People on Fire: The Congo
CURTIS CATE,who represents the ATLANTICin Europe,has traveled extensively in northern Africa and the Middle East, and at our suggestion he undertook this survey of the Congo to see for himself how things were being run after the colonial administrators had pulled out. In certain instances, Mr. Cate has used fictitious names in order to protect his sources.
FROM the moment I arrived in Elisabethville I realized that there was something special about Katanga. At the airport I was handed two large yellow forms to fill out, both of which bore the proud heading “État du Katanga.” Months had passed since Moise Tshombe and his ministers had tossed in the sponge and Katanga had been formally reintegrated into the Congo, but the old secessionist forms were still in use.
I attributed this at first to bureaucratic sloth, but I was quickly undeceived. In the adjoining small room we were asked for our medical documents; confidently I produced the international medical certificate which had gained me admission to the empire of Ethiopia, the kingdom of Burundi, the republic of Rwanda, and the Congolese province of the Kivu. A black finger with a pale-pink nail leafed through the booklet and came to a halt on the vaccination page. “Invalid!” cried its owner in a peremptory tone. I bent down to see what was wrong. “Invalid!” the little man without a tie repeated. “Your vaccination certificate is invalid. What’s that?” The accusing finger pointed at the date. “December, 1961,” I read. “Yes,” he cried, like a croupier catching one in the act of picking up someone else’s chips. “It’s expired!” “Expired?” I protested. I pointed in my turn to the fine print which specified quite clearly that all vaccination certificates are good for three years. He was unimpressed. “Not in Katanga,” he cried. “Here it’s twelve months, no more. You must be vaccinated immediately.” “Roll up your sleeve,” echoed another little man, seated beside a metal table covered with several bottles and a trayful of nibs. He picked up the rustiest-looking nib I have ever seen, dipped it briefly into several bottles, and then scraped my arm. “Next,” he cried expectantly, the wet nib still poised in the air.
I left the airport, the scratch still smarting under the adhesive, wondering what kind of African infection I had just acquired. Two days later large red welts began appearing on my arms, spreading over the base of my neck across my collarbone. They were still itching when I left Elisabethville two weeks later. I was finally reassured by an American, who told me not to worry. “They’re making progress; a couple of months back they had no vaccine and were pricking people with dry needles.”
At the American consulate, which had been stoned five times during the previous three years for our support of the UN and the Leopoldville government, I was warned that the manager of the Hotel Leopold II, a Swiss named Comte, was, like most Europeans in Elisabethville, openly unsympathetic to Americans. But it was a choice of either crashing his reserve or landing at the Sabena Guesthouse a few miles out of town, a prospect I did not fancy.
The drive from the consulate through the jacaranda-lined avenues was as pleasant as it was instructive. The clock on the post office’s faintly Arab facade said 2:25, though the actual time was closer to 5:00 — a margin of discrepancy which this particular chronometer steadfastly maintained throughout my sojourn in the city. There were impressive batteries of traffic lights at the major intersections, but not one of them was working. In front of the Leopold II, a yellow stucco structure with square arcades in the functional Belgian style, jazzed up by a pagodalike frill work of jutting tiles, there were several no parking signs and another indicating a special area reserved for taxis. A number of untaxilike machines were drawn up in front of the hotel, and it was a week later that l saw a taxi for the first time. It proved to be Elisabethville’s one and only cab.
The five black boys behind the reception desk inside were languidly reading newspapers and seemed loath to be disturbed. I asked for Monsieur Comte, and one of them nodded toward a man with a thin, crafty face and a dark toothbrush mustache, who was seated with two white ladies at a nearby table. He rose, we shook hands, and I explained that I wanted a room.
“Who gave you my name?” he asked, with a wary smile.
“A friend in Brussels.”
“What was his name?”
I had to think fast. “A Monsieur van Bcylcstreudt,” I said, picking a name out of the air.
He arched his eyebrows in mock surprise. “I know no such person,” he remarked quietly. He consulted the registry and handed me a form to fill out. When I opened my passport, his dark eyebrows arched again. “You weren’t sent here by the American consulate, by any chance?”
“No,” I said, truthfully for once.
“That’s funny,” he said, smiling, but in a decidedly cryptic way. “They called up about a week ago and asked me to reserve a room for a Mr. Cake.” He opened the reservation book and pointed to a name which was glaringly outlined in a leprous circle of red ink, the only name on the page to be thus honored. “Not you by any chance?”
“My name isn’t Cake,” I pointed out.
“Good. There wasn’t any room for Mr. Cake” — he let the words sink in for a moment — “but for you, there is.” The smile, this time, was as subtle as a Chinese mandarin’s.
WHEN, later, I came downstairs, I sat down under the neon-lit arcades and asked for a beer. The Negro waiter shrugged his shoulders and sauntered off. After a while he reappeared and leaned casually against a doorjamb holding a pad of paper in his hand. I called him over again. “What about the beer?” He shook his head emphatically this time. “Pas bière,” he answered. There were only two things he could offer me — Coca-Cola or orange soda. This dismaying discovery brought home to me the full decline of Moise Tshombe’s erstwhile capital. It wasn’t that there was no brewery; Elisabethville had a brewery, but it didn’t have a bottle factory. The bottles which used to come from Leopoldville could no longer get through, since the rail bridges over the Lubilash had been blown up. An emergency shipment of bottles had been ordered from South America, but someone forgot to include an order for the caps.
Next to the shortage of beer, the major preoccupation of the local populace was the continuing witch-hunt for “mercenaries.” The definition of just what constitutes a mercenary has never been too precise, but in Katanga it was even fuzzier than elsewhere. When Ernest van den Haag asked the UN’s representative in Leopoldville, Dr. Sture Linner, for his definition of a mercenary, the Swedish former classics professor replied that it was anyone who fought for money; from which Van den Haag not unreasonably concluded that all army officers must be mercenaries.
The latest victim of this semantic confusion was a Briton called Johnny Hunter, an unfortunate tippler who got into trouble when his irate landlady, to whom he owed six months’ rent, tossed his belongings into the street. His property included an old British uniform, a relic of the war years; it was seized upon as damning evidence of mercenary inclinations, and Hunter was promptly clapped behind bars.
The first port of call for such suspects was, oddly enough, not the local jail but the residence of Mr. Joseph Ileo, a former Prime Minister of the Congo, who had been sent to Elisabethville as Resident Minister of the Central Government in Katanga. His nebulous powers included control over the Surete, the Congolese equivalent of our FBI. Ileo’s Chef de Cabinet, a certain ‘Mpwasa, also served as head of the local branch of the Leopoldville government’s “secret” police. There was, in fact, little secret about his operations, and whenever a new “mercenary” was caught by his men, he would immediately be taken and flung at Ileo’s feet.
I had occasion to see something of how this worked the first Friday of my stay in Elisabethville when Ileo gave his weekly press conference. His residence, located in a fashionable suburb, was a villa previously occupied by Tshombe’s finance minister. It had a low sloping roof, gray stucco walls, and a large arched brick entrance. At the gateway were several soldiers in green fatigues and forage caps. Four other soldiers could be seen sitting on the lawn near the swimming pool with rifles by their sides; they were guarding a Belgian named Henri Reygel, who had been arrested the day before on mysterious charges and who sat on a garden chair with his back turned to us. There was something a bit unreal about the scene.
The press conference which followed was carried on in the same implausible vein. We were ushered into a carpetless, brown-curtained living room, beyond whose glass partition was another room — lleo’s office — equipped with a desk surmounted by a small statue of a two-horned antelope. Ileo, who came out and shook hands with us, was dressed in a coal-gray suit, white shirt, a long blue bow tie, brown shoes, and green socks. He had a small, round head with a wrinkled forehead, a pug nose, and fishy, suction-cup lips.
The Resident Minister of the Central Government began by distributing the ritual generalities. The central government wished to reassure the local populace that the state university at Elisabethville, which had just been subordinated to its control, would remain a university. Christian Cre, the mercenary, was being removed to Léopoldville, where he would be placed “at the disposition of justice.” He was happy, in the name of the central government, to welcome five representatives of the Angola Liberation Movement —who were seated near us as solemnly as bishops, occasionally smiling and pretending to understand what was being said.
These preliminaries completed, fifteen minutes of shadowboxing ensued. Why had Dr. Pieters just been expelled from Elisabethville and flown back to Brussels? Because, replied Ileo blandly, of a batch of highly incriminating papers seized last March 31, from which it had emerged that the doctor was in possession of two automobiles equipped with radio transmitting sets. The Minister was unwilling to say just where these vehicles were presently located, but their existence could not be called into doubt. No one asked to see the incriminating documents.
