Patrice Emery Lumumba, the first democratically elected prime minister of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), was illegally removed from power between September 5 and 14, 1960, and brutally assassinated on January 17, 1961. After the Congo became independent on June 30, 1960, he was in power for two months and a half only and was killed by a Belgian execution squad less than six months following Belgium's recognition of Congo's independence.

Born on July 2, 1925 in what is now the Sankuru province of the DRC, Lumumba grew up as an intellectually precocious student who never submitted to the authoritarian and paternalistic regimes of both the Catholic and Methodist schools of his region of origin. He left this area in 1943 for greener pastures elsewhere, beginning with a few months of employment as a salesclerk at a tin mining company at Kalima in the neighboring Maniema province.

Between 1944 and 1956, it was in Kisangani (then Stanleyville) that Lumumba rose to prominence as a very successful civil servant, an autodidact, and a man of great character built on intellectual and moral integrity, intransigence on matters of principle, and exceptional courage even in the face of death. According to one of the members of his execution squad on the macabre night of his assassination, Lumumba kept his composure and displayed an icy stoicism in the face of his murder.

Since he never finished elementary school in Sankuru, Lumumba took evening classes from the Marist Brothers in Kisangani, in addition to long-distance or correspondence courses, reading whatever publication he could lay his hands on and the more interesting books he found in the library of the black township. He was so well informed about the world that in 1947, he passed a competitive entrance exam to the Postal School in Kinshasa (then Léopoldville), a one-year of professional training for postal service open to people with a secondary school diploma. Begun on July 1, 1947, the training ended on March 30, 1948, with Lumumba graduating as the third best student in a class of thirty-four students, with an average of 91.4 percent.

Lumumba returned to Kisangani in April as a qualified postal employee and began his meteoric rise in the civil service and the évolué or middle-class circles of the city. In the latter sphere, in which he could be found as president, vice-president or secretary of four or five different organizations at once, he earned the jewel in the crown on March 5, 1954, with his election as president of the Association des Évolués_ *de Stanleyville (AES), the most prestigious organization of the Congolese elite in Kisangani. He acquired both the civic merit card and the matriculation status meant to make the *évolués _honorary Europeans, but these achievements of upper mobility in the colonial situation were a sham because racism continued to raise its ugly head through the color/wage bar.

Thus, although entrusted with a job usually reserved for Europeans as a manager of the money orders department, a unit of the post office responsible for facilitating financial transactions between major retailers and their customers in a city with limited banking services, Lumumba's salary was determined by his race, not his functions. He earned the equivalent of 100 USD in 1956, somewhere between one-tenth and one-fifteenth of the salary of a European civil servant doing a similar job. Moreover, his European colleagues also received free housing, a car, and a fully paid six-month vacation back home to Belgium every three years. These and other realities of the colonial situation contributed to his radicalization and embrace of African and Congolese nationalism.

In the next article, we talk about Lumumba's political awakening and maturity.

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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