To accommodate the “need of the service,’ I was transferred to the northwestern Congo after I’d been in the Kivu about two months. I was sent to establish an American Cultural Center in Coquilhatville. After opening the center, I got chased out of the Equateur by the Simba Rebellion. I had the good fortune to be reassigned to finish out my Congo tour on the shores of Lake Kivu.
When I returned to Bukavu after an absence of fifteen months, many things had changed. But not everything. Paul Wemboyendja still had great contacts and still was chasing women. And I still wanted to see some country.
What had changed? There was a new consul, a single man divorced from a French woman, who had started his overseas career with USAID in Vietnam. Two American officers now staffed the Bukavu cultural center. The departing Public Affairs Officer, whom I replaced on TDY, had extended USIS functions about as far as possible in and around Bukavu. Paul Polakoff, the information officer, published a bulletin in French each weekday, taking its contents from Voice of America radio transmissions. It went to 450 recipients and was read twice daily over Radio Bukavu in French and Swahili.
Rebellion had gripped the Congo. Although it showed no signs of combat, Bukavu had been a battleground. Pockets of rebels were still operating in parts of the Kivu. An American lieutenant colonel, maybe forty-five, and a translator/driver half his age were now stationed at the consulate to advise the local ANC (army) commander who wanted no advice.
Because Bukavu was still considered dangerous−−no American woman could serve there−−most of these men bunked in the consul’s house. I had lived there when I first served in Bukavu, fresh from my first post in Brussels. A contingent of CIA officers had moved into the house next door.
Shortly after I returned, the consul wanted to travel to Goma at the north end of the lake. His purpose was to discourage American missionaries from returning to isolated stations until the rebellion was in hand. He suggested that I might like to drive the film truck in tandem with him.
USIS Léopoldville had produced a film showing the central government’s attack on the rebel stronghold at Stanleyville. It was to be given the widest possible distribution.
“You up for a trip to Goma?” I asked Paul Wemboyendja.
“Ah, oui, Monsieur. Bien sur!” he replied with an enormous grin.
“Are there places beyond Goma where we could go?”
At this question Paul’s grin grew even broader. “We could do several showings in Goma,” he suggested. “Hit Gisenyi in Rwanda. Even Vitshumbi if you want to go that far.” His eyebrows oscillating, he laughed at the mention of the Lake Edward fishing village where the accommodating Belgian lent his truck to pull us out of mud.
We began to plan a major foray north of Goma.
Wherever we went our truck would be loaded with appropriate gear for showing films. We would carry two projectors with loud-speakers, a portable screen, a generator, the films themselves, four jerry cans of gasoline, two of water. We would also take along two canvas pouch bags of the USIS publication Perspectives Américaines, twelve stacks of Nouveaux Horizons books for schools, three small boxes of pamphlets plus a carton of NH biographies of President Lyndon Johnson for government leaders.
Having returned only recently to the Kivu, I let Paul propose the film show sites. He suggested two to six locations in and around Goma, the area’s largest town. Nearby was Kiretshe-Saké, the seat of the provincial government of North Kivu. Farther afield lay Rumangabe, the site of an ANC camp; Jemba where there was a Catholic secondary school; the town of Rutshuru; possibly Ruindi camp in Parc Albert where Paul and I had lodged on our Parc Albert safari; and the Vitshumbi fishing camp. Those were Paul’s suggestions.
He and I consulted a map. “What about Lubero, Butembo, and Beni?” I asked.
I had heard the consul whispering with the CIA boys about an operative at work in Beni. I thought it might be interesting to take a look at the place.
Paul shrugged.
“We might even go as far as the Ruwenzoris,” I said. “Make a side trip to the Ituri forest.” I had recently read Colin Turnbull’s The Forest People.
Paul laughed because this was clearly getting out of hand. He asked, “You want to show films to pygmies?”
“I understand there are some gorgeous pygmy girls.” I mentioned this as a sweetener, “You’d have something to boast about when you got back to Bukavu.”
Paul looked interested and laughed.
“What I really want to do,” I admitted, “is to get to the source of the Semliki Nile on the north bank of Lake Edward.” Huge herds of hippos were said to graze there. The idea of watching a thousand hippos at one time inflamed my imagination.
“You’re talking several weeks,” Paul said.
