ISSN: 1570-016X

Volume 2, Issue 1 (6 June 2002)

The times of the "Vocabulaire": Commentary on a conversation with Baba Ngoie Léon

Johannes Fabian

University of Amsterdam


Dept of Sociology and Anthropology
University of Amsterdam
Oudezijds Achterburgwal 185
1012 DK Amsterdam
The Netherlands

© Johannes Fabian



The times of the "Vocabulaire" provides essential so-called contextual information on A conversation with Baba Ngoie-Day Léon (JLPCA Text Archives, Vol. 3). It describes the setting in which the conversation took place, the participants in the event, and the making of the text.
The comments in the second part of The times of the "Vocabulaire" are guided by two interests. One is the rare opportunity to confront the Vocabulaire with the memories of one its own witnesses, a person named as a protagonist in the history of Elisabethville/Lubumbashi. The second one is to observe "memory work" (Fabian 2001a:191-2, 198) documented in a text that shows memory "at work" -- at the moment when it is verbally and discursively expressed. This commentary is interested not only in what is recalled, but in how the narrative takes shape dialectically in a field of tensions between remembering and forgetting. A text produced by conversation with an interlocutor such as Baba Ngoie, who foregrounds his forgetfulness yet obviously accomplishes impressive memory work, here becomes an unusually valuable object for reflections on forgetting in popular discourse

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1. Introduction

2. From Baba Ngoie's biography [1-7]

3. About the "Vocabulaire": A general statement [8]

4. About the linguistic situation [9-11]

5. About the lists given by the "Vocabulaire" [12-13]

6. Three heroes: The stories of Bwana François, Simon Kimbangu, and Kienda Biela [14-16]

7. The "crisis" and ball-room dancing [17]

8. About Tshombe: The failed accountant [18]

9. Interlude 1 [19]

10. The best time of his life [20]

11. On the "revolution" and beginnings [21]

12. Documents from his past [22]

13. About Auguste Verbeken and Ngonga [23]

14. About Yav André, compiler of the "Vocabulaire" [24]

15. About the "Vocabulaire" and colonization [25]

16. Interlude 2 [26]

17. "Knowing is not easy" [27]

18. About his name in the "Vocabulary" [28]

19. Back to the present [29-30]



About the author

1. Introduction

Setting and participants

On page seven of the Vocabulaire de ville de Elisabethville a certain "bwana Ngoie Léon" is mentioned and it is said that he was "the first [Congolese] employee at the Banque du Congo Belge [in Elisabethville]." When I worked with Kalundi Mango on the translation and this name came up in our reading, he told me that he knew Ngoie Léon and that this pioneer who had found a place in the Vocabulaire was alive and well. On July 8, 1986, Kalundi and I drove to Ngoie's place in Kamalondo township. He was waiting for us outside, reading the Vocabulaire. The first thing he showed me was his livret de travail issued by the passport office "pour indigènes." According to this document he was hired by the Banque du Congo Belge on November 16, 1923, at a salary of 50 francs.

We then went to the house of a Belgian friend of mine where I was staying during that summer. Tea was prepared, the three of us sat down at the dining table. My friend's cook (himself a Lubumbashi old-timer) kept an eye on our cups and hovered in the background.

Baba Ngoie, somewhere in his mid-eighties, was of medium height, a bit frail, and stooped by age. As our exchanges show, he was hard of hearing and liked to punctuate his recollections with remarks reminding us of his age. His deafness probably accounts for the fact that, in his responses, he sometimes tended to follow his own train of thought rather than the interviewer's questions and prompting. This gave a peculiar shape to the dialogue, a feature that will have our attention later on.

Click to view full-size image (62KB) in separate window
Baba Léon (l.) and Kalundi (r.) posing in front of the house where the conversation took place
(click thumb nail to view full-size image in separate window - 62KB)

For the occasion, Baba Ngoie had dressed formally; he was wearing an abacost, the "revolutionary" suit decreed by Mobutu, complete with the MPR party-emblem on the lapel. He had prepared himself by reading a copy of the Vocabulaire that Kalundi had given to him some time before our meeting. He had also brought along a bill-fold containing identity papers, some other documents, and a number of family photographs. These he exhibited during our conversation; choosing the moments he considered appropriate to do this was one of several moves on his part to stay in control of the event.


Choice of language and presentation of the text

Most conspicuous among the ways Baba Ngoie controlled this exchange was his decision to speak French. Among the many conversations I had recorded since my first stay in Shaba/Katanga in the sixties, only one or two had included passages in French, none had been conducted in that language entirely. There can be no doubt that Baba Ngoie's choice of the linguistic medium was part of a message he wanted to convey. At the very least, French marked a certain distance he wanted to maintain vis-à-vis the Vocabulaire, the document written in Swahili that was the occasion for our meeting and remained a reference throughout our conversation. Not to be ruled out is the possibility that he also wanted to keep his distance (and dignity) by avoiding the familiarity, even complicity, that popular Swahili creates among its speakers.

Unfortunately, for some technical reasons, which I don't remember and cannot reconstruct from my notes, this recording begins in mid-sentence, some time, but not long, after the conversation started. This resulted in a minor loss of information (but the gaps are filled later on). More vexing is that the actual beginning, the moment when, in this multilingual context, the choice of language was made, is not documented.1

Other than in the case of Kalundi's comments on the Vocabulaire where the text consists of selected parts, the transcript of our conversation with Baba Ngoie is as complete as possible and the translation attempts to convey the shape of the original. In that respect it resembles the transcript and translation of the conversations with Tshibumba. Explanations regarding the method of transcription and especially the many features that determine the material shape of the texts are given in the introduction to the Tshibumba text and need not be repeated here.

A major difference in this case is the linguistic medium. Unlike popular Swahili, French has a standard orthography and rules for punctuation. As the sound-recording shows, Baba Ngoie's French was characterized by "interference" from the Bantu languages he spoke (mainly kiLuba and Katanga/Shaba Swahili, K/ShS). As regards French orthography, I did mark certain prominent phonetic features, such as l/d/r alternance (they appear in bold face) but otherwise I kept to standards that Baba Ngoie would have followed. Mistakes on my part cannot be excluded but all "wrong" or odd forms appearing in the transcript should be taken as "sic."

Instead of standard punctuation I opted for the simple system I have been using for Swahili transcripts: A colon for open clause or sustained sentence tone, a "/" for full clause, and a "?" for questions. In addition I mark interrupted and resumed phrases by "...". Incomprehensible phrases or words are marked by "...?...". Other relevant observations (on pauses, turn-taking, non-linguistic information such as emphasis, volume, and trailing speech) are added between square brackets. In cases of code-switching from French to Swahili, a feature that becomes prominent in the later parts of this text, the Swahili words and phrases are in italics.

A question may be raised regarding Baba Ngoie's command of French. He used a local variety in which he was at ease, having spoken it since his youth. Occasional rough spots and oddities that show up in the transcript are, as far as I can tell, of the same kind and order as those that characterize Shaba/Katanga Swahili texts in this archive. Why and how, toward the end, Swahili began to intrude will be commented on later and that will also be the moment to assess the nature of Kalundi's presence and participation.

Finally, the division of the text into numbered paragraphs is mine. It was made for convenience of referencing but it is of course not arbitrary. Most of the breaks impose themselves by transitions from one topic or episode to another, others would require more detailed justification, which I will give when this seems useful.

