Crazy Train — A Congolese Victory Tour
What’s a party without prostitutes, undrinkable whiskey, and the best seats in the house, cleared for you at sword-point? Following the successful defeat of a secessionist movement by the breakaway province of Katanga in the newly formed Republic of the Congo (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo), the new prime minister of the region held a kind of reunification tour to demonstrate the new leadership and direction of the province. The trip across the Congo included plenty of revelry, dodgy hygienic situations, and diplomatic pranks.
Terry McNamara was an officer at the U.S. consulate in Elisabethville, the capital of the rebel province, from 1961-1963. He recalls wild tales from the trip with Charles Stuart Kennedy in a 1993 interview. His gripping account of evacuating Can Tho during the fall of Saigon can be found here.
“It looked as though every prostitute in Luluabourg was being loaded on the train”
McNAMARA: Several months after the last bout of fighting ended, the prime minister in Kinshasa, a man named Adoula, decided that a symbolic gesture was appropriate. The opening of railway traffic was to be a symbol of reunification. The Katangans had blown up the railway bridge on what was called the “Voie Nationale,” a railway connecting Katanga with the rest of the Congo.
From Katanga, this railway crosses the Congo, from Katanga to a tributary of the Congo River where transshipment of copper and other lesser cargoes takes place at Port Franqui [now known as Ilebo, at left]….
Adoula had decided that the reopening of the railway would provide a strong political vehicle for his own ambitions. So he issued instructions to the railway people in Katanga, Union Miniere, to open the railway and organize a special train for the ceremonial trip. The consular corps in Elisabethville was invited to come along as a sort of diplomatic claque. Other dignitaries were invited from various parts of the Congo.
On the appointed date, Adoula arrived in Elisabethville. At the time, the principal officer, the consul, was gone, and I was the acting principal officer. Thus, I was designated to act as the U.S. government representative on the rail trip.
With bands playing, we boarded the train in Elisabethville. It was a special train that had been brought out to the Congo a few years earlier for a visit by King Baudouin of Belgium. The cars had been refurbished. A fancy restaurant car and a bar car were included. Everything possible was laid on with no expense spared. Food and drink were flown in from Belgium. It was really organized. The president of the railway company himself came along as a super conductor. He was in charge of the train. Nothing was being left to chance. The head of the giant copper company, Union Miniere, also joined us. These were the people who really ran the country’s economy.
Adoula declared that, “This is very serious political business, and no wives will be brought along.” Some poor journalist showed up with his wife. She got on the train. As we left Elisabethville, she was found and chucked off at the first stop. No women; this was serious business in the Congo.
Initially, each time we came across three or four people standing along the rail line, they stopped, and the prime minister got out and made a speech. As the train went further into the second and third day, women were taken aboard but were hidden from most of the passengers. Most of the Congolese elite, in those days, seemed incapable of abstinence from sex for more than 24 hours.
The relative austere decorum lasted until we arrived in Luluabourg (now Kananga), the principal town in the middle of the Kasai. When we arrived, the town was in fete. A military parade was organized. That evening, a huge reception and dinner were held that went on all night long.
My consular colleagues and I got back to the train in the wee hours of the morning. We’d gone to the dinner and the reception, and then we went and had some more drinks with the local UN representative, a Chilean whom I had known in Elisabethville. We returned to the train at about four or five in the morning.
In the station, it looked as though every prostitute in Luluabourg was being loaded on the train. That was the end of serious political business. From that point on, there were big mamas all over the train. Adoula himself never came out of his private carriage until we arrived in Port Franqui two days later.
“She went after the Greek who climbed into the upper bunk to escape the lady’s amorous attentions”
Our train would arrive in a station, the band would get out and play. On one occasion, the Belgian consul general, who was pissed to the ears, decided to review the guard of honor as no Congolese official was interested or capable of bestirring himself. The crowd was chanting “Hooray for Tshombe!” [the defeated president of Katanga]
Somehow they thought Tshombe had arrived. When the Belgian went out to review the troops, the crowd began to chant, “Viva le roi!” There appeared to have been a serious breakdown in communications and our Congolese hosts did nothing to correct them.