“Maybe a month. We’d have to carry food.” I was not an adventures-in-eating traveler. Probably I would not want to eat what Africans ate−−unless I got very, very hungry.
“What if the truck broke down?” Paul asked. “What if we got stuck?” He was recalling our adventures on the Kivu safari.
“I’d really like to do this,” I said.
“I would like to go to Paris,” replied Paul.
“We’ll do this first.”
Paul laughed at my insane desire to play Livingston, Speke, and Burton, all rolled into one.
When I broached my idea of the film trip to USIS Léopoldville, I was told that rebel activity north of Beni precluded any plans for Lubero-Butembo-Beni.
The consul doubted that our vehicle could reach the source of the Semliki Nile. ANC soldiers were shooting at anything that moved near Lake Edward. That eliminated Vitshumbi as well. “For the time being,” decided the consul, “maybe Goma is as far north as you should go.” Including two days of travel, that would mean a trip of less than a week.
Then at breakfast one morning the consul announced that the new prime minister of Burundi, a Hutu friendly to the West, had been assassinated. The assassin had shot him outside a hospital where he’d just visited his wife and newborn baby. With that development the consul postponed his plans for a trip.
But Paul Wemboyendja and I did get away. Our first day’s drive to Goma was pleasant, the lake enthralling as always. It was the short dry season, late January. A haze covered the lake. As we approached Goma which sits on the eastern edge of an 1889 volcanic eruption, the volcanoes behind the town revealed themselves only sporadically.
I looked forward to stopping at the Hotel des Grands Lacs. But the town was busy when we arrived. It stayed that way throughout our visit. An Air Congo flight had been cancelled. Its passengers filled the hotel to capacity.
Paul chose to stay in Goma at a Congolese pension where he was known and welcomed by la patronne. He may have spent previous nights with her. I found lodging across the Rwanda border in Gisenyi. I had thought we might show films that night in Goma. But because the border closed at 6:00, no shows were possible.
The next morning I was able to get rooms for Paul and me in the Hotel des Grands Lacs. When I connected with Paul, we decided to organize a special showing that evening. Since our information goal was to bolster Congolese confidence in US military backing for the central government, the program would consist of the USIS Léo production about US paratroops dropping into Stanleyville and another USIS film discussing the American defense system and its worldwide commitments.
To organize the showing, we visited the Léo-appointed Commissaire Général Extraordinaire. On behalf of the central government, he was charged with maintaining law and order in the territories of Goma and Rutshuru. Although claimed by the province of North Kivu, these territories refused to join it. The Commissaire was happy to help us; he even agreed that we should hold the showing at his residence, the former home of the Belgian governor.
Paul and I divided tasks. With the help of the North Kivu information man, Paul prepared invitations, devised a guest list, submitted it to the Commissaire for approval, and delivered the invitations.
I checked into the hotel and toted information materials into my room. There I assembled seventy info packets for our guests. Each one included USIS pamphlets, a Nouveaux Horizon book, and a copy of President Lyndon Johnson’s inaugural address, rated only C+ by the consul. Some of the NH books were Johnson biographies. The story of his hard-won rise from Texas dirt farmer might give hope to ambitious members of the Congolese elite.
Our morning chores done, Paul and I descended on the Commissaire’s residence in the afternoon to rearrange furniture, transforming the parlor into a theater, and set up our equipment. We returned at 6:45 to welcome guests. The Commissaire himself was down at the border, trying to convince border guards to allow the Prefect of Gisenyi cross to attend the show. They refused.
The showing began well. Then Paul rolled a film I introduced as Pour Maintenir la Paix (To Maintain Peace) about American defense capabilities. On the screen flashed the words: “La Visite de Monsieur Houphet-Boigny à Washington.” (“Houphet-Boigny’s Visit to Washington”) What? It was a newsreel, the wrong film. I blurted: “Je vous prie de nous excuser, Messieurs-Dames. Nous allons arrêter la séance pendant quelques minutes.” (Please excuse us. We’ll stop the show for a few minutes.)
The wrong film! How had that happened? I had expressly told Paul to check the films before we left Bukavu. Now I was annoyed at myself for not checking them myself. Apparently films borrowed over the weekend had been replaced in the wrong cans.
But this was the Congo. The audience could not have been less concerned. Mistakes were part of the developing world. Everyone took them in stride. Our audience had seen few films recently and was happy with whatever we showed them.