Focus of this commentary

Apart from giving this ethnographic text the attention it requires on its own merits and for the special problems it poses, most of my comments will be guided by two interests. One is the rare opportunity to confront the Vocabulaire with the memories of one its own witnesses, a person named as a protagonist in the history of Elisabethville/Lubumbashi. The second one is to observe what I have called "memory work" (Fabian 2001a:191-2, 198) documented in a text that shows memory "at work" -- at the moment when it is verbally and discursively expressed. I am interested not only in what is recalled, but in how the narrative takes shape dialectically in a field of tensions between remembering and forgetting. That forgetting is part of remembering is by now somewhat of a commonplace though we are still far from adequately understanding how forgetting works in the production of "oral tradition." A text produced by conversation with an interlocutor such as Baba Ngoie, who foregrounds his forgetfulness yet obviously accomplishes impressive memory work, would seem to be an unusually valuable object for reflections on forgetting in popular discourse.2

Without having checked this in detail, it seems that there is a remarkable contrast between Kalundi's commentary and Baba Ngoie's recollections with respect to "forgetting." Kalundi rarely admits that he forgot something; he would rather say "I don't know about that". And he never makes forgetting itself a topic. Is this due only to the difference in age? There must be more, or something else, behind Baba Ngoie's foregrounding of forgetting and I suspect that it has to do with his resolve to put his own biography rather than the ethnographer's questions regarding the Vocabulaire in the center.

2. From Baba Ngoie's biography [1- 7]

[see paragraphs 1-7 in A conversation with Baba Ngoie-Day Léon]

Our conversation had a rocky beginning. Baba Ngoie mixes narration with remembered dialogue in a way that remains elliptic and fragmentary. Who exactly speaks to whom, when, and where? Here is, roughly, the story I am able to reconstruct, based also on what he tells us later on: With a colonial agent recruiting for a school at Boma (see paragraph 7), the seat of the colonial government in the days of the Congo Independent State before it moved to Leopoldville/Kinshasa, he (and apparently a group of children) had gotten as far as Kisangani. There the recruiter, who had suffered from health problems throughout the journey, apparently abandoned the children he had taken with him from Katanga. The terms by which Baba Ngoie refers to their original destination at Boma are ambiguous, depending on which of the two possible transcriptions, école scolaire or école séculaire, is adopted. At the time, there were two establishments in Boma, a mission-run "Colonie Scolaire" and an "Ecole des Candidats-Commis" (see Fabian 1991b:49). Because the recruiter was a government agent we can assume that he worked for the latter and that the training school for clerks and low-level employees at Boma was a secular establishment, dating from the time before colonial authorities had given the monopoly for education to the missions.

When he found himself stranded in Kisangani, Baba Ngoie was given a place to stay with the missionaries there and attended for two years a post-elementary school, probably to be trained as a catechist. Because he refused to get baptized (at least up to that point, later he was baptized in Kisangani, after all, see paragraph 22), he was sent to the government post at Bafwasende (to another school? or to work as a clerk?). When this did not work out -- he alludes to problems with the local population -- his Belgian superior there and the mission in Kisangani decided that he should be sent back to Katanga.

The important point in this story is that Baba Ngoie entered the colonial system as a recruit (more about this later) in a situation marked by a still open conflict between secular and religious education, something that became an issue again in the fifties when a liberal metropolitan government decided to end the mission's monopoly and instituted secular schools, especially on the secondary level.

When he came to Elisabethville his first stop was at the passport office.3 This was obligatory for every Congolese arriving or leaving. For Baba Ngoie, who had returned "on a government ticket," the administration would also have been his first place of employment in Katanga, except that the passport office had no opening at the time. In our conversation, the following passage gives us a first glance at the way Baba Ngoie "corrects" or "edits" a memory:

alors: le: le commissaire de district il m'a dit: comme il n'y a pas la place au bureau de passeports pour le moment: et bien tu le: [quick] v: v: vous pouvez: trouver: l'emploi n'importe où/ pourquoi? parce-que: eeeh: j'étais l'enfant de ce coin-ci/ (paragraph 3)

Notice that he stutters when he corrects the term the district commissioner used for the young candidate from tu to vous. His stopping and hesitating foregrounds a conscious correction of style that is in fact a correction of memory. It is not impossible but highly unlikely that the commissaire used the polite vous. There are two reasons that make this seemingly minor "repair" an important one. One is internal to the text: Tu had occurred in reported dialogue up to this point; afterwards Baba Ngoie always uses vous. Another consideration can be derived from the historical context of which he must have been aware. Congolese knew that the colonial tu most often signalled lack of respect rather than familiarity. This was a topos of memory, expressed dramatically in Patrice Lumumba's famous speech on the occasion of the conferral of Independence where it figured prominently on his list of insults and humiliations Africans had to suffer under the colonial regime.4

When the district commissioner told Baba Ngoie that he could work "anywhere," this was not a dismissal but the granting of a privilege. Free choice of employment was neither a right not an encouraged practice at a time when government and private industry often competed for a qualified work force. The personal tone of this exchange between the administrator and the candidate and the regional reference ("a child of this region") quite likely evoke a theme from the Vocabulaire, solidarity with the "early" whites.

Conflict between free choice of employment and a regime of labor is also the issue behind the remarkable story of Baba Ngoie's brief stint at the Union Minière (paragraph 4). To divide wages between payment in cash and food rations was a policy designed to keep workers tied to the company throughout the history of mining in Katanga. Baba Ngoie, after an ironic aside regarding the company's rather elementary entrance requirements, says that he refused regulations because he was young and fier, proud. At a first glance, this appears to personalize what was at bottom a political issue. He does not allude to the latter but, apart from asserting himself, he had practical motives. He was then not only young but almost certainly unmarried,5 living with relatives who fed him. He would have been expected to make a contribution but, without a household of his own, he did not need the ration in kind and preferred cash. Cash meant independence and independence meant more to Baba Ngoie than what must have been one of the most desirable jobs at the time.

Incidentally, conflict is also encoded non-linguistically in this episode, showing that Baba Ngoie was an accomplished story-teller. Throughout the transcript I noted that he clapped his hands at certain moments. This is more noticeable then elsewhere in the passage where he discusses (that is, disagrees) with the Union Minière agent. Hand-clapping is typical during "palavers," situations of litigation and conflict resolution where contesting parties emphasise speech in this manner.

The Elisabethville branch of the Banque du Congo Belge must have had a reputation as the place for ambitious young men. Baba Ngoie was told to apply there. He did, and he got the job he was to hold for 39 years until he retired in 1962. It may be that stability, the experience of steady, secure work, accounts for the leap he now takes in his narrative. Within one sentence he gets from 1923 to the present:

jusqu'à ces jours: je suis à Lubum: à Elisabethville/ tout-ce que on a fait ici: changé: des ...?... venus comme ceci comme cela/ eh bien: toujours en ma présence/ (paragraph 5).