John Latz of the Associated Press, a foxy-faced Englishman with a bushy brown mustache, brought the discussion closer to home with a question about the hotel, or rather the “pension de famille,” which the Minister was presently running. Would the Minister care to say how many pensionnaires he was presently putting up, and would he care to comment on the conditions of their confinement? At this there was laughter. Ileo, momentarily ruffled, undertook to explain that the number of boarders in his establishment had been reduced to one, and that in general none of them had been detained in his villa for more than a day’s interrogation before being shipped on to Léopoldville.
I emerged from the conference almost as mystified as when I went in. Was it a tacit convention between them? No one had inquired about Mr. Ileo’s latest lodger, Henri Reygel, and this struck me as strange. He was still seated on the lawn when we came out, a forlorn figure in a short-sleeved shirt, with a jacket hung over the back of his chair. There was a glass of water in front of him; his jailers were drinking beer.
THE signs of Eiisabethville’s decline from the glorious days of 1960 and 1961, when it went through a short-lived golden age, were everywhere distressingly evident. Many of the fancier shops were closed, their Belgian owners having returned to Brussels, Antwerp, or Liege, and those that still remained open had the bare-shelf look of a preliquidation grocery. Sugar, which the Congo used to export, was severely rationed, communications with Kivu Province in the north having broken down completely. What meat was available had to be imported from neighboring Rhodesia, and the surest sources of foreign cigarettes or liquor were the black-market supplies sold by UN troops.
No less apparent was the decline of such once famous establishments as the Mitsuoshi, an upstairs restaurant reached by climbing a narrow staircase. The colorful wall paintings of Flemish and Alsatian towns were still there, but the colorful clients of yesterday, like Captain de la Bourclonnais or the legendary Colonel Faulques, were no longer around. These swashbuckling mercenaries, in whose veins still flowed the wild blood of Dumas’s musketeers, fought through several Katangan wars with the nonchalant indifference of a Porthos or an Aramis. One can hardly blame them. One look at a Tshombe gendarme must have been enough to make them realize that serious warfare is far too strenuous an occupation for a Katangan, or, for that matter, a Congolese.
Most of the “fighting” in these spectral, limbo wars fell into a kind of pattern. The day would begin with a lull around breakfast-time followed by desultory firing until noon. There would then be a lunch-time break, prolonged for several hours of siesta. There would be more desultory firing in the late afternoon, but around seven o’clock a new calm would settle on the city with the approach of the aperitif hour. This would be followed by the almost total quiet of the dinner hour, undisturbed until about ten or eleven o’clock, when the mercenaries, well tanked up on wine and cognac, would come staggering out of their favorite restaurants and bars and shake up the air with a few salvos. This would usually be the signal for the gendarmes to get into the act, and they would keep the show going until dawn, enlivening the nights with tracer fire and the joyous pop and crackle of a Luna Park.
The city’s daylight hours revealed a similar comedown from the proud panache of yesterday. Tshombe’s palace, a creamy-butterscotch-colored mansion graced by round arcades, stood abandoned behind closed gates guarded by Congolese soldiery. Gone was all trace of the once glittering Imperial Guard, with their white breeches, black riding boots, green tunics with splendidly embroidered scarlet hussar fronts, shiny brass helmets with plumes, and drawn sabers, who had once stood watch over the palace. Their uniforms, copied from those of the Garde Republicaine, had to be specially ordered and imported from Paris tailors. When the handpicked guards first mounted their charges outside the palace gates, little boys were hired to hold the horses’ bits lest the restless mounts throw their unsteady riders to the ground. A parade in those days was really a parade. Personally, I couldn’t repress a twinge of regret at the brusque collapse of this short-lived but colorful empire.
The most important Katangan minister I managed to run to earth was Godefroid Munongo, the dreaded Minister of the Interior who was long regarded as Tshombe’s eminence grise. His enemies, in Katanga and elsewhere, had combined to clip his wings, and he had been removed from the key Ministry of the Interior to a more innocuous post, though it was said that he continued to run his old department by remote control. He received me in his office in the Ministry of Public Health wearing the smoky-brown glasses which have contributed to his aura of sinister mystery. A husky, broad-shouldered man, he was dressed in a gray doublebreasted suit and wore two badges in his buttonhole — the dark-blue badge of the Congo, with its one large and six small stars, and the white shield of Katanga, with its three malachite crosses. His white shirt sleeves were elegantly cuff-linked, concealing powerful wristbones, and when he got up to walk around his desk, he held his palms outward, enhancing the general gorillalike impression.
In his book To Katanga and Back, Conor Cruise O’Brien records being told that Munongo was antiBelgian because they had arrested his father for having sought, in his sixties, to restore his waning virility by eating a three-year-old child. Whatever anti-Belgian sentiments Munongo may secretly harbor he was careful to hide from me. He went out of his way to claim credit for the decision to call in the Belgian paratroopers who, in July, 1960, disarmed the mutinous Force Publique and spared Katanga the chaos which overtook so many other regions of the Congo. He spoke of the Congo as a “bottomless basket” into which American cash was being poured with precious little to show for it; there wasn’t even any money available to help reintegrate the sixteen thousand Katangan gendarmes who were still out in the bush, preying on the countryside because they were no longer being paid. The conversation, which lasted three quarters of an hour, was relatively affable, and it would have been difficult to gather from its tenor that I was listening to the man who is generally credited with Lumumba’s assassination.
SUNDAY, June 30, was Congolese Independence Day. A big parade was scheduled, and since this was the first time that this date was being commemorated in Elisabethville — Katanga’s Independence Day having hitherto been celebrated on July 11 — there was some expectation of trouble from Tshombe’s numerous supporters in the city.
As it happened, everything went off without a hitch. Evariste Kimba, Tshombe’s erstwhile foreign minister, stood on the red-draped podium looking impressively tall but decidedly unhappy behind the more diminutive Joseph Ileo, who couldn’t quite conceal his nervousness as he took the salute, even though he was guarded from the rooftops by toughlooking men with machine guns and bush hats. There was considerable applause for the Ethiopian soldiers of the UN forces, even more for the briskly swinging Paracommandos in their green and purple jungle suits; there were ah’s and oh’s when the two Swedish Saab jets brushed the treetops in a series of frightening passes aimed to cow possible troublemakers; but there was no concealing the fact that barely four thousand spectators had turned out for the show. In Tshombe’s prime, I was assured, he could easily pack thirty thousand for a parade, and not a branch or a windowsill would be unoccupied.
The parade wound up, after the soldiers and the workers and the boy scouts had marched by, with a shuffling phalanx of women, who came down the avenue writhing and chanting and wailing, beating on hand drums and shaking tin cans filled with pebbles. Some of themyou-youed in the high-pitched wail of Africa; others beat their palms and chanted behind a red-bordered banner announcing the strangely spelled “Apostolique Faith Church Martyrs.” Alternately they leaped and crouched, turned and lifted on their stamping bare feet, their rush skirts flying; and the headdresses of grass, leaves, and straw fluttering on their heads gave the effect of a forest on the move. Some were draped in banana leaves; others had their cheeks and loreheads smeared with white streaks of kaolin. Many of them carried babies wrapped against their backs in brilliantly colored blue and brown, emerald and tangerine, crimson and saffron shawls. Behind them came men draped in leopard skins, swinging clubs and bicycle chains. One of them Went to and fro waving a shrunken crocodile in his hand. These were the people of the Baluba tribe, the enemies of Tshombe’s Lundas who had boycotted the parade. They were an odd sight after the still, high-swinging, and more or less orderly ranks; the jungle had suddenly moved into the heart of Elisabethville to celebrate independence too.
THAT evening there was a reception in Joseph Ileo’s villa. The printed invitation cards — “which will be demanded on entry” — informed us that the reception would begin at six thirty in the evening and last until five the next morning. In the Congo, things are done in a big way.
The party was already in full swing when I turned up with a friend at seven thirty. The garden, where we had earlier seen the hapless “mercenary" under guard, was now filled to overflowing with some two hundred guests. Garish strips of neon cast their glow over the driveway, where half a dozen sentinels armed with rifles had been posted to sec that only the invited gained admission to the grounds. Inside there were other MP’s in red striped helmet liners, who patrolled the garden in army surplus overcoats and carbines. One of them had on an old Belgian Army coat with the insignia Je Maintiendrai still sewn on the sleeve. By the swimming pool a UN soldier was stationed, talking into a walkie-talkie mounted with an aerial. We never did discover with whom he was so earnestly communicating, but his presence made it clear that no stone had been lelt unturned to ensure the maintenance of law and order on this festive night.
