- The 1961 assassination of Congolese Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba plunged the Democratic Republic of Congo into turmoil.
- The indelible image from the aftermath of the assassination was Lumumba’s wife, Pauline, staging a bare-chested public protest.
But there are so many added costs and taxes
as to trip us up quite easily
in all the clamor and bravura of this liberation business.
And then, of course,
the grief-stricken bared breasts of Pauline Lumumba.
The inspiration for these lines penned by poet Brenda Marie Osbey predated the poem by nearly six decades. But the image was an indelible one, even if it has fallen out of recent public memory. It was that of Pauline Opango Lumumba, the first lady of the independent Democratic Republic of Congo. While mourning the assassination of her husband, Patrice, the first prime minister of the DRC, she led a protest march on Valentine’s Day 1961, stripped to the waist. It was a gesture that, as Osbey would later explain, was iconic in its position “at the juncture of public mourning and private grief.”
Léopoldville, now called Kinshasa, was the seat of government of a young republic that won independence from brutal Belgian colonialists on June 30, 1960. Patrice, an eloquent orator, was one of the leaders of the resistance movement. His opposition to the secessionist movement in Katanga, the mineral-rich province coveted by the Belgians, provided the perfect excuse for what Ludo De Witte, a Belgian historian and author of The Assassination of Lumumba, calls the most important assassination of the 20th century.
There were reportedly two different assassination plots: one hatched by the CIA and MI6, the other masterminded by the Belgians and Congolese officials. The latter, eventually successful one was fronted by Joseph-Desire Mobutu, who would end up ruling the country for more than 30 years of economic plunder and social decline.
Pauline was Lumumba’s third wife, and they were from the same village. Their decade-long marriage was not a fairy-tale love story — he reportedly had multiple affairs, including one with his ex-wife (also named Pauline), and was often separated from his third wife and their four children by imprisonment or his political pursuits. “He had time for nothing else but politics,” Pauline later told Jet magazine.
She heard the news of her husband’s assassination on the radio.
Pauline was “primarily a wife and mother with no access to education despite the fact that she married a man from the small educated elite,” says Karen Bouwer, author of Gender and Colonization in the Congo. When Lumumba arrived home with guests without advance warning, Bouwer says, Pauline hid in the bedroom until he had time to approve her outfit and give her instructions on dinner.
Nevertheless, Pauline supported the revolution and was one of the first members of the Mouvement National Congolais, the political party Lumumba founded. She was in the same car as her husband when he was arrested by Mobutu’s henchmen. During his imprisonment, she had to move from house to house with their toddler son. She heard the news of her husband’s assassination on the radio.
Embittered by his death — and perhaps also by the loss of their fourth child, who died shortly after birth — she took to the streets of Léopoldville following Patrice’s assassination to demand his body be returned to her.
Bare-breasted and clutching her son in her arms, Pauline led a group of approximately 100 supporters. Like her, the other women had bared their chests, and the men followed behind, heads bowed as they walked to the United Nations headquarters. They not only demanded Lumumba’s body for burial but also for the U.N. to intervene and seek justice for his assassination.
Photos from the protests were splashed on the pages of local and foreign newspapers over the next few days. Patrice’s vision and chutzpah had made African Americans like Malcolm X a fan and attracted others like Yvonne Reed, mother of comedian Dave Chappelle, to work for him. Just as his death had drawn condemnation across the globe, the photos of Pauline’s grief-stricken protest drew sympathy — though no response from the U.N.
After the demonstration, Pauline, her children and some of her husband’s supporters were forced to flee to a refugee camp, then to exile in Egypt. She never remarried but lived long enough to see the Belgian government officially accept moral responsibility for Lumumba’s murder and profess its “deep regrets” in 2002. In June 2018, Brussels renamed a city square in his honor.
“My mother was the backbone of our family,” her daughter Julian told the press after the Lumumba matriarch died in her sleep in December 2014. “She was loved by everyone … She shared, she gave. She loved. [She was] a courageous woman.”