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African novelist and chemist Emmanuel Dongala.

African novelist and chemist Emmanuel Dongala. He was born in the Congo Republic, was educated in the U.S., and left the Congo with the outbreak of civil war in 1997. Two of his novels have just been translated to English: “Little Boys Come From the Stars” and “The Fires of Origins” (both by Lawrence Hill Books). With the help of writers Philip Roth and William Styron, Dongala now has a visiting professorship in chemistry at Simon’s Rock of Bard College in Massachusetts. Dongala is also president of the Congolese PEN Centre.


Other segments from the episode on April 12, 2001

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, April 12, 2001: Interview with Emmanuel Dongala; Review of Tim Buckley, “Morning Glory.”


Interview: Emmanuel Dongala discusses growing up in the French-run
Congo and his experiences in the United States

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

When the Congo civil war broke out in 1997, my guest, Emmanuel Dongala, was a
professor of chemistry and dean of Brazzaville University, in the capital of
the Congo Republic. Dongala is also one of his country's best-known
novelists. His books have criticized, even mocked, the corruption in his
country's government. He's a friend of such American writers as Philip Roth
and William Styron. They were instrumental in getting him and his family out
of danger after the start of the civil war and bringing them to the United
States, where Dongala is now a visiting professor at Simon's Rock of Bard
College. He studied in the US and France in the '60s and '70s. He's now
president of the Congolese chapter of PEN, the international writers
organization. Two of his books have just been translated from French to
English, and published in the United States, "The Fire of Origins" and "Little
Boys Come from the Stars."

When the civil war in his country started, Dongala was actually in Connecticut
visiting friends. He immediately set out for home to find his family. They
had fled the fighting in Brazzaville. One of his daughters had disappeared.

Professor EMMANUEL DONGALA (Chemistry, Simon's Rock of Bard College): The
youngest daughter, who was 13, was taken away by the French because the French
army came in for the evacuation of its citizens, and she was playing with a
French friend, and so when they came, they just took her with the other French
citizens. And two weeks later I found out that she was in Chad, I mean,
thousands of miles away. And then we had to fight another two weeks to have
her sent back to the Congo. It was really complicated.

GROSS: It must be crazy when nearly everybody is dislocated, you know, when no
one--when everybody has fled from home, when there's no food, when families
all over the country have been separated.

Prof. DONGALA: Yeah, it's a very strange feeling. I mean, you leave a
country which was functioning more or less normally, and then when you come
back, everything is real chaos. You can't find anything. I mean, you
just--you wonder, are you dreaming or is it reality?

GROSS: In the meantime, there were search parties looking for you, and one
group of people looking for you was headed up by the writer Philip Roth, who
you had met several years earlier. How did they find you?

Prof. DONGALA: Well, when they found out that I was in danger, they tried to
get me out. It is very, very complicated, because they--first, it was very
difficult to locate me because I was first in a small village, then I moved to
Pointe-Noire. And it's amazing because in all this chaos, one of the thing
which worked was the e-mail to Pointe-Noire. I don't know how it got there.
And it's from there that I find this lowly road back, took the train and walk
and buses and cars and anything--and boat--to get to Kinshasa, on the other
side of the river, to the American Embassy.

GROSS: And the way you got to the United States is you were invited to teach
at Simon's Rock College at Bard, where you're now a visiting professor of
chemistry. If it wasn't for that, would you still be in Africa?

Prof. DONGALA: Oh, yes. And I'm very lucky because of these people who
helped me. I have many friends who are trapped there, some were killed by,
you know, stray bullets and things like that. And I'm very lucky because not
only I managed to get out, but I came with my family. And Simon's Rock
College of Bard and all these people, they were very generous of getting me

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Emmanuel Dongala. He is a
novelist from the Congo. He's also a professor of chemistry. He's been
living in the United States since 1997, when civil war broke out in his
country. He's also the president of the Congolese chapter of PEN, the
international writers organization. His latest novel translated into English
is called "Little Boys Come from the Stars."

