The Story of Congo’s History Comes Alive in POSTCARDS FROM CONGO, The Comprehensive Graphic Novel Sheds Light on Congo’s History Not Widely Known to Western Readers!


Didier Gondola, PhD. Johns Hopkins University

One question that has haunted historians for quite a while and continues to elicit much debate in scholarly circles is who gets to tell the story? Who gets to produce history? Historian Natalie Zemon Davis has articulated some provocative questions in this debate about the ownership of history, including one that can serve as a point of entry into this foreword to Postcards from Congo: “Do professional historians own history?” Indeed, professional historians, unlike their peers in the humanities and social sciences, have proven to be less skittish and sensitive about “amateur” historians “encroaching” on their “turf.” History professors use movies in the classroom as history material; they take their students to visit historical monuments, museums, and battle reenactments; they use novels, popular lyrics, and comic strips as relevant sources in their own narratives. Comic strips ride on the coattails of oral history and historical novels, two genres that have trailblazed the democratization of history.

In fact, there is now a whole interdisciplinary field called comics studies that draws significantly on historical scholarship and that has become a major outlet for historians to make history more relevant and palatable to a wider public. This is to say that historians understand the value of being accommodating.

They can afford to be less protective of history than, for instance, anthropologists, sociologists, and geographers are vis-à-vis their respective disciplines. Perhaps this is due to the nature of history itself. After all, history is both a product and a practice, a craft and a crave, so embedded in our daily lives, hopes, and struggles for a better future that another historian, Howard Zinn, once remarked that history should be both instructive and transformative.

People should not be just at the receiving end of history, Zinn contends. They are not just consumers of historical narratives. Every little thing they do, he argues, matters: “if they walk on the picket line, if they join a vigil, if they write a letter to their local newspaper. Anything they do, however small, becomes part of a much, much larger sort of flow of energy.

And when enough people do enough things, however small they are, then change takes place.” History is indeed about change. And if change deals with the present, then it is safe to say that history is less concerned with the past than it is with the present. Rather than looking backward, history projects itself in the future; it is eminently forward looking. And good historical narratives always endeavour to use lessons from the past to help us do better.

Postcards from Congo: A Graphic History has ventured into a field in which visual artists such as Tshibumba Kanda Matulu (1947–c.1981), Chéri Samba (b. 1956), Chéri Cherin (b. 1955), and Barly Baruti (b. 1959), to name just a few, have attempted to reimagine key moments in the history of Congo and to participate in the “flow of energy” that Zinn talks about. For instance, Tshibumba, before his mysterious disappearance in 1981, worked on a series of more than a hundred frescoes (The History of Zaire) skillfully blending the Congolese art of storytelling with a popular urban art form that emerged in the colonial urban crucible.

Tshibumba’s depiction of Lumumba as master of the world in Le 30 juin 1960, Zaïre indépendant (June 30, 1960, independent Zaire) and his double take on the “passion” of Lumumba in Calvaire d’Afrique (African calvary) and La mort historique de Lumumba, Mpolo et Okito (the historical death of Lumumba, Mpolo, and Okito) visually and vividly reimagine and reinterpret two dramatic episodes that set Congo’s post-colonial trajectory awry. It is quite obvious that Edmund Trueman is in tune with this visual legacy, and with a tradition that hearkens back to the infamous Hergé’s comic album Tintin au Congo (Tintin in the Congo).

In Tintin au Congo, one of the most environmentally unfriendly comics there is, one eco-disaster follows another, a reminder of colonization’s attack not just on Congolese people, but also on their ecology, with an irreversible impact on land and water ecosystems. In one scene, Tintin is on a hunting spree and shoots down more than a dozen antelopes in pure carnage. Thumbing his nose at Hergé’s intrepid hero, Trueman in Postcards from Congo shows a Tintin-like Maximilien Balot—a real-life colonial agent—killed during the Pende revolt of 1931.