To me this sounded like the end of the story he was going to tell us, so I tried to put in a question in order to keep the conversation going. But despite the added emphasis I expressed when I addressed him in Swahili as baba, he did not hear me (or ignored my attempt) and continued, first by repeating the leap (this time getting to 1960, the year of Independence) and then by filling the gap in a most ingenious way. Rather than spreading, as it were, his memories over those decades, he gathers them around a few objects: The four medals he had earned at the end of Belgian rule (paragraph 6). Three of them -- for service at the bank -- he only mentions while the forth one, a war medal, makes him embark on the story of his work for the military on the home front in Elisabethville during the second World War. Though he saw no combat it appears that, much like for many former soldiers, the war occupied an inordinately important space among his memories. About the period after, from 1945 until his retirement in 1962, he has little more to say than that he continued to work at the bank, with one exception: It turns out that all but one of the medals were lost during "the events of Katanga," that is, the upheavals around the secession in 1960-63. The decorations were "looted" together with other documents; "events," history at large, destroyed an important part of Baba Ngoie's personal history. Only in a brief remark he reveals his own political position at the time as that of an opponent to Tshombe's secession. "I fled," he says without telling us where and for how long. There was a break in his service, after all, but one he prefers to forget.

As I said before, there is something paradoxical in Baba Ngoie's story of his working life. This is brought out by the abrupt transition between paragraphs 5 and 6. At the end of paragraph 5 he seems ready conclude what he has to tell us, but then he continues, at the beginning of paragraph 6, with this remarkable statement:

donc: il était mille neuf-cent soixante/ mm/ on dit [claps] vous aulez: l'indépendance:

Here he joins his biography to a crucial event in political history such that he leaves in his recollections a gap of almost forty years. This period covers, except for a dozen years, almost the entire history of Elisabethville prior to Independence. The leap he takes is foregrounded by the way he begins the sentence just quoted: donc, a conjunction that introduces a date (1960) and an event (Independence) as a consequence of what preceded it. This matter-of-fact progress of the narrative is in stark contrast to the gap it leaves. Here we seem to have an instance of "forgetting" that makes this particular narrative possible (the paradox to which I alluded earlier). Jumping from 1923 to 1960 allows the narrator to join what counts for him, namely his beginnings and the recognition he received when he was young and an ending, a political event close to his retirement, yet in the very act of remembering beginnings and end the narrative erases large portions of his life he undoubtedly remembered. I believe that this sort of forgetting is also behind (for us) disturbing expressions of nostalgia for colonial times -- remembering recognition, forgetting the many forms of its denial -- that we will have to comment on later.

A search of the text reveals that donc occurs two more times in similar functions. It marks the end of an episode or a summary statement:

donc depuis lors: je n'ai plus letourné au village/ (paragraph 7)

donc: tout ça: à Lu: à Elisabethville/ (paragraph 22)

It should be noted that the temporal adverb alors could have a function similar to donc and there are several cases in this text where such equivalence could be argued, for instance:

alors: je suis parti de Kisangani: pour venir: à Lubumbashi: à Elisabethville/ (paragraph 2)

alors/ eh bien: j'ai quitté l'Union Minière/ (paragraph 4)

alors: si je dis ça: je les felicite: avant tout: les premiers: et puis tout le monde/ (paragraph 21)

However, alors occurs about thirty times and it is clear that it most often signals the continuation of a narrative episode rather than its conclusion and that it does not mark the leaps I qualified as a kind of forgetting that allows the narrator to move on.

If it is legitimate to consider leaving out what could be remembered as forgetting, then etcetera, a phrase Baba Ngoie uses frequently (about twenty times, not counting repetitions; the closely related tout ça occurs nine times) appears in a different light. In my translation I left etcetera untranslated or used paraphrases such as "to give you an example," "you know," or "if you know what I mean." In conversational analysis etcetera would be qualified as a "filler," a sort of interjection without apparent semantic value. But in a narrative essentially devoted to calling up memories one should acknowledge that fillers, after all, signal gaps, omissions, and, at the very least, abbreviations. In that case, etcetera points to forgetting as an activity that goes together with remembering.

With the date of his retirement at the end of paragraph 6 Baba Ngoie comes to one of many narrative closures that make our conversation hover between the genres of story and interview. On my agenda there is still getting information about his early childhood and so I use his livret (worker's identification), which he had brought along, and prompt him to tell us about his place of birth, Kikondja (an important fishing village on Lake Kisale, ca. 650 km north-west of Lubumbashi). He obliges and comes up with a most vivid recollection of colonial times (paragraph 7). But before we get to that I'd like to make two observations.

First, throughout this passage Baba Ngoie puts emphasis (by means of tone and volume) on the name of the place and the fact that he was born there, as if he wanted to say "of course I am from Kinkondja" (pronouncing the name in the local form, the official one is Kikondja). Why? Is it because he wants to emphasize his ethnic identity as "a child of this region [Katanga]" (the way he put it paragraph 3 and again in this context)? Or is there some element of apprehensiveness about being interrogated about his birthplace because of the traumatic event he is about to report, including the remarkable and exceptional fact that he has never gone back? It was common practice among workers of the Union Minière (and officially encouraged by the company) to spend vacations in their native village and to return there when they retired or their contracts expired.

Second, when he puts a date on his departure from Kikondja (1910) I try to use this to determine his exact age. He seems to ignore my question, unless he heard village in quel âge. But note the implications of this mis-understanding: I am interested in determining his date of birth, he has on his mind a crucial event in his life: his entry into the world of the "European." Instead of responding to my interest in chronology he comes up with an account of colonial presence in this remote place, of colonial agents riding bicycles and promenading the village after working hours, always with a band of curious children in their wake. The story of his being recruited for a school in Boma (more than 1200 areal kilometers away from his home) reveals colonial practices -- the village chief gives his permission, but his parents are never consulted -- that followed the model of slavery, the abolition of which had been the "philanthropic" motive of colonization.

Then follows the story of the recruiter's trek in search of medical treatment (somehow he had concealed his bad state of health). With him he dragged Ngoie (and other children, this does not become entirely clear), first south to Luena, then north to Kongolo and Lubunda. Eventually, they got to Stanleyville/Kisangani, roughly 1000 km from Kikondja, some of it walking, most of it probably traveling by river boat. Baba Ngoie has nothing to say about what must have been an exciting trip for a boy ten years old. Had he forgotten or did he not want to be reminded?

Looking back at this first section devoted mainly to Baba Ngoie's biography one is struck by the thinness of his recollections. Despite occasional flashes of the concrete -- memories that help us to imagine some of the stations of his life -- what he reports is the biography of a strangely abstract colonial subject. His life moves through typical stations: recruitment from a rural area, school, move to town, employment, service, retirement. We are (as yet) told nothing about his marriage, children, friends, let alone his joys and frustrations...