What was Brazzaville like when you were growing up, when the Congo was still
ruled by the French?

Prof. DONGALA: Well, Brazzaville was a small colonial city, but it had its
hour of glory because Brazzaville is known in French history. It's a part of
de Gaullist--de Gaulle's epic, because during the war it was the capital of
the free French for a while. So Brazzaville is known for that. So it was a
small town with lots of French people, and it was the capital of what used to
be called the French Equatorial Africa.

And so, they had the one lycee, a high school, for all of French Equatorial
Africa. And that's where I went to the school.

On the other side of the river was Kinshasa, which was the Belgian Congo. So
these two capitals were really rivals, in a way. The French were showing up
on one side and the Belgians on the other side.

GROSS: Did the Africans and the French mingle much?

Prof. DONGALA: Well, no. The French lived in the center of the city, and
the Africans in the periphery. But the strange thing was that contrary to the
Belgian colony, which was on the other side, the French and the Africans went
to the same lycee, the same school, the same education. But that was the
thinking of the French because for them, everybody has to be French, the
civilization is French. So they wanted to make us little Frenchmen. And,
also, we were learning history of France. And we saying like little a
Frenchman in France that our ancestors were Gauls. You know, de Gaulle.

GROSS: So tell us more about the good parts and the bad parts of the French
education you received.

Prof. DONGALA: The good part was that we had the same education that they
had in France. We took the same exam, at least at the level of lycee, what's
called lycee, high school.

But the bad part was that contrary to, let's say, the British colonization
which let the people use their own language, which is known as indirect rule,
the French rule was--on the contrary, everything has to be French. So you
couldn't speak your own language. Your history doesn't exist. Nothing exists
until the French civilization came and saved you and brought you to light.
See, this is it.

GROSS: Your father was a teacher. Did he teach in the French system?

Prof. DONGALA: Yes, my father was a school teacher, one of the very few
Africans who were teaching. Yes, all education was done in French, so he was
teaching in French, as I say. In the Belgian colony, the Africans were taught
in their local language, Lingala. But in the French part of Africa,
everything was done in French.

GROSS: How did the world around you change in 1960 after the Congo got
independence from France?

Prof. DONGALA: Oh, yes, it was quite exhilarating because we thought that
finally history was on our side. We were going to change the world. We were
marching forward. And it was quite something, which is quite different from
what happened on the other side of the Congo, in the Belgian Congo, which was
later Zaire, where the Belgians did not educate any African--at the time of
their independence, there was only one university educating Africans. But on
our side, we had lots of educated people. Not very highly educated, but the
people who took power were people--the generation of my father, who were
school teachers. And there were a couple of doctors. So for us, really,
history was on our side. We were going to change the world.

GROSS: What were your expectations of the new Africa, and the new Congo?

Prof. DONGALA: Very high. Very high. And it was this--then we were
thinking of a united Africa within 10 years. And within 10 years, Africa
would be very rich, not an underdeveloped country. And, really, it's amazing.
And we were all revolutionaries. And we had the leaders who also inspired us
then. We had people like Nkrumah, like Nyerere of Tanzania. We were looking
up to all these people.

GROSS: You say that you studied chemistry because you believed that science
and technology would be very important to the new Africa, and you wanted to

Prof. DONGALA: Yes. Yes. It's in all this dream, that we're going to
change Africa. We need scientists, engineers, doctors, and all that. So
that's why I went into science.

GROSS: And you came to the United States to study on a Ford Foundation
scholarship. What year did you come to the States?

Prof. DONGALA: I came to the United States--I think it was '61 under
President Kennedy. President Kennedy was president. And I came--I was the
first--in the first group of Africans from the former French colonies to come
to the United States. Because up to then, all of us after the high school
degree, which is called the baccalaureate, we all went directly to study in
France. So my group were the first ones ever from French-speaking Africa to
come study in the United States.

