Monday, March 13, 2017

Congolese Equinox

On March 20th, at 4:29 am (Mountain Time), given an absence of cloud cover, some people in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) will, for a fleeting moment, be able to look up and see the sun directly overhead. Everywhere else on the globe we will need to perform some fancy trigonometry to observationally determine that the vernal equinox has occurred.

There is a Solar Eclipse in the US this year.  It will be visible in Salt Lake City on August 21st starting around 9:46am, and ending around 3:04pm (Mountain Time).  The maximum will be at 12:21.


The DRC was, between 1971 and 1997, known as Zaire. Before that it was a “free zone” loosely sandwiched between French, British, and German colonies; French would become the country’s official language. On 17 May 1997 Laurent-Désiré Kabila overthrew the ailing Mobutu Sese Seko Kuku Ngbendu Wa Za Banga to create his own despotic African monarchy, and renamed the country. Laurent had to act fast as the cancer that was ravaging Mobutu’s body threatened to create a power vacuum in the country’s top spot.

The presidency of Zaire was a lucrative position. Mobutu Sese Seko siphoned billions off Zaire’s paltry wealth. When Laurent took over the country his army, bolstered by Ugandan, Angolan, Rwandan, and Burundi forces, was slowed more by the lack of effective infrastructure than any opposition by forces loyal to Sese Seko. On 7 September 1997, just a few months after he was officially overthrown, Sese Seko succumbed to the prostate cancer that had enfeebled him.

The overthrow of Sese Seko came while the world still shuddered at the detains leaking out of the Rwandan genocide that had occurred between April and July 1994. During that genocide as many as 800,000 ethnic Tutsi Rwandans were slaughtered by their Hutu neighbors. It was not until 2004 that a slew of movies (and stories in other media) really informed people of the 1994 Rwandan massacre.   In 1996 Sese Seko issued an anti-Tutsi proclamation that echoed the racism that fueled the Rwandan genocide. The Rassemblement Démocratique pour le Rwanda Hutu militias had been raiding Rwanda from Zaire since the Rwandan genocide, and were poised to invade. Fearing another genocide several African nations (especially Rwanda) lent forces to Laurent (a Tutsi) for Sese Seko’s overthrow.

Laurent Kabila continued Sese Seko’s inattention to the wellbeing of the country he renamed to be the DRC. On Bastille day 1998 Kabila began a series of steps to purge the formerly allied Rwandans from his government, The Rwandan government replied by insisting that a bunch of the DRC was “historically Rwandan” and accused Kabila of organizing a genocide against the Banyamulenge Tutsis (because Kabila apparently did not think they were the right kind of Tutsis). Eventually this escalated into the second Congolese war that would officially last until July 2003; although fighting between the dozens of splintered groups would sputter on for years.

The synergistic interaction of neglected infrastructure with constant warfare resulted in the deaths of over 5.4 million people. The remnants of human culture in this most populated of francophone countries is also sometimes counted amongst the casualties. Horrific war crimes were committed by several sides to put psychological pressure on their opponents. In one operation a militia had T-shirts printed up that advertised the name of the operation ("Effacer le Tableau") which they proudly wore while brutalizing the villages that had become the focus of their wrath. In the almost 20 years of conflict mass rapes have created a new generation that continues the tradition of hostility from and into which they were born.

Cannibalism has got to be one of the most sensational of all war crimes. Tales of widespread cannibalism pepper the entire history of the Congolese conflict. As recently as November 2014 a mob allegedly stoned a person to death that they thought was a member of ADF-NAUL because machetes were found on the bus he was riding on; they then allegedly filmed themselves burning and eating his corpse.

5.4 million people is a blot on the history of the human species of the same magnitude as the Holocaust of the Jews in Nazi Germany, but this did not happen back in a grainy black and white newsreel past.  The holocaust has its handful of deniers who refuse to know that it occurred, but this African nightmare has legions of people who do not know that it occurred because of ignorance. This mass extermination hides behind the same flavors of confusion and neglect that made it possible.  In a perversion of the worn statement about the relationship of knowing history and repeating the mistakes of history our society appears to be "ignorant of this portion of history because we are repeating it".  It should be terrifying that so many members of our species could be killed in such a short period of time in a series of events that never rose to the forefront of the collective outrage of the civilization we have built.  This can happen in our world, and we know this only because it did.  What else is possible?

Knowing the moment of the equinox was one of the great accomplishments of human science. We could, to a small extent, place our position within the confusion of swirling planets and stars. Timing agriculture and ritual to the equinox made our existence a little more robust. Around the globe some of the most amazing of ancient structures are used to determine when the equinox is.These, often megalithic, structures are monuments to humanity looking out into the universe, and seeing where we are. 

The hippie in me would love a few billion people to spend a few seconds realizing the equinox has come, and realize the importance of that fleeting moment on the holistic future of the society our species has created. If everyone then created a piece of art, or sang a few bars of a song about love, or refused to do violence even if justified, then we would be able to really create something with which to celebrate the movement of our planet through space.




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