3. About the Vocabulaire: A general statement [8]

[see paragraph 8 in A conversation with Baba Ngoie-Day Léon]

Because the recording had to be interrupted briefly or because we had completed a cycle by getting to the point where our conversation had begun, we were, for a moment, immobilized. Kalundi intervenes: No more questions? I try a new start by steering the conversation toward the Vocabulaire. After all, to have Baba Ngoie's opinions on this document and get his help for problems with its translation had been the purpose of our meeting. There is something eery about this short paragraph: Questions and responses move on parallel tracks, their connection becomes clear only upon reflection. My interest is getting a general opinion about a piece of historiography; what counts for Baba Ngoie is to assert his presence in history (see our observations above). This is also why he invokes the company of some of the big men of the times -- "tous ces Munongo: ou Kyombe." However, it is possible that the collective form he uses, and the selection of those two names from among many others, expresses critique of what is undeniably a focus in the Vocabulaire on a regional, Lunda and Katanga perspective on political history.6 There is also a minute but potentially significant linguistic hint to Baba Ngoie's reservations. He pronounces the name of Tshombe as "Kyombe," that is in the manner of his native kiLuba. Could this "lapse" (he knows the correct form and uses it later) be an instance of ostentatious forgetting? Does the Luba-pronunciation simply point to his past, his first language, or does it reflect present habits (perhaps speaking kiLuba in his family)? I suspect that it was a subtle way of signalling distance from Tshombe and his politics.7

4. About the linguistic situation [9-11]

[see paragraphs 9-11 in A conversation with Baba Ngoie-Day Léon]

In the year when this conversation took place I had just published a study of the history of Swahili in Katanga (Fabian 1991b [first edition 1986]). The problem of assessing the linguistic situation in Elisabethville during and shortly after World War I was still on my mind, so I took the opportunity to interrogate one of the few witnesses of that period. After another attempt on my side to get the chronology straight -- again not very successful -- Baba Ngoie draws a picture that confirmed my earlier findings (paragraph 9). Not Swahili, but "kiKabanga," a vehicular language that had emerged in South Africa and the British possessions south of the Congo (where it was called Fanagalo) dominated as the medium of communication between whites and their African employees. The population at large spoke the languages of the region. Labor recruitment was still oriented to the south, and workers from northern Katanga (where Swahili had been established in Arab-Swahili colonies such as Kasongo and Nyangwe) and from the Kasai province (where tshiLuba had become a common language, promoted by the missions) were still a small minority in southern Katanga. The predominance of kiKabanga was also due to the fact that much of the expatriate personnel of the mining company (especially the management of the workers' camps) came from South Africa and the Rhodesias. Among each other most expatriates spoke English. The Belgians, anxious to assert their authority and national interests, faced the double political task of establishing French and a Congolese common language in their colony.

Questioned about the situation at home in Kikondja, Baba Ngoie confirms that the two candidates for a Congolese vehicular language, Swahili and Lingala, were spoken there prior to World War I, the former in the civil administration, the latter in the military. Belgian colonial agents from this and other northern regions and from the lower Congo ("Boma etcetera") played an important role in promoting Swahili in southern Katanga (paragraph 10).

The paragraph that follows (paragraph 11) in many ways resembles our two-track exchange in paragraph 8, with an interesting difference. My intention was to fill in the general picture with information about the concrete linguistic situation at the bank during the first years of his employment. My questions, aimed at the languages spoken at work, are taken by Baba Ngoie as inquiries regarding his own situation and the daily tasks he performed. The difference I alluded to is that he now shows awareness of the discrepancy and resorts to a strategy he employs several times during our conversation: He indicates that he has problems understanding what I am up to because he is hard of hearing. I call this a strategy because the exchange shows that he did not fail to "understand" in a literal, acoustic sense. What he tells me is that he would rather talk about is his work at the bank, which is what he does in response to another attempt on my side to keep to the topic of language. He recalls time-keeping and the fines fixed for late arrival (a system also used by the mining company to maintain work discipline). At the end of the paragraph we are together again: The bank's policy was to promote French and Swahili, the same as the one adopted by the colonial administration.

5. About the lists given by the Vocabulaire [12-13]

[see paragraphs 12-13 in A conversation with Baba Ngoie-Day Léon]

At the beginning of paragraph 9 I had told Baba Ngoie that we would now seek his help in clearing up some problems we had encountered with the translation of the Vocabulaire. Instead we first took a detour with questions about the linguistic situation in Lubumbashi. Now we make a new start by looking at several lists of names in the Vocabulaire. We begin with the governors (called "vice governor general" until 1933) who had resided in Elisabethville. Kalundi had been able to decode most of the peculiar transcriptions of names and match nicknames with official names, but he had to pass on some. Perhaps because he considered this part of our work his responsibility, he now participated in the questioning. There is much repetition and back-and-forth in these passages. Baba Ngoie's deafness may have added to the problems (something that Kalundi tried to compensate for by switching to Swahili) but it was still a surprise that our witness could not help us with any of the names we put before him.

While his answers may have been devoid of substantive information, it would be wrong to say that Baba Ngoie simply ignored -- did not know or dismissed -- what we were after. He acknowledges some of the "correct" names. He knows that giving nicknames to whites was a common practice and he even has one or two examples, such as bwana Kitoko, King Baudouin's popular sobriquet. At the end of paragraph 13, being aware of his poor performance as an "informant," he affirms:

je connais beaucoup les noms: bwana Robert: ou ou Paeling: ou quelque chose comme ça: je connais/(paragraph 13)

Once again, a minute detail puts interpretation on an interesting track. Baba Ngoie volunteers a name, "bwana Robert," that had not come up during questioning. He pronounces Robert with an audible t. That points to English and the person he has in mind must be Robert Williams, director of Tanganyika Concessions Ltd., one of the captains of industry in early colonial Katanga. With this, Baba Ngoie's memory joins that of the Vocabulaire8 though not at a point at which we aimed our questions, a characteristic that can be observed throughout our preceding exchange. As far as our "historical" interest in establishing the exact name/identity of persons that appear on the Vocabulaire's lists is concerned, his memory fails -- he has forgotten, but notice his remark regarding the reason: Not old age (as elsewhere) but lack of interest in popular sobriquets at the time ("je ne faisais pas beaucoup attention"). He takes a stance comparable to the one Kalundi took vis-a-vis popular language (see Kalundi's comments on the Vocabulaire). In both cases professed disinterest should be interpreted similarly as "forgetting" with a purpose/reason/motive: taking distance from popular practices serves Kalundi and Ngoie to indicate (and thereby to remember) one of the ways by which they defined their place in this society (and their position toward the ethnographer, see also our remarks above about why Baba Ngoie chose to speak in French).

Another, related, attitude shows up when Baba Ngoie responds to questions regarding names with a laconic "c'est possible" (twice) and, in the same sense, "peut-être" (once). Such apparently evasive phrases, I believe, express not only lack of commitment to our inquiry but also distantiation from the subject matter of that inquiry, popular naming practices as part of popular communication.

The exchanges recorded in paragraphs 12-13 are an example of how much can be revealed about knowledge, memory, and forgetting in a conversation that, on the surface, looks as if consisted of abortive attempts to extract information.

6. Three heroes. The stories of Bwana François, Simon Kimbangu, and Kienda Biela [14-16]

[see paragraphs 14-16 in A conversation with Baba Ngoie-Day Léon]

Governors and their exact names may have tired Baba Ngoie; he perked up, though not immediately, when we turned to three stories of resistance recorded in the Vocabulaire. The first one tells of a certain Bwana François who killed a white man whom he had caught in flagrante with his wife and who was then publicly hanged for murder (paragraph 14). By now we expect Baba Ngoie to keep his distance from an event that loomed large in popular memory, a tale made up of sex and violence, oppression and revenge, honor and injustice. Pleading once more old age and forgetfulness, he waits on the line, as it were, and lets me tell most of the story until he gives a definite sign of recognition.

