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Field notes

A Congo Journey 1958

Catherine Hoskyns is currently Professor Emerita
in International Relations at Coventry University, UK.
In 1965 she published The Congo since Independence Jan 1960 – Dec 1961. a study of the breakdown in the Congo after independence, focusing on the international context.
For further biographical information and details of publications see: https://www.coventry.ac.uk/life-on-campus/staff-directory/arts-and-humanities/professor-catherine-hoskyns/



A Congo Journey 1958
Catherine Hoskyns


In 1958 I left Kenya and travelled by car through Uganda and the Eastern Congo towards what was then Rhodesia. I spent about three weeks in Kivu and Katanga. What follows is an account of that journey based on contemporary notes and letters and my memory. I have added a few more recent comments.

At the end I have posed two questions for readers concerning the nature of the music scene in Kivu at that time and the level of political development. I should welcome any comments on these questions or on any other issues raised by the piece. What we saw and what we did not see strike me as relevant questions.

I am grateful to Gillian Mathys for contributing three photos of contemporary Kivu. What is surprising, given the history, is how similar they seem to what I remember.



I was working as a journalist in Nairobi, Kenya for most of 1957 and into 1958. This was soon after the ending of the Mau Mau uprising which had been brutally repressed by the British government. The situation was very tense. However, an attempt was being made to give Africans some token representation and eight African members had been directly elected to the Legislative Council. I was working for an Asian owned newspaper and my job was to report on this newly emerging African politics. I was fascinated and became involved in a personal as well as professional way. I was 23 at the time.

By early 1958 I was viewed with disfavour by parts of the white establishment both for my reporting and for my personal involvements. I was strongly advised to leave. As it happened, a British friend of mine, Anthony, was planning to drive from Nairobi to what was then Southern Rhodesia. He offered me a lift and I accepted thinking this would make something positive out of my departure. The first All African Peoples Conference was due to be held in Ghana in late 1958 and I hoped to be able to travel through South and West Africa and be in Ghana by that time. It could be quite a journalistic coup to be there, I thought, given my contacts in East Africa and elsewhere.  At some stage, I don’t know quite when, we decided to drive south through the Eastern Congo rather than take the more usual route through Tanganyika. The starting point for the trip would be Uganda.

Picture 1.jpg

 ‘a page from notes on the journey through the Congo, written soon after’.



I arrived in Uganda after an overnight trip by train from Nairobi to find Anthony staying at Makerere University in Kampala. I don’t remember much of my stay there except that we partied every night and he introduced me to a beautiful and erudite South African writer – Noni Jabavu. She was in her late thirties and married to an English film maker.  They could not live in South Africa where miscegenation was now a crime and had settled in Uganda. I was impressed with her sophistication which seemed to demonstrate the greater cultural depth of both Makerere and South Africa. I enjoyed discussing literature again and realised how much I had missed this in the sharp and edgy politics of Nairobi.

Despite the parties, Anthony and I found time to visit the Belgian consulate in Kampala. The situation was strange. The Belgian Congo, as it was then called, bordered on Uganda and was a huge and important country which stretched down to the south and right over to West Africa. It was in effect an enormous tract of territory which surrounded the multiple sources and giant curve of the Congo river. And yet no one in Uganda seemed to know much about it and we struggled to find a single map. This vast territory was entirely governed by the Belgian state which showed no sign of granting independence or even training an African elite and depended for much of its wealth on minerals and agricultural produce imported from the colony. The official in the consulate couldn’t understand why two English people wanted to go there and was somewhat suspicious, especially as we said we intended to camp and not stay in hotels. He concluded that we must be missionaries. In the end he told us that we might be able to find gites along the way. These were small dwellings with rudimentary furniture where Belgian administrators used to stay on their way through the country. They weren’t much used now, he said, as most Belgians flew, but the Africans in the neighbouring villages would be used to looking after people who stayed in the gitesand we should have no difficulty in finding food.


We acquired some Belgian francs (no Congolese francs seemed to be available in Kampala) and did the necessary paperwork. We then began the drive out of Kampala towards the Ruwenzori Mountains, also known as the Mountains of the Moon. These and a string of lakes formed the border with the Congo. I realised as we drove through the lush vegetation and staggering scenery that we were in an extension to the south and west of Kenya’s own Rift Valley, part of the massive geological fault which stretches from the Sudan in the north to what was then Rhodesia. Arriving in Mbarara, one of the last towns in Uganda, we decided not to be tempted into the Ruwenzoris, but to turn south and head for Goma the first real town in the Congo. As a result, we missed a sight of the mountain gorillas before they became famous in the work of the naturalist Dian Fossey and in the dramatic and tragic film Gorillas in the Mist. I remember seeing this film in the eighties in England and wishing we had made that detour. However, our route was not short of excitement as waterbuck, baboons and sometimes elephants crossed and re-crossed the roads – making driving hazardous.

As we went along, we realised that the famous nineteenth century meeting between the journalist Stanley and the missionary Livingstone had probably taken place not far from where we were going. We had both read Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and wondered if the pillaging for ivory described in the story had extended this far east. There was so much we did not know. I also wondered if the capital of the Congo, Leopoldville, way over on the west coast, could possibly be kept immune from the influence of Ghana and other West African states, and whether politicians from the Congo would be attending the All African Conference in Accra to which I was heading.  A dense silence hung over this part of the Congo. The Belgian we met in the consulate had called it ‘le Congo profond’.

On the way we discussed how we were going to organise the trip. Anthony was a much better driver than me and also rather protective of his car. So it seemed sensible for him to do most of the driving – with me as reserve. That left me to organise our food and the stores, using skills acquired on family camping holidays and during spiritual retreats in Norfolk. Luckily, we were both easy going and not censorious. I was happy to be driven and he to be cooked for. This rather traditional division of tasks seemed to me at that time to be OK. In fact, I quite relished the chance to show off some domestic skills.

Goma, ‘lava city’, was a most curious place – eerie but beautiful. It was built on the slopes of an active volcano, Mount Nyiragongo. There was activity in the crater most of the time and eruptions were always a possibility although the last serious one was way back in 1904. The mountain later erupted in 1977 and again in 2002, this frequency being popularly attributed to the violence and corruption which enveloped the Congo in the years after independence. As it was, the streets were built on lava and the rich volcanic soil was densely cultivated.

We arrived as I remember late in the afternoon, enchanted to see that the town ran down to the edge of Lake Kivu. We decided to stay in a hotel since we needed supplies and could see nowhere to camp. The one we chose was starkly simple. But in a way it did not matter where you stayed, the ambiance was so thrilling. I was particularly struck by the fact that when we went out in the evening the mountain glowed red in the distance and steam could be seen rising from the crater.

The town appeared active but orderly. The Belgians were clearly in charge but seemed matter of fact compared with the eccentric and high living white settlers we had both known in Kenya. The Africans appeared to accept their lower status and there were few if any middle ranking African tai-taiswho were such a feature of Nairobi.  As future events were to show, fears and resentments lay buried not too far beneath this calm exterior, but they were not apparent at that time – at least not to us. The threat from the volcano was much more overt.


picture 2.jpg

Example of a villa near Kivu included in the 1951 tourist guide-Travellers Guide to the Belgian Congo (1951)


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