Reflections of a Wayward Boy: The ABC of getting from Douala to Ndola — an assassination, bribes, and a crop-duster
How a high-profile political murder followed by an illegal, low-level cross-border flight in a pre-World War 2 aircraft, coupled with a liberal dose of bribery and corruption resulted, by way of a roadside robbery, in turning a conventional, 1968 flight from Douala to Ndola via Kinshasa into a fraught, six-day epic — and a footslog into Zambia.
I don’t think Barbara and I had ever been so relaxed as we settled into our seats on the Air France flight from Douala, bound for an overnight stop in Kinshasa en route to Ndola. Being stranded for months on Fernando Po was behind us, and the 50-franc Belgian banknote found by Barbara on her seat was a bonus.
But less than an hour into the flight, the captain announced that there was a problem: the border between the “two Congos” was closed. We would be landing in Brazzaville, across the 23km of the Stanley Pool (now Pool Malebo) from Kinshasa.
As we later discovered, that flight delay was a very minor bit of collateral damage following the murder of Pierre Mulele, the opposition politician and education minister in the post-independence government of Patrice Lumumba. Mulele had been given political asylum in Brazzaville and had been lured back to Kinshasa with the promise of amnesty and reconciliation talks. When news of the murder reached Brazzaville, all relations were severed.
I assured Barbara that we had no need to worry: we had all the time in the world and it did not matter when we finally reached Ndola. Besides, we were Air France passengers and the responsibility of the airline. All that awaited us was accommodation and meals in a good hotel, paid for by the airline.
Other passengers grumbled as we disembarked at Brazzaville to confront a man from Air France, bearing a clipboard and directing groups to a waiting bus. A Belgian engineer, his pregnant wife, two children and a German shepherd dog, unloaded from cargo, was particularly vociferous.
Then it was our turn. I remember beaming broadly as I handed our tickets to the man with the clipboard. He remained impassive as he handed them back and announced: “You are not on my manifest.”
I think I nearly shrieked: “But it is not possible.”
Unfortunately, it was possible. Since we had booked our flights with Iberia, he said, we were the responsibility of that Spanish airline. It was not his problem that Iberia did not have an office or representative in Brazzaville. The remaining passengers and the man with the clipboard then boarded the bus and we were left alone in the airport as the tropical night closed in.
With the night came the mosquitoes. Swarms of them. We tried to cover ourselves, swatted and attempted, fitfully, to sleep. With the dawn, the mozzies disappeared and we were thinking of catching a nap, when the Belgian engineer appeared. He wanted to know how we planned to get across to Kinshasa, and soon discovered that we didn’t have a clue. He then wandered off toward the hangars to reappear with a lanky young man who turned out to be an East German pilot, employed, apparently, to do aerial crop dusting. The pilot was prepared, the engineer said, to fly us to Kinshasa. We should, he instructed, stay with the pilot while he fetched his family.
I don’t know if the pilot was bribed or if this was a humanitarian gesture. But what he did make clear was that we would be flying low — “400 feet” — and that, once he landed, we should get out fast because he wouldn’t wait around.
When the Belgian family returned, the pilot led us around to the hangars and to an incredible plane. It was one of those pre-World War 2 aircraft I had read about, with a single wheel at the rear. But we all bundled in and, in minutes, taxied to a stop at the far side of Kinshasa airport with the pilot urging us out with cries of “Schnell!”.
We were barely on the runway before the aircraft wheeled around and took off. The Belgian family made it quite plain that we were on our own as they hurried toward the terminal building to be met by a man in a suit who escorted them inside. By the time we got to the doors, the Belgians were nowhere to be seen. In fact, there was nobody to be seen.
So we strolled through and out of the empty airport and eventually managed to cadge a lift in a worker bus transporting municipal labourers into the city. There I managed to telephone the Associated Press correspondent, Mort Rosenblum who had appointed me the AP “stringer” on Fernando Po. We could stay with him and his wife, Sue, he said, but the priority was to “make you guys legal”.
This involved me as a silent onlooker as Mort and the local immigration chief enacted an elaborate charade in the chief’s office. Amid much talk about how difficult things were for everyone, our Irish passport was passed back and forth across a desk. Every time it came back to Mort, he would slip another banknote into it. There went all the “pocket money” I had earned and, I am sure a great deal more, before the currency-laden document dropped into an open drawer.
An hour later, Barbara and I were legally in Kinshasa. But we were broke and felt we could not continue imposing on Mort and Sue. However, while there were no flights scheduled for Ndola, there was an early morning flight in 48 hours to Lubumbashi, on the border with Zambia. We took it.
We knew, when we got to Lubumbashi, to check about entry requirements with the Zambian consulate and, when we did, my confidence was given a massive boost. I was greeted by name by a consular official who turned out to have worked in the provincial governor’s office in Ndola in 1965 when I had done some speech writing for governor Levi Mbulo. We wouldn’t need a visa, he said, but we had to pay K5 in Zambian currency at the Zambian border post. And he insisted on giving me the Kwacha note as a “welcome back” gift.
With the K5 and the Belgian franc note in my pocket, we hit the road and, within minutes, a van pulled up. Hearing we were heading for Zambia, the driver announced: “We’re going that way. We’ll take you to the border.”
But when we got to the border, a ramshackle hut in a bush clearing set to the side of a gravel road, the driver stopped and put a “Taxi” sign on his windshield while his partner got out and walked over to the border hut. I was arguing with the driver when his mate emerged with a dishevelled looking soldier carrying a rifle.
I don’t know what possessed me, but, in the most pompous tone and in the best accented French I could manage, I declared: “I demand to see the consul of Great Britain.” The soldier merely looked blearily at me, patted his rifle and slurred: “Here, there is no consul.” I don’t think I have ever — before or since — been brought back to earth so sharply.
“Money,” they demanded. “Give them the traveller’s cheques,” said Barbara. But they weren’t interested. They wanted folding money, so I put my hand in my pocket, palmed what I hoped was the K5 note and produced — the K5. It was snatched and, after checking our pockets, we were told to go.
Six days after boarding a flight from Douala to Ndola, we were finally making it, on foot and along a dusty road, to Zambia, but without the necessary currency to gain entry. DM