It had stopped raining.
I thought to myself as I laced up my work worn boots and prepared to head home.
Night time in Elizabethville was heralded by the incessant chirping of birds in the nearby forest. Everything tonight seemed rather serene… peaceful, like nothing had changed.
The entire province had undergone tumultuous change. First Elizabethville and now Katanga at large were all autonomous from the Congo. We had seceded.
Moise Tshombe’s shocking declaration. Not everyone was happy about it, clearly and most certainly not me because of the forced curfew, rising tensions, growing shortages and other looming issues i could reel off my hands. But the Belgians most certainly were. Soon after the pronouncement, they had swarmed into Katanga under the banner of lending helping hands to maintain this so-called ‘independence’.
For the average Katangan though, it meant sneaking out late at night. Even with the massive army presence in the province, those of us who had to stay working late, had no choice than to lurk in the shadows and wait for patrols to pass before we headed home. So I uttered a quick prayer, made the sign of the cross and plunged into the darkness, ready to face another night of fearing being caught.
I was turning into one of the major streets in Elizabethville when i nearly ran head on into a group of soldiers headed my way. They were all garbed in green camouflage with mud-splattered boots toting their AK 47’s. Quickly ducking behind a tree, i tried my best to hide in its shadow. Silently willing myself to shrink..fervently hoping quietly that I wouldn’t be detected and waited..for what seemed like an eternity.
From my hiding spot, I could make out this group dragging someone along. “Must be a prisoner of war” I thought. But why so many soldiers for this one person? He must really be top-level kind of important. I continued to stare at this mysterious person, face covered by the black hood thrown over his head. From the physique, I could tell it was a man. His hands were bound up and the soldiers jostled him violently, shoving him, often causing him to lose his steps and fumble on his already bare feet. His bloodstreaked shirt splattered with mudspots.
As they passed by, I waited to find out where they were heading. My breath caught when I realised they were going up to Brouwez House. The place notoriously known for its penchant to make people disappear without a trace.
I felt pity for this man – but mostly a foreboding sense of dread. He was being dragged towards one of the worst places in Elizabethville, if not the worst. Though I felt pity, I was also curious. I kept wondering who he was and what he had done to deserve such treatment.
My eyes followed them as they got to the entrance and were greeted by a mix of Belgian and Katagan guards. The guards murmured something in French to the soldiers as they handed over the prisoner who was then escorted in. The soldiers then headed back in my direction towards Bila drinking spot down the road.
As they passed, I overheard one say “Finally we got that Soviet appealing bastard. I wonder what that Belgian commander and Tshombe have planned for him. Hopefully he loses a limb.. or maybe all his limbs” he added in to the raucous guffaws from some of the soldiers. The others joined in as they strode away.
The wind was filled with the sounds of their taunting laughter and remained even after their voices trailed off.
I scouted the area around the tree to make sure it was safe to continue my journey home – a rather arduous task at this instant. However, as I prepared to set off again, the pity I felt earlier returned and with it a certain feeling of guilt… or was it curiosity. It must have been a mix of both because now my eyes kept drifting off to Brouwez House.
I had so many questions about the mysterious prisoner’s identity, why so much secrecy, and what Tshombe, Katanga’s self-appointed president had to do with all of this. And the Belgians were in on this too? The whole situation reeked of ardent betrayal, a labyrinthine game of deception and manipulation. Very soon, we might even have Mobutu here too, I thought drudgingly.
Before I knew what had taken over me, i felt my weary limbs plod on towards Brouwez. Racing in the darkness to avoid detection. I felt a rush of adrenaline and my head was spinning but I was still headed towards Brouwez’. Yup! I’m really crazy, I thought as I drew nearer to the place where I could easily be killed.. and for what? Curiosity. an openly festering curiosity to know this man’s fate.
Finally, I got to the side of the house which was surprisingly unguarded with my heart racing and blood thundering loudly through my ears. I tried to listen in through the concrete walls. At first I heard nothing just boots shuffling and murmuring. Then I heard a scream… It was so piercingly loud that I half-expected the neighbours to run out of concern. But no one appeared. No one even opened their windows to peer out of curiousity… It seemed such screams were normal on this side of Elizabethville. The screams had become like lullabies, I thought in disgust.
Slowly, I lifted myself up the window to catch a glimpse of what was unfolding inside. The room was dark but lit with a few candles. I peered in just in time to see a Katanga guard hack at the shoulder of the prisoner. His head was uncovered this time. When he lifted up his head in agony, my breath caught at who he was.
Bound up and breathing raspily in the midst of the darkness, was our revolutionary. our missing prime minister,
And he was being tortured.
Around him was a motley assemblage of Belgian and Katanga soldiers yelling orders at each other or happily chatting about their new capture. Oddly enough..one thing stood out – there were two Western looking men dressed in normal clothes but that seemed to command an air of authority.
They didn’t speak French, but rather American English. Unable to completely comprehend what was unfolding before me, I froze and half turned away from the window. Americans were also involved? What is the world coming to? The screams didn’t stop. Another came. Then another.. then another.. then another…
I tried to drown out the sounds in my ears. But it was next to impossible. Tears rolled down my face as I replayed what I had just seen. After what seemed like forever, the screams stopped. I turned to see them moving him towards the window I was hiding by and drop him still bound, hard on the floor. He groaned out in agony as one of the guards kicked him in the groin before they exited the room, leaving him unguarded.
Even though there was a concrete wall between us, I couldn’t fight the urge to help him. To reach in and comfort him. I wanted to clean his wounds and wash off all the blood but I couldn’t. It was impossible. Helplessly, all I could do was stare in.. through the glass.
