Soldiers in the Belgian Congo, ca. 1943. Photo courtesy of the Franklin D. Roosevelt Library, Hyde Park, New York.
[This article originally appeared in the October 1961 issue of Nieman Reports.]
Leopoldville September 3.
The Congo is a reporter’s night mare—mostly because the English language is woefully inadequate for describing Congolese affairs.
Words like “strongman,” “general,” “minister,” “offensive,” “Communist,” or “civil war” all have a generally accepted meaning and presumably evoke a fairly precise image in the reader’s mind. Well, let the reader be disabused. Any resemblance between the things he visualizes, when reading such words in a dispatch from the Congo, and the things the reporter has seen is strictly coincidental.
“General” Mobutu once was the Congo’s “strongman” and is still to be reckoned with. But take the quotes off his titles and what remains? A general in the sense of West Point? A strong man? Certainly not. He was a noncommissioned officer in the Force Publique, the pre-independence army, serving in the “Department for Secretaries, Accounting and Stenography.” For a while he worked on the fringe of journalism. He is a personable young man with an intelligent face and an attractive, ready smile. And lately, especially when he has had a glass of champagne or two, he has been affecting a carefree military swagger.
But a year ago, when he held the Congo’s fate in his hands, he was forever bemoaning his ill fortune, complaining about overwork and ill health. “Do you want to kill me? Can’t you see I am sick?” he asked reporters who went to see him at his heavily guarded residence. Then, having set the tone, he dropped onto a sofa and held an hour-long press conference. Recently, as the capital was buzzing with reports of another “Mobutu putsch,” the General held a meeting with reporters in his headquarters when Adoula, then Defense Minister, stormed into the room and curtly ordered the General “to terminate this conference.” The “strongman’s” reaction? A nervous giggle, then silence.
The evening of Mobutu’s putsch on September 14, last year, the Telex broke down earlier than usual, while Mobutu was still talking. There was barely enough time to type out a few lines on the live line to London. That night I woke up in panic, remembering my lead: “The army took over the Congo tonight.” Of course the army had done no such thing. Mobutu had climbed on a table in a local café and there, to the surprise of the assembled guests, had said he was taking over the country. Once the announcement was made he went home and callers were told that the Colonel had retired for the night and that further inquiries should be made in the morning. How could an experienced reporter be stampeded into confounding the Colonel’s statement with an accomplished fact? But a few days later the putsch seemed real enough. Mobutu was taken seriously, on even flimsier evidence, by the world powers. While standing on his café table the fledgling “strongman” had proclaimed that the “Russians must leave the country.” Three days later the Soviet and Czech ambassadors staged a disorderly, hasty exodus, taking with them scores of “technicians,” a dozen-odd planes, and tons of radio and other equipment that had been intended to help Lumumba stay in power.
Or take parliament. Newspapers have always made politicians look more intelligent than they are by improving their grammar and compressing their rambling statements. But what do you do about a senate which solemnly decides that “the events of the last three days are void and have not occurred,” and where a member gets up in the middle of a crucial debate and announces that he has to leave the chamber because he “has something to do”?
What do you write about a Prime Minister who holds clandestine press conferences in private homes and reporters’ apartments as did Ileo during the crisis last year?
Or how do you report the economic policies of a government, whose working habits are these? A minister calls in his adviser and tells him that a plan must be worked out to give employment and decent salaries to 100,000 unemployed. The adviser promises to mobilize the experts of various ministries and to have a detailed project
ready within two or three weeks. “You don’t have two weeks,” the minister replies, “I need it by three o’clock this afternoon; I have a ministers’ council and must submit the project.” How can you explain, in the single paragraph that such an occurrence merits in a news story, that the project was submitted that afternoon? That of course it was totally unrealistic; that the minister, who is a highly intelligent man, knew it was unrealistic; but that the fact of having a project in writing and being able to adopt it in a formal meeting, solved the entire problem of unemployment in the country and disposed of it, because the government had “assumed its responsibilities” and that was all that was needed?
“To assume one’s responsibilities” is a favorite phrase in the Congo. It means that an official, a minister or a general, has recognized the existence of a problem and has perhaps discussed it with other ministers or generals—and that therefore the problem is taken care of.
How can a reporter write about the “Cold War” and “Communism” in a country where the representative of the Ford Foundation hears a furtive knock at the door of his hotel room one morning? The man who enters wears the well-pressed dark suit and white shirt that is the uniform of the successful politician and, of course, carries a briefcase. He identifies himself as a political leader from the interior and explains that his purpose is to solicit financial assistance from the United States and particularly from the enterprise directed by Mr. Ford. When the man from New York asks what the funds would be used for, the provincial leader, unfazed, answers in an urgent, conspiratorial whisper: “To establish Communism.”
Or, how can a reporter make it plain that a “coup d’etat” in Leopoldville is not like a coup in Algiers? Why? One day a prominent foreign diplomat makes a routine call to the residence of one of the highest ranking men in the country. “Tell me,” the host says after the preliminaries, “you have been here several months now. How many provinces do you think we should have?” The foreigner answers that if there were a request from the Congolese government a team of experts might be organized to make a survey and come up with a solid answer. The high ranking Congolese has lost interest. “More urgent,” he says, “how do you go about making a ‘coup d’etat’?” The visitor, knowing his host’s sense of humor, answers easily: “Well, you’d get hold of the airport first, then the radio station, the post office of course, and you might want to….” Then he sees the gleam of keen and totally unhumorous interest in the questioner’s eyes and breaks off the conversation. Next day the Congo is front-page news. There has been a “coup d’etat.” Kasavubu has dismissed Lumumba and Lumumba has deposed Kasavubu, and the airport, the post office, and the radio station are focal points of the power struggle.