I reported to my masters in Léo that the evening constituted an information triumph. In a matter of ten hours and without prior arrangement we set up a dignitaries showing of our films. We gathered several dozen of the most important Congolese of Goma and North Kivu. We showed them films, chatted them up, and placed USIS info packets in their hot little hands.
The next morning we showed films in several auditoriums. These were easy to set up. Nothing needed to be done by prior arrangement. That afternoon while Paul drove the film truck around town, announcing our evening show through loudspeakers, I crossed back over to Gisenyi for a swim in Lake Kivu. It was impossible to swim at Bukavu due to the presence of bilharzia, but entirely safe, I was assured, in Gisenyi. How refreshing it was!
That evening Paul and I drove down to Saké. A rather grubby collection of shanties, it was a marked contrast to our previous evening in the former governor’s palace. We arrived at the soccer field to find the viewing stand choked with Congolese. Milling youngsters filled the playing field, all of them excited, some frenzied, at the prospect of movies.
As we entered the field, kids surrounded the film truck, screaming, dancing, gyrating, yelling, “See-nay-ma! See-nay-ma!” Paul laughed with his usual delight.
We anticipated that our audience would number 500. But it looked as if the crowd might exceed 2,000. We were the biggest attraction the town had seen in months. The audience’s excitement empowered Paul. Because clouds were gathering ominously, it disconcerted me.
“These folks look pretty wound up,” I observed. “We gonna be able to handle them?”
“No problem!” Paul delightedly replied, energized by their anticipation.
“What if it rains?”
What indeed! The sky grew dark. The temperature fell. Wind came up. Droplets wet our faces. We repacked the equipment we’d already unloaded. We took refuge in the cab of the truck to see what happened.
The droplets became a downpour. Curtains of raindrops fell on the field, slowly at first, then in torrents. The crowd ran for the viewing pavilion. They overwhelmed it with bodies. Unlike Americans, Congolese did not object to their private space being invaded. Kids piled on top of each other. I hoped no one would be trampled.
As Paul and I watched through the downpour, the pavilion became a breathing creature. First it would push out like a body gasping for air. That was humanity at the rear of the pavilion pushing forward. People would spill off the pavilion. Then they would hurl themselves back onto it and the body would contract like lungs exhaling.
“We wait, right?” I asked Paul.
“We wait, Monsieur.”
Rain pelted the field. The air grew colder. The rain turned to hail. It clattered against the viewing stand roof, against the hood of our truck. We sat in the cab, getting ever wetter. We could not possibly drive off the field and disappoint the excited Congolese. There might be a riot in the rain. In any case, we could not see five yards in front of us. We did not know the roads.
There was nothing to do but wait out the downpour. We could not see. We sat, soaking wet and laughed at our predicament. At the time I thought: What a damn silly way to earn a living!
When the storm passed, we again set up our equipment and showed our films. Did it matter that everybody was wet? No. We showed films until finally the screen collapsed.
The next day we did four Goma film showings and headed back to Bukavu through central Rwanda. More country to see. Why not take a look? No roads were paved except in the capital Kigali. Heading down on a mountain road, very narrow, we passed an up-coming vehicle so close that its chassis scraped off our outside mirror.
We spent the night at Gabiro at the rest house for Kagera Park, Rwanda’s sole game reserve. An Irish couple managed the place and provided quite a tasty dinner, zebra steak. We had topi stew the next day for lunch.
Earlier that morning Paul and I toured the park, bringing different mind sets to our game run. When I watched zebra, impala, topi, eland and even bush pigs, I saw only grace, beauty and the freedom of living wild. “Isn’t this fantastic!” I rhapsodized. “What beauty Nature has!”
Paul gazed at me skeptically, then looked at the animals. He commented, “Good steaks.”
Continuing our travels, Paul and I passed through dense mountain jungle between Butare and Bukavu. The day was cold and misty. The trees grew thicker than I had ever seen them. Batwa−−pygmies−−lived in that forest. We saw their herds−−goats, cattle, and pigs−−and men small of stature tending them. I did not need to go to the Ituri to encounter pygmies.
I was glad to get back to Bukavu. But I never lost my hope to reach the Semliki Nile and see one thousand hippos grazing there.