None of these precautions sufficed, however, to stem the dark tide beating against the gates of the villa. The sentinels, after a summary perusal, allowed each entrant to keep his card, and since the villa’s garden was surrounded by a two-foot brick wall, it was a simple matter for anyone who had negotiated the gate to walk a few yards further down and hand his card over the wall to someone else, who could then repeat the operation with a third.
Whether the sentinels failed to notice this or simply chose to turn a blind eye I don’t know, but the garden kept filling with a ceaseless stream of new arrivals. The crush around the tables where the drinks were served grew fiercer, while Franco’s All Africa Band began to work up real steam. Every now and then one of the red-helmeted MP’s would furtively lean his carbine against a tree and plunge into the fray, returning happily with a foaming glass. But soon even the beer began to run out, and the harassed Monsieur and Madame Comte, of the Leopold II, whom I found guarding one of the liquor tables, had to ration the whiskey. I went up to Madame Comte and rather stupidly asked her to refill a glass of whiskey for a member of Franco’s band, who had joined our party in a gorgeous scarlet blouse. “The band’s had enough to drink already!” she snapped. I walked back shamefacedly and almost tripped over a body.
We left the party some time after nine when the liquor ran out. It must have been one o’clock by the time we got back. The guards were still desperately struggling to keep out uninvited intruders, but the invitation cards got us by once again. Inside the garden the field had somewhat cleared. The bare tables were surrounded by cases of empty bottles, and two MP’s still hung on grimly, occasionally putting out a hand toward a tree to steady themselves. The walkie-talkie man had disappeared, evidently satisfied that law and order reigned. Franco’s All Africa Band was pounding away more lustily than ever.
We made our way toward the writhing bodies on the dance podium, gingerly skirting the swimming pool. As I edged past three Africans, I almost pushed one of them into the water. He clicked his heels, bowed, and we shook hands. “You’ve just shaken hands with the Minister of Justice,” one of my companions remarked over his shoulder.
On the podium Africa’s hour had struck. Shoulders and arms were pummeling away at the most energetic twist I think I have ever seen. Half a dozen girls were kicking vigorously with their partners, but most of the boys had to dance with one another; unabashed, they pumped their knees and hips with an oscillating frenzy which had to be seen to be believed. They swayed back and forth with half-closed eyes, each in a world of his own, his soul surrendered to the demon of the drums. Miss Katanga, a lithe, dark beauty in a jet-black dress, was still relatively cool and self-possessed, but Miss Runner-up Katanga, a bosomy creature in a flaming red affair, was rapidly passing the point of no return. The most extraordinary sight of all—in the midst of the thrusting and punching — was a middle-aged mother working away as resolutely as anyone. There was an unmistakable peasant toughness about her; she looked as though she had just done twenty-six miles and could hold out for twentysix more. She wore a rough cotton dress and a brightly colored shawl on her back, from whose side apertures the tiny dark feet of her child protruded quaintly. His dark, moonlike face, one cheek pressed against the calico on his mother’s back, stared out sideways at the world, the big black eyes weaving a complex geometry of their own above the camlike swing of the hips. The slightly opened mouth uttered not a sound, and on his baby face was a look of ancient resignation. He may well have thought that the heaving world about him had taken leave of its senses. He was not old enough to comprehend that this was simply Katanga.
THE CHILDREN OF L’UNION MINIÈRE
“Kolwezi?” said the Union Miniere public relations man with a professional smile. “No problem at all. Just a three-hour drive over a good tarred road, most of it straight as an arrow. . . . Shall I ask our guesthouse to reserve you a room?” I nodded, and he reached for the telephone.
The idea of getting out of Elisabcthville appealed to me for several reasons. On the map, Kolwezi, some three hundred kilometers to the west, formed the final ganglion at the end of a long red filament; the filament was one of the few tarred roads in Katanga — a province almost the size of Texas — and the ganglion, apart from being the Union Miniere’s largest copper-mining center, was, in more than one sense, the end of the road. It was here that Moise Tshombe had staged his last, melodramatically futile stand in January ol 1963. It intrigued me to retrace the historic route which it had taken the UN’s Ghurkas three weeks to traverse and at the end of which, on January 22, independent Katanga had finally given in.
The Union Miniere official must have assumed that I would be traveling by Thunderbird or Jaguar; actually the trip, in a battered Volkswagen wheedled out of a German garage, took me more than six hours. Not all of this, however, was the Volkswagen’s fault. Just outside Elisabethville I was held up, with a number of other drivers, at a roadblock formed by three oil drums, through which cars were forced to zigzag under the watchful muzzles of UN Ethiopian and Armee Nationale Congolaise (ANC) troops. The ANC soldiers, who did the checking of vehicles and papers and who struck me as slightly less than literate, kept us waiting more than twenty minutes while they ransacked a truck filled with empty beer bottles and sprawling Negroes. Their single trophy, after a meticulous search intended to uncover “mercenaries’ weapons,” was a sun-faded canvas knapsack which was confiscated, I suppose, on the grounds that it must have been former military equipment.
The half dozen bridges which the mercenaries had blown up during the famous retreat were still not completely repaired, and in several places I had to leave the tarred highway and bump for a mile or two over dusty dirt roads leading to temporary wooden bridges, whose loose planks set up a noisy protest when my Volkswagen clattered across them. To make matters worse, I took the wrong turn just outside Jadotvilie, another Union Miniere center, which lies roughly midway between Elisabethville and Kolwezi. Five kilometers farther, the macadam came to an abrupt end, and ahead lay nothing but a discouraging ribbon of stony dirt, stretching through the barren, scrub-covered hills, which were roasting beneath the fierce afternoon sun.
I welcomed the appearance of three Katangans, one of whom was carrying a small, string-bound suitcase with a broken handle. They piled in enthusiastically, and the one with the suitcase, who wore a tie and was better dressed than the others, told me that he would put me on the right road again. He spoke French and did most of the talking, occasionally translating for his two companions in the back, who spoke only Swahili. They were on their way to Kambove, some ten kilometers away, and were glad to have a lift.
A little farther on we came to a fork in the road with a sign pointing toward Shinkolobwe, the location of the famous mine which provided the uranium used in the first Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs. The Belgians closed the mine some years ago following the saturation of the world uranium market. Copper, with its satellite, cobalt, is once again the mainstay of local prosperity. Were it one day to fail, the entire area would revert to the wilderness. The French-speaking Katangan may not have understood the mechanics of the world commodities market, but he clearly knew where his bread was buttered. “We owe everything to the Belgians,” he told me with an earnest smile. “They have given us work. They have given us clothes and houses. . . . Ils nous ont civilises,” he added with disarming frankness. He said something over his shoulder in Swahili, and his two companions assented eagerly.
Kambove, like Shinkolobwe, Jadotvilie, Kolwezi, and the other mining centers in the region, is entirely a Union Miniere creation. It lay spread out before us like an eighteenth-century battlescape the groups of neat, whitewashed houses drawn up on the dusty plain, like companies and platoons, in straight military rows. Only the size of the habitations and the number of trees surrounding them denoted the difference between African workers’ dwellings and the villas of the foremen and directors of the “capitalist” class. I let off the two silent Katangans near the first barracklike settlement, but my front-seat companion insisted on riding with me to the other end of the town to show me the way. He climbed out opposite a gleaming whitewashed recreation center advertising a bar and a cinema. “You see those trees,” he said, pointing to the top of a hill straight ahead. “You cross the railway tracks and drive up the hill past those trees, and when you come to a sign saying ‘Methodist Mission,’ be sure to turn left. That will get you out on the Kolwezi road.”
Night had fallen by the time I reached Kolwezi, which seemed to consist of nothing but long treelined streets intermittently lit with pale neon strips. Fifteen minutes of groping through dark, deserted streets brought me at last to the Hotel Manika, with its semicircle of parked cars and its gabled, country-club roof. I was directed, two hundred yards farther on, to the Union Miniere’s guesthouse, a neat two-story pavilion screened by a row of palm trees, a rarity in this part of the world. A Negro attendant greeted me on the illuminated threshold, bowing and smiling and welcoming me with a generous gush of Swahili. I washed up and put on a tie, and went back to the hotel.
I had hardly sat down in the Manika’s barewalled dining room, whose tables were occupied by a curious collection of Katangans and Belgians, when the manager of the hotel came over and asked if I was the person staying at the guesthouse. When I told him I was, he asked me to follow him. 1 was ushered into a private dining room, where I could be carefully insulated from the dubious characters in open collars and sandals in the main dining room. Here, on a large oval table, dinner had been laid for one. I found the isolation grand but a bit dismal, my only dinner companion being a picture of Moise Tshombe. who watched over my lonely meal with the silence of a British butler.
