The Incredible True Story of Blondy Baruti
The Africa of my ancestors, I am told by the elders in whose footsteps I follow, was a glorious and magnificent place. And the Congo, in particular, was as beautiful and bountiful as any region shaped by God’s hand, as lush as Eden itself. A description of my homeland makes it sound like nothing less than paradise. Rich, fertile soil capable of sustaining vast and varied farmlands; geological richness producing thick veins of precious minerals and metals—copper, cobalt, gold, and diamonds, to name just a few; verdant forests and sub-Saharan plains sustaining a vast array of wildlife; jungle canopies so dense and fruitful one could simply raise a hand and pluck a veritable buffet of sweet sustenance. A land of brotherhood and peace.
This was the Congo of my people . . . the Congo shared wistfully in stories handed down from generation to generation.
The Congo of my dreams.
Alas, it is not the Congo I call home. The Congo of my youth was (and sadly remains today) a place of pestilence and poverty; of vengeance and violence so indiscriminate as to be almost beyond comprehension. How do you reconcile the tales of beauty and innocence I heard with the things that actually happened? How did the supposed Utopia of my ancestors become a land riven by chaos and bloodshed? A land where preteen boys are conscripted into military gangs and become drug-fueled
killers; a land where rape is so ubiquitous that it is barely noticed as a crime; a land in which more than five million people have died since the outbreak of civil war in the mid-1990s. There is a reason the Congo is sometimes referred to as the “Trigger of Africa,” and it is not simply because of geographic appearance.
There are no easy answers or explanations. But I can tell you the story as I know it, and my place in it. This, too, is in my blood, the tradition of finding one’s place and identity through oral history. There is, among my people, an unwritten burden of responsibility to disclose one’s past by discharging the truth with unflinching honesty and candor. A journey anywhere—whether across the village or to a distant land—must necessarily commence with a single step forward. And rarely is that journey made alone. There is an African proverb that says, “An ox’s hind hoof treads where the front hoof has stepped.” I stand and walk today where I am because my kin once stood and walked before me. Ugly or pretty. For better or worse. I am a product of the Congo, and of the people it has reared.
The family structure of any African society is blatantly and indisputably patriarchal. The man—the father and husband—is the head of the household. No one debates this hierarchy, and no one attempts to enforce upon it modern Western philosophies of equality and partnership. The man is the king of his castle, no matter how humble it might be. It has been that way from time immemorial.
My maternal grandfather, as the custom of the day dictated, was named Baruti Batilangani Boto Leyande. He was born in the Yangambi region of the Congo on May 28, 1939, when much of the world was being drawn into the vortex of World War II. This was a period well documented as one of the most turbulent in the annals of Congolese history, as the country continued to wrestle with the devastating consequences of the twenty-three-year reign of Belgium’s King Leopold II, and his iron-fisted colonial oppression of Africans. Following the Conference of Berlin in 1885, Leopold acquired the rights to the territory of the Congo,
and in a gesture of stunning grandiosity, took it as his personal property. As a result, Leopold personally “owned” a region that today is the second largest country in Africa and the eleventh largest nation in the world, a region nearly ninety times larger than Belgium itself. (This, too, was a sign of things to come, for the Congo remains even today a nation bullied and exploited by smaller and crueler neighbors and occupiers.) Leopold renamed the territory the Congo Free State. This was a cruel and oxymoronic name, as there was nothing “free” about it.
For every horror story captured by the media outlets of the West, untold tribulations were being perpetrated with vicious and unchecked recklessness in the Congo: epic construction and infrastructure projects undertaken with ferocious commitment, ostensibly designed to enhance and modernize life in the Free State, but in reality undertaken for purely venal purposes—to expand the wealth of Leopold himself. Railroad lines and roads were carved out of the jungle with breathtaking speed; rubber was extracted to help meet a rapidly expanding global market spurred by the burgeoning popularity of the automobile. Had the Congolese people profited in some way from this industrial movement, perhaps history might view Leopold differently. But in the land of my people he is rightfully considered an exploitative tyrant who viewed them as merely tools to be used in the procuring of resources, and then cast aside like rubbish. Natives who resisted the colonists’ orders were beaten or butchered, their limbs hacked off by bloodthirsty soldiers in a terrifying and unforgettable show of might.
Untold millions of my people died during this period, the victims of violence or sickness or starvation. And so it became a part of Congo lore to accept with stoicism the cruelty of invaders, to understand that freedom was not our birthright.