GROSS: And you came at a time where you were very idealistic. You know, your
country had just gotten its freedom. You had all these hopes for the new
Africa. Here you were studying in the United States...

Prof. DONGALA: Yes.

GROSS: you go home and contribute. And...

Prof. DONGALA: Not...

GROSS: Go ahead.

Prof. DONGALA: I would like to add not only--yes, we were very idealistic.
And we came here in the United States in the '60s, you know. We were
here--also, there was this huge freedom movement, Martin Luther King, the
Freedom Rides--I live through all this. So it was really quite an
exhilarating time for me.

GROSS: Did you experience segregation in the United States? And I'm
wondering how that...

Prof. DONGALA: Oh, yes.

GROSS: How did that compare to what you were used to in Africa?

Prof. DONGALA: Quite different because in Africa under colonial rule, it
was--well, it was my country. So the French were really a minority. So if
you didn't go to the quarters, you wouldn't feel that discrimination.

But the first time I really confronted the discrimination was here in the
United States. One summer, I was asked to teach French to a group of young
Americans who were going to the Peace Corps since they were going to
French-speaking Africa. So I was teaching--I think it was down in
Carbondale--yes. So I walked into a restaurant, you know. I wanted to go--I
walked into a restaurant. And as I approached the restaurant, I saw out the
back a black person was working, and he came out in front of me and asked me
not to go in. I said, `Why?' You know, I never confronted this type of
thing. He said, `Don't go in. I think they won't serve you.' And I said,
`No, no, no. Don't worry. I have my money.' So...

GROSS: Yeah.

Prof. DONGALA: And then it was--he didn't know what to say, and so he went
back to the kitchen. And then I walked in and, you know, this guy, big, tall
white guy, came in front and says that I couldn't go in. And I really didn't
understand. I mean, so I just turned back. This was my first real
confrontation with segregation back then in the '60s.

GROSS: My guest is Congolese writer Emmanuel Dongala. We'll talk more after
a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest is Congolese novelist Emmanuel Dongala. He fled the Congo
Republic at the start of the civil war in 1997. He had been dean of
Brazzaville University, where he taught chemistry. He's now teaching in the

You spent a lot of time in the West. You left the Congo in 1961. You came
to the United States. You studied at two colleges. You got your master's
degree or degrees here.

Prof. DONGALA: Yeah.

GROSS: And then you went to France and got two PhDs there.

Prof. DONGALA: Yes. Yes.

GROSS: By the time you returned to your country, it was 1979.

Prof. DONGALA: Yeah, right. Well...

GROSS: What was the state of the government when you--go ahead.

Prof. DONGALA: Well, by then the dream really has petered out, you know,
like, raising in the sun. And by then, all of this idea, mystic dream we had
had faded. And when I went back to the country, it was a one-party system
with a military dictatorship, with a official ideology of Marxist Leninism,
you know, more than the Soviet Union and China. So it was really far, far
from what we thought what Africa would be in 10, 20 years. So there was no
freedom expression, and not only that, the economy had started going
downwards. So it was really not what I expected at all.

GROSS: Had you ever believed in Marxism in an idealist way before seeing how
it was practiced in your country?

Prof. DONGALA: Well, it was in the era at the time, you know, our generation
in the '60s, the '70s. We were all socialists. Maybe not rigorously Marxist
Leninists but socialist at least. And, you know, all the theories about
African socialism with leaders like Nyerere and Nkrumah who believed in it
and all the war liberation which were still going on were dreaming of a
socialist world. But then when you talk ideally about socialists and then when
you live in a country in the Marxist Leninist dictatorship, it's really quite

GROSS: You came back home in 1979. I know you had a book of short stories
published in 1982. When did you start to write fiction and why did you start
to do it? You were trained as a chemist. You were teaching chemistry.

