HRH Queen Diambi is the traditional queen of the Bakwa Luntu People of Kasaï in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Right for Education spoke to her about her life, changing the development paradigm, and Pan-Africanism.
R:Ed: Could you tell us about yourself and your work?
My name is Queen Diambi Kabatusuila Tshiyoyo Muata Mukalenga Mukaji wa Bakwa Luntu wa Kasaï, Congo, Queen of the Order of the Leopard. I am also Grande Mãe do Povo Bantu do Brasil, traditional Queen of the African descendants of Brazil. As Queen, I promote a different narrative about Africa than the one we are used to: I talk about the culture of Africa, its people and its history. As a Pan-African, I also want to help consolidate the voice of the African diaspora, because we face common issues all over the world. I also create collaborations to promote projects in Africa, and work to improve the life of my constituency. I am a member of the Pan-African Council of traditional and customary leaders and the Council of Elders of Africa. I also founded the Elikia Hope Foundation in New York. Right now, I’m working on a project tackling child homelessness in Kinshasa, where there are about 40 thousand children on the streets. We are working with several orphanages to provide shelter, food, some education, vocational skills, safety and healthcare.
R:Ed: How did you become a Queen?
First, we need to understand that the Africa we know today is a recent construction of the Western mind and enterprise. Before the Berlin Conference of 1885 and colonization, which led to the exploitation of Africa through the enslavement and deportations of millions of Africans, Africa was composed of many prosperoud kingdoms with refined cultures and elaborate civilizations that are rarely mentioned today. My kingdom belongs to what was referred to by Europeans as the Luba Empire, which was a confederation of kingdoms of people belonging to the Luba ethnic group. My great grandfather was King Tshiyoyo Muata and my great grandmother was Queen Diambi. With colonization, however, Europe imposed on us an exploitative, Western structure of governance that destroyed the structures of these kingdoms. Our traditional leaders were killed or put to the backseat. My father, a descendant of my tribe’s six houses of power, chose not to accept his appointment as king in 2006. So traditional leaders said that a different family member of his lineage would be selected, and started investigating. Eventually, they selected me. At the time, I was living in the United States, working as a psychotherapist and raising my children. When I eventually returned to my territory of Dimbelenge in the Congo, the elders of Bakwa Indu asked if I would take responsibility for my people. They didn’t say I was going to be crowned or that I’d be queen. As if I just responded to an impulse, I just said yes, without even asking what those responsibilities entailed. A few minutes after that, to my great surprise, I had the crown of my head, which is really a common practice as far as I’ve heard. Later, of course, there was a more formal ceremony during which I was sat on my throne by all the Luntu Chiefs and received by the ANATC (Association Nationale des Autorités Traditionnelles et Coutumières du Congo).
I really didn’t know what to expect at the time, because growing up I didn’t know I was from a royal family. My father was what some have called an assimilated African; in fact, during the Belgian colonization some Africans were called ‘Evolved’, which designated an African who denied their African heritage and culture to adopt the culture of the white colonizers. In the Belgian Congo ‘Evolved’ Africans mainly lived in cities, and even had a card which gave them privileges like wearing pants, having a bicycle, and living in different quarters. They could have a privileged life, make a little more money, have access to better healthcare, housing and their children could go to better schools. There was a Belgian government department that investigated ‘Evolved’ people. They could come into one’s home at any time of the day or night to check how people conducted themselves, how they dressed, how they ate, if your children spoke the ‘savage’ language rather than French. My father left his village at 13 years old to go to school, for which he had to convert to Christianity because only those who were baptized had access to education. From then, he never saw his mother again and only saw his father once when he was an adult because he never went back to his village. After the colonization the term ‘Evolved’ no longer officially existed, but the concept remained and those who adopted Western culture, values and behaviors had a better chance of success and prosperity. This is still true today in many places in Africa. My father only spoke to me in French because it was appropriate to speak it but not Tshiluba, his native language. I grew up not knowing about my heritage nor much of my family history. I only knew that I was Luba, and I was proud of it because yes, we were a great and mighty people!
