Ted Trzyna
Vignettes: 1
Citation: Trzyna, Ted. "Katanga 1963." Ted Trzyna. www.trzyna.info.
Katanga 1963
Excerpt from a work in progress

In 1963, I was assigned to an isolated diplomatic post in the middle of Africa, a 23-year-old American vice consul from California with a little too much pride in my luck at being sent to one of the world’s political hotspots. This was Elisabethville, capital of the mineral-rich Katanga province of the Congo, the former Belgian Congo. At the time, Elisabethville (its name was changed to Lubumbashi in the 1970s along with all other Belgian colonial place names) was almost daily on the front pages of newspapers around the world. In 1960, right after the Congo achieved independence from Belgium, Katanga seceded and became a de facto independent country, with its own president, legislative assembly, ministries, flag, national anthem, currency, and postage stamps. [Map: Katanga is the red part of the Congo; the rest is yellow.] The United States opposed secession, and because of this we official Americans were sometimes given a hard time by locals, both black and white. I made the trip described here shortly after United Nations troops ended the secession and members of the Katangese military, called gendarmes, had scattered into the countryside. Please keep in mind that this is an excerpt from a book in progress, so the context may not always be clear. In particular, I certainly don't mean to make light of the tragic events in Katanga that started with independence and have continued to this day. For general background, see "Congo Crisis" in Wikipedia. 


It was Saturday and I was scheduled to make the overnight “booze run” down a narrow road and across the border to neighboring Northern Rhodesia (called Zambia since its independence from Britain in 1964). Even though other kinds of supplies had become just as important as the alcohol, it was still called the booze run. Most weekends one or two of the consulate staff would make the trip. Many food items had become scarce in Elisabethville because the usual sources had been cut off by fighting and a general collapse of infrastructure and services. Local grocery stores had fresh milk and beef from dairy farms and cattle ranches in the nearby Kundelungu Mountains, and there was French bread, albeit bread made from flour infested with flour beetles (protein enrichment, we joked). However, most of the main supermarket’s shelves were either bare or lined with hundreds of identical items that were in low demand: bottles of red food coloring, for example, and locally made plastic in-boxes in several colors. No doubt many other things were sold under the table, but not to us Americans.

For the consulate, the U.S. Air Force had flown in cartons of MCI (Meal, Combat, Individual) rations. They weren’t bad — the best-tasting were the little cans of ham and eggs — but after a while they became tedious. The stores were full across the border.

I got an early start in the consulate's Peugeot wagon, which had little gold U.S. consular emblems on its doors. The road was familiar; I had done this a few times before, usually with others, but this time I was alone. I was in a watchful mode and looked ahead intently for bumps and fallen branches. [Left: At the consulate with Salomon Kakoma, the Peugeot in back of us.]

Here the natural scene wasn’t at all like the humid, densely forested lowlands of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness or Vachel Lindsay’s poem The Congo (“Then I saw the Congo, creeping through the black, cutting through the forest with a golden track”). We were on a plateau 4,000 feet above sea level with a semi-arid climate divided between six months of heat and rain and six months of pleasantly cool and dry weather. The vegetation was miombo, a type of grassy woodland that covers most of the drier portions of central and southern Africa. Spread throughout the woods were termite mounds made of hard-packed red earth, some of them thirty feet high, many of them with shrubs or small trees growing out of their tops. Some of these mounds had active termite colonies; others had been abandoned. Many of them were hundreds of years old.

My destination was Kitwe, the first sizeable town in the Northern Rhodesian Copperbelt. From Elisabethville to the Congo-Northern Rhodesia border was 60 miles. The first 15 miles were gravel, then there was one-lane asphalt full of potholes. It was slow going.

By midmorning I was about halfway to the border. Only two or three cars had come in the opposite direction. I had seen very few people walking along the road, but now, a quarter-mile ahead, I could see a black man with a rifle step out of the woods and onto the middle of the pavement. He raised his weapon and signaled me to stop.

I have a vivid imagination. Usually I think of it as a gift, but in this case I could have done without the gift. In the seconds that followed, images flashed through my mind of worst-case scenarios. I thought of the thirteen Italian airmen, part of the Italian Air Force’s contribution to the UN peacekeeping mission, who landed their two C-119 twin-engine cargo planes at the airfield near the town of Kindu, about 600 miles north of Elisabethville, to resupply a small Malaysian UN garrison. Although their aircraft were marked with large blue UN insignia, Congolese troops mistook them for Katanga rebels, or so they claimed, and shot them to death. Their bodies were hacked apart with machetes, and some accounts point to cannibalism. But that was in November of 1961, almost two and a half years ago, I rationalized.

I decided to floor it. The man with the rifle kept his position in the center of the road. The little Peugeot seemed to take minutes to get up to speed, but finally the fellow jumped aside. I glanced at him as I started into the next curve. The Peugeot was a lightweight vehicle that didn’t take turns well, and I had to slow down. In the rear-view mirror I saw the man swing around and point the rifle at me. I couldn’t tell if he fired, but I made it around the curve and outside his vision.