Prof. DONGALA: Yes, but I always read--remember my father was a teacher, so
we had lots of books around--not real great books but, you know, even things
like catalog. It was just something to look at them. And then when I was in
the lycee, I read a lot of the French writers and all that. Strange enough,
when I was in college, it was in English my first short story. And then I
kept on and I kept on. And then when I published that book--actually I
finished it when I was in Brazzaville, and it was immediately banned by the
Marxist government.


Prof. DONGALA: Because I was making fun of them. It was very funny. At
first they didn't know it because they even read it and then they realized
that, you know, it was about them. So not only they banned the book, they
went to the French Cultural Center and took it from the shelves. And then a
very strange thing happened. They called all my friends at the state security
to ask questions about me, what we were plotting and all that. And strangely
enough, they didn't call me. I didn't know why. It's only very late that I
understood why they didn't call me. And...


Prof. DONGALA: Well, it's because many of the state security men were
trained by the Stasi which is the secret police in East Germany and the
Securitate in Romania. And the tactic was they don't hit you directly. They
just, you know, threaten your friends and then you get panic. And when you
get panic, you do something. But since I didn't plot anything, I just wrote
the collection of short stories, they couldn't find anything, so...

GROSS: Did this give you a sense of power that you didn't think you had...

Prof. DONGALA: Oh, yes.

GROSS: ...that you were so important?

Prof. DONGALA: Yeah. No, no, no. No, no, no. Not me, but what gave me a
sense of power is writing. That's where I knew that words--in Africa, words
are very powerful, very powerful. You can kill somebody with the word. And
even in our culture, as a matter of fact, don't say a bad thing about somebody
because if you keep saying that bad thing, it might turn into something real
and hit him. And I found out that writing is very--a word can make a regime
panic. I find myself powerful not as me, Dongala, but as a writer.

GROSS: Emmanuel Dongala will be back in the second half of the show. His
latest novel "Little Boys Come from the Stars" has just been published in the
US. I'm Terry Gross and this is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)


GROSS: This is NPR, National Public Radio.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: Coming up, surprising acts of courage and cowardice. We continue our
conversation with writer Emmanuel Dongala. He fled his home in the Congo
Republic after the outbreak of civil war. And Milo Miles reviews a new
anthology of music by Tim Buckley.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with Congolese novelist
Emmanuel Dongala. He fled the Congo Republic after the start of the civil war
in 1997. He had been a professor of chemistry and dean of Brazzaville
University in the capital of the Congo Republic. He's now a visiting
professor of chemistry and African literature at Simon's Rock of Bard College
in the United States. His novels have dealt with colonialism and
post-colonial corruption. Two of his novels have just been published in the

Well, in your latest novel, which was just translated into English, "Little
Boys Come from the Stars," the main character's uncle becomes very important
in the local government and he kind of like rises to the top of the local
government and he uses his power in very corrupt ways. In fact, I'm going to
ask you to read a paragraph on page 75 that gives an example of how corrupt
he's become in his use of power.

Prof. DONGALA: OK. Here, the uncle's speaking.

`But, my dear, the party runs the state and, besides, I am the personal
representative of the president of the Republic. I think you still do not
understand, brother-in-law. I have become the most important individual in
this village, this district, this prefecture. Everything has to go through
me, especially the major work that has to be done to mark the great ceremony
that's just on the horizon. I have absolute power. You want to supply
cement, bricks, boards for a new building in town? You need my signature.
You want to supply stacks of paper, pens and furniture for some offices? My
signature. Your business wants to participate in the construction of the
stadium where the ceremonies will take place? My signature. And a signature
is expensive.'

GROSS: Is that what it was like?

Prof. DONGALA: Oh.

GROSS: Is that an accurate example of typical local corruption?

Prof. DONGALA: Absolutely, yes.

GROSS: Now in your novel, it's the main character's uncle who is, you know,
like, the local godfather. In your life, when you got back to the Congo, did
you have any relatives or friends who were in positions of power and who had
become very corrupt?

