Women Forgotten In The Shadow Of History: Pauline Lumumba

By Pinky Khoabane

Pauline Opango Lumumba was with her husband –Patrice, in the same car when he was arrested as he tried to escape to his political stronghold in Stanleyville (now Kisangani). Patrice was arrested, beaten mercilessly and was later dragged away by agents who killed him, buried him, exhumed his body and poured acid on his body.

All this was done to make sure he became a forgotten man. When Patrice died, Pauline was just 23 years old.

Shortly after his death, in 1961, she marched topless through the streets of Leopoldville in the Congo to mourn and to protest against the murder of her husband. This act is not particularly strange in Africa. In Nigeria, during the Aba Women riot of 1929, the women protested against British forces in nudity. In Kenya, Wangari Maathai led other women to protest in nudity against the government of Daniel Arap Moi.

However, her husband’s body was not released to her nor was she given the opportunity to visit her husband’s grave. Pauline was forced to flee with others to a camp for political refugees built by the United Nations.

She was hunted down until she left Congo to Egypt where she met President Nasser who took care of the family. She also travelled to Belgium, France and later returned to Congo after the government recognised Patrice Lumumba as a national hero.

When Belgium was offering its official “regrets” and “excuses” for its role in the assassination of her husband, Pauline, 64 years at the time, was in Belgium for medical treatment.

Louis Michel, the Belgian foreign minister, offered his country’s “deep and sincere regrets” and excuses for its role in the 17 January 1961 assassination of Lumumba, and his two companions, Maurice Mpolo and Joseph Okito.

Mpolo was Lumumba’s minister for youth and sports and briefly army chief of staff, while Okito was the vice-president of the Congolese senate.

In admitting that “certain Belgian actors bear an irrefutable responsibility in the events that led to Lumumba’s death”, Michel went a step further than the Lumumba Commission itself which had only admitted Belgian “moral responsibility” in the assassination.

Pauline was 40 kms away from Brussels as the Belgian parliament debated the Lumumba Commission’s report, during which Michel offered the long overdue “regrets”.

“The forgotten widow” watched it live on TV, and later told Colette Braeckman, the Congo expert of the Belgian daily, Le Soir, that she was in tears as the “regrets” and “excuses” fell from Michel’s lips.

“I guessed what the minister said,” Pauline told Braeckman, “but I didn’t understand everything because the sound [of the TV set] was not good.”

Pauline Opango Lumumba was born on January 1, 1937, in a village in the Kasai region of the Congo. She was the third wife to Patrice. They got married on March 15, 1951. The marriage had periods of skirmishes and separation arising from Patrice Lumumba’s political activism and incarceration. She died in 2014 in her sleep in Kinshasa at the age of 78.

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