Joseph Desire Mobutu was born in Lisala, in Congo’s northern Équateur province on 14 October 1930. His name means “soil” or “sand”, a reference to his mother, Marie-Madeleine Yemo’s social and economic status at the time. They were dirt poor. Although he was christened Joseph Desire, in 1972 he acquired the name SeSe Seko koko Ngbendu Wazabanga, literally translated as “hot pepper”, “green,” and “it stings”. Kuku ngbendu wazabanga is a Ngbandi proverb whose translation could mean: “Even if it is not ripe, hot pepper stings.”
Marie-Madeleine Yemo was abandoned by her husband, Alberic Gbemany, after he and his family refused to retrieve her following the end of a mourning period of a deceased relative in Gbadolite in the far north of Congo bordering the Central African Republic (CAR).
It was the local custom for married women mourners to remain lying on the floor after the end of the mourning period until their husbands came to “release” them. Neither Alberic Gbemany nor anyone in his family came to release Marie-Madeleine.
“This was a deep and painful insult,” wrote Bill Close in his book, “and she was subjected to humiliating looks from the other women whose husbands arrived to free them from the constraints of mourning.”
It was a fait accompli for the mother of the future leader of Africa’s second-largest and potentially richest (by mineral wealth) country. Marie-Madeleine would join the fraternity of femmes libres or “free women”, a lightly veiled euphemism for a prostitute. Such women were ordered by the colonial medical authorities to undergo a monthly medical check-up for sexually transmitted diseases.
Although Marie-Madeleine never married again, Mobutu was the result of one of numerous liaisons she had with various men. Mobutu (and his siblings) had no knowledge of the identity of his (their) biological father.
Mobutu was a bright but undisciplined student when he attended primary school in Lisala during the 1930s. When Marie-Madeleine moved back to Gbadolite, hunting and fishing with his maternal grandfather and a great uncle occupied most of Mobutu’s time.
However, he returned to school. When the Catholic missionaries organised a football team, young Mobutu became the team’s goalkeeper. But years later, he was booted out of high school when the missionaries learned that he had spent his vacation in Leopoldville (a place forbidden for students), boozing and cavorting with girls. The colonial law regarding young men who were booted out of school was austere. Such individuals were immediately drafted into the Force Publique, the national army. Mobutu was all but 19 years old when he donned the uniform of the Force Publique.
Mobutu’s command of the French language landed him the position of secretary-accountant to the commander of the special company. Less than a year later, he was sent to the Ecole Centrale in Luluabourg in the south of the country.
After successfully completing his studies, Mobutu was sent to army headquarters in Leopoldville where he was assigned to the provincial secretary of G2, the unit dealing with intelligence, mobilisation and operations. He was promoted to sergeant in April 1954. Mobutu would also marry his 15-year-old fiancée, Marie-Antoinette.
It was around this time that Mobutu parted company with the military and became a freelance journalist and began writing articles for L’Avenir, the only newspaper at the time that accepted articles from the Congolese. He became responsible for the editorial pages of both L’Avenir and its successor Actualités Africaines.
Patrice Lumumba, who was at the time imprisoned for embezzlement, read and admired Mobutu’s articles. When he was finally released from prison, Lumumba appointed Mobutu his personal secretary,
a position that was made official in July 1960 when Lumumba became prime minister. Not long after that Mobutu was appointed army chief of staff with the rank of colonel.