I was on the treadmill watching TV, reading the subtitles actually. Speed walking on rotating rubber, the conveyor belt sounding like sandpaper under my feet. On the treadmill to my right was a young Asian woman sweating through her grey sports bra. To my left was a Somali woman in a full burka, the flowing red fabric swaying around her ankles.
But that type of cultural mixing is normal at my YWCA and I didn’t think much of it. My neighborhood is bustling with first generation Somali immigrants. Its a community with people from here, there, and everywhere the world over. I was watching the TV above. A CNN report about the Congo with Anthony Bourdain.
(I started watching around the 21st minute of Parts Unknown, Congo on CNN)
As a rule I don’t watch stuff about Africa while I’m working out. The treadmill is supposed to help me relax. I help a school for orphans in Kenya and I tend to get worked up when I watch documentaries or the latest reports coming out of the developing world. They usually are about political corruption or sweatshops or some new form of colonialism that I had never even heard of. Putting me in a horrible mood for the rest of the day. But I had seen a special on New Mexico with Anthony Bourdain, a cultural exploration of the food and art of the desert. And so I expected to watch him taste jungle delicacies and hob nob with local musicians.
The camera panned across a hundred wooden canoes carrying Congolese passengers dressed in a mishmash of bright colored jackets and fraying T-shirts. I read the subtitles: In Heart of Darkness Conrad writes about the greed of the Belgian colonizers. They grabbed what they could get for the sake of what was to be got. It was just robbery with violence as a girl no older than five ran her hand along a canoe I could now see used to be one solid tree.
Aggravated murder on a great scale.
Bourdain took a seat in the canoe, his teased silver hair and dark sunglasses were a start stark contrast to the other passengers. A dozen serious soldiers in full camouflage fatigues and green barrettes looking into the middle distance.
And after 75 years the Congolese had had enough.
I should have stopped watching at that point. I knew Congo had been ripped apart by civil wars, whatever happened wasn’t going to be good. But I had already watched too much. I had to know what the Congolese were going to do after 75 years of robbery with violence.
The scene cut to a black and white video of a man in a black suit and bow tie smiling and waving, his short hair and rimmed glasses reminded me of Malcolm X.
But independence came quickly and when the new country managed to inaugurate their first democratically elected leader Patrice Lumumba the CIA and the British working through the Belgians had him killed.
Footage of the smiling Lumumba was replaced by a long black town car with a man dressed like a colonel, decorated after a great war, his white gloves saluting bystanders watching his parade.
And we helped to install this miserable bastard in his place Joseph Mobutu. He stole billions of dollars from his people and pretty much became the template for despotism in Africa. I could believe it. Joseph Mobutu looked like a Sub-Saharan Moammar Gadhafi.
I didn’t know that the CIA had deposed the first democratically elected leader of Congo. But I wasn’t particularly surprised. I knew the CIA had assassinated the Prime minister of Iran, but it made me wonder who else the CIA had assassinated.
I turned off the treadmill. I was getting worked up thinking about American foreign policy as stock footage from a dozen wars cycled through my mind. I had to get out of the room. Get some fresh air, clear my head. I walked until the rotating belt slowed to a halt.
Then I looked at the Somali woman, her glistening cheeks surrounded by red fabric. I was pretty sure the American military had assassinated some Somalians. I vaguely remembered the trailer for the movie Black Hawk Down being set in Somalia.
Living in America is difficult for me because I feel the need to apologize. Because I have found that most wars, secret or public, resulted in some kind of luxury I now take for granted: cheap oil, bananas, T-shirts.
But I don’t know who I have to say sorry to. It’s hard enough to keep track of who the US is currently drone striking, which dictators we are propping up and why, who we are holding in Guantanamo Bay. Let alone keeping our historical misdeeds straight.
Now, when I meet someone from another country, my first instinct is to apologize, just in case America did something horrible to their country.
I’m sure I’ve met Congolese people before, shaking hands and smiling at them. Without the slightest clue my government dismantled their government.
And now I stood on the treadmill covered in sweat, feeling ashamed.
First, for being an American.
And secondly, I felt like an idiot for watching that report on Congo.
I went to the gym to de-stress, working out was supposed to make me feel better.