A short summary of my family’s history in Congo

Everyone calls me Emilio but my full name is Khalid Emilio. It’s Khalid because I’m of Indian descent and also Nicaraguan on my mother’s side.

My father and his father (my grandfather), Sultan, came to the Belgian Congo in the 1950s with his brothers Badhur and Sadru. They were among the first Indian Ismailis (Nizari) to come to the Belgian Congo. Sultan later became president of the Ismaili Territorial Council of Zaire.

“Isma’ilism is a branch or sub-sect of Shia Islam. The Isma’ili get their name from their acceptance of Imam Isma’il ibn Jafar as the appointed spiritual successor (imām) to Ja’far al-Sadiq, wherein they differ from the Twelver Shia, who accept Musa al-Kadhim, the younger brother of Isma’il, as the true Imām.

Wikipedia
The Aga Khan, the Ismailis’ spiritual leader, visited the ex-Zaire in 1966 (sitting next to Mobutu in the picture). Source

My grandmother, Dolat, his first wife, remembers the DRC in the 60s when she married my grandfather. It was a completely different place. The roads were clean, there were buses. Avenue du Commerce had nice shops. You could walk peacefully. Maybe grab a taxi.

She remembers the house she lived in. Recently, we drove passed the house and it broke her heart to see that part of town looking so derelict and abandoned. There are now tons of shops and people that flood the streets, a chaos that never existed when she lived there.

She left in a military plane in the 60s after independence with my dad and his sister and brother. They weren’t even 5 years old.

Musician Louis Armstrong playing at good-will concert after independence. (Photo by Terence Spencer/Popperfoto via Getty Images). November 01, 1960.

You could hitch hike from Kinshasa to Matadi, friends used to do it. Forget about it today.

There were movie theatres.

Apparently, the Congolese needed passes to roam around the city, which was only for Europeans. I’m not sure what Indians were considered as. My father lived near the Athénée (currently the Shark Club). It was a place a million times better maintained than today. It was always full of kids and had a beautiful blue pool.

He went to “TASOK”. The American school existed then but was called TASOL where the “L” stood for Léopoldville.

See the footage of Leopoldville in 1958.

See the Getty Images from the 1960s.

Forescom building (Chacha bar today) (Getty Images)
Boats belonging to the Leopoldville Yacht Club, surrounded by a blanket of water hyacinths on the Congo River. (Photo by Paul Almasy/Corbis/VCG via Getty Images)
UN Congo representative Rajeshwar Dayal. (Photo by Terence Spencer/Popperfoto via Getty Images) – October 01, 1960

In the 70s and 80s, my family had a business importing Honda cars and motorcycles. My grandfather and his brothers opened bakeries, trade shops, ice cream shops, cigarette trading, and sold heavy machinery (rice making, mills, engines) from China (See the Unicompex history here).

As a side note, my father saw the fight of the century between Mohammed Ali and George Foreman in 1974 at the Stade Tata Raphael. He was 16 years old.

But the context in which all these businesses existed would make any sane business person shriek. Read the extract below from Wikipedia about Zaire:

“The country was a one-party totalitarian dictatorship, run by Mobutu Sese Seko and his ruling Popular Movement of the Revolution party. Zaire was established following Mobutu’s seizure of power in a military coup in 1965, following five years of political upheaval following independence from Belgium known as the Congo Crisis. Zaire had a strongly centralist constitution, and foreign assets were nationalized. The period is sometimes referred to as the Second Congolese Republic.

A wider campaign of Authenticité, ridding the country of the influences from the colonial era of the Belgian Congo, was also launched under Mobutu’s direction. Weakened by the termination of American support after the end of the Cold War, Mobutu was forced to declare a new republic in 1990 to cope with demands for change. By the time of its downfall, Zaire was characterised by widespread cronyismcorruption and economic mismanagement.

Zaire collapsed in the 1990s, amid the destabilization of the eastern parts of the country in the aftermath of the Rwandan genocide and growing ethnic violence. In 1996, Laurent-Désiré Kabila, the head of the Alliance of Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Congo (AFDL) militia, led a popular rebellion against Mobutu. With rebel forces successfully making gains westward, Mobutu fled the country, leaving Kabila’s forces in charge as the country restored its name to the Democratic Republic of the Congo the following year.” Wikipedia

Being in the Congo, my grandfather and father lost almost everything three times.

The first time in the 70s with the nationalisation (“Zairianisation” by Mobutu) but they were able to hang on.

The second time in the early 90s with the looting (pillages) by the military that had not been paid.

We were helped to leave by the French military to Brazzaville where I developed a stutter due to the shock and went to a Congolese school for a few months.

Luckily, we had friends who took us in while we rebuilt our lives there. After 1 year, we returned back to Kinshasa only to be looted again in 1993! See the video below, found on YouTube, about those times.

The third time was in the late 90s when Kabila overthrew Mobutu at the end of the First Congo war. There was also a war accross the river in Congo Brazzaville: “Second Republic of the Congo Civil War”.

We were getting shelled from Brazzaville by accident and one day my parents had had enough and we moved to South Africa in 1997.

The documentary “Mobutu: Roi du Zaïre” (see below) by Thierry Michel illustrates well the man that led the country for so many years.