The hotel manager and the maitre d’hotel, both of them equipped with dark toothbrush mustaches, like actors in a Grand Guignol melodrama, turned out to be French. “We answered an ad. The Belgians no longer want to come out here,” the maitre d’hôtel explained with a wry smile. Just that morning there had been another incident. The UN and the ANC had cordoned off the native quarter with troops and meticulously combed each house. None of the kitchen staff had been able to get to tlac hotel before noon. I asked who the UN troops here were. “Irish,” he said. “And thank heavens they’re here. The day they pull out and leave us face-to-face with the ANC, God help us!”
I was presented with a steak big enough to have satisfied a brace of heavyweight wrestlers, and a bottle of Chateauneuf-du-Pape, a rarity these days. This was obviously the V.I.P. treatment, but a bit too lavish for my taste. I invited the manager, a dark little man with a quaint Provencal twang, to help me with the Chateauneuf. He produced a green Rhine-wine glass and told me that he came from Dax. He was half Basque. “The Basques are great travelers, you know,” he added with a smile. I was prepared to believe it.
There was still some wine left in the bottle when my official host turned up. He was a distinguished gentleman, with thinning gray hair and pale eyes, who introduced himself as Monsieur Lapierre but whose full name, as I later discovered from his card, was Lapierre de Coussemaker. He apologized for his tardiness. They had been expecting me since five o’clock, and he had made three trips to the guesthouse. He assumed I had got the message.
He sat down, and we emptied the bottle. His whole being exuded an air of disabused weariness. Life for him no longer possessed secrets worth investigating. He had seen surprises enough to last him another lifetime. He didn’t know how much longer the Union Miniere could go on in the existing circumstances. There were constant harassments; politics interfered in everything; the old discipline was breaking down. But then, what could one expect? He shrugged his shoulders with an air of confirmed hopelessness. He had been away when Tshombe and his cohorts swarmed into Kolwezi to make their defiant last stand. The gendarmes had found his car — a Ford — in a Union Miniere garage and made off with it. It was retrieved one month later in poor shape, and not long thereafter, on the road to Kitwe, in Northern Rhodesia, it broke down completely.
“I have been here in the Congo thirty-two years,” he ruefully observed, “and my one desire is to go home. I am through with Africa.” Some years back, before independence, he had bought several hundred acres up in the northeastern corner of Stanleyville Province on the shores of Lake Albert. It would have been an idyllic spot to retire to under the warm African sun. But that dream was gone. The place had been pillaged, the trees chopped down there was nothing left. So he was retiring soon to Belgium to eke out the rest of his days as best he could on his sadly devaluated Union Miniere shares.
OUR tour of the Kolwezi installations began the next morning at eight o’clock when Lapierre came by for me in his Peugeot 403. On the way down to the crushing and washing plant, where the coppercontaining earth is processed, we passed a native settlement, known in these parts as a “cité.” There are half a dozen such cites in Kolwezi, with more than a thousand workers in each; four out of every five workers arc married, and since most of them have at: least three children, a cite averages five or six thousand inhabitants. I could not but admire the neat two-room houses, each with its few square yards of land, where the occupants can plant some vegetables or a couple of trees for shade; each, too, with its individual WC, which the occupants have to be taught not to use for washing in. All of them were built, of course, by l’Union Miniere. Prior to independence, it usually took an occupant eleven years to pay off the amortizing costs and to become owner of his own house; since then, for some reason, the Africans showed less interest in owning property.
There was only one odd thing about these little houses, which had been constructed with a praiseworthy effort at variety, and that was the fact that all of their windows were closed, the brightly colored curtains in a score of varying patterns tightly drawn across them. Lapierre smiled wanly: that was the heritage of the native village, where the huts are windowless and have only a single door. This was their way of bringing the feel of the village with them, of re-creating behind the cold brick and plaster walls that womblike sense of security which the African feels inside his warm, dark hut.
We stopped briefly to walk around a small market, where women in brightly colored African robes, many of them carrying babies on their backs, were selling lumps of chalklike manioc (a form of tapioca, and a food staple in the Congo) in enamel basins. From there we drove on to visit the tallroofed refining plant. In this part of the world the extracted earth has a copper content of 7 percent. To bring this up to 70 percent, the earth and rock must be pounded to pieces in huge rotary crushers, the earth washed away in water; the residue is then dumped into huge sulfuric acid vats, where the globules of copper come floating to the surface in a sickly green froth and are skimmed off by slowly rotating pales.
The entire tour must have taken us over a circuit of twenty-five miles. Most of the excavation at Kolwezi is still done in open-face quarries, miniature Grand Canyons descending several hundred feet through terraced layers of brown and pink, red and gray earth, similar to what one can see in Kentucky and North Carolina. Below us the steam shovels and the twenty-five-ton trucks looked like tiny toys as they worked industriously at the copperrich stratum, clearly recognizable even from afar by its greenish-gray hue, the result of oxidation and exposure to the air.
All told, the mines and factories of l’Union Miniere, of which the Kolwezi complex is the largest. produce close to two thirds of the world’s cobalt (used, among other things, in jet engines) and 8 percent of its copper. Neighboring Northern Rhodesia produces another 15 percent, so that the copper belt of this part of Africa accounts for almost a quarter of the world’s output. Both regions are inhabited by the Lundas, Moise Tshombe’s tribe, who also occupy a stretch of northern Angola. Reunited, the Lundas, one of the largest tribes in Central Africa, would constitute a mass two to three million strong. Later, in Elisabethville an enthusiastic Tshombe supporter — a Belgian — assured me that this was Tshombe’s Grand Design and the way in which Katanga’s vanishing man would make his miraculous comeback. The idea was to re-create the Lunda “empire” which had once existed before Europe’s colonial powers redrew the map of Africa: an empire triumphantly seated atop a treasure chest of buried copper so rich that it has hardly begun to be explored.
There was only one fly in the imperial ointment, which he neglected to point out: the world demand for copper has been stagnant in recent years, and l’Union Miniere’s share in world production has been declining. L’Union Miniere could close shop tomorrow without causing much more than a ripple in international quotations. The idea of a Lunda empire based on an inexhaustible hoard of copper is a typically African dream — one powerful enough to seduce even the reputedly harclheaded Belgians —a manifestation of that magical conception of power and riches which has not ceased to haunt the African imagination since the days of King Solomon’s mines.
IT WAS a relief, on returning to the Hotel Manika, to see the table laid for four. My splendid isolation was over, and for luncheon companions I was given the president of the Kolwezi branch of the Union Miniere, a man called Sauguicr, and the chief of personnel, Mouillet. Both were young. There had evidently been a recent shakeup in the local management, and the high command in Brussels had decided that younger and less jaded men were needed to grapple with a radically new and difficult situation.
I was particularly interested to meet Mouillet, a vigorous, dark-haired man with twenty-two years of Congo experience. His blunt forthrightness impressed me. When I told him that one of my aims in coming to Kolwezi was to meet some Katangan workers, he immediately volunteered to round up a dozen for me that very afternoon.
It would be pointless, he said, to try to interview them on the chantiers — in the workshops or out in the quarries; defensive by nature, they would simply clam up. But we might have better luck if we could get them around a table at five o’clock that evening at the Cercle du Père Pascal, which I gathered was some kind of recreation center. Lapierre, with the skepticism of an older generation, expressed doubt about Mouillet’s ability to round up a suitable number in a couple of hours, but Mouillet confidently waved away the objection: “Don’t worry. When they hear that there’s free beer to be had, they’ll come running.”
They not only came running, they came with jackets and ties, a sartorial refinement intended to impress me with the realization that the Union Miniere’s African employees are well enough off to be able to afford individual wardrobes. This Sunday-best attire did not contribute much, however, to bridging the gulf I immediately felt between us.
About this I had harbored very few illusions. The idea that one can walk into a factory or a pithead and ask the first welder or steam-shovel operator one stumbles on to talk freely had never much appealed to me — and never less so than at this moment, as I found myself sitting opposite fifteen earnest black faces. There was something embarrassingly artificial for all of us in this forced congregation, and I had the feeling that even the seating order arranged prior to my arrival must have posed problems which had to be settled according to certain rules of protocol.
To make matters worse, only half of them spoke even rudimentary French; the others had to communicate through Mouillet, who translated from Swahili. The impression of strangeness was heightened by the tattoo marks a number of them carried just above the cheekbones; two of them even had spliced faces, with a long vertical saberslit running from the middle of their dark foreheads down to the points of their noses; and one of them, in addition, had the vertical chin slit of the chief. They were “notables,” Mouillet explained, sons or relatives of tribal chieftains to whom, even in the detribalized atmosphere of workshop or quarry, other members of the same tribe instinctively defer. Their authority is tacitly recognized in the workers’ cites, and Union Miniere officials meet with them once or twice a week to discuss general problems and the maintenance of law and order.