I remember being disappointed by his reaction at the time because I had hoped that Baba Ngoie would now take up the role of a witness to one of the most dramatic episodes of colonial history reported by the Vocabulaire. But if there was failure it was mine; I had forgotten that, having come to Elisabethville in 1923, he could not have witnessed the hanging that took place on September 20, 1922.9 Of course the young man in search of employment could not have missed the fact that the story of Bwana François was still the talk of the town, and this is what he remembered although he remains cautious to end: "On dirait il peut avoir quelque chose comme ça."
Among the assertions of forgetfulness in this paragraph there is the following:

parce-que y a: y a la partie un peu de la connaisance qui est dimminuée à cause de mon age/

Notice he says connaissance not mémoire. This is interesting for two reasons. First, memory is here recognized as a cognitive faculty and, by implication, being questioned about memories (rather than being allowed simply to tell stories that come to mind) resembles an examination that makes demands on performance. Second there is the qualification "un peu," which also occurs in these phrases from the same paragraph,

parce-que il y a beaucoup des jours: je crois que j'ai: un peu oublié/

on parlait de ça: mais il ya longtemps: il y a quelque chose qui est un peu sauté/

and one more time in paragraph 23:

... je vous dis: avec le temps: avec le temps: les choses sont un peu diminuées/

In other words, to him forgetting is not an either-or, there are degrees. Some memories may get lost, sauter, jump or, as the equivalent Swahili verb -ruka can be translated, "fly up and away;" others are diminuées, diminished. That there may be more to un peu than a certain quaintness of expression suggests itself in an analogous idiomatic expression in local Swahili, often cited as an idea peculiar to "Bantu" thinking: kufa kidogo and kufa lote, to die a little and to die completely, said, for instance, of a car that has trouble which can be fixed as opposed to one that has broken down beyond repair.

Then we turn to the story of Simon Kimbangu, the Kongo prophet who was tried and sentenced to death by a military court in Thysville in 1921. The sentence was converted to life imprisonment, which he served in Elisabethville until his death in 1953.

Baba Ngoie now reacts differently. About Kimbangu he can speak as a witness. He "knows" because he was there:

N: celui là est arrivé: bien: je connais...
F: oui?
N: j'y étais: j'étais toujours à la banque: et qu'il est arrivé: Simon Kimbangu/ et il avait: les livres: il a cléé: eh: eh: ce livre: fait les miracles/ (paragraph 15)

It is a token of his interest that the exchange that follows is sustained longer than most others; it is a continuous narrative, punctuated rather than interrupted by my brief interjections. Kimbangu's story is paired down to a few essentials -- his short career as worker of miracles, his conflict with the government, and his sad life in prison. There are some ambiguities (and many difficulties of transcription). For instance, when after Kimbangu's arrest it is said "les types commençaient à bavarder," does this refer to his reputation being talked about at the trial or to people who "talked" and betrayed him? But the essentials are clear in Baba Ngoie's mind (and account): The story of Kimbangu is that of a "discussion" (his favorite euphemism for conflict) between "the Belgians" and a Congolese who challenged their authority. The prophet's power is embodied in a miraculous, religious book, presented as a material object with the power to work miracles. This materiality makes it difficult to resist an interpretive short cut that would see in Kimbangu's book a "magic" object, a kind of fetish. The government, we are told, acted accordingly when it seized the book with force (arraché) but, in Baba Ngoie's account that was not the end -- neither for the authorities who put Kimbangu behind bars nor for the prophet who lived in prison "to regret because of his book." Because the government held the book (rather than destroying it) it maintained its presence as an object of "talk" in the population, hence as an object of contention.10 An alternative to the short cut to magic in interpreting this story is to acknowledge that the book stands for literacy and religion as contested goods, as objects of control and repression under the colonial regime and for the resolve and power to put up resistance.

Baba Ngoie indirectly expresses some interest in the story (mainly by the detail he recounts) but is reluctant to take a position. Cautious as ever, he appeals to my understanding:

(...) moi je peux pas vous dire grande chose: parce que vous comprenez [with emphasis] je connais tel type est arrivé à Lubumbashi: mais: en prison/
F: oui/
N: oui oui/ car: ce que j'avais entendu: question de livre là/ (paragraph 15)

He does not want to get involved in issues he considers controversial.

His attitude changes again when we get to the third figure who appears in the Vocabulaire in stories of resistance to the colonial regime, Kienda Biela. Baba Ngoie recognizes the name immediately, he knows the region (northwest of Elisabethville) where Kienda Biela was some kind of paramount chief, and he places the war he fought against the whites in the times of Leopold II before Belgian rule in Katanga was definitely established.11

Baba Ngoie does not recall any of the legendary/fantastic elements of the Kienda Biela story as it appears in the Vocabulaire, yet in a seemingly casual remark in the middle of this paragraph he shows how similar his "memory work" is to that of the document:

Kienda Biela/ je n'ai pas vu: mais: j'ai entendu comme ça: quand je suis: avec le temps que j'ai fait: ici: mais: le nom de Kienda Biela là existe: le premier chef/ (paragraph 16)

The statement contains all the major mnemonic/historiological elements or requirements that were found in the Vocabulaire: (1) being an "old-timer" (though not necessarily an eyewitness), (2) knowing "the meaning" of a name (Kienda Biela as an opponent of the colonizer), (3) being able to locate events (in a specific region of Katanga); and (4) being able to place protagonists in a genealogy (assuming this is what he does when he calls Kienda Biela "premier chef" and "ancien chef").

7. The "crisis" and ball-room dancing [17]

[see paragraph 17 in A conversation with Baba Ngoie-Day Léon]

Next we tried to find out what Baba Ngoie recalled about an episode in the history of Elisabethville which, for the Vocabulaire, is an occasion to report on solidarity and new forms of social life in the population of the town. This part of the conversation had an arduous beginning; it took a while before it was clear to Baba Ngoie that we wanted to talk about the economic "crisis" at the end of the twenties.

Looking at these passages now it becomes clear that we made two mistakes when we assumed, first, that "crisis" must have had an unequivocal meaning for him. At one point he asks "de"? Crisis of what? To him the French term is generic, it needs specification, and it is possible that the date given in the Vocabulaire and repeated in our questions, 1928, confused him further. As a clerk at a bank he probably knew that the Wall Street crash occurred in October 1929 and that the Great Depression hit Katanga in mid-1930 when decreased demand for copper forced the Union Minière (and its subsidiaries and affiliates) to cut down on employment.12 Second, it was a mistake to assume that kilisi, the form in which the French term crise entered local Swahili, must have been familiar to Baba Ngoie. He does not take a clue from the term kilisi, used in the Vocabulaire as unequivocal designation of an historical event or period, much like "the crash" or the "Great Depression" in English.

Once again he asserts his distance from popular talk as well as from popular movements and practices. The latter is documented by the efforts it took to steer the conversation to the one item that was in the center of our ethnographic interest, the emergence of malinga, ball-room dancing, as a social activity, including the formation of bands and associations of performers. When, to help his memory, Kalundi switches to Swahili and provides a list of some of the (ethnic) names of these bands,13 Baba Ngoie responds with a disappointing "c'est possible."