I reached the border an hour later, chilly from sweat. My assailant had been dressed in dirty camos and was likely one of the secessionist Katangese gendarmes forced to leave the city to forage for themselves.

The place on the border was called Kasumbalesa. The Congo side had two border posts. The first was an immigration station consisting of a few low wooden buildings that badly needed paint. There was a roadblock consisting of a tree branch placed on two forked posts [pictured at left]. I parked and walked over to a group of uniformed officers lounging under a tree. I asked if they would like me to bring anything back for them from Northern Rhodesia; it’s always good to be on the right side of customs and immigration. “Cubes de sucre,” one of them said, sugar cubes. I didn’t ask why, and still don’t have an explanation, although I suspect it had to do with making palm wine.

The officers waved to the guard manning the gate to let me by, a very thin fellow dressed in a grey uniform much too big for him. The guard held a bottle of beer in one hand and it was obviously not the first he had consumed that day. Trying to lift the gate with his other hand, he tripped, hit the ground, and managed to get upright enough to take down the stick. The second Congolese border post was customs, where they just waved me through; they were interested only in things coming into the country, on which they could impose an informal “duty.”

A few hundred yards later, a sign directed traffic to the left, to conform to British custom, and then there was the neat brick-and-stone border post of the Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland. A stern white officer in a crisp uniform looked at my diplomatic passport and nodded me on. Not a friendly nod, because the Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland supported the Katanga regime that the United States opposed. But it felt good to be out of the Congo.

Left: One of the termite mounds found throughout this part of Africa. This one, in Katanga, was part of a research project conducted by scientists from the University of Lubumbashi and the University of Ghent in Belgium. In 2015, they determined with carbon dating that some of the termite mounds they examined were at least 2200 years old. [University of Ghent] 

The two-lane paved roads in Northern Rhodesia were well-maintained, and in an hour and a half I was in Kitwe. First to the supermarket, a South African chain called the OK Bazaar. I went through my shopping list. Cases of toilet paper. Insecticide. Neal wants loaves of sliced white bread; he hates the baguettes the rest of us love even with the flour-beetle protein. Mr. Dean wants yellow legal pads (I can’t find any). Mrs. Dean wants spices, flour, and birthday candles. Donna needs a feminine thing. Hugh wants British cigarettes.

Then to Ndola, a larger town 35 miles south, and the bonded liquor warehouse where diplomats could buy duty-free alcohol, the universal lubricant of our trade. I backed up to the dock and cases of scotch, gin, and South African wine were loaded into the wagon. These were mainly for official receptions of the consulate, but also for individual requirements of staff, which were sometimes impressively large. Out of curiosity, and because it was cheap, I bought a garrafāo, a heavy jug, of Portuguese red wine that had been shipped to Ndola via rail from the nearest Indian Ocean port, Beira, in the Portuguese colony of Mozambique. That night I had a good meal and a sound sleep at the Hotel Edinburgh back in in Kitwe. And yes, I drank a couple glasses of an excellent Cape white.


In the morning I kicked the tires and realized that the little Peugeot wagon was overloaded. I didn’t want to retrace my route back to Elisabethville, just in case the guy with the rifle or his friends were still around. I had detailed maps with me and spread a couple of them on the hood. If I drove back a few miles along the main north-south highway toward the Congo, I could turn onto a gravel road that would take me westward about a hundred miles to Solwezi, where I could then turn eastward along what was marked as a good dirt road to an official border crossing opposite Kipushi, in the Congo. I decided to take that route, although I didn’t know anyone who had done so.

Right: Map of the Congo "Pedicle," in yellow, with Zambia (formerly Northern Rhodesia) in green. The Mpanta Meridian forms the end of the Pedicle. My route: From Lubumbashi (formerly Elisabethville) south to the Kasumbalesa border crossing (unmarked, just north of Kankola), south to Kitwe and Ndola, back to Kitwe, then north to Chingola, west on the road to Solwezi and Kansanshi, and then east along the border on an unmarked road, crossing into the Congo at Kipushi, then to Lubumbashi. A total of about 435 miles (700 km). 

It turned out to be the right call. The road to Solwezi was in good shape. From there the eastward stretch ran right along the Congo border. Small groups of unarmed former Katangese gendarmes were walking westward, toward Angola, then a colony of Portugal, which had supported Katanga secession and welcomed them. They avoided my eyes.

I passed a pile of white-painted rocks and stopped to take a picture. I knew this was a cairn covering a boundary marker embedded in a steel pipe. It was one of a series of such markers set out at 500-meter intervals by an Anglo-Belgian Boundary Commission between 1927 and 1933 to mark the dividing line between the watersheds of the Congo and Zambezi rivers, the border between the Belgian Congo and Northern Rhodesia agreed upon in 1894.

