Raphael Alaver (1898-May 18, 1964), head of the Church of the Holy Spirit (Mpeve) of Esieme, led an important post-independence uprising in the Kwilu district of Leopoldville province (now Bandundu region). Alaver’s movement, which attracted many members from among the Nguii people around Man-gai (a town on the south bank of the Kasai River 140 km, or 80 mi, northeast of Kikwit), reached a bloody climax in April 1962, when more than 100 people were killed.
Alaver, whose name is a corruption of “Alavear” (which signifies “he who has company”) was born in 1898 in Lulaba, northeast of Kikwit, near the village of Eyeme at the place where the Esieme mission, christened Nazareth, was later to be built. His parents were fervent Protestant Christians, and, Alaver grew up with them at Port Francqui (now Ilebo) in an atmosphere of great piety. In 1910, when he was 12 years old, Alaver returned to the Mangai region. According to the “official” accounts which circulated among his followers, he had already wrought several miracles by this time, which allowed him to forecast his own prophetic future. In reality, however, there is little available information about his early career as a prophet, which probably did not come to public attention at this time, as his followers have claimed.
It is alleged that it was at the end of a stay at Oshwe, north of the Kasai River, in the course of which he apparently had contact with exiled Kimbanguists- followers of the prophet Simon Kimbangu who founded the religious movement known as Kimbangu-that Alaver decided to devote himself to the life of an itinerate evangelist.
This link with Kimbanguism is, furthermore, confirmed by the fact that the “official” account of his life, preserved by his followers, asserts that he met Simon Kimbangu, who strongly urged him to pursue this career. As with Kimbangu, Alaver’s unconventional conduct was displeasing to the colonial authorities, who claimed that his actions disturbed public order. In reality, however, they feared confrontation with an independent religious manifestation they would be unable to control. For by invoking Christ as his sole authority, the prophet Alaver stressed separation from Catholic as well as from Protestant religious officials.
One evening in 1952, while praying at a candle-lit cemetery, Alaver was arrested by order of M. Rapp, the territorial agent. He was then banished to Kasongo-Lunda, 420 km (250 mi) to the southwest in the Kwango district of Leopoldville province, where he remained until 1959. These seven years, spent in a region that was near the Kimbanguist stronghold in what is now Bas-Zaire, doubtlessly enabled Alaver to reaffirm his faith. At all events, when he returned to Nguii territory, it was to found a mission, which he named Nazareth, about one kilometer away from the village of Esieme.
Very soon he aroused popular enthusiasm with his teachings, basically drawn from the Bible, but to which he gave pronounced local color. It could be said that the people discovered in him a certain religious identity that they had difficulty in finding in the Catholic cults. The “Christians” of Alaver appealed above all to the Holy Spirit (Mpeve), which they invoked by prayer. When the Spirit came, it manifested itself above all by the delirious movements made by some members, generally young girls. The religion also had therapeutic pretensions: supposedly, several sick people returned from Esieme cured, and sterile women regained the gift of maternity. In the general disorder which followed the celebration of independence, the church of Esieme remained a place of calm and security where ordinary people came to find solutions to their daily problems.
The solidarity among the “Christians” of Esieme was very strong, but it also took the form of opposition to outsiders. For example, certain government functions were challenged because they were viewed as being outside the church. It was thus that the payment of taxes was contested, without, however, becoming the subject of a systematic boycott. The growing sense of unity centered on Esieme, in opposition to outsiders, by 1962-63 became a source of increasing anxiety to the administrator of Idiofa territory, M. Mayila-mene. This tension between the religious movement and the public administration finally brought on a conflict which, in its concluding phase, would mark the end of the prophet’s life.
The sequence of events began on April 3, 1962. All the “Christians” had been invited to the inauguration of the Alungu church near Mangai. Although Alungu is only a small village, it contained an important community of Alaver’s followers, justifying the building of a church second only to that at Esieme. For the occasion, Alaver arrived to preside over the ceremonies. But at the moment when the proceedings were about to begin, an official emissary came to inform Alaver and his followers that the territorial agent of Mangai, the representative of the government in the region, formally forbade the holding of the celebration. The inaugural ceremonies and the blessing of the church were therefore suspended, and Alaver decided to return forthwith to Esieme. Accompanied by his followers, he set out immediately for Esieme.
On the return route, however, the group was again challenged, this time by the territorial agent in person, accompanied by several policemen. The conflict between the two groups degenerated into a pitched battle. The police were repulsed and the territorial agent carried off to Esieme as a hostage.
On the evening of April 3 when, in the course of public prayers, Alaver alluded to the day’s events, he announced that he would be arrested and sent to prison, where he would die. At Idiofa, the same evening, the territorial administrator learned that his agent had been attacked, beaten, and imprisoned at Esieme. He immediately decided to intervene militarily, so as to break the force that was jeopardizing the authority of the state. In consequence, the following morning three trucks filled with soldiers left Idiofa.
On April 5, at the time of morning prayer, Alaver’s mission at Nazareth was completely surrounded by soldiers, who opened fire and began burning the houses. When the shooting stopped, about 180 corpses were counted, without reckoning the wounded. But during the confusion, the prophet himself succeeded in escaping. He was, however, captured on April 12 at the village of Akwonkwo. Beaten, and with his clothes torn, he was transferred to Idiofa, from where he was sent first to Kikwit, and then to the capital, Leopold-vine (now Kinshasa). In Leopoldville he was condemned, with two of his “Apostles,” to five years in prison. He later died in Makala prison on May 18, 1964.
After his death, the Church of the Holy Spirit at Esieme continued its activities, and even flourished more strongly than before, attracting a growing membership. In the 1970s, the most important community remained that centered on Esieme, the spiritual capital of the church. Other communities existed at Mangai and Kinshasa.
Ndaywel é Nziem
B. Verhaegen, Rebellions au Congo (“Rebellions in the Congo”), Vol. 1, Brussels, 1966, pp. 48-50; H. F. Weiss, Political Protest in the Congo: the Parti Solidaire Africain During the Independence Struggle, Princeton, 1967. See also the administrative archives of Mangai, and written accounts by members of the Church of Esieme.
This article was reprinted from The Encyclopaedia Africana Dictionary of African Biography (In 20 Volumes). Volume Two: Sierra Leone-Zaire, Ed. L. H. Ofosu-Appiah. New York: Reference Publications Inc., 1979. All rights reserved.