To get the conversation going, and in an effort to relax the taut expectancy mingled with wariness which was written all over these dark faces, I asked each worker in turn what his particular job was, whether he was married, where he came from, and so on. (There was only one bachelor present, it turned out.) I congratulated the more prolific fathers — those with eight or ten children — there were occasional ripples of laughter, and Mouillet ordered another round of beer. Finally, after twenty minutes or so, I felt free enough to ask one of them how much he earned.
The question fell, like a stone, into a pool of embarrassed silence. Mouillet had to intervene and say that this was a rather delicate matter which they preferred not to discuss in public. He explained the reason later when we were alone: the Union Miniere’s workers are obliged to keep their earnings to themselves to maintain the limited degree of individuality and family life they managed to acquire in their new industrial (which is to say, European) milieu. None of them can trust his neighbor to retain even an elementary discretion; one word too many, and the news could immediately get back to the village, and before the poor fellow knew what had hit him, a couple of brothers or cousins or uncles could come tramping out of the bush demanding free board and lodging, any wealth in the village being regarded as something rightfully to be shared by all members of the family.
Finally one of them asked if he might put a question to me: it was a complaint about the corn flour which was sold to them in sacks marked “USA — Not to be Sold.” The question struck me as odd: not one of them could have known English, and whatever was marked on the 50 kilo sacks, sold to them for 350 francs (then worth about $6), must have been translated to them by someone with an anti-American ax to grind. It could conceivably have been one of their Union Miniere employers; conceivable and natural too, since the Union Miniere had never much appreciated our all-out support of the central Léopoldville government or the UN, several of whose jets had roared over one day and blown up some oil tanks and machinegunned a hospital.
But the question revealed, more interestingly, the extraordinary hold which a primitive belief in the miraculous exercised on their eager imaginations: the idea that they should have to pay for something which they could freely obtain, like manna from heaven, seemed scandalous to these credulous minds. No one had taken the trouble to explain that this corn had had to be sown, reaped, processed, and shipped across an ocean before ending up here in the distant depths of Katanga; or if someone had tried to explain all this, no one had been prepared to comprehend it. Nor had anyone taken the trouble to explain to them how to use this corn flour to the best advantage; their wives had to spend hours every day pounding it to the necessary degree of powder so that it could be mixed with manioc and thrown into boiling water. When I told them that in America it is used to make a delicious form of cornbread, they stared at me with eager eyes and implored me to give them the recipe. I had to admit, shamefacedly, that I didn’t know it.
THAT evening the doctor in charge of the native hospital was one of the guests invited to dinner. He was a small bespectacled man with a pert, bird like alertness which had been gnawed away at the edges by more than thirty years under the African sun. He was proud of his hospital, though, and pleased when I expressed a desire to visit it. It had not originally been part of my program — visiting hospitals is not one of my hobbies. But I felt that I owed it to myself to see how l’Union Miniere cared for its ailing children.
I was not disappointed. The hospital, an ensemble of stone and brick bungalow buildings joined by shaded arcades and brick walks bordered with hedges, shrubs, and flowers, was as neat as a pin. I was shown an X-ray and spectroscope room with the most ultramodern equipment, an analysis laboratory full of dustless microscopes. In one carefully insulated chamber three prematurely born babies could be seen, lying on their backs in glass incubators, their little brown diaphragms heaving convulsively, their tiny wrinkled fingers and toes occasionally tightening and twitching in their hot, fitful sleep. We inspected the kitchen, where large roundbottomed vats with heavy steel lids were bubbling away with the mixture of corn flour and manioc which goes into the boukari eaten by the natives — fish-cake pellets spiced with hot pili-pili sauce.
The doctor opened a door into a storeroom lull of canned goods. “You can’t imagine the trouble we had getting them to eat canned food. A few years back a canning company in Léopoldville, wanting to attract African consumers, put a picture of a smiling African child on the outside of their meat cans. Immediately the word spread that the meat inside came from canned African children. There were riots, strikes, no end of trouble.”
We continued the rounds; 350 beds, the doctor recited, with the patience of a museum guide. Seven doctors now instead of ten — all Belgians, but even the Belgians no longer wanted to come out here. Forty native orderlies (aides-infirmiers), with one or two infirmiers—but not comparable with European infirmiers, he hastily added. In all. an average of 1400 patients were treated every day for various ailments in this hospital and in the eight rural dispensaries depending on it.
There was only one thing wrong: the place was almost too neat, the atmosphere too quiet. The wards, particularly the maternity wards, were unusually empty. The doctor gave me a philosophical smile: “It’s the approach of Independence Day. The workers are all expecting trouble. They’ve packed their wives and children off to their villages, which is what they always do when there’s tension in the air. Walk around the cites a bit; you’ll sec they’re two-thirds empty. They’re all gripped by fear. A fear without a name, a fear that something’s going to happen, and it has everybody paralyzed. Fear of what? No one will be able to tell you. It’s a fear of something cosmic, apocalyptic overtaking them, a fear which descends on them every year at the approach of Independence Day. No European can possibly understand just what it is, just as we have only a dim idea of exactly what’s conjured up for them in the word ‘independence.’ For some of them it meant the end of all obligations and work and a wonderful vacation for the rest of their lives. For others it meant the end of white rule and the return of the witch doctors. For many others it has come to mean rising prices, food shortages, no sugar. Occasionally one of them comes to us and says, ‘Reprends ton independence,’ as though we’d been punishing them for something and had it in our power to stop it.”
As a final treat he took me to visit the mortuary chapel, used to mourn the passage of those not fortunate enough to leave the hospital alive. The cell-like chamber, lit by a single monastic window, had deep cobalt walls, with a frieze in a zigzag design of purple and Prussian blue just under the ceiling. It was entirely bare, save for a low table with a small vase of red “barbotone” flowers, imported, the doctor told me, from South Africa. Above the table was a wall-length fresco depicting a Bantu resurrection by the Elisabethville painter Francois Amisi. The black Christ, a cross in his right hand and a white robe covering his skinny frame, had his right foot poised on a skull. The guards watching over the sepulcher were sprawled around in confusion —one in yellow, another in white, the third in purple raiment. Off to the right the devil could be seen, with bat wings and red hair, presumably flames, equipped with two carrotlike horns and fierce red claws, fleeing into the night. On the left were the native mourners, weeping, wailing, and chanting about the corpse spread out under a white winding-sheet. The soul of the deceased, shown with crossed arms, floated nearby, above the offerings to be thrown into his tomb — a couple of chickens and two elephant tusks.
THE DIAMOND SMUGGLERS OF THE KASAI
From Luluabourg to the diamond-mining center of Bakwanga it is a mere fifty miles over a rough dirt road. In normal times one can do the trip in four or five hours; but these times were not normal, and I was warned that it would take me a full day at least. I accordingly settled for a trip in a small, two-engined Aztec monoplane piloted by a grayhaired Belgian with twenty years of African flying behind him. We skimmed over the rolling hills and thatch-roofed villages, the pilot pointing out the silvery coils of the Lubilash. undulating its lazy way through the valleys and gorges on its two-hundredmile course to the Congo and its thousand-mile course to the sea.
My arrival at the tiny airport of Bakwanga occasioned considerable confusion and afforded an opportunity of measuring the extent to which the “Balkanization” of the Congo has been carried. On the map. the Congo, an area one third the size of the United States — which, when superimposed on a map of Europe, stretches from Le Havre to Leningrad and from Oslo to Sofia — is still one country; actually, the six provinces which made up the Congo under the Belgians have been broken into smaller units by a process of seemingly irresistible fission: the Kivu becoming two Kivus, Katanga being chopped into three Katangas, the Kasai disintegrating into five Kasai’s — each, of course, with its president, its council of ministers, its local assembly, and, not least of all, its customs and passport inspectors.
My passport, that of an unannounced American journalist, aroused unusual interest in the Bakwanga airport’s passport office, which was about one yard wide and six yards long, with just room enough to scrape by two wooden tables.
“Journalist?” said a smiling African, after he had laboriously noted down the pertinent information in a large register. “So you are corning to see our President?”
“Of course,” I answered. Why not, after all? To admit that I had come to have a closer look at the local diamond-smuggling racket might arouse needless suspicion. Besides, I had been told that Joseph ‘Ngalula, the present President of South Kasai, was a shrewd politician, shrewd enough to have once been named Minister of Education in the central government at Leopoldville. A former adversary of Lumumba, he had recently broken with his old protector and ally, the Mulopwe (the “Emperor”) Kalondji, and successfully hoisted himself into power.