A previous boundary commission did a similar exercise in 1911-1914, but with pillars spaced from five to thirty miles apart, which was customary at the time for marking colonial boundaries in Africa. Only a dozen years later, a more precise demarcation was needed because rich mineral deposits had been found right along both sides of the crudely marked border. The mining companies that were awarded concessions needed to know where, exactly, they could start digging. The second survey aimed to be precise, but the country here was so flat that the Belgian and British surveyors had a hard time finding the divide. Once the boundary markers were set in the ground, workers cleared the brush and hoed a path a half-meter wide, “literally etching the boundary in the African landscape,” according to British Lieutenant Colonel E.R.L. Peake, who led the British team.

From where I was standing, the border extended southeastward along the Congo-Zambezi drainage divide to a point where international agreements specified that it become a 90-mile north-south line called the Mpanta Meridian, a good example of the arbitrary boundaries imposed by European powers on Africa. The meridian cuts across malarial swamps as well as steep mountains and valleys that run in an east-west direction. The second survey had a rough time marking it. Among other reasons why this boundary made — and makes — no sense is that in this region the migration routes of wild animals tend to run roughly east-west. This made no difference until, much later, wildlife began to be protected, and transboundary cooperation would become necessary to do so.

I walked around the cairn and realized that its whiteness came from pouring a gallon of paint over it, probably on a schedule, but how often was that? I wondered which side of the border was responsible. Was it the Congo authorities or those on the Northern Rhodesia side? Was there a joint team? Painting the cairns was no doubt regulated by longstanding written agreements, with funds duly allocated for the purpose, and the disbursement of such funds properly audited and reported to higher authorities. I wondered where those files were kept.

My mind kept drifting until I got into a kind of trance. I’ve had this trait since I was a kid. “Teddy, stop staring out the window,” my primary school teachers would tell me. I know now that I have what’s called a wandering mind. Here at the cairn this finally took the form of feeling a strong sense of where I was in place and time. I suppose there are scientists who would call this something like a “spatiotemporal event,” reducing an intense human experience to jargon and using psychometric scales to measure it.

And an intense experience it certainly was. Here I was standing on a political divide between Central and Southern Africa, each with its own distinctive histories. I was on a linguistic divide, at least in terms of European languages, with French to the north of me in the former Belgian and French colonies, English to the south, and Portuguese on either side in Angola and Mozambique. And I was standing on the Central African Plateau at the intersection of two great river systems, their headwaters both nearby: the Congo, draining into the Atlantic, and the Zambezi, flowing into the Indian Ocean. I remembered something I once read. It was by the South African writer Stuart Cloete, about this part of the world in the 1870s: “The silences of the great rivers were broken by the shots of the hunters and the hymns of the ministers.”

But the divide had never been a cultural one. Although the border followed a natural feature, it split what had been, and still was to a large degree, a culturally homogeneous region. For centuries, people had moved back and forth without realizing there was a topographic divide on this flat ground. Well-used tracks and trails across the border were evidence they still did so. What if the colonizers had never arrived?

I glanced at the Peugeot and decided it was time to drive on. The Katanga ex-gendarmes weren’t looking for trouble, but a station wagon full of food and alcohol might be too much of a temptation.

Crossing the border at Kipushi was easy. On the Northern Rhodesian side, another white officer in a crisp uniform waved me through. On the Congolese side, the guards barely looked at me while opening their gate. They were distracted by hundreds of people milling around in the town’s streets, some of which led right up to the international border.

Kipushi was a mining town defined by an immense slag heap. It was a Sunday, when demonstrations like this were common in Katanga. These could turn violent, but usually they were more like parties, with beer flowing and impromptu dancing and singing. It wasn’t clear to me what this particular demonstration was about, and I wasn’t too curious; I just wanted to get through. The trick was to drive slowly, smile, and nod.



Left: At the Kasumbalesa border crossing, the barrier made of forked sticks and a tree branch is long gone. The road has become a major route for trucks moving between Southern Africa and the Congo. In the recent aerial view at left, the border crosses the middle of the picture; the red line is supposed to show it but isn't accurate. In both directions there are hundreds of trucks waiting to clear customs and immigration.

Below: An official diagram of the type of boundary marker I came across. I was able to determine that responsibility for maintaining the markers was allocated by alternate sections of boundary (presumably including the cost of white paint), with a joint party supposed to inspect the condition of the markers on the ground every ten years.

Left: Monument at Rome's Fiumicino Airport
to the 13 Italian airmen killed at Kindu.

Below: Monument near Ndola, Zambia at the place where a plane crash killed then United Nations Secretary General Dag Hammarskjold and several others while they were on a peace mission to Katanga. This was on September 17, 1961.

Posted August 2019
Copyright © 2019 T.C. Trzyna