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ISSN: 1570-0178

Volume 2, Issue 1 (6 November 1998)

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The history of Zaire as told and painted by Tshibumba Kanda Matulu in conversation with Johannes Fabian




First Session, Part 1

First Session, Part 2

Second Session, Part 1

Second Session, Part 2

Third Session, Part 1

Third Session, Part 2

Fourth Session



During a brief period between the late sixties and the late seventies, popular genre painting bloomed in the urban and industrial Katanga region of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (called, respectively, Shaba and Zaire when research was conducted). Scores of artists, most of them self-educated, produced thousands of paintings (acrylics or oils on canvas reclaimed from flour sacking) for local use. Through a limited number of recurrent topics, they articulated a system of shared memories. They recalled ancestral origins, colonial history, the fight for independence, post-colonial struggles for power, and the predicaments of urban African life.

Several painters began to represent sequences of historical events, foremost among them Tshibumba Kanda Matulu who thought of himself as a historian and was able to realize, in 1973-74, a project he had been dreaming of: A complete History of Zaire in one hundred pictures and a narrative. In Remembering the Present: Painting and Popular History in Zaire (Berkeley: University of California Press. 1996), this work, as well as conversations between Tshibumba and the anthropologist, are presented together with historical notes (Part One). Interpretive essays (Part Two) introduce to Shaba genre painting as the background from which Tshibumba's History emerged. They examine aspects of process and performance in the production of the pictorial as well as the oral narrative, with special attention to the interplay of images and words. A chapter is devoted to the artist's views of history and the messages of his work. The book ends with a confrontation between popular and academic historiography.

In Remembering the Present, recorded narratives and conversations could only be presented in an English translation of passages deemed essential. The book described the rationale behind this and the rules that were followed; it also announced publication of a full transcript in Katanga Swahili. The complete original text, together with an English translation, can now be made available by LPCA. Speakers and students of Katanga Swahili (and of similar varieties of so-called non-standard Swahili) will come to these texts with different expectations. Respecting content as well as form required that compromises had to be made when the recordings were transcribed and translated (both by J. Fabian).

Speakers of Swahili who read the transcripts for their content may at first be irritated by the many features of live speech (interjections, countless short responses, false or multiple starts and repairs) that could have been edited. However, if they approach their reading as re-enacting the recorded oral exchanges, they will no doubt experience and appreciate at least some of the authentic flavor that is also part of the message, hence of the content of the stories, explanations, and comments that make up this extraordinary history of a country. Readers will of course be hampered by the absence of the visual component of Tshibumba's History. In some cases, certain passages may be difficult to follow without being able to look at (the reproduction of) a painting. Though technically possible, inserting the images here is probably precluded by copyright agreements. We will try to clarify this at a later stage.

Linguists will have to do with a text that is as faithful as possible to the original. We use a common-sense orthography similar (with some important exceptions to be stated) to the grass-roots literacy speakers of the language practice when they write, say, letters, diaries, and religious tracts (see on this also J.Fabian's History from Below, Amsterdam: John Benjamins. 1990). Only a very cumbersome phonetic transcription (and an equally cumbersome interlinear translation) could have rendered certain characteristics of Katanga Swahili (above all, an extraordinary degree of phonological, morphological, and syntactic variability) more fully. But linguists also know that exactness of transcription and faithfulness of translation are always a matter of approximation. As soon as the organization of LPCA allows this, (parts of) original sound recordings will be made available to specialists upon request.

Following a long-standing practice, standard punctuation is not used in the Swahili transcripts. Instead, a simplified system of marking features of speech has been adopted that uses only a few conventions. Sustained clauses are marked by a colon, full clauses by a slash, questions by a question mark. Trailing and interrupted speech is indicated by three dots, incomprehensible words or phrases, by a question mark preceded and followed by three dots. Bold face indicates (a) lexical items in other languages, (b) a rhetorical feature of Katanga Swahili: word- or sentence completion/repetition, whereby listeners respond to a cue from the speaker, and (c) overlapping speech. The latter two are not marked in the translation. Pauses and hesitations are occasionally indicated by comments in square brackets.

Explanatory footnotes mainly address lexical peculiarities, problems of semantic and syntactic interpretation, and circumstances of the recording. The English translation corresponds to that of the selections in Remembering the Present, except that juxtaposition with the Swahili transcript often precluded certain liberties that could be taken with the edited passages presented in that book. The greatest problems of translation are posed by the often brief exchanges recorded during the second parts of our sessions when we proceeded from narrative to comments and explanation. With the paintings before us, questions and answers often relied on pointing to (parts of) pictures. Many phrases are elliptic and their translation often requires providing context and adding references to what otherwise would be merely indexical terms. Clues on the recordings that are audible but not transcribed, the ethnographer's memory as a participant in the event, and knowledge of the historical context make it possible (often, not always) to restore the meaning that certain utterances, all but incomprehensible in transcription, had in live communication.

This prompts a final remark. Although Tshibumba's History of Zaire is here consigned to an archive, we do not pretend that either transcript or translations are in any way definitive. They are comparable to a snapshot and should be regarded as instants, or instances=examples. Neither transcriptions nor translations are offered as timeless monuments. Both are subject to revision and improvement and this may result in changing [the meaning of] words, sentences, and -- occasionally -- entire paragraphs (hence the discrepancies between this translation and the edited version in Remembering the Present). Comments, suggestions, and corrections by our readers are much appreciated.

[First Session, Part 1]

[First Session, Part 2]

[Second Session, Part 1]

[Second Session, Part 2]

[Third Session, Part 1]

[Third Session, Part 2]

[Fourth Session]

[LPCA Home Page]

© Johannes Fabian
Publication date: 6 November 1998
Revisions: 27 July 1999 (hyperlink to University of California Press added)
6 June 2000 (revision of final paragraph)
23 August 2001 (lay-out of toc changed, APS Volume number added), 31 October 2001 (ISSN added)