As he did earlier he pronounces this phrase as if to say: "Maybe, but so what? This is nothing I have an opinion on...". Still, for a person who lived in Elisabethville during the late twenties and early thirties as a young adult, not immediately to recognize the term malinga would seem to be a major case of forgetting. Or, if this expresses Baba Ngoie's stance commented on earlier, of "keeping apart" from the world of popular culture that surrounds him, does it mean that he spent much of his life forgetting the present? Much speaks for such an interpretation and if we may also assume that Baba Ngoie was not unique in this respect, his case may be a salutary reminder: The artistic and performative creations of a vigorous contemporary urban culture were not of equal importance to all Africans as a means of survival. Some drew on other sources (such as literacy, see below) in pursuit of another kind of modernity, moral-ascetic and individual rather than aesthetic-ecstatic and collective. Some modern Africans -- people like Baba Ngoie -- lived and died righteously. They achieved a degree of professional and economic security and succeeded in raising children who followed their example. Others led dissipated lives, struggling for survival most of the time; yet they left to their community sights and sounds, images, tunes, and stories by which not only they but their times could be remembered collectively. Many of their creations are now counted among the world's treasures of art and music.

Perhaps there is still more to Baba Ngoie's "c'est possible." It may mark a state or a position equidistant from remembering and forgetting. In this part of our conversation the phrase did not close the exchange but left us an opening, which we found when we asked Baba Ngoie instead of a socio-historical a personal question: Did he ever dance the malinga? Now we seem to have caught him. Reluctantly and not without causing some amusement, he admits to, or uncovers, memories of having danced the malinga, after all. We laugh at his evasiveness; he keeps a hedge and hides behind a conjecture: If it was generally done, he must have done it too.

8. About Tshombe, the failed accountant [18]

[see paragraph 18 in A conversation with Baba Ngoie-Day Léon]

At the beginning of this paragraph I ask Kalundi whether he would like to put some questions to Baba Ngoie. Maybe he could not think of any at that moment. At any rate, he does not want to take on the role of the questioner, which, as he reminds me, is mine. On the other hand, throughout the meeting he is never merely present; he monitors questions and responses and intervenes when he thinks he can help.

While Kalundi and I have this brief exchange about our roles Baba Ngoie follows his own train of thought. He must have been mulling over the names of Katanga politicians he had invoked in his general comment on the Vocabulaire when he decided to reveal how well acquainted he had been with some of the powerful. He tells of his discrete efforts ("at night") to teach "the other one"14 basic accounting. It is clear that he talks about Tshombe, this time withholding the name until the very end of his story where he pronounces it without giving it a peculiar phonetic shape (Tshombe, not Kyombe or Tyombe). After what he had just recalled, it made no sense to suggest, by inexact pronunciation of the name, that his memories of the person were dim.

9. Interlude 1 [19]

[see paragraph 19 in A conversation with Baba Ngoie-Day Léon]

I was still thinking about another question to ask and offered tea. Baba Ngoie welcomed the break; he needed to visit the toilet. He put his request as delicately as possible (asking for the "maison générale"); perhaps he was haunted by memories of a time when an African visitor in the home of an expatriate would not have dared to make such a request.

10. The best time of his life [20]

[see paragraph 20 in A conversation with Baba Ngoie-Day Léon]

After the break I decided to set aside queries referring to the Vocabulaire. What was the best time of his life, I asked him, and this was a productive question, probably because it prompted both recollection and reflection. It may have been the latter that caused Baba Ngoie to resort in the passage following my question to numerous pauses which I mark more carefully in this part of the text because they are more prominent than elsewhere. Pausing frequently makes searching his memory more "expressive," though he may have at first wanted to signal that he did not quite understand or appreciate my question. After all, it was a very personal one. Does he pause because it takes time to remember or because it takes time to decide what he wants to tell me?

What was the best time? He first comes up with a concrete response recalling the good times in his youth; the town was alive with shops, people ate well and had work. Then he obviously cannot help comparing the past to the present. It is not for him, however, to speak of post-colonial times bluntly as "rotten," which is what the Vocabulaire did in 1965 (see the relevant passage in the Vocabulaire). Twenty years later, the country was in the grip of a regime that became more and more defensive and oppressive as the pauperization of the people became rampant. Baba Ngoie, always inclined to caution anyhow, now (and later) carefully evokes la révolution to refer to the present. This was politically correct but would not have fooled anyone. In ordinary, daily speech, revolution was a term full of ambiguity, if not irony; and the same went for other tokens of party-jargon (notice that neither I nor Kalundi ever call Baba Ngoie "citoyen," a term of address prescribed under Mobutu's regime that, under certain circumstances, could become an insult).

As if to extract himself from a situation that had become politically uncomfortable Baba Ngoie once again pleads old age, adding to his already rich vocabulary of forgetfulness when he says:

mon age: eh: a mangé beaucoup: a laissé beaucoup tomber/ (paragraph 20)

By making age an agent, however, he does more than is apparent at first. In this cultural context one would not do justice to the semantics of manger, eating, with a trivial translation such as "age has eaten away memory." "Eating" is an omnipresent metaphor of ingestion and fulfilment (power is eaten, so is an office, but also friendship) and we now get, more clearly than elsewhere, a glimpse of what old age can mean when Baba Ngoie invokes it: It may be at the same time a plea for indulgence and a demand for respect (explicitly so in paragraph 27). And when he says, in the second part of the phrase just quoted, "[mon age] a laissé beaucoup tomber" this may very well be an echo of a French expression, "laisse tomber," forget it -- a conversational figure that is a demand to remember that one should forget.

On the other hand, my reaction to his statement -- "yes, yes," accompanied by a chuckle -- causes Baba Ngoie to face again the problem he tried to avoid, namely comparison between the past and the present. He now comes up with an aphorism I experienced as on the most touching moments and a high point of our conversation. Lowering his voice and pausing twice as if he wanted to give weight to his reflection, he says:

chaque chose: [pause] chaque moment: [pause] a son temps/ (paragraph 20)

11. On the "revolution" and beginnings [21]

[see paragraph 21 in A conversation with Baba Ngoie-Day Léon]

That could have been an appropriate ending of our conversation. Yet the "revolution" keeps bothering him and he tries a new tack, a different kind of comparison not so much between the past and the present and as between a beginning and what became of it. With that he leaves a narrow and politically dangerous frame and moves to what he considers more fundamental, reflections on the course of life and history.

The effort it takes him to make that move away from Mobutu's overpowering presence shows up in his speech:

et: si: si: la volu: la lévolution d'aujourd'hui: mettons: laissez-moi vous p: vous parler: si je me trompe: ce n'est pas parce-que [je] veux:
non: je vous dis: la façon: aujourd'hui [pause]: nous avons la lévolution/ mais: il y a eu les commencements/ (paragraph 21)

Baba Ngoie has trouble formulating a coherent statement. He is getting tired and his French may fail him. But, as the following shows, he still has stamina and his speech, bungled on the surface, reflects increased awareness and attention instead of failing concentration. Talk like this is not rare among his contemporaries; it is an linguistic icon of a political "shuffle and dance" people are forced to put on when they want to talk about a regime and its "revolution," symbolized in daily life by salongo (obligatory, party-supervised community cleaning), animation (praise-singing and dancing at every political meeting), party emblems and slogans everywhere, dress rules for all. Who can talk "straight" when even using Belgian rather than French ways of counting (septante-deux, not soixante douze) can be "anti-revolutionary?"