Prof. DONGALA: Well, not relatives, but friends, yes. And the sad thing was
that some of those friends were the friends with whom we were discussing, you
know, all this idealistic revolution, how to change Africa. But as soon as
they got there, they went into the political machine and they became as
corrupt as the rest because their government, for them, was not a way of
working for the people, working for society, but government was just a means
to get rich one's self.

GROSS: You know, in your novel there's a lot of, like, big buildings and
extravagances, you know, that get built as a way for the local corrupt
officials to just amass a lot of money.

Prof. DONGALA: Yeah.

GROSS: Did that happen in your town; that a lot of things got built just...

Prof. DONGALA: Oh, yes. Lots of things. This is what's called white
elephants, you know; this huge project with lots of money and which do not
serve at anything. They put lots of money in it that people in the country
put in their pocket and then there's nothing done on the ground.

GROSS: Can you give us an example of a couple of white elephants from your

Prof. DONGALA: I think it--the Russian who wanted to build a mining company,
because you have some manganese there, they built a huge factory which never
worked. Many socialist countries, you know, were helped by the Soviet Union
and I remember--I think it was in Guinea when the Soviet Union exported a lot
of snow plows in the country. And they didn't know there was no snow in this
country. There are lots of white elephants like that in Africa.

GROSS: Was it very disillusioning to see the corruption in your government
and to see all your formerly idealistic friends who had become corrupt,
because, at this point, you couldn't blame the imperialists. It was, like,
the people from your own country who were responsible for it.

Prof. DONGALA: Yeah. It's...

GROSS: Well, maybe you could still blame the imperialists.

Prof. DONGALA: Yeah. But, no, this is the problem. After a while, you get
to a point when everything is not the fault of the imperialists anymore, you
see. You have to get to that point. And I think, now, we are getting to
that point, even though the imperialists are still there, you know. Like
what happened in my country; it's, essentially, a battle for oil because the
Congo is--and Africa is one of the biggest producers for oil. But the problem
is you have to accept to be corrupted, so this is our own responsibility.

GROSS: In your novel, one of the political leaders says, `Imperialism is the
cause of our malaria and our AIDS.' Do you think that some of the local
leaders used imperialism and the colonial past as a way to cover up for their
own sins?

Prof. DONGALA: Oh, yes, indeed. They've been doing that all the time.

GROSS: Not that the local leaders are responsible for malaria, you know,
but, still, I mean...

Prof. DONGALA: No, but...

GROSS: What I mean is that imperialism just became the kind of excuse for

Prof. DONGALA: Right.

GROSS: Yeah.

Prof. DONGALA: Right. Right. And then, in the '90s, became democracy. You
have to have a multiparty system so that the IMF, the International Monetary
Fund, would help you. So they create parties which are not really parties,
you see. I mean, they go with the change of the time. The corrupt people,
they know how to adapt, you know. Now all they taught you--it's not socialism
anymore. It's not Marxism and Leninism anymore. Now it's democracy;
multiparty system. So can you imagine that we went from one single party to
about 70 parties within two months? So...

GROSS: Right.

Prof. DONGALA: And this is, again...

GROSS: Yeah. In your book, you write, `After slavery, colonialism,
neo-colonialism and scientific socialism, democracy descended upon us one
August morning.' And so, yeah, you make it seem like it's not really
democracy. It's just another...

Prof. DONGALA: Yeah.

GROSS: ...form of everything...

Prof. DONGALA: Right.

GROSS: ...that's come before.

Prof. DONGALA: Right. And the funny thing is that those people now, they
say they are democrat. Not a single one of them have ever been for Marxism,
Leninism, never been for socialism, etc. They were--always been good

GROSS: Which, of--you're saying that sarcastically.

Prof. DONGALA: Yeah, absolutely. Yes.

GROSS: Right. OK. So as a writer, were there things that were demanded of
you? You know, like, you read that paragraph in which the corrupt official
has to sign everything and, of course, you have to pay for his signature, so
he gets a take of absolutely everything that happens in the town. As a
writer, in order to get published, did you have to pay off anybody or were you
expected to--were there hands being held out to you for payoffs?