Unable to accept such defeat, I slide down into the grass right below the window and stared off into the forest beyond for what seemed to be minutes. I felt despondent, weak and downright sad.
Lost in thought, I failed to notice a tiny hole in the middle of the concrete. Then I heard a tiny croaked whisper saying “Don’t be so down my dear, it’s not that bad”
I jumped back in shock as I slowly narrowed my eyes to peer through the gap. What I saw was Patrice’s best attempt at a smile, even with a cut lip and swollen face bruised in blotchy shades of purple and blue. He moved his head back a little so he could see through it clearly and asked weakly “What are you doing here?.. it’s not safe”
I replied assuredly “It doesn’t matter, I want to help. What can I do…”
He sighed in response and said painfully “I’m a lost cause my dear. I have already accepted my fate. What you see here is a walking corpse…it’s just a matter of time”
I responded disbelievingly “I can’t just leave you here… There should be some way I could help.. Just tell me please” I pleaded.
Patrice gave me a tired smile with his split lip and groaned in response.
He closed his eyes and replied softly
You could help by answering one question honestly… After just three months in office, Did I really make an impact… I really want to know.. Was all this for nothing.. will my death be for nothing?…”
I could tell from his voice that he was struggling to speak and that he was battling regret. I wanted to reassure him that he was a remarkable father for the Congo.
As I stared at him, trying to compose my words, I couldn’t believe our own people could do this to such a man. Leaders who claimed they had Congo’s future in mind. Leaders who claimed revolutionaries were backward. While it was them that teamed up with colonial forces to engage in medieval actions such as torture. And for what? Because Patrice wanted a better future for the Congo and Africa as a whole? Because he refused to allow colonial forces to dictate his actions? Why because he believed in Congolese? in Africans? Why?
Such a great man.. and here he was battered and stained, lying on the concrete floor. Tired but still able to smile. Exhausted but still thinking about us… His Congolese.. His Africans.
I wiped off the tear that sneaked up on my face and gave him my most honest smile as I replied
Patrice, It was an honour to see you rise up and become the first black prime minister of such a tortured country.
You took up the mantle that most feared and amongst all the tensions, colonial pressures, all the hatred and insults…You did your work .You bore everything and looked straight into the face of death and shouted Bring it On!..
I doubt there will ever be anyone as brave as you but I do pray your life serves as a testimony for other great Africans especially Congolese…
Shaking my head sadly, I whispered,
I read that last letter you sent to your wife… You spoke about the distorting of the truth and how Africa will write its own history… but how are we supposed to do it without you? What about your wish for our country to have its own right to an honourable life, to spotless dignity, to an independence without restrictions?
I keep asking myself why the United Nations didn’t heed your call for assistance… Why they stepped back to watch us destroy ourselves while Belgian colonialism and their Western allies pulled the puppet strings… Patrice, if you leave, Congo is doomed for sure… I.. I…. I..”
…unable to continue as tears rushed down my face.
It was a silent cry. Riddled with questions on how such injustices could take place..
From the other side of the concrete wall, there was silence which I didn’t notice initially because of my tears. Had Patrice passed out or worse…. My eyes widened in horror at the thought.
Then I heard a deep sigh and,
He replied weakly
“my dear woman, take heart because the future of Congo is beautiful… and it is up to each Congolese such as yourself to accomplish it. I am but only one man. But imagine what we can do if we all commit to our sacred task. This sacred task of reconstructing our independence and our sovereignty… Remember, without dignity, there is no liberty, without justice, no dignity and without independence no free men…
No brutality, mistreatment or torture has ever forced me and will ever force me to ask for grace. I prefer to die with my head high, my faith steadfast and my confidence profound in the destiny of my country. I’m ready to meet my maker, I just never thought I would be a mere 35 years old when I did. But I guess that’s the consequence of taking up such a great mantle as leading the Congo.
So do not weep for me, my dear stranger. I know that my country which suffers so much will know how to defend its independence and liberty… Africa will write its own history and it will be to the north and south of the Sahara… A history of glory and dignity.
Long Live the Congo! Long Live Africa!”
With that he gave another tired smile and turned away to leave me staring at the back of his head.
His words resounded in my mind. I felt a strange ray of hope coursing through my body. Yes, Africa will rise.
Just then, I heard the door swing open and a shuffling of boots as the guards picked up Patrice and dragged him out. Then there was silence. Then I heard the main door swing open. I fell into the grass, pleading with it to grant me some kind of cover and stared as the guards and some soldiers headed into the forest with Patrice in tow. His face was exposed and even though I couldn’t see his expression from afar, I could see his head held high.
As they dragged him into the darkness, I thought for a split second he turned to look my way. I thought I caught him winking at me before he finally disappeared into the darkness. I could have been mistaken but something deep down told me I wasn’t.
I stared off into the shadows for what seemed like minutes before I remembered that I had to get home. Slowly, after making sure there was no other patrol in sight, I headed home.
I was a jumble of emotions. Sad, broken, fulfilled, hopeful and introspective… still replaying the conversation I had just had and the message I had just received.
Then from a distance I heard a loud BANG!!….
Then a couple of seconds later, MORE SHOTS RANG OUT THROUGH THE AIR.
Then a flight of birds rushed out of the forest trees frantically.Noisily. Like the sound of a whirlwind.
Like the spirit of the departed, hurriedly exorcised out of a person.
Shaken and rocked with the raw pain of grief, I crumbled to the ground in the corner of the street.
Then I cried.. because I knew.
No one had to tell me that with the flight of the birds, went the life of one of the greatest Congolese to ever live.
Thank you for loving Africa even when we didn’t love you!
Thank you for believing in us even till your death
Happy Birthday Patrice Emery Lumumba!!!!