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Field notes

A Congo Journey 1958 – Part Three

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

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/

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.


This piece is based on diaries and letters written at the time with some subsequent commentary

picture 3.jpg

Centre of Kalemie (formerly Albertville) 2012. Photo Orrling”. Source: Wikimedia


From here on the road turned inland rising above the lake and into the dense forest beyond. The roads seemed poorly maintained and little travelled and clearly anyone with any sense or without the need to take a car would have covered the distance by boat on the lake. We could see what looked like ferries from the hillside. Sometimes the road became one way with no room to pass or detour. However, when embarking on a section like this an African would appear and beat an oil drum to warn anyone coming the other way. In this way there did seem to be a certain level of traffic control.

We were on our way to Albertville (now Kalemie) the main communication centre for this part of the country and the next big town on the Congo side of the lake. On the way we learned a bit more history. It wasn’t the search for ivory which had devastated these areas in the nineteenth century, but a punishing slave trade organised not from Europe but by Arab merchants based in Zanzibar. Albertville had been one of the centres for this and it was the Arab slavers it seems who had first brought back reports of a giant river in the centre of Africa. It was this that led European explorers like Stanley to venture into the interior, and indeed helped to persuade Belgium’s King Leopold to bid for the Congo in the Berlin Conference of 1884, the so called ‘scramble for Africa’ when most of sub-Saharan Africa was parcelled out between European powers. The Belgians cleared the Arabs out of the Congo when they took over but we wondered what vestiges of this past if any remained in the town.

In one village on the way we shared the gite with a Belgian administrator and his wife. He was a small man with a moustache, visibly shrinking from the riot of Africa. The roof had blown off their house and his wife, grim faced, was trying to turn the gite into a Belgian parlour. But they were won over by Anthony’s charm and his good French and in the end we spent an interesting evening with them. Monsieur was quite frank. He did not like the Africans and did not understand them. He had come because jobs were scarce in Belgium and in the Congo the pay was good. They were Flemish, I think from Antwerp. He was quite realistic and believed that the Belgians should take what they could from the Congo while the going was good. He was critical of what he called the British ‘half-hearted attitude’ to colonialism.

We decided to go into Albertville and see what we could. We did not stay in the grand Hotel du Lac but in a smaller one downtown. This was a mistake; the hotel was shabby but still very expensive (250 francs a night) and the Belgian staff were unhelpful. However, after breakfast I found a friendly Congolese in bright red shorts sweeping out my room. He was called Alphonse and had the innate intelligence and pugnacious jaw which in East Africa I would have expected to find behind the trade union desk or in the thick of a mass meeting. I could communicate with Alphonse in Swahili but to my surprise he did not know the word for politics (I think I used utetezi,meaning someone who agitates for a cause)or indeed the concept behind it. Bad things (which definitely included his Belgian employer) were part of life and could not be changed. He had not heard of Ghana and when I told him that there were countries in Africa where the Africans controlled the government his mouth dropped open and he asked me to take him there.

Walking around Albertville and looking at maps, we began to understand Belgian strategy better. A’ville, as it was called, was a commercial and communications centre. A prosperous small town. The Belgians had tried to tame their huge colony by linking the navigable sections of the great rivers to stretches of rail in order that they could export the Congo’s amazing mineral and other resources and import manufactured goods from the home country. So A’ville was connected by rail to Kindu in the interior which was on a navigable stretch of the Congo river. From A’ville goods could also be ferried across the lake to Kigoma in Tanganyika and thence by rail to Dar es Salaam and the Indian Ocean. Lake Tanganyika itself was a busy thoroughfare. Further south Elisabethville the mining centre was connected by rail all the way down to Cape Town in South Africa and westwards to the Kasai river and from there to Leopoldville and the port of Boma.

All of this seemed efficient and effective, and certainly Belgium appeared to be putting a lot more money into infrastructure and modernization in her colonies than was Britain into hers. However, the Africans were in no sense partners in this venture and even the idea of the ‘civilizing mission’ so often referred to in East Africa to justify colonialism appeared to have little purchase. Africans it seemed supplied a low paid labour force in the mines, in agriculture and in the household. The opportunities to rise above this level were strictly limited. The attention to transport did not extend to the roads, an improvement in which would have been of much more benefit to the local populations.


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