To repeat, it is apprehensiveness that makes Baba Ngoie start, stop, repair, and start again when he talks about the revolution but also when he wants us to understand what the revolution should be compared to: "The beginning(s)" (of colonization. But that is stated explicitly only later. Here and elsewhere he expresses his approval of beginnings as "congratulation." Having spoken his mind he is both relieved and defiant: "La vérité avant tout." Kalundi must have felt that Baba Ngoie showed great courage. "Did you catch this?" he asks me.

12. Documents from his past [22]

[see paragraph 22 in A conversation with Baba Ngoie-Day Léon]

Baba Ngoie had brought along photographs and various documents and he must have decided that now was the moment to show them. There were papers attesting his baptism in Kisangani, his marriage to mama Madeline, and above all photos of the two of his children he was most proud of, a daughter who became a superior in a nun's order and a son who works as a telecommunications engineer in Kinshasa. While showing and commenting the photographs he throws in another complaint about old age and then points out several times that the events and accomplishments documented took place

N: à Lu: à Elisabethville/
F: oui oui/
N: ici/ aujourd'hui Lubumbashi/ (paragraph 22)

As a locality, Elisabethville gave coherence to his life. Employing the colonial name of the town here and below underlines this sense of identity while at the same time asserting that the town is a contested locality, Elisabethville vs. Lubumbashi; beginnings and personal achievements belong to Elisabethville, "all those revolutions" to Lubumbashi.

13. About Auguste Verbeken and Ngonga [23]

[see paragraph 23 in A conversation with Baba Ngoie-Day Léon]

Another question came to my mind while we looked at photographs. It relates to my work on the history of Swahili in Katanga. A major figure in that history had been August Verbeken. He was author of an influential guide of "practical Swahili" written for expatriates but also publisher of a short lived newspaper, called Ngonga ("the bell"), destined for Elisabethville's African readership.15 Baba Ngoie has no clear recollection of Verbeken -- or does not care to report one. Not to remember this prominent and controversial figure in the history of Elisabethville who actively sought out and supported literate Africans, then called évolué, would be a major failure of memory for someone who belonged to that group. Baba Ngoie appears to sense this and promptly comes up with yet another explanation for his forgetfulness:

il y a beaucoup dans la tête: je me rap: je me rap[pele] plus/ (paragraph 23)

Forgetting, he reminds us, may be due to an overload of memories.

As regards his recollecting a newspaper for Africans, he takes a stance we observed earlier (for instance when he was questioned about names listed in the Vocabulaire or about malinga dancing): When his memories fail him on specifics he steers the conversation to generalities. In this case he briefly says that such papers existed but that they were not like today's press. More important than one pioneer effort are "beginnings" -- the times when "there were people who wanted to accomplish something." He illustrates what he has in mind with an example of technological progress: What began as a child's toy eventually turned into a bicycle. He laughs, pleased with the image he employed.

14. About Yav André, compiler of the Vocabulaire [24]

[see paragraph 24 in A conversation with Baba Ngoie-Day Léon]

Our meandering interrogation now turns back once more to the Vocabulaire. We hope that Baba Ngoie can help us with the unsolved question of the compiler's identity. The result is another failure to extract from him the information we are after -- and another exchange that is full of interesting points to be observed.

First, the transcript shows more clearly here than elsewhere how actively Kalundi participated and how different his manner of questioning was from mine. He has no problem with repeating his question, or even the term of address preceding the question, thus creating a back-and-forth whose very repetitiveness moves the exchange to the envisaged point. I would have changed the question, tried another angle, or simply brought up another topic.

Also, when Kalundi switches to Swahili Baba Ngoie follows him, which he did not when I gave him prompting clues in that language. The text here and especially in paragraph 25 documents Baba Ngoie's fluency in local Swahili with its characteristic phonetic, grammatical and stylistic variability (including pidgin forms that, if taken isolated, would cast doubts on a speaker's competence). It is also obvious that Kalundi, when he switches to Swahili, does not do this with an attitude of condescension, as if he assumed that Baba Ngoie would understand a question in Swahili more easily than in French. Kalundi changes the code in order to create intimacy, perhaps also to emphasize the importance of a question, and above all to help Baba Ngoie to remember because he assumes his memories are tied to the common language of Katanga.

Which gets us to a question I raised elsewhere (Fabian 2001b:18): Does remembering (and forgetting) speak a language? Or: Would what Baba Ngoie recollected for us, and how he did it, have been different in substance, not only in form, had we spoken Swahili rather than French? Because, for this case, we don't have material for comparison the question may seem moot. However, long experience of conversing with bilingual "informants" in Swahili has convinced me that the difference may be significant. If the aim of ethnographic questioning had been only to get information, and if language were a mere vehicle of information, I probably could have conducted my research in French. I would have remained unaware that Swahili -- in this specific context -- is not just another language but a significant medium of another mode of communication giving us access to experience, knowledge and, indeed, memories that would be articulated differently in French, and perhaps not at all.16

As it turns out, Baba Ngoie cannot help us with our question regarding the compiler of the Vocabulaire. "Yav" is a frequent name among people of Lunda origin and he shows no sign of having know a certain Yav André. Kalundi is prepared to keep probing but I tell him to ask one more time a question that had remained unanswered earlier.

15. About the Vocabulaire and colonization [25]

[see paragraph 25 in A conversation with Baba Ngoie-Day Léon]

So Kalundi continues in Swahili, asking Baba Ngoie whether he had ever seen this document, the Vocabulaire, or one like it, before his was given a copy in preparation of our meeting. He had not, he says, and then he tells us how impressed he is by this effort to remember (-kumbuka). He acknowledges that the house boys who sponsored the Vocabulaire deserve to be "congratulated" and that they belong to what had called earlier "beginnings." What they and others achieved was to make people "men," to form them such that they became humans. Things are different today:
aujourd'hui: nous avons beaucoup les hommes: mmm: [pause] et: grade zéro/ pour moi... (paragraph 25)

Why this strange, negative formula? What makes him call many people of today something like "non-entities?" Is this the predictable topos of colonial nostalgia that made the Vocabulaire curse Independence? Is it the misanthropy of an old man? Certainly not the latter; there are things Baba Ngoie enjoys and can be proud of "aujourd'hui" (his life, his family, see paragraph 27) and when he talks positively about the colonial past he does not, as would be typical of mere nostalgia, wallow in regrets and vague feelings but speaks his mind in a manner that rubs us post-colonial critics of the Belgian oeuvre civilisatrice the wrong way:

N: je félicite [pause] mon civilisateur: eh les: surtout les premières/
F: oui/ paragraph 25

Baba Ngoie's bluntness impresses Kalundi. That I acknowledge the statement with a simple "oui," seems to disturb Kalundi and he makes sure I got the point: "Civilisateurs ce sont des blancs." Baba Ngoie ends this section with an adage summarizing what his "civiliser" taught him:

ne pas accepter/ [pause] subire: ne pas vouloil/ paragraph 25

16. Interlude 2 [26]

[see paragraph 26 in A conversation with Baba Ngoie-Day Léon]

A cryptic exchange. As best I can recall now I was busy with a piece of paper to be signed, probably as a receipt (against my research funds) for recompensating Baba Ngoie. Kalundi notices and wants to know what this is about. Trying to keep to my principle never to pay for information directly, I plan to have Kalundi sign the paper.