Prof. DONGALA: No. As a writer?

GROSS: Yeah.

Prof. DONGALA: No. No.

GROSS: Just to get published or to get distributed, to get into bookstores?

Prof. DONGALA: Well, we have no publishing houses there. No. What was
happening is that...

GROSS: Oh, I see.

Prof. DONGALA: Yeah. Every time you publish a book, it's this censure, the
banning of the book. That's the main problem. And you can get arrested for
the book you've written, so this is why many people wrote under pseudonyms.
But I didn't want to write under an assumed name. I wrote under my own name.
Maybe this is what saved me, actually.

GROSS: Why? How would that have saved you?

Prof. DONGALA: Well, because I was there in the country. I didn't hide. I
said, `I wrote the book.' And so they didn't find any excuses because,
usually, people who write in hiding, it's very easy to accuse them of
plotting to overthrow the government, of things of this kind. But then I
came up front. I say, `I am writing this book'--very critical--and I'm
living in the country. That made it different, I think.

GROSS: My guest is Congolese writer Emmanuel Dongala. We'll talk more after
a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest is Congolese novelist Emmanuel Dongala. He fled the Congo
Republic at the start of the civil war in 1997. He's now teaching in the US.

Do the local languages have written languages and is there much literature in
those local languages?

Prof. DONGALA: This is the problem because, you know, we come from a very
oral tradition--orality, so the local languages do not have a written history,
so now there's a plan to write these languages, but the problem is you have to
transcribe them to find the correct sound. Some of the sounds we have have no
equivalent in the Western languages. In other words, in Latin, letters were
used to transcribe the languages.

And also, it's very strange. For instance, the same language, because you
know that the colonial boundaries are very artificial, so the same language
can be spoken in the French part of the country or the Portuguese part of the
country and the transcription is not the same. So, for instance, in the
French part, the sound `ooh' is written O-U, while the same sound in the
British or former British colony is the letter U. So people have to agree on
how to transcribe the language, how to pronounce it, how to invent new signs
for the sounds which do not exist in the Western language. So it's a long,
long fight.

GROSS: It seems to me that you have friends who have, you know, died for
freedom and you also have friends who have died pointlessly, who have just,
like, died in the cross fire or died--you know, died...

Prof. DONGALA: Oh, yes. I mean, it's a situation of chaotic--like it was
during the civil war. You go on the road, you have road blocks. You have,
you know, kids--you know, gun-toting kids who are 13, 14, 15. And they ask
you for money. And I've seen lots of stupid things. For instance, if they
ask you for money, give a hundred francs, which is about 25 cents. If you
don't have it, they can shoot you. And sometimes if somebody else wants
to pay for you, they get mad and they shoot the person very pointlessly. I
thought, as an intellectual, I knew what violence was. I've seen it in
movies. I've read lots of theoretical books, but when you relive real
violence in front of you, really, you're completely lost. You don't know what
to do. Sometimes you're very courageous. You do things, which later you
think it's foolish because you might have killed. Sometimes you're just a
coward. You just sit there. You're looking. You're watching an act of
violence and you're a coward. You try to hide yourself. You say, `Ooh, I'm
lucky it's not happening on me.' So that's where I found the limit of the
intellectual, you know, confidence. I was very confident, you know, I knew
what violence was, that I would stand against this. If I see somebody
brutalized, I would intervene. Well, I always didn't do it.

GROSS: It sounds like you've been surprised both by your acts of courage and
your acts of cowardice.

Prof. DONGALA: Yes, and sometimes what you do, you think it's courage, but
afterwards, you say it's really foolhardy. I could have been killed.

GROSS: What's an example of that?

Prof. DONGALA: Well, an example of that was in one of those road blocks. We
were with a friend and we saw an older woman was being beaten because she
didn't have any money. And my friend jumped on the neck of that boy and, you
know, really pushed him and--you know, he--and then the other pointed the gun
at him to shoot him and I was sitting there just watching. And I wanted to do
it. I really wanted to do it, but then when I saw my friend with gun pointing
at him, ready to shoot, I say, `Well, you'd better just keep quiet.' And
after that, I was really ashamed.