The smiling little fellow consulted with a less smiling colleague who decided that a journalist of my stature was a big enough fish to warrant the dispatch of a special vehicle. I tried to dissuade him, explaining that the Belgian Air Congo official who single-handedly ran the airport had already telephoned to the SORCA, a Belgian research organization, where a friend whom I had met in Nairobi had invited me to visit him. The sudden surfeit of transportation produced a rather comic confrontation of two cars driving up simultaneously to the airport to carry me into town. The bigger of the two cars, a bulging gray and salmon-red tuttifrutti job of fairly recent Detroit vintage, disgorged a husky Congolese with a determined look on his face. A bit too determined for my particular taste; there was something uncomfortably effusive, it struck me, about the persistent smile and the pressing invitation, repeated a dozen times, that I should get into his car and be driven forthwith to see the President. This struck me as rather strange, since I had given the President no warning that I was about to darken his horizon. In the end he gave way and climbed surlily back into his car, but only alter he had told the two Belgians who had come to pick me up that I must stop by and see him later.
After he had driven away, we climbed into the Belgians small, cream-colored Volkswagen, and I asked them who the person was who had just driven off. The assistant chief of security, they told me, an industrious spider, it seemed, who tirelessly sought to impress his boss by luring every fly within reach into his web.
Bakwanga turned out to be trim and tidy. The paste, as my Belgian hosts called it, was not more than fifteen years old, the European residential district having been built from scratch on what was previously a barren hillside by the MIBA —the Compagnie dcs Mines du Bakwanga. The town had been laid out in a scries of concentric arcs to form a kind of snail-like spiral, with pleasant villas graced by triple-arched porches painted in warm peachreds and apricots. The fences enclosing the wellsprinkled lawns were draped with crimson and purple bougainvillaea, and the neat tarred streets were lined with pale-leafed jacarandas, luxuriant flame trees, and Dakar tulip trees with deep-red blossoms. The hedges were carefully trimmed, the streets impeccably swept, and the concrete drains bordering them were free of refuse. Even the air seemed cleaner and purer, with a bit of a snap to it, which I found a welcome change after the drowsy, dusty heaviness of Luluabourg. This was clearly a MIBA town, still run trimly and efficiently by the Belgians. The only mildly discordant note was a long tubelike object which protruded ominously from the porch of a villa marked “Cabinet du Presidentit was a homemade bazooka tended by several soldiers who usually stood, or rather slouched, on guard behind the wooden railing in concave deck chairs.
WHILE my bags were being unloaded in front of the MIBA guesthouse, seven black American sedans swept by, each flying a small dark-blue pennant and driven by a chauffeur. “What on earth’s that?” I asked. Ford Galaxies, I was told. There were fourteen of them in all. They had originally been ordered by Albert Kalondji at a time when the Mulopwe was bent on establishing an “empire” based on the diamond wealth of the Kasai and felt the need for the trappings of imperial grandeur. By the time the sedans finally reached Bakwanga, Kalondji’s opponents, led by his own Prime Minister, ‘Ngalula, had sent the “emperor” off to Switzerland — or perhaps it was Brazzaville, no one seemed quite sure — but they had kept the fleet of cars for the greater glory of the local ministers.
I had arrived in Bakwanga, it seemed, at a rather ticklish moment. The previous Sunday a lunch had been laid on at the officers’ mess to commemorate Independence Day, but through some inexplicable mix-up President ‘Ngalula had turned up instead at the MIBA Cercle and been much put out to find no trace of either banquet or guests. The only sign of life in the large empty lounge was four Europeans off in a corner engaged in a noisy game of table soccer. They were so engrossed in banging away at the little ball with their rod-strung halves and forwards that they failed to notice the President’s solemn entry. This was construed as a gesture of deliberate disrespect, and they were ordered arrested on the spot. It was now Wednesday afternoon, and they were still in jail. To complicate matters, the Belgian ambassador had arrived from Leopoldville for a formal three-day visit; and it was expected that he would lodge a stiff protest. The Belgians were on tenterhooks, and the air was electric with expectation and forebodings.
That evening, at dinner-time, I had occasion to visit the scene of the crime. The MIBA Cercle consisted of a canteenlike mess hall adorned with second-rate impressionist paintings of native villages, palm trees, and dark African beauties with oily skins. Separated from it by a partition was a large semicircular lounge with a few leather armchairs and large wall paintings of native dancers with spears. The football machines which had caused so much trouble were off in the wings of the rotunda, which looked out on a barren terrace, a naked diving board, and some wire-mesh tennis-court fences. The swimming pool had no water in it. In the billiard room, there were several tables but no cues. The bar in the lounge was the emptiest bar I have ever laid eyes on. On its four curved shelves there was precisely one (empty) bottle of Vieille Cure and two (likewise empty) bottles of Marie Brizard gin.
In the mess hall there was no segregation, and the Congolese members of the cadre (the “stall”) ate along with the whites in an informal atmosphere which I found most agreeable, even though each tended to stick to his own group. For both Europeans and Africans it was a somewhat Spartan regime. Breakfast was served from 5:00 to 7:30 A.M.; there were only sandwiches for lunch from Monday through Friday; and dinner was served from 6:00 to 7:00 P.M. Porridge was available in the morning. There was no beer with meals, only water, and one glass of wine on Sundays. The wine was imported all the way from Europe, but the beer could no longer get through from the brewery at Luluabourg, now controlled by the Luluas, who refused to sell a drop to their mortal enemies, the Balubas.
All of the Belgians — with but one exception, whose small plucky wife followed him like a shadow — were enforced “bachelors”; rather than expose their wives to the uncertainties and hardships of this frontier existence, they left them at home and visited them every six months for three weeks. “Is it a wonder,” one of the Belgians asked me, “that we are sometimes ready to go out of our minds?”
THE following morning I received two messages almost simultaneously. The President would receive me at quarter to ten; the assistant chief of security wanted to see me immediately; he was evidently annoyed that I hadn’t called on him the day before. I had myself driven over to Security headquarters in a SORCA car; to reach it we had to leave the macadam and bump our way over a quarter of a mile of sandy road which brought us up in front of a seedy-looking bungalow with a small barefoot mob milling around in front of it. It did not look in the least like a Security building. The SORCA’s Negro driver seemed as dubious as I. “Chef pas là,” he announced, surveying the edifice through his steel-rimmed glasses. There was no sign of the salmon-red and gray machine which should have been drawn up in front of the steps, and that meant, by a simple process of association, that the chief wasn’t in.
Back at the villa where the SORCA had its offices, the Volkswagen stood ready to take me to the President. I was about to climb in when there was a squeal of brakes and an angry crunching of gravel, and through the gate came the salmonred and gray job. In it was the assistant chief of security. He looked angry, and next to him on the front seat was a soldier with a gun. He was obviously taking no chances.
“Why didn’t you come to see me this morning?” he shouted, leaping out of his machine. The sight of the Volkswagen into which I was about to climb added new fuel to his fury. “You’ve been trying to run away,” he shouted, pointing an angry finger. I told him that I was on my way to see the President, who was expecting me, but he refused to believe it. “Get in,” he shouted, pointing at his own car. My Belgian hosts argued with him for a moment but to no avail. His blood was up, and the soldier in the front seat gave him the upper hand.
“Tell the President that I’m visiting the gentlemen of the Surete,” I said to my SORCA friends, and climbed into the salmon-red and gray job. I had a vision of myself joining the four European soccer enthusiasts behind bars. Well, it would be one way of seeing Bakwanga.
On the way to his office, the assistant security chief barked the same question at me a dozen times: “Why didn’t you come to see me as I told you to?” He seemed to think that by repeating the same question over and over he could finally elicit an answer different from the first. He refused my explanation that we had actually driven by his headquarters but failed to find him in. He was in the whole time, he growled. “You’ve been avoiding me,” he cried once again, glaring at me angrily through the rearview mirror.
He roared up the dirt path and arrived in front of the Security building with an authoritative screech of brakes, pelting the barefoot loiterers with a brief shower of sand. The soldier jumped out, his rifie at the ready. The loiterers looked on with big round eyes. I was obviously a prize catch — another colonialist caught red-handed trying to undermine the hard-won independence of South Kasai. The assistant chief strode importantly up the steps and pushed his way through a throng of people in shirt sleeves who were blocking the entrance way. None of them were handcuffed, so I presumed that they were either working for the Surete or applying for jobs. They had that unmistakable look of intelligence one associates with people in this particular line of activity.
