Back to his roots: Congolese independence hero Patrice Lumumba’s tooth comes home

Tooth belonging to DRC’s first prime minister, assassinated in 1961, buried in ceremony to mark 62nd anniversary of independence

The gold-topped tooth of the Democratic Republic of the Congo’s first prime minister, Patrice Lumumba, was buried on Thursday in an emotional ceremony held as the country marked the 62nd anniversary of its independence.

Hundreds of mourners gathered in the capital city, Kinshasa, for an event attended by DRC president Félix Tshisekedi and ambassadors from a number of African countries. “Finally, the Congolese people can have the honour of offering a burial to their illustrious prime minister,” Mr Tshisekedi said. “We are ending... mourning we started 61 years ago.”

Lumumba was an independence hero whose leadership of the central African country was short-lived after, aged just 34, he made a speech marking the DRC’s first independence day in 1960, in which he condemned Belgium for holding his country in “humiliating slavery”. Millions of people perished under colonial rule, particularly between 1885 and 1908, when Belgium’s King Leopold II controlled the DRC as his personal fiefdom.

Two months after Lumumba’s independence day speech, he was ousted from power and, in January 1961, he was executed by firing squad. His body was reportedly dissolved in acid, but a Belgian security officer who was involved in covering up the killing kept Lumumba’s tooth as a trophy. Belgium agreed only two years ago that it could be returned to Lumumba’s family.

It was finally returned on June 20th, shortly after a six-day visit to the DRC by Belgium’s King Philippe and his wife Queen Mathilde, where the 62-year-old king said he “wish[ed] to reaffirm my deepest regrets for these wounds of the past”, referring to the harm done under colonial rule.

In his last letter to his wife, written from Thysville prison in what was then Leopoldville, Lumumba wrote that the only thing he had wanted for his country was “the right to a worthy life, to dignity without pretence, to independence without restrictions”.

“This was never the desire of the Belgian colonialists and their western allies, who received, direct or indirect, open or concealed, support from some highly placed officials of the United Nations, the body upon which we placed all our hope when we appealed to it for help… Without dignity there is no freedom, without justice there is no dignity and without independence there are no free men,” Lumumba wrote. “The day will come when history will speak. But it will not be the history which will be taught in Brussels, Paris, Washington or the United Nations. It will be the history which will be taught in the countries which have won freedom from colonialism and its puppets. Africa will write its own history.”

During the burial ceremony on Thursday, one of his granddaughters read a letter to Lumumba in which she referenced his words. “Your return home, the honours you are receiving here are a page of the history you continue to write,” she said. “With you, today, Africa is writing its own history.”

Sally Hayden

Sally Hayden

Sally Hayden, a contributor to The Irish Times, reports on Africa