healing,” the count admitted. “No one knows why.” He laughed with frustration. “The doctors have done what they can. A damned nuisance. The arm throbs sometimes. It is throbbing now.”
Suddenly the count found himself revealing something that he had confessed to no one. “I fear that the arm will wither. I knew a German diplomat in Brussels with a withered arm. It hung from his shoulder, useless.” He shuddered, recollecting the diplomat. “I have dreams about that. It haunts me.”
The two men gazed at each other. Neither man moved. At last Kimbangu stepped toward the count, not subserviently as a black man before a white one, a prisoner before a governor. Gently he reached out and tenderly placed his hands on the sling, on the count’s right arm. The count grimaced, less in pain than in uncertainty.
Kimbangu closed his eyes, waiting for the Spirit to possess him. The count watched him. Kimbangu began to tremble, unmistakably, but not violently. The count witnessed the trembling. He felt the throbbing stop. Warmth flowed into his arm. It increased.
Then it diminished.
Kimbangu stepped back, his eyes still closed. He stopped trembling. He removed his hands from the arm. He stood erect. He opened his eyes and beheld the count. The count shook his head.
At last the count said, “Nothing happened.” Kimbangu said nothing. “Why not?” The two men measured one another. The count wondered what had disrupted the prophet. Why had the trembling stopped? Was it something in the office? The count looked about. It could be nothing in the office. Kimbangu had not seemed thrown off before now. Then he thought: Of course. The prophet’s capacity to heal was not so strong, after all. “What disrupted your trembling?”
Kimbangu said simply, “You did not expect to be healed.”
The count shook his head. Did the prophet mean that he had interfered with his own healing?
After a moment Kimbangu said, “That first woman, the one who called out to me, she expected to be healed.” He smiled sadly. “The Holy Spirit will not give you what you do not want.”
“But I want this!” cried the count. “I want to be healed! Can you imagine what it’s like having a withered arm?”
Kimbangu stepped away from the count. “Would you rather have a withered arm than to have a Congolese heal you? The people who come to me at Nkamba expect to be healed. Their spirit helps the Holy Spirit.”
The count turned away. He tried to take possession of himself, to mask the disappointment he felt. Had he truly prevented his own healing?
Kimbangu watched him gain control of himself. He asked, “What will the administration of the Belgian Congo do to me now that I have turned myself in?”
The count turned back to face him. “I find no wrong in you,” he said. “But there will be a revolt among the settlers if nothing is done. My people are afraid. They insist that you be put on trial.”
“Under what charge?”
“Sedition.” There had been a moment of connection between the two men. Now it was gone. They were talking business. “Preaching rebellion against the state.”
“I have never preached against the state.”
“Disturbing public tranquility.” The count softened his tone. “You have given the settlers a bad scare.”
“And how will they punish me?”
“There will be a trial. The judge will determine.” The count felt that this was an unsatisfactory answer. “I hope a lawyer will represent you,” he said. Kimbangu looked uncertain about this. “I hope the punishment will be imprisonment in a penal colony. Far from here.”
Kimbangu said, “Some of your people want to see me executed,”
“I don’t deny that.” The count spoke more kindly. “I prefer imprisonment long enough to let things cool down.” He shrugged. “Maybe. . . Five years.”
Kimbangu heard the words without emotion. Finally he said, “Thank you for seeing me. For allowing me to sit in your presence. For offering me water.”
“I wish we were meeting in different circumstances.” The count reached out his free left hand in a fellowship he would not have thought possible when the visitor entered the office.
Kimbangu took the offered hand in his right hand. The two men looked at one another. Count Lippens started to tremble. His eyes widened in alarm. Warmth infused his injured arm. Kimbangu clasped his free hand over the hand holding the count. The count’s trembling became a shaking. The room became filled with brilliant light of a kind the count had never before witnessed. Kimbangu began to tremble, less violently than the count. The count’s right arm began to move forward out of the sling. The count’s eyes grew wider. His mouth opened involuntarily. Kimbangu held on to him more firmly. The light grew even brighter. The count’s right arm moved out of the sling.
Once the arm was free of the sling, the count pumped it. He rotated it. He shook it. He looked uncomprehendingly at Kimbangu. The prophet smiled at him through the great light. The count placed his newly freed hand over Kimbangu’s. Tears flooded into his eyes. He began to weep. He shook Kimbangu’s hand, then released it and turned his back to hide his emotion.
Kimbangu watched for a moment. Then he left the office.
Count Lippens fell to his knees. As the light continued to shine, he wept with relief and gratitude.

Count Lippens’ tenure as Governor-General of the Belgian Congo was marked by differences with the Ministry of Colonies in Brussels. He served for only two years, 1921-1923. He also served as president of the Belgian Senate from 1934 to 1936. He died in 1956.
Simon Kimbangu was charged with sedition, tried (without counsel), convicted and sentenced to death. The sentence was commuted to life imprisonment. He was incarcerated at a prison in Elisabethville (now Lubumbashi) in Katanga, far distant from the Bas-Congo region that was his home. He died in 1951. Despite his imprisonment, his religious teachings spread. Kimbanguism is now thought to have as many as five million adherents, mainly in central Africa with some in Europe.

1 Comment

  1. I was just going to begin and read the the first paragraph or two but didn’t budge until I had read the entire story (which I will read again). Also I forwarded it on to several friends whom I know will enjoy it. Thank you for sharing, Fred. You make Africa come alive for me!

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