JOHN YDSTIE, host:
This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm John Ydstie. Coming up, the pains and pleasures of working 500 feet under the sea. But first there's a tree in the Democratic Republic of Congo that chances are no one will ever cut down. On January 17th, 1961, Patrice Lumumba, the first prime minister of the Congo after its independence from Belgium was murdered under that tree.
NPR's Gwen Thompkins traveled to Congo recently to learn more about the country's complicated relationship with its national hero.
GWEN THOMPKINS: We are surrounded by tall grass in the wilds of southeastern Congo. And in the late afternoon heat, black flies are everywhere. They're in a state of quiet hysteria, worrying and whirling into our ears, our necks, and our eyes. And yes it has taken more than an hour for Valentin Ilunga to answer the question: Why did so many people in this part of Congo dislike Patrice Lumumba?
Mr. VALENTIN ILUNGA: (Through translator): You know, Lumumba was an angry person who didn't like to listen to others. He wanted only people to do what he said. If you always sit there and you decide only you, only you, only you without taking others' opinion into consideration, this is very bad. It creates friction.
THOMPKINS: And Ilunga adds, it makes people hate you. If Patrice Lumumba had not been the first prime minister of the Congo, he would've been just as believable as a character in a Shakespearean tragedy. In June of 1960, Lumumba was the most popular leader in the country, but within weeks of rising to power, he was the subject of plots, conspiracies and betrayals.
Congo's wealthiest mining provinces bolted from the republic. Lumumba's response and the military confrontation that followed eventually led him to his death at the age of 35. It happened under this evergreen in Katanga Province, which in true dramatic form was the first province to secede. Ilunga is the local chief. All these years later, his take on Lumumba smacks a poetic license.
Mr. ILUNGA: (Through translator): People from Katanga didn't have any problem with Lumumba.
THOMPKINS: In these parts, Lumumba is a difficult subject. He blocked Katanga's efforts to secede from the Republic. He was also on bitter terms with the area's provincial leaders. But nowadays people around the world call Lumumba a standard bearer for Congolese nationalism against the sins of colonial power.
After all, it was he who told the Belgian king to his face, we are no longer your monkeys. And Ilunga says that was Lumumba's first mistake. Belgium was offended and they still had allies among the Congolese, particularly in Katanga.
Mr. ILUNGA: (Through translator): They were looking for some places to kill him so they came here.
THOMPKINS: This area is called Shela Tambo (ph), which is the local language means path of elephants. It used to be a place where not only elephants shook the trees, but where lions chased down antelope and wild boar and where clouds of birds took flight from tangles of branches. But now most of the food chain has died off.
We're standing in a clearing near the side of the main road where Lumumba and his colleagues, Joseph Okito and Maurice Mpolo fell. Ilunga is reenacting the scene.
Mr. ILUNGA: (Through translator): They came with Congolese policemen and Belgian police. So they shot them here. Here they dug, they dug, they buried them here.
THOMPKINS: On the morning after the incident, Ilunga says his great grandfather found bullet casings here and the tracks of boots. He also found Lumumba's foot and the bodies of the other men protruding from a shallow grave.
Mr. ILUNGA: (Through translator): You know, we fear the place where there is trees, set of trees. He received a lot of bullets in his body.
THOMPKINS: Years later, archival records in Belgium confirmed what happened. The officers dug up the bodies, dismembered them, dissolved them with acid, and set fire to whatever remained. But by the time he died, Lumumba had more enemies than he could count, including his former friend, Mobutu Sese Seko and President Eisenhower who considered Lumumba a Soviet sympathizer and ordered a failed CIA operation to kill him.
But what a difference 40 years makes. Today streets in Congo are named after Lumumba and there an awful lot of men called Patrice.
Mr. ILUNGA: (Through translator): We would like the government to build something huge here so that when people come here they will remember the memory of Lumumba.
THOMPKINS: But Lumumba still puts Katanga in something of an awkward position. They like him, they hate him, they like him, they hate him. Sometimes Lumumba has that look on his face that divorced people get when their exes win a major award. But in 2002 when President Joseph Kabila honored Lumumba on this very spot, the people of Katanga built a marker near the base of the tree. Ilunga and his friends also made a brick memorial for the burial site.
Mr. ILUNGA: (Through translator): You know, for me I think personally Lumumba was a good person because he fought. He fought for the independence of this country. As you know, we used to say that the one who passed away for the first time will not see it. It is the one who comes after who see the way.
THOMPKINS: Who better to take that view than a man who lives in the path of elephants. Gwen Thompkins, NPR News, Shela Tambo, Congo.
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