The Congress of Berlin marked the germination point of the turmoil that later enveloped the continent, where European powers carved up Africa like a jigsaw puzzle, and divided it among themselves for their own profit and glory. When 1939 rolled around, and
the world became embroiled in a war that affected every part of Africa, the Congo was among those nations pillaged to its core. Its young men were enlisted to fight enemies they didn’t know. Family structures were permanently disrupted. The sixty years before my grandfather’s birth was the incubation period for the harrowing unrest and violence that would plague the Congo from then on.
This was the world into which my grandfather was born. He was originally from Yawenda, a city in the territory of Isangi, not far from the Congo River. He was the son of Baruti Boyoma and Banzanza Sophie. In stark contrast to the expectations of the period, my grandfather was fortunate to receive a Western-styled formal education. Erudite and accomplished, he eventually graduated with a degree in law from what was then known as the University of Lovanium (the school later merged with other institutions of higher learning under the moniker of the University of Zaire; it subsequently became known as the University of Kinshasa). Through a combination of diligence, ambition, intelligence, and guile, my grandfather developed a lucrative business enterprise in the Congo, the fruits of which provided him the leverage and latitude to travel extensively.
As his accomplishments ballooned (along with his ego), Baruti bestowed upon himself the two last names and middle name, Batilangandi Boto Leyande, which in the vernacular means Bazali na maw ate moto na moto na oyo yaye. There is no direct English translation for this phrase, but the closest approximation is as follows: “They do not have sympathy (No mercy); every man for himself.” It is a survivor’s credo, befitting not only the spirit of the war-ravaged Congo, but of a man who endured and ultimately thrived in spite of a series of betrayals at the hands of friends and family members and business associates. Baruti was unique among his siblings in etching out a sustainable and successful business enterprise. While the fierce individuality of his name might suggest a coldness of the heart, for a time Baruti’s generosity appeared to know no bounds. It was commonly known that he would readily disburse his massive wealth to
anyone in need. I have been told that he spread his good fortune among both friends and strangers in virtually equal allotment. To his core, Baruti was apparently a good-hearted man who preferred to share rather than shun; a man who was charitable, compassionate, and sympathetic. I would like to believe so, anyway.
Baruti had left his hometown as a young man to go to Kisangani, before ending up in the capital, Kinshasa. There, he procured a sizable plot of land and erected a house for his sister Albertine Basasa. The house, which was affectionately referred to as “The Huge House,” was a central and unifying locale for not only family, but for folks from all walks of life. True to tradition, Baruti’s parents, my great-grandparents, found him a worthy wife, Christine Lofo Boyale. She was sixteen years old when they married in 1962, seven years younger than Baruti. While this age difference might raise eyebrows in Western culture, it was at the time normal in Africa. Indeed, tradition dictated that the woman in a marriage should be at least five years younger than her partner; a gap of as much as fifteen years was not uncommon. The purpose was primarily to demonstrate power and control on the part of the man, and to prolong and maximize the child-bearing years of his wife. If a young man fell in love with a young woman his own age, the two would undoubtedly face resistance from their families if they wanted to marry. This was no small thing, as parental blessing and approval is crucial to African marriages.
Cultural norms vary wildly from place to place, and are sometimes lost in translation. What is perfectly acceptable in one culture is deemed outrageous or even perverse in another, like polygamy, which was and remains commonplace in my homeland. And so it was that Baruti, following a long and protracted period of monogamous marriage with my grandmother, took a second wife. Like most African men, my grandfather had dreamed of raising a large family. (And by large, I mean very large!) Unfortunately, my grandmother was unable to fulfill this desire. Stemming from endless battles with health issues and periodic fertility complications, Christine did her best, but only (only?)
managed to birth three children: my mother, Annie, as the firstborn, and then my uncles, Desire and Joseph Baruti.
My grandmother was the personification of a selfless African wife, driven by love for her husband and an unwavering commitment to family and tradition. It was in this spirit of generosity and cultural acceptance that she allowed my grandfather to take other women. I should point out that none of this occurred in a vacuum. Baruti consulted with family elders, as well as with his wife. Difficult as it might be for Westerners to understand, all agreed that my grandfather should wed a second time. Does this make my grandmother a fool or a saint? Perhaps neither: she was merely a product of her time and culture, and she did what she felt was in the best interests of her family. Christine’s magnanimous presence and generous spirit opened the doors for her husband to bring his second and third wives into her house, under her roof, and accommodate them with their own rooms. While my grandfather went on to multiple marriages thereafter, these other new women lived in different parts of the city largely because, as my grandmother would later say, “The ‘Huge House’ only had five bedrooms!”