In 2006, there was another wild event but where no major looting or losses occurred. My grandfather was holed up at his home for several days while Bemba and Kabila fought in the city.

From then on, only during elections would things get a bit hot ie when Tshesekedi won the election in 2018, there was a short time you couldn’t fly into the country.

The east is now the only part of the country that is unstable. Poverty still characterises the whole country. And from the 70s to now, the country has struggled to raise the level of income of its inhabitants due to poor leadership, war, corruption, massive ressources but that are not used to improve living conditions.

Most local and foreign business men and women from the 50s to now have gone and only very few remain here in 2022. Most have emigrated to Canada, Europe, Asia or other more stable countries. Doing business here is extremely challenging and many avoid even stepping into this place.

There are improvements and opportunities but the risks are too high for some, while others see huge rewards.

Which one are you and can you handle the associated risks? 🙂

The Nautique Club in 2022

Further reading

If you’re interested in the Ismailis doing business in Congo, read the book “Africa 2 America” by Pandju Merali, an Ismaili business man and entrepreneur from the DRC who moved to the USA.

Read the extract below (Thank you to the author’s son, Karim Merali, for sharing the PDF of the book).

“Shortly after this I was approached by an old friend named Sultan Noorani who wanted the shop I had already promised to Fateh Haji. A few years earlier I had helped Sultan get a job with the United Nations’ office when they were first established in the Congo. He hadn’t felt confident enough to apply for the job himself, and so I spoke with a colonel we both knew in the United Nations army and asked if he might be able to arrange a position for Sultan, which the colonel did. When Sultan’s employment ended with the United Nations, he came to see me and asked if he could have the shop which I had already promised to Haji. While Haji would be able to pay me 50,000 francs in goodwill, I knew Sultan had no money to put down. I thought in the end the shop would most benefit him and agreed to give Sultan the shop with no exchange of money.
Fateh Haji was very angry at my decision and told me I didn’t have the right to sell anything to other parties that I had already promised to him. While I tried to explain my position and how I felt it would be more beneficial for Sultan, Haji didn’t agree with my philosophy. My heart was in the right place, but I should have kept my word to Fateh Haji. Today I realize I was wrong, but I would like to further describe my association with Sultan Noorani. After the independence of Congo, everything was closed down. Sultan Noorani and I would often visit the Parliament House to speak with various politicians and listen to the lectures that Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba, a very persuasive speaker, would give to the Parliament.
On January 17, 1961, we witnessed an astonishing event that occurred no more than seventy yards away. We were shocked to see Colonel Mobutu, accompanied by a Belgian judge and military forces, personally arresting Minister Lumumba and escorting him to a waiting car. Colonel Mobutu soon overthrew Kasavubu to become president of Congo, and Lumumba was executed.” PDF of the book

Read the extract below from an Ismaili website.

“When one considers Ismaili settlement in Zaire, one immediately perceives this band of Ismailis who, following the guidance of Mowlana Hazar Imam and Mowlana Sultan Mohamed Shah, emigrated to the throbbing heart of Africa to give a hand in its development. Zaire, ex-Belgian Congo, is as big in area as Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania put together, with the population presently around 25 million. Ismaili settlement in Zaire is as old as this century and Ismailis can be, proud of having played their part in the development of this country.” Source: Ismaili.net

“Regarding the Jamati institutions, first of all there is the Territorial Council with headquarters in Kinshasa where most of the Ismaili Population now concentrated. The first President of the Territorial Council from its inception up to 1966 was the late Vazir Abdulsultan Pirbhai Kassam. From 1966 to 1971, Rai Shamshudin Ahmed was the President and from 1971 onwards this position has been held by Mr. Sultan Noorani.” Source: Ismaili.net

Disclaimer and call for corrections and information:

I am sure there are inaccuracies in my accounts of our history – my apologies.

There are now many Nooranis around the world as well as other families who were in the DRC in those years from the 1950s and 2000s.

Feel free to comment or contact me to share your stories and pictures if you have any.

I apologise to those I have left out of the story – I tried to summarise the history rather quickly. Maybe writing a book is in order to really get all names and stories added.

8 responses to “A short summary of my family’s history in Congo”

  1. Emilio, nice job! Karim Merali

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Merci! As tu le livre de Pandju Merali?

      Like

    2. Nevermind! I found the book on your website! Thank you so much! 🙂 I shared the part that talks about Sultan! 🙂

      Like

  2. Hello Emilio. Thank you for sharing your history which I truly enjoyed.
    My parents moved to Albertville, now Kalemie in 1936. I was brought up there and went to Regina Pacis school followed by Athenee Royale. I moved to Dar with my family in 1965 and returned to Kalemie in 1972 through 1974. That’s when we immigrated to Canada. Take care. Best always.

    Like

    1. Wow! Thank you! Any pictures of those days? 🙂 Thank you for leaving a comment and sharing 🙂 Best! Emilio

      Like

      1. I have a few. Will share with you soon.

        Like

  3. Thanks for this. I was a teacher/counselor at TASOK for many years ’77-’86 and I remember several Noorani students . . . I miss Kinshasa.

    Liked by 1 person

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