17. "Knowing is not easy" [27]

[see paragraph 27 in A conversation with Baba Ngoie-Day Léon]

I am trying to end the conversation here, but Kalundi, still bothered by the paper, is reluctant. Baba Ngoie pays no attention to our problem and continues his reflections, at the same time taking them away from matters that might be specifically colonial -- he speaks of "taste" and desire one must have for knowledge if he is to become educated -- and spelling out what he meant when he praised his Belgian civilisateurs. Above all, he owes them gratitude for having opened to him "the world" through literacy. If you read, he was told, "vous serez toujours compté parmi les autres."

18. About his name in the Vocabulaire [28]

[see paragraph 28 in A conversation with Baba Ngoie-Day Léon]

I make another attempt to end here, but Baba Ngoie does not yet let me off the hook. He wants to know what will be done with the recording. I explain this to him and assure him that his contribution will we acknowledged and his name mentioned -- which gets us into another loop. Baba Ngoie takes the opportunity to throw a barb at the present and Mobutu's "authenticité" requiring citizens to drop their Christian first names and add ancestral ones to their African names. Meanwhile, as a last gesture to the document that brought us together, we have been looking for the page on which his name is mentioned. When I read it to him, all he has to say is "that's me alright."

19. Back tho the present [29-30]

[see paragraph 29-30 in A conversation with Baba Ngoie-Day Léon]

One last time Baba Ngoie brings up the "revolution" -- "your revolution" it is now, and that means that he includes me an the world I come from among those who should take the blame for it. But he does not elaborate on this intriguing point and starts looking for another document among the papers he had brought along. The recording is briefly stopped. I don't know what it was he wanted to show me, perhaps some certificate because when the recording resumes he recalls how well educated/informed he was toward the end of colonial times, giving credit to his seminarian friends (the seminary was then still just about the only type of higher education available to Congolese). He is content with a life he lived "like a man," like "everybody," without "exaggerating." Kalundi tries to get another question in but Baba Ngoie is now ready to end the conversation, which he does by telling me that it was "very little news" he had to give me.
I turned off the recorder but when Baba Ngoie went on to say something in Swahili to Kalundi I hit the "record" button again. I only caught the end of what sounds like a bawdy remark -- the kind that is exchanged by people who are in a joking relationship (kubengana in Sh/Ks) -- followed by a half-teasing, half-serious complaint that I had forgotten to shake hands because I was not satisfied with our conversation. Kalundi and I just laugh this off. "Alright then," the old man says, "but it it's not easy."

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After the conversation: Baba Léon (l.) escorted home by Kalundi (r.)
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1 On practical and theoretical implications of such a situation of language choice see Fabian 1979 [1991a: ch. 5].
2 As an empirical case it is, as I said, rare but not unique or idiosyncratic; see my observations on the semantics of "forgetting" in three contexts: the Vocabulaire, Tshibumba's History of Zaire, and the teachings of the Jamaa movement (Fabian 2001b).
3 On "passeport" as a lieu de mémoire see Kalundi's comments on the Vocabulaire.
4 See the quotation from that speech at the end of Fabian 2001b.
5 The date given later, 1952, for his first marriage (paragraph 22) seems improbably late but he never mentions a prior union.
6 The writer/compiler of the Vocabulaire was a Lunda (see below paragraph 14) who also authored history of his people (in Lunda). That text was mimeographed, too, and quite similar to the Vocabulaire in its form of graphic presentation.
7 See also a later variant of the same collective formula (paragraph 13) where the name is pronounced "Tyombe" (palatalized t, but no tsh).
8 On Robert Williams see the relevant passage in the Vocabulaire and the notes 10, 11, 19 to this passage.
9 See the accounts of the hanging in the Vocabulaire. See also another popular recollection recorded in Bemba (Cola Musa 1992) and an exhaustive historical essay by Vellut (1992).
10 Baba Ngoie does not mention the stronger version of the story of continued presence that we find in the Vocabulaire where the book miraculously reproduces itself every time it is taken away from Kimbangu.
11 This conflicts, chronologically but not substantially, with the date, 1917, the Vocabulaire puts on Kienda Biela's war, see note 45 there. Leopold's rule ended in 1908.
12 A detailed account of how the Great Depression affected Elisabethville between 1930-34 is given by Fetter 1976: ch. 7.
13 See also Kalundi's own account of malinga in his comments on the Vocabulaire. Incidentally, my friend's cook who was present in the background, had told me earlier that he used to be an ardent dancer of malinga and had even held some office in one of the associations.
14 In referring to a person as l'autre Baba Ngoie echoes a term that is perhaps idiomatic French (also in that remarkable expression for "we," nous autres), but also a conspicuous feature of colonial talk. I heard l'autre currently used to designate Africans when a direct reference could not be made (because the person was present) or did not have to be made (because it was obvious who was meant).
15 On Verbeken see the remarks and notes in my commentary on Kalundi's comments to the Vocabulaire.
16 I feel even more strongly about this after a conversation I had recently in Zanzibar with a Congolese painter who had left Katanga in 1960. In this case, it was the switch from the East Coast Swahili of his present environment to the Shaba/Katanga Swahili of his youth that opened a stream of memories in an exchange that had at first been rather unpromising.


Cola Musa. (1992). Récit de la mort de Bwana François. In: Bogumil Jewsiewicki (ed), Art pictural zaïrois. Sillery (Québec): Septentrion. 165-169.
Fabian, Johannes. (1979). Rule and Process: Thoughts on Ethnography as Communication. Philosophy of the Social Sciences 9: 1-26. [Reprinted in Fabian 1991a: ch. 5]
Fabian, Johannes. (1991a). Time and the Work of Anthropology: Critical Essays 1971-1991. Chur: Harwood Academic Publishers.
Fabian, Johannes. (1991b). Language and Colonial Power. The Appropriation of Swahili in the Former Belgian Congo 1880-1938. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Fabian, Johannes. (2001a). Anthropology with an Attitude. Critical Essays. Stanford: Stanford University Press.
Fabian, Johannes. (2001b). Forgetting Africa. Journal of Romance Studies 1:9-20.
Fetter, Bruce. (1976). The Creation of Elisabethville 1910-1940. Stanford: Hoover Institution Press.
Vellut, Jean-Luc. (1992). Une exécution publique à Elisabethville (20 septembre 1922). Notes sur la paine capitale dans l'histoire coloniale du Congo. In: Bogumil Jewsiewicki (ed), Art pictural zaïrois. Sillery (Québec): Septentrion. 171-222.

About the author:

Johannes Fabian is professor of cultural anthropology at the University of Amsterdam. Previously he taught at Northwestern and Wesleyan Universities and at the National University of Zaire in Lubumbashi. He did research on religious movements, language, work, and popular culture in the Shaba mining region of Zaire (1966-7, 1972-4, 1985, 1986). In his theoretical and critical work, he addressed questions of epistemology and of the history of anthropology. As an ethnographer he worked on and through Shaba Swahili. A comprehensive list of his publications is available elsewhere at the LPCA website.

Document history: 3 December 2002 (hyperlink in section 29 corrected, 'paragraph 24' in note 6 corrected to 'paragraph 14'), 30 December 2002 (second hyperlink in section 2 corrected)
© Johannes Fabian