Aside from its stunning visual flow and accessible narrative, what really sets Postcards from Congo apart from other graphic novels about Congo’s history is Trueman’s ambition to cover as much ground as possible, from the Bantu migrations (which started around 4,500 BCE) to Congo’s contemporary developments. No other artist has attempted this. For each period in this long history, Trueman goes against the grain and deliberately showcases a particular event, people, and place, in several instances bringing to the fore his intimate knowledge of the latest academic scholarship on Congo.

For example, in the chapter devoted to Congo’s early history, he includes a vignette describing the Mbuti people, often represented as reclusive and elusive and derogatorily referred to as “pygmies.” The Mbuti initiated contact with the Bantu newcomers. But, unlike other autochthonous groups, they managed to fend off Bantu attempts to assimilate them.

To be sure, a sizable bulk of Postcards from Congo’s narrative is devoted to Congo’s post-1885 trajectory, with the independence moment and its aftermaths looming large, and for good reason, as will be explained later in this foreword.

The early colonial period, the so-called Congo Free State, played a disproportionately large role in setting the wheels in motion for the predicament that Congo continues to endure. Trueman taps into the wealth of knowledge that has been produced recently, most notably Adam Hochschild’s much-acclaimed King Leopold’s Ghost, to peel back the thin veneer of the Belgian “civilizing mission” and expose how wanton abuses left Congo’s populations reeling for a century to come.

Noting Congo Free State as a dystopian state right off the bat, Trueman convincingly shows how Leopold II’s private domain served as the proverbial cornucopia that fuelled the West’s rapid industrialization. Exhausted villagers were pushed to the brink of famine for the sole purpose of collecting the wild rubber that propelled the automobile revolution forward.

Failure to meet quotas resulted in villagers having their hands severed and their villages burnt to the ground by Leopold II’s soldiers, the infamous Force Publique. Colonial exploitation and evisceration of the Congo Basin fuelled another inordinate appetite in Europe and America, where people were fascinated by the idea of Africa as an exotic place—Western racial taxonomies did much to feed that frenzy. Human zoos were set up during world’s fairs, which not only promoted colonial products and industries, but also vaunted white supremacy by casting non-whites as untermenschen.

In 1904, at the world’s fair in St. Louis, Missouri, a Congolese Mbuti called Ota Benga was first introduced to the public. So popular was the spectacle that he was moved to the Bronx Zoo in New York City and kept in the monkeys’ cage and, like them, “subjected to the disquieting hysteria and stares of seemingly endless streams of spectators,” wrote Pamela Newkirk in Spectacle: The Astonishing Life of Ota Benga. Trueman’s vignette about the tragedy of Ota Benga is poignant in that it illustrates how colonization in Congo was not just a project of economic exploitation, but impacted all aspects of life both in Congo and abroad. Yet it would be misleading to essentialize Ota Benga and present-day Congolese as helpless victims of colonial abuses.

While Ota Benga was forced to grovel in the company of orangutans to please white crowds, another Congolese, Paul Panda Farnana, enlisted in the Belgian army when WWI broke out. Panda Farnana, who had studied in Belgium, campaigned in Belgium for the end of forced labour in the Belgian Congo, pushed for education and more political rights for Congolese natives, and even rubbed elbows with such luminaries as W.E.B. Dubois. By placing these two historical figures cheek by jowl, almost like two sides of the same coin, Trueman’s artful narrative further complicates Congo’s colonial situation. Simultaneously hegemonic and emancipatory, colonization oppressed the natives as much as it afforded them opportunities to carve out agency in a context of state violence and white supremacy.

Meanwhile in Congo, the interwar period witnessed religious revivals that coalesced into political uprisings in several areas, most notably in the Bas- Congo and Kwilu regions. In addition to asserting their agency through religious fervour and, as in the case of Simon Kimbangu, going as far as to champion an authentic, independent Congolese church and liturgy, Congolese also used popular culture, most notably music, to challenge colonial strictures.

