On one weekend day, Lumumba crossed the Congo River to see what life was like in Brazzaville, then capital of French Equatorial Africa. After walking around downtown Brazzaville on a hot afternoon, Lumumba saw a café and went to it with the hope of finding a black waiter who could bring him a glass of water to drink. To his surprise, it was a white woman, presumably the café owner, who invited him to come inside, gave him a table in a place filled with white customers, and quickly brought him a bottle of mineral water. Lumumba was so overwhelmed by the polite manner in which he was treated by this French woman. Comparing the situation in the French Congo to the Belgian Congo's, where black adults were treated like children, forbidden to watch adult movies and to consume alcoholic beverages other than beer, Lumumba came to the conclusion that another world was possible. However, for nearly ten years, he remained a prisoner of the illusion of the epoch, the belief that colonialism was a civilizing mission in which European administrators, business owners and missionaries could, together with the _évolués, _educate the “ignorant masses” and lead the Congo to greatness in a multiracial Belgo-Congolese community.

His complete rupture with this colonial ideology took place between 1956 and 1958, following Lumumba's return from a one-month visit to Belgium at the invitation of colonial authorities and his preventive detention on politically motivated charges of embezzlement between July 6, 1956 and September 7, 1957. It became final with his politicization in Kinshasa in 1957-1958, as well as the impact on his political thought of the First All-African Peoples Conference held in Accra, Ghana from December 5 to 13, 1958.

The embezzlement charges were based on an actual violation of the law, but one that was part of an open secret as a well-established practice by African clerks in charge of financial accounts, a practice widely tolerated by their Belgian supervisors. These clerks could borrow small sums of money to make ends meet, on condition of reimbursing the money periodically. Lumumba was not alone among the _évolués _in bending rules by taking advantage of cash boxes or any money accounts to which they had access in order to cover urgent personal expenses. When the “borrowing” involved small amounts that could be covered with one's monthly paycheck, it was manageable. But once unpaid amounts became too large to escape notice, the employee responsible was in trouble. In many cases, payment of the deficit and a mild reprimand for breaking the law would usually end the affair.

The context in which Lumumba had fallen behind his reimbursements was clearly evident. As a first-class clerk, his monthly salary of 5,000 Belgian francs or 100 U.S. dollars did not suffice for him to maintain a European lifestyle, including making monthly payments on his house mortgage, taking care of a family with three children (two of whom attended a school for white kids), and paying for water, electricity and other necessities. The postmaster in chief, Lumumba's Belgian supervisor, knew this whole situation very well and usually tolerated late reimbursements as long as they did not affect the smooth operation of the transfer of funds to their intended beneficiaries.

The case against Lumumba, despite his immediate acknowledgement of the charges against him and selling of his house to settle the debt he owed and which he had clearly documented himself, was meant to punish someone despised by the provincial colonial officials and the Catholic Church. The Belgian colonial officials resented his close ties to Auguste Buisseret, the Belgian minister of colonies and a member of the Liberal Party, to which Lumumba belonged. Reinforced by the Catholic Church's hostility to Lumumba for having supported Buisseret's push for public schools for Congolese as well as Belgian students in the Congo, the colonialist vendetta against him eventually turned into judicial harassment. Although his status as an _immatriculé _entitled him to be free on bail until a verdict was pronounced, the prosecutors put him in jail, but were obliged to lodge and feed him as a European, which cost a lot more each month than his $100 salary.

Lumumba's trial took place on February 25, 1957, and the court of original jurisdiction in Kisangani announced its verdict on March 4, 1957. It found Lumumba guilty as charged of embezzlement, forgery, and abuse of confidence, and sentenced him to two years in prison. The office of the prosecutor found the sentence too lenient and appealed it to the Court of Appeals in Kinshasa. Lumumba requested his transfer to Kinshasa, so he could follow the case closely with a local lawyer. The request was granted. After hearing Lumumba's case on June 13, 1957, the Court of Appeals affirmed the decision of the lower court on July 4. Lumumba's lawyer petitioned the king for a pardon, and this was granted on August 27, with stipulations that the sentence be reduced to the 14 months already spent in preventive detention, and that Lumumba be released from jail once he gets a job. He was released on September 7 and hired on September 8 by the Brasserie du Bas-Congo (Bracongo), one of the largest breweries in Kinshasa. Ironically, for someone accused of embezzlement, he was assigned to the brewery's accounts department. Nearly a year later, in August 1958, Lumumba was promoted to the job of the commercial (or publicity) director of Bracongo.

Lumumba found a warm welcome in Kinshasa. In addition to climbing the ladder at Bracongo, he was elected vice-president of the local Liberal Circle on November 24, 1957, president of the provisional committee of the Mouvement National Congolais (MNC) on October 10, 1958, and president of the Fédération des Batetela (Fédébate) on October 26, 1958. Although his interest in the Liberal Circle including Europeans with progressive views and the ethnic association of the Atetela, his ethnic group, was primarily meant to help him know who's who in Kinshasa, Lumumba's passion was for the MNC. It did not take long for him to rescue this organization from the majority of its founders, who were moderate nationalists, to turn it into the only radical nationwide political party with a presence in all of the then six provinces of the country.

In the next article, we talk about Lumumba's Role in the Struggle for Independence.

About the author

Georges Nzongola-Ntalaja is a Professor of African and Global Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and a fellow of the African Academy of Sciences. He is a Senior Historian at The Africa I Know.

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