We pushed on through a wooden door, which the assistant chief banged noisily behind him. If there had been a key in the lock, he would probably have turned it. This was the center of the web, and there was no escape. Outside, through a smallpaned window, I could see the soldier patrolling with his gun. Inside, the place looked like a dispatchers office and smelled of stale tobacco. There were two wooden desks, both cluttered with untidy piles of yellowing paper and dossiers loosely wrapped in string. Other folders perched precariously on the mantelpiece, and a corner cupboard with a door which wouldn’t close properly revealed more piles of the stuff. The place might have a casual look about it, but it was clear that its inmates had a keen awareness of the importance of paper to a properly functioning intelligence system.
The assistant chief sat down at the desk nearest the door with a look of sudden irresolution. Now that he had got me here, he no longer seemed to know what to do with me. “Your passport,” he demanded after a pause. Behind the other desk, by the window, sat an older Congolese, dressed in a wrinkled jacket and a dirty shirt open at the neck, who was writing a report with a nibbed pen. I took him at first for some kind of secretary, but from the glances the assistant chief kept throwing toward him I soon realized that this must be the chief in person. He seemed oblivious to my presence, and this lack of interest obviously nettled his assistant.
The assistant chief pulled out a blank sheet of paper. “You are a journalist?” he said, glaring at the passport. I nodded, adding that the relevant information had already been noted down the day before at the airport. “This is a special investigation,” he snapped, flicking the pages. Why did I live in Paris if I was working for an American magazine? What was I doing in the Congo? Why had I come to Bakwanga? To see the Balubas, I answered. He frowned. Why, yes, I had seen the Luluas in Luluabourg; now I wanted to see the Balubas in Bakwanga. The two sides of the coin: whatever I wrote, I wasn’t going to be accused of favoritism. He seemed put out by the answer, but scribbled an entry anyway. I had also come to see the President, who was waiting for me at this very moment. The reminder annoyed him. This was a special investigation, he repeated sharply. Why were there Belgians to meet me at the airport? I had been seen last night on the terrace of so-and-so’s house, talking. What were we talking about? The situation, I answered. What situation? The Bakwanga situation. What did I think of it? I hadn’t had time to form an opinion of it yet. What did the Belgians think of it, what did they say?
The interrogation went on in this cat-and-mouse way for a good five minutes, the assistant chief glancing up every now and then to see if the chief was listening. Apparently he wasn’t. I could hear the nib scratching diligently on the paper behind me. The assistant chief ruffled through the passport pages, looking desperately for a flaw in my visa, an expiration in the renewal date. He pulled out the dozen extra pages pasted into it by the embassy in Paris like a concertina, exasperated by the sight of all those African visas. Finally he got up and went over to the other desk, laying the passport down like a retriever dropping a bird at the foot of his master. The chief looked at the green cover with an expression of total disinterest.
“The President is waiting,” I repeated for the tenth time.
“Take him away,” said the chief in a bored voice. “Take him to the President.” He waved away the passport and went back to his report.
It was a bad day for the assistant chief of security, no doubt about it. At the entrance to the presidential villa the sentinel denied him admittance. He had to get out of the car, point to a badge on the windshield, pull out a photographed certificate, all the time shouting in an angry voice: “C’est la voiture de la Sûreté, vous ne voyez pas!” The soldier apparently didn’t, and the idea that the Surete Nationale could be stopped by the local soldiery made the assistant chief froth at the mouth. In the end the sentinel raised the white and red barrier, but only, I think, because he saw a soldier seated with a rifle in the front seat. Presumably if I were an assassin this man could take care of me.
PRESIDENT ‘NGALULA was waiting for me on the gravel drive in front of half a dozen Ford Galaxies, each with its dark-blue pennant and its dark-faced chauffeur. He greeted me with a soft handshake and a subtle, calculating smile. There was no mistaking the shrewdness behind those heavy lids and slanting cheeks; the general flabbiness of his appearance, emphasized by the pencil-thin bow tie and the bulging shirtfront, struck me as concealing the ruthlessness of a crocodile. I apologized for my tardiness, explaining that it was due to the exemplary zeal of the local security system. He nodded coolly and invited me to accompany the Belgian ambassador on the tour he was about to make ol the MIBA mining installations. He himself was staying behind — he had seen the installations before — but he hoped to see me later in the day.
I climbed into one of the MIBA Mercedes and the convoy set off. To reach the concession area we drove out over rough dirt roads which led past the sprawling native settlements with their corrugatecltin and adobe huts. More than half of the world’s industrial diamonds come from the mines of Bakwanga, which produce some fifteen million carats a year. My idea of a diamond mine, prior to my visit of the MIBA installations, was of a shaft sunk into the earth with galleries leading off on both sides full of miners digging away with picks and shovels. Nothing could have been more remote from the sight we were presented with — a vast, hollowcdout canyon of red earth full of twenty-ton trucks, steam shovels, and conveyor belts. On one edge of the canyon an immense machine, built by the German firm of Siemens, was poised on the sloping cliff face like a metal bird of prey. Its ceaselessly ascending metal buckets clawed up the soft red bank, spewing out their gritty contents over a conveyor belt which took the earth and rock to a factory more than a quarter of a mile away. One ton of earth in this area produces an average of five carats of diamonds, and this immense machine, which was about as big and as bony as a small suspension bridge, could excavate almost 8000 tons a day.
In the factory the earth is sifted, and the rock is washed and finally plunged in a ferrous oxide solution with a specific gravity of 3.5 — heavy enough to make all but the weightiest stones rise to the top, the diamonds sinking to the bottom. Even so, the final sifting of the diamonds, which a novice cannot possibly recognize, has to be done by hand, by experts who are locked into a “restricted” wire-cage area, where they sit poised and ready to pounce, like hawks, over a slowly moving belt carrying out a thin dribble of small stones and pebbles.
A long barbed-wire fence had been strung around the concession area, covering several hundred square miles, to deter amateur diamond collectors; but, as the president of the MIBA explained to us, a great deal of diamond-seeking went on outside, since the entire region for miles around contained diamond veins. Officially this informal prospecting was illegal, the Congolese government having an interest in maintaining a MIBA monopoly, since every carat legally exported to the diamond market in London had an export duty levied on it in Léopoldville. In practice, however, the clandestine prospecting and smuggling that went on in the Bakwanga region were so extensive that in the single month of May, 500,000 carats had found their way onto the black market of Brazzaville, compared with the 1,200,000 carats legally exported to Europe.
THAT evening after dinner I was taken around to meet a “character” with the robust Flemish name of Beulemans. I was warned that he was un original, given to blunt talk, and that I was not to be put out by whatever he might say. We found him sitting on the illuminated porch of his bungalow in front of a table with three empty beer cans. He was obviously out to deaden the pain, but being a burly man who could absorb a great deal, he still had a long way to go to confuse the tough lucidity of his brain. He had thick jowls and small squirrel-like eyes, and his powerful hairy hands gave off an impression of brute strength. The night air was full of tiny winged creatures like diminutive dragonflies, which kept pinging against the windows and settling on the walls around the light bulb.
Beulemans went back to the kitchen and returned with three more cans of Karlsberg beer. One of them was frozen solid and gave off a few drops when he cracked it open; the second fizzed expectantly but the contents were lukewarm. “You’re Irish, aren’t you?” he said, cracking open the third can. He looked at me unbelievingly when I told him I wasn’t, but seemed somewhat reassured to discover that I had Scottish blood in me. “I know a Celt when I see one,” he grunted, with an authoritative nod. He filled the remaining glass and sat down heavily.
“Let’s speak frankly,” he began, without further ado. “You Americans are incredibly naïve. You don’t understand the first thing about this continent, but you walk in as though you owned the place and immediately start flinging your money around, thinking everyone’s going to be grateful and love you for the rest of their lives. But that’s where you’re wrong. You don’t know the Bantu. The Bantu is a man always in this position” — he held out his forearm, palm upward, in the gesture of the beggar. “You ship eighty thousand tons of wheat into this country, patting yourselves on the back every time you think what a generous people you are. Well, you’re right, you are generous, but you’re also damned fools! Eighty thousand tons — what’s that for a colossus like the United States? Chicken feed, no more. Yes, but it isn’t chicken feed here. There’s not a place in the Congo where wheat can be grown; but you can grow corn, you can grow manioc practically anywhere. So all you’ve accomplished by bringing in all this wheat is to create a new taste for bread which didn’t exist before and which this country in the nature of things can’t satisfy. You’ve encouraged people to think that they can get something for nothing, that they can sit on their haunches, twiddling their thumbs, and still get fed, and you’re building up an appetite which is sure to be disappointed sometime in the future. Well, don’t be surprised if the day they no longer get free wheat from you, they suddenly turn against you. How can you people be so naive?” He took a swig of beer and put down his glass. “Well, I suppose it’s only natural. When I think of the mess you made of things in Europe — Yalta, Potsdam —” He let his thought trail off into silence.