If the family dynamics were amicable and cordial (and from what I have been told, this was mostly the case), it was primarily because of my grandmother’s munificence, and the warm and loving environment she cultivated as the first wife. She was inclusive and loving, but sensible in establishing boundaries. Christine slept with her children, my mother and uncles, in one part of the house, while the other wives shared sleeping quarters with their children. My grandfather, meanwhile, grazed nomadically, as befitting his stature as head of the household. His job was to sire children and to provide for them and their mothers financially. The spiritual and emotional care was left to the women, and my grandmother, true to form, embraced this role with all her heart. She took care of all the children as if they were her own, and the wives as if they were her sisters. They lived lovingly among each other as though they were biologically linked. Not surprisingly,
the other women developed genuine admiration and respect for my grandmother, their natural trepidation and jealousy giving way to something like love as the years wore on.
Discretion was vital to the success of such an arrangement. Vast, sprawling homes filled with people related to one another either through blood or marriage were not uncommon, and unless you were to ask the women involved about their relationships, you never would have known that they were all wives. Indeed, they might have been sisters or cousins, so peaceful was their coexistence. The bickering and contention that could easily have ensued (and did, in many African households similarly structured) was mitigated also by my grandfather’s own tactfulness, as well as his wealth, which naturally alleviated some of the complexities of such a diverse family arrangement. He had the means to provide everyone with a comfortable existence. It is a simple truth: poverty exacerbates all manner of problems, while money helps heal otherwise festering wounds. Baruti made sure that his children and wives were cared for; additionally, when any of the other wives gave birth, my grandmother would liberally expend her own resources to celebrate the arrival of a new family member. This was the type of woman she was: unfiltered and exceedingly giving of herself. Thus, while my grandfather may have been viewed as the head of the family, my grandmother was in a very real sense the lifeblood that pulsated through the organism and made it not just functional, but healthy.
AND THEN, BEFORE MY mother even reached her teenage years, my grandfather disappeared. Slowly at first, and then altogether. As the story is told, he aligned himself with a team of business colleagues and left the Congo for greener pastures in Ghana. His Ghana adventure, undertaken as a way to expand his business empire and care for his family, became long and unwieldy, and veiled in secrecy. Communication
with his family in the Congo all but ceased; the once surging river of financial resources slowed to a trickle, and then dried up entirely. To say this threw the family into chaos would be an understatement. With not enough money to go around, and with many mouths to feed, the household fell apart, bit by bit. The wives Baruti had brought into the big home soon left, along with their children, and remarried. My grandmother, however, steadfastly refused to leave or to find another husband. Instead, she focused her efforts on taking care of her children and ensuring that they would have a loving and stable home, even in the absence of their father.
Many years later, while researching my family’s story, I asked my grandmother about this period in her life. A dignified and private woman, she at first demurred, unwilling for whatever reason to discuss the inner workings of her heart. Like many grandmothers, though, she had a soft spot for her grandchildren, and I was not easily dissuaded. Why did you not leave? I asked. Why did you not move on with your life, away from the huge home with five bedrooms, most of them now sad and empty? Why did you not find another man to take the place of Baruti . . . a man who could have eased your financial and emotional burden? No one would have judged you harshly. Not even your own children, who by this point barely knew their own father.
My grandmother merely smiled and shook her head. And then, in a tone that somehow managed to reflect both the sweetness of a grandmother and the sternness of an army general, she offered an explanation.
“I did not marry your grandfather because of the lure of fame or money, but because of the love I felt for him. And that love was extended to our family and our home. Why would I leave? Just because the rains came and washed everything downhill? It was still my home and he was still my husband. And we still had children who needed me there. No, no, no. There was no reason to leave. None at all.”
And so, when it was all said and done, when the brightness had faded away, only the first and legitimate wife, my grandmother,
remained vigilant to the very end. She lives to this day in the home her husband built for her, the home in which her children, including my mother, were raised.
In 1990, word reached our family that Baruti had died in Ghana, leaving behind twelve children—seven males and five females—that we knew of. Later my grandmother discovered that while he was working in Ghana, my grandfather had also had at least two other children.
There is a West African proverb that seems appropriate to this situation: “Matters within the house are only known to mice.” I do not know how my grandfather died, whether through sickness or accident or retribution from a wronged business associate or lover. Any of these possibilities seem plausible. But I would like to believe that in his final moments on this planet, perhaps he may have reflected upon the life he had lived, and in those moments, as darkness fell for the last time, he saluted with the firmness of a strong and determined hand the wife and woman he left behind: my grandmother, Christine Lofo, who did not wilt in the face of adversity, and who never vacillated in her loyalty to family and faith. Her roots were deep and firm, providing stability for generations.
And I am a limb that has branched from that tree.