So it’s all a comedy—a Marx brothers movie in an African setting. Or is it? I have heard it argued, before censorship on outgoing news was lifted in the Soviet Union, that in fairness to the American reader every dispatch from Moscow should be preceded by a box saying that it had been passed by censor.
Perhaps, by the same token, every dispatch from the Congo should be preceded by a box to this effect: “When the Belgians left on June 30, 1960, this country did not have a single Congolese officer or a single Congolese physician. There was one Congolese lawyer and perhaps half a dozen young men with some training as economists, administrators and technicians. These men had to run a country as large as the United States east of the Mississippi.”
Whenever the dispatch contained a reference to “rampaging soldiers,” the box might well include a passage like this: “These Congolese soldiers belong to the Force Publique which lost all but a dozen of its officers, all Belgians, at the start of its mutiny immediately after independence. Before that the Belgians kept the Force Publique like a good police dog on a short leash but lean, mean and hungry. Whenever there was trouble in the villages, they let it loose to deal with offenders in its own unceremonious way.” The box might add that what happened after independence was that the dog broke his leash and jumped his master in the way he had been trained to attack others.
Furthermore, if the dispatch referred to people being kicked and beaten with rifle butts upon being arrested, a bracketed insert might explain that beating a prisoner, whether he is guilty or innocent, a thief or a political offender, is a reflex that in this country comes as automatically to the arresting soldier or policeman as the pangs of hunger came to Pavlov’s dog when the bell rings. The insert might add that Congolese soldiers and policemen got their training before independence.
There are many more contradictions and incongruities in the Congolese story which defy description in a newspaper dispatch of printable length. How can one explain a scene in South Kasai where a group of us saw a charge of Baluba tribesmen, 80 or 100 of them, emerge from the bush and bear down on us across a field brandishing spears and bows and arrows? How, without taking half a column of unavailable space and confusing the reader more than would be fair, could we explain that the tribesmen were not naked, not wearing feathered headgear, weird masks or rings in their noses, but dark pants and white shirts which, had they been clean, pressed and without tears, would have looked every bit as proper as the traditional garb of a U.S. office worker out for a coffee break?
How could one make it plausible, in a few well-chosen words, that many of these “savages” hundreds of miles from the nearest urban center actually were young office workers who a month or two earlier had been employed in the administration of the principal capital, where tribal and family ties had over the years given the Balubas a near-monopoly on office jobs, and had left the city in obedience to the orders of their “King” who wanted his “nation” regrouped in a separate state?
How could we explain that the handful of tough and reasonably well trained Congolese soldiers who were with us failed to fire a single shot from their modern rifles and submachine guns to halt the charge of spear-wielding tribesmen? How does one describe the terror in the eyes of these soldiers as they scrambled aboard our truck to seek safety from the tribal charge? We couldn’t ask the soldiers why they were paralyzed with fear. They spoke Lingala only, and even if they had understood our questions, they would not have known the answer. We could only guess that an attack like this, a band of tribesmen caught in an outburst of mass anger and mass hysteria, was to these Africans an elemental force like lightning or a tidal wave. One doesn’t argue with the elements, one doesn’t fight them; one runs and seeks shelter.
So there you have the picture of these Congolese who kick and beat their prisoners, who burn villages, and push their tribal enemies back into the flames of a burning hut, who massacre each other and maim women and children when caught in a frenzy of tribal hatred. Here are the “savages” of whom Conrad wrote only 50 years ago that the “worst of it [was] this suspicion of their not being inhuman.”
How, having reported this picture, can one explain to the reader that these same Congolese are one of the gentlest, most sensitive people you ever met; that to an amazing degree they are capable of human kindness, of graceful generosity, and that in their reactions toward strangers they are thoughtful in a way that Europeans like to attribute to “breeding” and to good manners being taught in kindergarten?
How can one explain that the tape recorder carried by a radio reporter might cause a group of soldiers to panic in fear and then to attack with rifle butts and bayonets, just because the gadget, which looks mysterious and therefore dangerous, trips a mechanism of fear and, hence, aggression? How does one explain that the soldier approaching you with his finger on the trigger is actually trembling with fear even though you are not armed, and that he doesn’t know yet, as he steps forward, whether he will shoot at you, crash his rifle butt against your ribs or pump your hand in a friendly welcome? How can you explain that moments later, having overcome his fear and his urge to attack you, he will thank you earnestly for having talked to him so kindly and explained the business that brought you here?
So, old Congo hands among reporters are inclined to admit defeat and to refer the reader to the one writer who did justice to the Congo—Conrad, in “Heart of Darkness”—who described the “general sense of vague and oppressive wonder;” who felt the “great demoralization of the land” where “there is no joy in the brilliance of the sunshine;” who traveled “back to the earliest beginnings of the world when vegetation rioted on the earth and the big trees were king;” who glimpsed “a burst of yells, a whirl of black limbs, a mass of hands clapping, of feet stamping, of bodies swaying, of eyes rolling, under the droop of heavy and motionless foliage;” who knew he was “cut off from the comprehension of our surroundings;” who felt the “great silence,” and who summed it up as “the stillness of an implacable force brooding over an inscrutable intention.”
Henry Tanner, a Nieman Fellow in 1955, was New York Times correspondent in Algiers when the trouble began in the Congo. He was one of the first correspondents to reach the Congo and has dealt daily with all the nightmarish aspects of its story.