Face To Face With The Congo (2)
The signature tune of the very interesting programme Radio Ghana compiled and sent, with greetings to our soldiers in the Congo by their families and friends (transmitted by short-wave radio from Accra or on medium wave, over Congolese stations, ran as follows:
Me no sabe swim
Water dey take me go!
Me no sabe swim,
Water dey take me go!
It was a catchy tune played by E T Mensah and his Tempos Band at their best. Grown men wept when it came on the air, for the Congo was a chaotic and dangerous place and almost everyone who went there lived in fear that he might never return home alive.
We had a whale of a time in the Congo, giving music and dance shows in the places where the Ghanaian troops were encamped – Luluaborg, Lake Makemba and Mwene Dittu, among others.
Our group had flown to the Congo in a Royal Air Force plane with no proper seating facilities and it was quite an uncomfortable journey. But once there, we forgot our discomfort and enjoyed ourselves. The plane stopped at Leopoldville to refuel, but the airport looked uninviting and desolate just after dawn. I looked at the goods displayed in the airport shop-windows, but couldn't find any records of Congolese music that I could mark down for purchase at a later date. Leopoldville airport, in other words, completely underwhelmed me.
In fact, surprises awaited us at every turn. We had been told in Accra by Colonel Gerald Plange, the Public Relations Officer of the Ghana Army, that we would be supplied with UN uniforms so that we would be seen as peacekeepers and not be harassed by Congolese policemen. But he hadn’t told his people at Luluaborg about this arrangement! Not only that – after we had been booked into the Immokasai Hotel in Luluaborg, I discovered that when I turned on the water tap in my bathroom, it was muddy water that came out! What a shock.
The uniforms we had been promised in Accra weren't forthcoming, of course. When I asked about them, I was directed to the Officers' Mess. There I was told to ask for the quartermaster. The guy, a lieutenant, came over.
'Hallo', I politely introduced myself, 'I believe you have some uniforms for us?'
He looked me up and down.
'Uniforms? Are you a soldier?' he asked.
'No. I am a journalist, as I just told you! Colonel Gerald Plange told us in Accra that you'd give us uniforms with UN insignia, to give us official protection.'
'Are you a soldier?' the quartermaster repeated.
'NO!' I shouted back. 'I've just explained…'
'And I've just told you that if you're not a soldier…'
At this point, just when I realised there was going to be a hot argument, I suddenly saw the quartermaster's face change. He braced up and stood to attention.
Then I heard a sharp, clear voice bark to him from behind me, 'Don't argue with that man! Buy him a drink!'
And the owner of the voice had passed us and gone on his way before I could exchange any words with him!
The quartermaster yelled, 'Yes sah!' and saluted the empty space! I began to have doubts about the efficacy of the military establishment.
The sharp voice had belonged to a smallish, fair-coloured man whom I later got to know was Brigadier Joe Michel. He was the most senior Ghanaian officer in the Congo. He commanded many British officers who had gone to the Congo with our army. It was a mistake to send the white officers, for the Congolese could not distinguish between them and the Belgians they hated so much. Their presence made the Congolese extremely hostile to the Ghanaian troops at times. But their mission was under the direction of the United Nations and there wasn’t much anyone could do.
After Brigadier Michel had left, the quartermaster asked me what I'd like to drink, but I had become irritated with his robotic approach, and declined his offer. I was amused to learn that he had secretly asked the Drumphotographer how much I earned, so that he could determine what “rank” to give me! But I’d lost interest in the uniform. (It was good I did this, for if I’d been given a rank determined by pay, I would probably have been a Lieutenant-General – above Major-General H T Alexander, himself – the General Officer Commanding the Ghana Army!I
At Immokasai, I ran into Edward Amaah, a former colleague of mine from the GBC. He took me into Luluaborg town!
One day, a small DC3 plane in which we flew to a Ghanaian camp about an hour from Luluaborg was surrounded by armed Congolese soldiers as soon as it landed. Amazingly, the soldiers were under the command of – an unarmed woman in cloth!
The woman’s leadership role illustrated to me how unpredictable Congolese politics were! Few Ghanaian women, especially if they were clad in cloth, would agree to accompany armed soldiers on an operation of any sort! But in the Congo, women “cadres” were apparently a common element of the political movements.
The woman and her troops argued interminably with the Ghanaian officers who came to meet us, over whether we should be allowed to disembark or not. We were kept “prisoner” on board the aircraft for about an hour. As the cabin of the aircraft got hotter, we began to panic. My mind kept seeing the reports I’d got used to, from Reuters and AFP, describing “atrocities” committed by “Baluba” or other “tribesmen” in a Congo “seething” with apparently senseless violence. Would I and my companions become a “news item”, as the Congolese troops made short work of us?
The Ghanaian contingent’s officers talked and talked and talked, but the Congolese wouldn't budge. Then, finally, after we’d almost given up hope, they allowed us to disembark. Apparently, just as the Ghana army headquarters in Accra had failed to ask the Luluaborg station to give us uniforms, the Luluaborg fellows had failed to warn the local Congolese authorities that we were coming. So our soldiers had flouted the “sovereignty” of the Congolese locals! Obviously, communications between our troops and everyone else was not the most effective!
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