Overhead the mayflies pinged and fluttered around the electric bulb. My Belgian friends smiled at me a bit nervously, not knowing quite what Beulemans was going to say next.
“How long have you been here?” he asked me suddenly. Two days, I told him. “No, I mean the Congo.” Three weeks, I answered. “Three weeks?” he rumbled, bringing down his glass. “Three weeks when you need three years to begin to understand these people. And that’s a mere beginning! I’ve been here twelve years and damned if I understand them. Here we sit on this porch, talking about the Congo as though we knew something about it, but what do we know about what goes on out there in the hinterland — fifty, seventy kilometers away, in places where the white man never penetrates? Nothing. But that’s the real Congo—out there where never a white mangoes and where they still have leopard men preying on the villages.” He stretched his hairy arm toward the blackness beyond the dimly silhouetted trees. The mayflies hovered around the light bulb.
“You want to know the problem of this country?” he continued. “I’ll tell you. What’s the population of the South Kasai —a million, a million two hundred thousand? Double it, and what do you get? Two million arms. Well, just try raising two million arms.” He lifted up his own in a gesture of ponderous hopelessness. “That’s the problem of this country in a nutshell how to lift those two million arms. How to get them to work. They’re not interested in working — not our kind of work anyway. Ask them to keep the streets clean; ask them to build better houses, to go out into the fields, raise cattle — they’re not interested. They’d rather do anything else. But don’t think they’re not busy. Oh no. Go out five, ten kilometers here roundabouts and keep your eyes open, and what will you find? You’ll find thirty to forty thousand people out there digging up the earth in their spare time. They know the moment they hit a gravel streak, they’re pretty certain to unearth a diamond or two, even if it’s only the size of a pinhead. They fill cans full of stones, carry them home, then wash all the stones and pebbles and carefully sift them. What you saw being done on an industrial scale by all those machines, they do by hand. Unbelievable, isn’t it? You’d never get a European to do it; it takes the patience of the Bantu. It may take them six months, a year, five years — it doesn’t matter. One day they’re certain they’ll come up with a diamond the size of a walnut, and they won’t have to do a lick of work for the rest of their lives. So on they go patiently filling their cans, and when they’ve collected enough they sell them to a Senegalese or a Malian in exchange for a transistor radio, a bicycle, or a Vespa. ‘Bring me a bottleful,’ the Senegalese says to him. So he brings the bottle, and the Senegalese pours it out in front of him and carefully examines each one to be sure they’re real diamonds.”
Where did the diamonds go from there? I asked. They were smuggled out of the country, Beulemans told me, the three main markets being Brazzaville, Monrovia, and Usumbura. From there most of them went to Israel and West Germany, the chief buyers. “And don’t think the MIBA is stupid enough not to know what’s going on. It knows perfectly well — inside as well as outside the concession, for that barbed wire you saw doesn’t keep them out, never fear. But if the rascals want to climb over and dig in concession territory, what can you do about it? They can’t station guards every hundred yards and have them shoot at everything that moves. There’s enough wild shooting in this country as it is. So they let things take their course. A couple of weeks ago fifty of them climbed over the fence and were digging away madly when the bank gave way and they were buried in an avalanche. The MIBA didn’t have to guess twice to know what had caused the landslide, but they simply sat tight. The greatest punishment for an African, remember, is not to be able to retrieve the body of his own kin.”
He brought out some more cans and refilled the glasses. I should stick around a while longer, he went on, sitting down again heavily in his wicker chair. It wasn’t in a couple of days that I would understand what was really going on around here. But I could take it from him that there was more in all this than met the eye, even a wary and experienced eye like his. For it wasn’t just those poor devils out there digging with stones or sticks or their bare hands who were hard at it — no, there wasn’t a politician in the place who wasn’t up to his neck in the business himself. Just a couple of weeks before, the Chef de Cabinet of the local Minister of the Interior had been caught at the Léopoldville airport with eighty diamonds on him. But what the hell, they had to get rich somehow, and what else was there for all these stool pigeons to do?
“Talk of bureaucratic proliferation! We Europeans could take a few lessons from these people. Just think, it took the Belgians three thousand people to run the South Kasai, and that included, in addition to regular administrators and teachers, the agricultural inspectors who no longer exist. Well, you know how many Africans are on the public payroll here today? Fifteen thousand five times as many, in just three years!”
There were also, it seemed to me, five times as many mayflies pinging and fluttering over our heads. Two lizards had crept out onto the walls and were having a feast, but as fast as they devoured them new victims alighted. One of the Belgians who had brought me over remarked that when the éphémères — the “ephemera,” as they are known to biologists — were this thick, his Negro “boys” were nowhere to be found; they would knock off work and spend their time hunting them. I asked him what they did with them. “Grill them and eat them,” was the answer. “They’re considered a great delicacy.”
AT THE airport two days later the atmosphere was unusually hectic even for the Congo. A plane had just landed, and the incoming passengers were being put through the wringer in the same narrow, cell-like room as the outgoing passengers. There was much heaving and shoving of fat, sweating bodies, and the same information extracted from my passport was jotted down, letter by letter and figure by figure, by three different men in three different registers — one for the police, one for the customs, and one, I presumed, for the Surete. The Bakwangans were taking no chances: they were making sure I wouldn’t slip out of town unobserved.
While the information was laboriously being penned at the third desk, a sudden altercation broke out between a nasty little man in a dirty shirt and a burly, pockmarked policeman in a gray uniform. “I’ll report you!” cried the dirty little man in French. “I’ll arrest you!” shouted the pockmarked policeman, also in French. “No you won’t. I’ll have you arrested!” cried the little man banging the table with a diminutive fist. “Have me arrested?” thundered the policeman in a dark rage. “I’ll have you flung into jail!” The argument went on like this for a good three minutes. No blows were exchanged, and in the end neither arrested the other, though the air in the small office continued to crackle with muttered threats. The larger of the two evidently worked for the local police, and the smaller for the Surete Nationale; he must have been from some other part of the Congo, which is why they swore at each other in French rather than in Chiluba, the language of the Kasai.
Next door my baggage was treated to the most meticulous inspection ever visited upon it. Two customs men, one in a soldier’s uniform, the other in a collarless shirt, fingered through the contents, leaving no bottle unopened and no bag unzipped. I had to open my toilet kit, unzip the leather back of a clothes brush. The soldier picked up a bottle of white lotion. “What’s this?” he growled. His suspicion only grew when I told him it was hand lotion. He unscrewed the top and poured a gob of white emulsion into his pale, dark-edged palm. He sniffed it, and for a moment I thought he was going to lick it. I poured out a little into my palm and rubbed it into the skin, by way of demonstration. He tried it on his own hands, viewing the streaks of greasy white against his own dark skin with unspeakable distaste. This was followed by a tenminute wait in front of an obstinately closed door before I was admitted, like one more human driblet, to a room packed with bags, bodies, and bundles of blankets.
Outside on the airfield I spotted the cause of the unusual commotion. A four-engine plane with UN markings stood on the runway. The Belgian ambassador had just taken off for Léopoldville, and the British ambassador traveling with the UN representative for the Kasai, who was also English, had just flown in from Luluabourg.
While I was waiting for our flight to be called, President ‘Ngalula came across the field holding a lighted cigarette. “So you are leaving?” he said, extending a limp hand.
“Yes, Monsieur le Président,” I answered.
“You didn’t come to see me?” he said, in a tone of mild reproach, watching me closely from beneath the heavy lids. It would have been undiplomatic to answer that I had been more interested in seeing something of the local countryside than in plying him with naïve questions which he would have parried with evasive answers.
“This is a busy airport, Monsieur le President,” I said, to divert the conversation. “Bakwanga, I see, is an important center.”
“Yes, and it’s getting more and more important,” he nodded. The heavy lids lifted slightly, and in the two dark pools behind I caught a fleeting glint of diamonds. Then they lowered again, like steel traps, and he gave me a slow smile before wishing me bon voyage.
At the Léopoldville airport we were made to queue up once again. It was a long queue, which ended, oddly enough, at a door marked WC. The door kept opening and closing, and the passengers drifted back one by one. “What’s going on?” someone asked.
“Inspection,” answered a passenger walking by.
“ Inspection?” a voice behind me asked. “What for?”
“Diamonds,” I said, for a lack of a better suggestion. But diamonds it was.