Travels in Africa

Fred and Donanne Hunter

TRAVELS IN AFRICA: CONGO, Early Days in Coq, 1963

Fred Hunter arrived in Coquilhatville to set-up an American Cultural Center. While awaiting shipments of equipment, he wrote letters. Here are edited versions of several.

Second day in Coq:
Yesterday after arriving I took a look at the center. It boasts the dirtiest toilet bowl you ever saw. The floors were paint-spotted, the rooms stuffy from being locked up. Old Edouard, the sentinel has done some useful gardening. His wife was cooking bare-breasted outside behind the center; his toddlers, wearing only genital wrappers, were scrambling over things. I carried over a carton of books from the post office. Edouard and two kids came to watch me. Just watched me.

Met a Congolese journalist yesterday while at the center. He puts out a two-page mimeoed sheet every day, one of three such local newspapers, the only ones in Coq. Full of joy at being Rene Thy Essolomwa, he had on a knitted visored cap of about fifty colors and took delight in being told I liked it.

He’d just been down in Léo shopping for financial backing for his own political party – from West Germans, Americans and Portuguese. Of course, no dice. He showed me a noncommittal telegram from a Portuguese vice-consul. His babbling makes you wonder what he could possibly bring this country in the way of leadership or administrative talent. He sees an opportunity and is trying to grab it. But do any of these guys know what it means to run a country? I bought a subscription and sent him away with some brochures.

Seventh day in Coq:
I’ve been here not quite a week, done almost nothing but make contacts at the UN and with the American missionaries. Everything on foot. I have this Puritan feeling that I ought to be doing something for the pay I’m earning. I just don’t feel comfortable sitting around waiting for equipment to arrive – even if that’s what the job demands.

Using the mission’s phone I was able to contact Mutien-Marie Bokele, Chef de Protocole, and arrange to meet Léon Engulu, the President (governor) of the province. Called yesterday and twice this morning. Bokele suggested I sort of come out and sit around until Engulu could see me. That didn’t appeal much; I felt near-diplomatic representatives should hold out for definitely scheduled interviews. But I went.

I put on a suit to see Engulu, the first time I’ve had a coat on since I arrived here. Fortunately for me, Ron Sallade was running an errand in town and drove me to the mansion. The Présidence (former mansion of the Belgian governor) looks as if it had been plucked out of Pasadena and set down beside the Congo River. I’d have hated to appear sweaty after a long walk.

Coquilhatville as seen from the Congo River

When I arrived, I was sneaked in to say hello before waiting people. The interview proved to be an easy, congenial saying hello. Engulu is young, 29/30, with no more than a primary school education. He seemed poised and capable and sat in the middle of a long conference table in a long conference room, looking out at the mansion’s lawns and flowers. He wore a business suit and had a pad of paper before him. After one says: “For the Congo,” he can add that Engulu seems a great deal more than averagely intelligent. It’s difficult to tell much about a man in a five minute discussion, but he seemed likable and I hope that we see each other from time to time.

In some ways I felt rather sorry for Engulu. Here was this – what? – kid almost by US standards sitting in a long, empty room somewhat at the mercy of an endless line of visitors. I wouldn’t want to be running this province – even with Belgian administrators I could count on to do the job. How can Engulu move it forward? I don’t know. Perhaps he doesn’t either. It’s going to be a long haul for the Congo.

Bokele got a driver to bring me back here to the hotel. I’m finding my legs a bit tired of all this walking. I’ll be glad to have some other kind of transportation.

Tenth day in Coq:
A journalist I met here was arrested last week, later released, but the case has yet to be settled. I gave this fellow some info on US journalism and an item appeared in his stenciled paper the next day, quoting President Kennedy on the values of the free press.

(Note: Essolomwa was obviously thumbing his nose at Engulu who acted as his own Information chief. Like a lot of editors, he chased readers by provoking controversy. Rather quickly, he accused me and the Cultural Center of being a CIA operation. I was wary after that and understood the urge to arrest him.)

Next post: Fred learns more about Coq when the ex-colons’ stores are “pillaged.”

1 Comment

  1. any way there could be footnotes on some of the names? Some of them I sort of recognize but don’t always know what of if there is significance later. My knowledge of African history (even recent) is jumpled at best!)

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