Witnesses of Africa: Isidore Bakanja – A life without compromises

Isidore Bakanja, a young man from Congo, died as a martyr at the hands of a hate-filled atheist colonialist. The testimonies of many of his compatriots make it clear that he died for being a Christian. Although he knew that his boss resented Christians, Bakanja insisted on wearing a scapular and saying the rosary in his free time.

In the year 1885 the Berlin Conference divided the continent of Africa into zones of influence. Various European countries were assigned zones which they would exploit for economic gain. Congo came to be as it were the personal property of the king of Belgium, Leopold II. Various companies were set up for the different materials that could be obtained there, especially rubber and ivory. Many companies became well known for abusing their powers to oppress the workers.

Their aim was to derive the maximum profit at the least expense. One such company was the Societe Anonyme Belge which had trading posts in the region of Mbandaka. In October 1908, the Congo was annexed to Belgium and new decrees established free commerce and condemned the excesses of the agents of the statutory companies. Bakanja died in 1909 through the brutality of one such agent who considered himself a law unto himself under the old system. However the authorities were quick to intervene and this agent, Van Cauter, stood trial.

Isidore Bakanja was baptized by the Trappists at the mission of Bolokwa-Nsaimba in 1906 when he was around twenty years old. He had come to Mbanaka from his natal village of Mbilankamba in search for work. Later he found a job as a domestic at Busira, which was a regular stopping point for the missionaries in their pastoral round. At Busira he not only worked for a white, Lomame, but, in his spare time, was praying and encouraging his companions to embrace the Christian faith. Eventually he had to move to Ikili, a long way upstream, where the drama of his martyrdom unfolded.

At Ikili he worked under the authority of Van Cauter who as severely intolerant of religion. His new boss ordered Bakanja to stop praying the rosary and to remove the scapular which he was wearing all the time as a sign of his faith. Bakanja asked his boss for his papers of dismissal in order to return home, but he was told to get them from God.

Bakanja’s martyrdom began on 1 February 1909. He was given twenty-five strokes of the whip. Although Van Cauter later claimed that the strokes were a punishment for stealing, it is clear from the witness of all who were there that the real reason for Van Cauter’s anger and punishment was the fact that Bakanja was a Christian. The next day Bakanja was whipped again, this time with a whip with two nails at the tips, a vicious instrument. Bakanja was then tied up, stomped on his head, neck and legs.

At the end of this merciless torture, Bakanja was thrown into the prison of the trading post. When an inspector of the colonial company came to know about this incident and saw Bakanja’s beaten and badly bruised body, he did his best to give him proper medical treatment. Bakanja’s wounds were so bad, however, that little could be done to save him.

He died six months later, on 15 August 1909, having forgiven his torturer. Isidore Bakanja was beatified by Pope John Paul II during the Synod of Bishops Special Assembly for Africa April-May 1994. His feast is celebrated on August.

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