It was a glorious equatorial African evening, just before dusk, that beautiful red and orange sky just prior to the sun setting, minutes before it becomes pitch black at a stroke. I was running along main street (I say ‘main street’ – we just had the one street) joyously driving a bicycle wheel rim with a stick, lost in the child’s world. I’d just passed Mugumulema, the town ‘idiot’ and beggar. The poor fellow suffered from crippling elephantitis. One of his legs resembled an elephant’s foot. Kids taunted him constantly.
So there I was, driving my wheel when I noticed a convoy of cars approach. The first car slowed down stopping near me. The cars were amazing. They were like the American cars we saw in the movies – long, sleek, lots of chrome and with tail fins.
The driver, a blond white man said: “Which way to Kampala?” A white woman in a torn dress sat alongside and there were 2 young children in the back seat.
I pointed towards the road they had to take.
As they U-turned and sped off in a cloud of dust I ran alongside, futilely trying to race with them. People stood on the roadside waving to them, some ululating . I recall a couple of ragged African children running too on the other side of the road, shouting, waving and cheering.
We rarely saw white people and when we did they were always self-possessed, aloof and unapproachable. They were, after all, in charge. We were raised to be in awe of them. This group of whites though, were dirty, disheveled and looked terrified- the first time I had seen them as fragile, frightened human beings. Their amazing cars were dented and dirty. They spoke a strange English with an accent I did not recognize. The scene was extraordinary, if bizarre.
When I got home Mummy said: “Where have you been, baba?! Dinner’s ready. Wash up and join Daddy at the table.”
“I was near the post office. Did you see those amazing huge cars? Who were those muzungus (whites)? They asked me the way to Kampala.”
Dad said: “Really? Sameo mentioned the cars. They must be Belgians fleeing from the Congo. There’s a war going on. Let’s turn on the news.”
Dad listened to the news on the radio, the BBC World service. The newsreader, in that authoritative plummy BBC voice, spoke of the savagery of the fighting, of the thousands of refugees, of the spread of the dreaded Communism.
On the 30th of June, 1960, when I was 7, a nationalist freedom movement in the Belgian Congo got the independence they had been demanding of their colonial Belgian rulers. The colonial presence for almost a hundred years brutalized and ravaged the Congo, the scars still showing today. In 1867, King Leopold II, not wanting to be outdone by other European powers, sought to exercise Belgium power in Africa and when he did not get the support of his people, struck out on his own. He eventually conquered what came to be called the Belgium Congo, a particularly difficult terrain to overcome as it was crossed by many enormous, roaring, unmapped rivers, lethal tropical diseases and dense, impenetrable jungle. He treated it as his personal fiefdom and it is claimed that the managers of his estate slaughtered millions of Africans with impunity. The count is unclear and unverified but it was genocide whichever way you look at it. Their savagery is explored in Josef Conrad’s ironically titled ‘Heart of Darkness’ which, in turn, inspired Coppola’s ‘Apocalypse Now’.
The transition to African rule was managed poorly and within days of independence power struggles commenced. Preparations for issues of federalism and ethnicity were unresolved. Within a week of independence violence broke out between black and white civilians, parts of the army mutinied and Belgium troops were flown in to protect and evacuate fleeing whites. Names like Patrice Lumumba , Josef Kasa-Vubu and Antoine Gizenga could be heard on the radio daily. The superpowers of the day where the puppeteers. A country so rich in diamonds, incalculable mineral wealth and the rubber tree was doomed to bloodshed. The whites in Katanga and South Kasai would have had to travel a long uncertain, dangerous journey to get to the West coast of Africa and probably decided it was safer to head East.
These Belgians I saw that evening had sought refuge in Uganda, possibly driving through Burundi , Rwanda and then through the south West of Uganda, finding themselves in Bombo – my town – with nothing but their lives, their flash cars and the torn clothes on their backs. Kampala lay just 21 miles ahead of them. After that there must have been hot showers, food and then a flight back to the safety of Belgium to start life afresh.
This incident had receded into the depths of my memory until decades later when in London, where I ran a wholefood store, a chance meeting with a Fr O’Malley…Patrick O’Malley, occurred. In early 1991 the Irish Catholic priest in the parish of Brockley, Lewisham, had developed health issues and turned to alternative complimentary approaches when conventional medicine was not helping. This brought him to my store.
On one occasion we got chatting and he asked me where I was from and when I said I was born in Uganda his face lit up and he said: “I was in Africa when I was a young man, you know?”
I generally do not get too excited at such declarations as they are often followed by some random query as to whether I knew a Mr Patel (I’m Indian, you see) in Lagos or some such place. People seem ignorant of how huge Africa is or, indeed, of how many millions of Patels inhabit the planet.
“When I was ordained in Dublin in 1960,” he went on, “my Bishop asked me what I wanted to do with my life and, with naive youthful enthusiasm, I said I wanted to serve Jesus in some remote part of the world. Oh yes?! he said, and then proceeded to send me to a small village – a clearing really – in the jungles of Eastern Congo.”
“Ah, the Congo!” I said. I then narrated my brief encounter with the fleeing Belgians.
“Really!?! What was the name of that town you lived in?”
“Bombo,” I said.
“You’re kidding me! I drove through that town when I fled too! After Kampala, I spent a fortnight at a St Mary’s High School, Kisubi with some French Canadian Christian brothers before I flew back to Dublin.”
“No way, Father! That was my school!” I said, astonished at life’s serendipity.