But on the other hand, I've done, also, acts which are very courageous, but
when I did it, I didn't think it was courageous. I just did it like that
without thinking.

GROSS: So what happened to your friend at the checkpoint?

Prof. DONGALA: Well, they took him away. They took him behind the house and
they say, `You're going to have a little trip.' And I never saw his body
again. I just heard the shot. That's all.

GROSS: Oh, they did kill him.

Prof. DONGALA: Oh, yes.

GROSS: Oh. And did that make you more scared about going through
checkpoints? I mean, it's a very...

Prof. DONGALA: No. It's a...

GROSS: It's a frightening...

Prof. DONGALA: It's a...

GROSS: ...and sobering experience, I'd imagine.

Prof. DONGALA: Well, yeah, but it was not the first time. I've seen it
several times. So I sort of--sometime you get used to, you know, horror, you

GROSS: Right.

Prof. DONGALA: And you didn't have any choice.

GROSS: Right.

Prof. DONGALA: It's the only road you could take, so...

GROSS: What about an example of an act of courage that surprised you?

Prof. DONGALA: I was arrested once again, one of the road blocks, and it
was in--How can I put it?--well, it's a militia who was behind some ethnic
leader. And before you crossed the roadblock, they asked you to speak, you
know, their native language, tribal language. And I did not speak that
language. So they stopped me. They say, `OK. Speak this language.' And
then I really got mad and then I said, `What do you think you are? You think
you've done more for this country than me? You know who I am?' And, you
know, I really spoke and then just pushed the roadblock and walk through it.
And they were just standing there and looking at me walking about. But as
soon as I turned the corner, I started running.

GROSS: Had you planned that at all or did it just come out?

Prof. DONGALA: Not at all. It just came out like that. That's why I say
really in the case of violence, you really don't know what your reaction
will be.

GROSS: Now, you know, you've said that you studied chemistry because you
thought science and technology would be important to the new Africa. And now
you're teaching chemistry at an American college living more or less in
temporary exile from the Congo. What does chemistry mean to you now? How
much do you care about it and do you care about it in ways that are different
than the ways that you expected?

Prof. DONGALA: Well, let me tell you first about my first experience when I
got into a classroom at Simon's Rock. You see, I used to teach chemistry
there. The library was very poor. Students do not have textbooks.

GROSS: In the Congo?

Prof. DONGALA: Yeah, in Congo. So, you know, they rely a lot on the teacher,
so if you miss a hydrogen someplace, you know, they'll carry it all their life
wrong. So when I got to Simon's Rock, the first day I entered that class, I
had a textbook. And then I looked around. All the students had textbooks.
So I got panicked. I said, `Well, they have the textbook. I have the
textbook. What am I going to do?' I've never been in that situation. So it
took me about a week or so to find out that they didn't always understand
everything they read in the textbook and that's where the teacher comes in.
And then my teaching changed. Instead of teaching everything that I used to
do, some of the easy things, I make them read it and then the difficult thing,
I explain. So this changed my teaching. So chemistry for me is very
important because it keep me alert on the science level and it gets me also
away a little bit from politics which I sometimes am fed up with.

GROSS: Do you think you'll be going back to your home in the Congo anytime

Prof. DONGALA: Yeah, I hope so. But what I'll do, maybe I go just for a
visit first and see how things are.

GROSS: Right.

Prof. DONGALA: Yeah.

GROSS: Well, I thank you very much for talking with us.

Prof. DONGALA: Thank you.

GROSS: Emmanuel Dongala is now a visiting professor at Simon's Rock of Bard
College. His latest novel, "Little Boys Comes from the Stars," has just been
translated into English and published in the States; so has his 1987 novel
"The Fire of Origins."

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