It was only when I was in my late 40s, a year before I was crowned, that I learned my grandmother was Princess Tshilomba, the first-born daughter of King Tshiyoyo Muata. I had been living in the US with my sons, working as a psychotherapist and then during my first ever visit to Kasaï I was suddenly crowned the queen of a tribe in Africa. The elders told me I was the embodiment of the ancestors manifested, and that I could perform all the traditions ceremonies and rites attached to my title and status. I represented my people, their history and their distinct culture. They also said I could do as much or as little as I wanted and that I should follow my heart. As I did so, I realized I had to use my capacity, my talents and my resources to do what I could to help my people, because I knew that they needed help. I realized that I wanted to provide relief through clean water, medicine, education and so forth. But I also wanted to share my story, to help reclaim the dignity we Africans lost because of the long and tormented history of over 8 centuries of human trafficking and deportation by both the Arab and European slave trade entreprises followed by another century of colonization, segregation and apartheid. Sharing our culture and values expressed through our traditions and customs is essential to find solutions to our problems that are designed by us for us.
R:Ed: What are the obstacles to and opportunities for development in the Kasaï region and for your tribe? What are your priorities?
Firstly, what is development? We often speak of it in the Western paradigm: buildings, roads, electricity, factories, etc. The discourse has always been coming from a Western perspective. It implies that we as Africans don’t have a mind of our own to decide what development will look like for us. What were our societies like before they were destroyed? What were our economic, governance and social structures, and what was women’s place in society? I wish to work on alternative models of development for Africa that are unapologetically African. In Africa most cities are copies of the Western model and have been disastrous with respect to wellbeing, from child homelessness and high unemployment rates to inadequacy of infrastructures and so on.
Africa is like a patient who has undergone a massive trauma. In the process of rehabilitation, it is essential we remember who we are and what our values are. For example, Western development is extremely individualistic, while we attach a high value to the extended family and community. It’s difficult for me to say that development for my people would be, say, to have more roads! We don’t have many roads and I’m happy about that for now: if we did, my land would look like a dumpster, like many cities in Africa. Trucks would dump loads of plastic consumer goods, tonnes of paper and cardboard boxes, and cheap overused synthetic clothing, which we do not have thecapacity to manage. All this would be accompanied by millions of cans of highly processed unhealthy food, the negative health-related impacts of which we could not handle with our current healthcare systems. For thousands of years, everybody has come to Africa with a predatorial attitude. Now, when I hear the people say ‘development’, I have a hard time determining whether it truly is for the benefit of the Africans, or whether it is just a new outlet for the capitalist venture of excessive production, excessive consumption, and a disregard for people’s wellbeing and the environment. I do understand that basic needs have to be taken care of. But my question is, how? I don’t think we as Africans have chosen an appropriate path for ourselves yet. Education has to come first, so that we can decide what development will look like for us.
R:Ed: You mentioned that you identify as a Pan-African. When you speak to the rest of the world, how do you balance sharing different tribal groups’ unique cultures and histories with Pan-Africanism?
I became a Pan-African when I lived in the United States. Through meeting African-Americans, I came to understand that the idea of Congo is a recent idea that was born at the Berlin Conference. In Congo, we use the word ‘tribe’ because that was imposed upon us but in reality consider ourselves different parts of the same family. Africa is a melting pot we are intertwined in so many ways. Even today, most of our languages have a common trunk. Our cultures are alike and there are many parallels in how we work, what we believe in and what our values are. In the so-called New World, Africans were conglomerated into one unit, despite the fact that they came from different tribes, and they were able to find enough common ground to create shared cultures. You become a Pan-African outside of Africa because in Africa we now have the new construct of nation states and unfortunately many identify with these artificial borders. However, outside of Africa there are so many similarities in the culture of an Afro Brazilian or Afro Cuban, an African American and a Jamaican that the common thread is evident. In fact, it is this diaspora that has researched African history first and thoroughly. In school in the Congo, we didn’t speak much about the transatlantic slave trade and its disastrous effects on the continent because our history books and academic curriculum was designed by the former colonial education authorities. After slavery was abolished in Africa, they imposed an amnesia about the period as the people had to then live and survive under the oppressive system of colonization. Becoming aware of our history and our common fate made me a Pan-African.
As an African woman, my fate is linked to that of every single African person in the world. In my villages in Congo, my people might lack access to water – and if I go to Salvador da Bahia, I will find people who look exactly like me who lack access to water. Angolans might have limited access to education – and I can go to Colombia, find the black people there, and they also lack access to education. I can go to the United States, where there is a lack of equal justice for people of African descent – and I can go to South Africa and find the same thing. This lack of jobs, lack of education, lack of access to healthcare and lack equal rights and opportunities are all common denominators all over the world for African people. We all experience similar forms of injustice, so the solution must be a common one as well. When you realize that is when you become a Pan-African. Having the same trunk of cultural values will allow us to put our minds, resources, skills and talents together. Because we evolved in different environments and parts of the world, our diverse experiences can allow us to uniquely contribute in designing solutions for African people all over the world.