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Field notes

A Congo Journey 1958 – Part two

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.
She has maintained a long-term interest in developments
in East and Central Africa but has also done research and taught courses on gender politics and the history of the European Union.
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 – Part Two
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.

Picture Gillian 3.jpg

Bukavu

We hadn’t come well prepared for this trip. We had no list of contacts and only the barest knowledge of history. However, entirely by chance we were linguistically well equipped. Anthony spoke fluent French and me a bit.  Also, to my surprise, most Africans at least in this part of the Congo spoke a version of Swahili, and thanks to the efforts of some of my Nairobi friends I could converse quite well with them. So Anthony soothed the Belgians while I tried to chat with the Africans we met.

From Goma we drove down the west side of the lake to Bukavu, another beautiful small town built on promontories into the lake. The villas were white and twinkled in the sun. The colours were vibrant. Trees and plants in all shades of green climbed up the hills surrounding the lake which was in turn blue and gunmetal grey. It seemed to me that this whole area, with its abundant wild life and challenging scenery, was just waiting to be developed as a tourist and leisure centre for the whole of East Africa. We could not believe the Belgians had been able to keep it to themselves for so long.

Much later I discovered in the British Library a copy of the Traveller’s Guide to the Belgian Congopublished in English in 1951. This is immensely detailed down to hotel prices and times of trains. Tim Butcher, the South African journalist who in 2004 attempted to follow Stanley’s exploration of the Congo river, recounts that he also found a copy in a second-hand bookshop in Johannesburg.  So it would seem that in the fifties the Belgians were looking south to the apartheid regimes of South Africa and Rhodesia for tourists – as well as for other support.

However, the rosy future I imagined was not to be. All of this area was fought over first in the ethnic and political strife which took place in the sixties and then again in the nineties as a result of the genocide in neighbouring Rwanda. Refugees from Rwanda escaped over the border into the Congo and were pursued by armed and vicious gangs which then took vengeance on the local people. The discovery in this part of the Congo of coltan and other minerals important in the electronics industry (they come from the volcanic rocks) added to the conflict. Much of the Belgian infrastructure was destroyed in these upheavals and not replaced. The extraordinary natural beauty I imagine remains – and ‘gorilla tours’ are now possible in the mountains.

We stayed a night in Bukavu where we equipped ourselves for more rigorous living in gites – or whatever we found further south. We were headed now for the shores of Lake Tanganyika the longest and deepest lake in Africa. The road from Bukavu to Uvira, the first Congolese town on the lake, was red and rutted and we drove through sandy plains. We began on this part of the trip to find ways of entertaining each other. Anthony had a good bass voice and I remember him singing, among other snatches of opera, the high priest’s song from The Magic Flute. I think it was ‘In these sacred halls’, a solo aria, slow and impressive.He also had a repertoire of saucy French chansons.I had reverted to a religious phase and had gone back to saying The Hours, the daily set of prayers which monks and nuns use, and which had so bewitched me in my youth.

 

The gite

Compline, the evening service, was my favourite and I had just embarked on reading it aloud when we saw a notice before us saying: gite. The lake shore was close and on a rise to our right stood a small thatched house. We stopped to have a look. Steps led up to a stone veranda and inside was a room with a shaky table and two chairs. Behind this was an empty room with a stone floor. A notice on the table said that the price to visitors was 15 francs a night.

We decided to stay. The backroom was better than a tent and we had rugs and rucksacks. When we came out, we found the car surrounded by at least sixteen African children. They appeared struck dumb at first but soon regained their gaiety – running in and out and helping us to unpack. Soon after, an elderly African emerged from the bush. He asked us politely if we wanted to stay and when we said we did he sent the children off to fetch fresh water, an oil lamp and a very stale white loaf which he said was ‘white man’s food’.

They then brought us to their village. The huts had shaggy reed roofs and the mud walls were decorated with patterns and frescoes of prancing animals that seemed to race round corners. Once there we were given small white eggs and carefully graded fish impaled on sharp sticks for us to cook. We celebrated this feast with a bottle of champagne which Anthony had brought with him.

What could we do for them we wondered but in the end we saw that we were entertainment, probably the best they had had for months. The children watched our every move and even climbed up trees to see better. There was no antagonism only fascination, the high point being Anthony’s morning shave which turned into a comedy act with water and soapsuds flying everywhere.

Next morning, I started to screw hooks into the inside of the van so we could hang up our supplies. Suddenly the door jammed and I could not open it. An African boy who was watching stopped smiling and whispered under his breath ‘Hallelujah, Hallelujah.’ ‘Why do you say that?’ I asked. ‘Say Hallelujah’ he begged. I said Hallelujah and felt the door give under my hand. He was delighted and started dancing round the van with the other children. I was impressed.

We never found agiteas beautiful as this one although some of the others had beds. We gave the old man fifty francs and the children various mementoes including the champagne bottle which they filled with water and sprayed everywhere.

Picture Gillian 1.jpeg

 

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