IT IS NOT every day that a story has the potency to leap off the page and into the rhythms of your heartbeat, regardless of how it has been written or presented. Estelle Neethling has experience as a writer of profiles, not books. But when Adolphine Misekabu crossed her awareness, something clicked. Escape from Lubumbashi is a modest-sized book which captures a tale of fortitude and horror but also love and reunion in a way which begs comparison with some of the world’s greatest war love stories.
More than just an account of Adolphine’s struggle to define the transient idea of ‘home’ for herself and her young family, this book is about significant keys into an understanding of upheaval in what is today known as the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) that may take you on a journey that is as bumpy and terrifying as it is exciting in its reflection on how history has been written.
It’s a tale which suggests many questions about context and history. About why the Congo has such a bad reputation in the trajectory of colonialism. About what really happened in the Scramble for Africa before the First World War. About the nature of the terrain and its people before white folk bullied their way in with their guns and bibles. About how this area has attracted so many despotic leaders. About rubber. And about hands amputated.
It might lead you to read novellists of the ilk of Joseph Conrad, but it might ultimately lead you to Adam Hochschild’s astonishingly fine 1998 history book King Leopold’s Ghost, which fills in all the gaps and extrapolates on the genocidal poison that you might not have learnt about, particularly if you have had a western education.
Adolphine’s tale takes you through the horror of confronting war, of losing loved ones and having to walk away from a life considered happy, into the hostile unknown. It is a yarn that touches on South African xenophobia and how to disappear between the cracks of the universe in order to save oneself. And if you think of histories from the Diary of Anne Frank to the material articulated by Father Patrick Desbois, about the European Holocaust and the scourge of forces such as Isis in the Middle East, Adolphine’s is not a unique story.
As it crosses your desk, it serves as a cipher to more reflection and understanding of how broken our world is, and how much courage one needs to manifest in making sense of things.
Having said that, the design elements informing this book do not do it proud. Reproduction of images – magnificent as they are – is at a very low-res quality. They feel like photocopies. Adolphine, even as a toddler, has a demure quietness in her mien. She’s blessed with an inner focus that is at once compelling but withholds invasive sensationalism. She’s someone who has suffered hugely but picked up the pieces and carried on. Because she had to. These pictures should have been presented with more design finesse. More technological dignity.
The cover itself seems to perpetuate a colonialist reading of prettily dressed exotic African women in a barren abstract, but African-evocative landscape, drawing on visual culture that reaches into the belly of South African art spiced with racial values. This is a great pity and one of the instances that demonstrate that you should never judge a book by its cover.
Neethling takes you through Adolphine’s life, drawing from personal interviews with her, and offering a sense of dignity and privateness that celebrates Adolphine herself with refinement. The text is often written in the first person, which doesn’t add to its flow, but when Adophine is allowed to speak between inverted commas, the story’s ebbs and tides are supreme. The book slips into an academic rubric with its footnotes and indexing, which doesn’t do the comfort of the read justice, but maybe ticks the appropriate boxes for a publication of this nature, by a press of this nature. By and large, however, Escape from Lubumbashi is an important book. A cipher to an appreciation of the morass that is the DRC.
- Escape from Lubumbashi: A refugee’s journey on foot to reunite her family by Estelle Neethling is published by Unisa Press, Pretoria (2021).