Highlighting the birth of Congolese rumba in Kinshasa, as Trueman does, speaks volumes about Postcards from Congo’s consilience with recent scholarly development; its discussion of the significance of rumba in ushering in a new cosmopolitan urbanity in Congo and heralding Congo’s independence echoes the recent successful bid by the two Congos to have Congolese rumba added to the list of UNESCO’s intangible cultural heritage. My personal favourite inclusion is of Kinshasa’s Janus-faced “Bills” (named after their hero, Buffalo Bill), who contributed extensively to Kinshasa’s vernacular culture and its lingua franca, Lingala. Just as Congolese musicians did with rumba, the young Bills paved the way for independence by parlaying Hollywood western plots and bravado from the screen onto the streets of Kinshasa’s seediest townships. By giving munificent coverage to the colonial past, despite its brevity in the longue durée of Congo’s history, Trueman certainly does not mean to lionize this traumatic period of Congo’s history.

The intention is to reveal its profound impact on Congo’s post-colonial trajectory. From the chaos that engulfed the newly independent country after Lumumba’s Independence Day speech and his subsequent demise orchestrated by Belgian and American governments to Laurent-Désiré Kabila’s sudden rise and fall, Trueman’s narrative arc does more than just dredge up a history of greed and evil cloaked in the mantle of civilization. That history, Trueman reminds us, continues to cast a long shadow over one of Africa’s giants. Despite Mobutu Sese Seko’s protracted regime and his much-vaunted “recourse” to the purported ancestral values of authenticité, the colonial past still looms large in Congo’s society today. The damage it has inflicted on the Congolese people’s psyche remains immeasurable.

If only this exploitation had effectively ended with independence, the current debate on reparations for colonization would be markedly different, perhaps less contentious. But because, as Trueman shows, the looting has continued unabated, the debate on reparations is not only more complicated, but alsomore urgent. How do we frame the issue of reparations when the plundering of Congo’s natural resources, far from stopping, has actually intensified?

In 2019, Trueman notes, several multinational companies, including Google, Dell, Microsoft, and Tesla, were sued in court for turning a blind eye to the use of child labour in mines, including unregulated mining sites owned and operated by their direct suppliers, the Anglo-Swiss company Glencore and Huayou Cobalt, a major Chinese refiner of cobalt that controls a big chunk of Congo’s mining sector through its subsidiary Congo DongFang International Mining.

The internationalization of the Congo Basin, set in motion in the sixteenth century with the slave trade and institutionalized 130 years ago by Leopold II and his henchmen, has shaped the modern history of Congo and mortgaged away the future for tens of millions of its people.

Trueman’s resounding and moving coda to Postcards from Congo is to celebrate Congolese people’s resilience and “self-determination to live vibrant lives” despite enormous historical challenges and the lack of strong leadership to overcome the odds stacked against them. “Congolese are survivors,” Trueman asserts, and their history and lives have been “inextricably entangled” with the development that has propelled our world forward and fuelled the many revolutions that our global economy has experienced.



Author and illustrator Edmund Trueman explores the fractious story of Congo in the  comprehensive graphic history POSTCARDS FROM CONGO. Featuring a foreword by historian Didier Gondola, Professor of African History at John Hopkins University, POSTCARDS FROM CONGO brings Congo’s history — not widely known to Western readers — vividly alive through deft illustrations and storytelling. Readers see how Congolese musicians have spread their language across Africa by creating some of the most popular music on the continent, and how Congolese women have spent decades sidestepping sexist legislation to become leaders in local business. From resistance against colonialism to the fight for independence and the self-determination to make a life in an almost stateless place, Postcards from Congo depicts how the Congolese people have resisted and survived in order to take control of their lives and the country they call home.

The Democratic Republic of Congo, the second-largest country in Africa by area, has a fractured and bloody history, variously undone by decades of colonialism, civil war, corruption, and totalitarian rule. The country has played a crucial role in the economic growth of the Global North — but in doing so has suffered immensely. So many seminal advances in technology were possible only through the extraction of materials from Congo, from rubber to copper to uranium to coltan. In each case, the Congolese people paid a great price exacerbated by the weight of colonial exploitation and dictatorial rule.


POSTCARDS FROM CONGO will be published by Arsenal Pulp Press on October 25, 2022.

All art – Arsenal Pulp Press

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