Anyway, Adoula never stuck his nose outside the train again until we arrived at our destination. I remember being bored. We were on the train for a whole week. The Greek consul, who was with us, was very prissy (he was a pain in the ass, to be absolutely frank). The British vice consul and I were good friends. He was also, at this point, the acting consul for the British. His name was Terrence Grady. We met again later in Gabon where he was the British Ambassador and I was the American Ambassador. We were sharing a compartment on the train. We also became friendly with a Belgian officer who was an aide-de-camp to a senior Congolese Army colonel.
After four or five days on the train, we were bored. Sitting in the bar car one afternoon — the ladies had taken over the car — a large drunk lady asked me whether I would like to take her to my compartment? She thought it would be more comfortable there.
I opined, “That sounds very interesting. Would you join me there in five minutes?” I then gave the lady the number of the compartment occupied by the Greek consul. Our Greek colleague almost never left his compartment. He was frightened of the company in the rest of the train.
I returned to my own car to alert my pals of the imminent arrival of the lady at the Greek’s door. When she got to the door, I got behind her and pushed her in, and closed the door and locked it from the outside.
Inside, she went after the Greek who climbed into the upper bunk to escape the lady’s amorous attentions. No doubt, he looked prosperous, with money to pay for her charms. We left her there for some twenty minutes before opening the door and inducing her departure with a handful of francs. The Greek never spoke to any of us again.
Finally, we arrived at our destination, Port Francqui, which was the terminus of the railway, and the transshipment point from rail to river barge. The train was to return to Elisabethville. None of us could stomach another week of this lunacy.
We decided to detrain and find our way back to Elisabethville after festivities in Port Francqui. We had done our duty. The Union Miniere director informed us that an airplane would be coming to pick him up. He offered to take us with him. With light hearts our little consular band abandoned the train.
To our chagrin, the airplane came, but wasn’t big enough to take everyone. Some of our traveling companions were older. I was fairly young, at that time, as was Terrence Grady. We volunteered to stay behind on the promise from the Union Miniere man that an airplane would come back and pick us up. Our brave party of stay behinds consisted of the Belgian consul general, the British consul, the American consul, and Mr. Ileo, Chef de Cabinet. The latter was a charming, intelligent young man whom we all liked and respected.
The four of us volunteered to stay and wait for the next airplane. Little did we know that the promise to send another aircraft would not be honored. Out of sight, out of mind.
“Everything in his stomach came up like a fire hose”
We went into town, and were taken to the best local hotel. After a warm greeting from the drunken reception staff, we went to our rooms. I was to share a room with the British consul….
After a dirty afternoon, we asked for some water for washing. The plumbing was not working. A tipsy maid picked up a bucket and went outside where she turned a tap on the outside of the hotel filling the bucket with dark brown liquid that was only just viscous. This, she proclaimed, was our washing water. Terrence and I distributed it evenly over ourselves, taking on a darker shade in the process.
We then asked for drinking water. The manager smiled a happy, agreeable grin and produced another pitcher of brown liquid. When asked whether it was safe to drink, he offered a bottle of whiskey, made in the Congo, to purify our “water.” “That will kill anything,” he assured. Made in Kinshasa, Old Granddad or something. Old Grand Uncle, perhaps.
Anyway, that’s what we had to brush our teeth with. No airplane arrived that day so we prepared to stay the night. We had dinner at the hotel, by candlelight. There was no electricity. Trying to be hospitable, our host asked what we would like as an aperitif? Our Belgian colleague, who liked his drink, eagerly requested whiskey.
I tried to warn him against it for I was sure that he would be offered the made-in-the-Congo potion of very uncertain quality. “Don’t drink that. You’ll kill yourself. Drink beer,” I pleaded. Congolese beer was still good and safe.
The rest of us drank beer, but he insisted on whiskey. With relish he downed half a glass of the Congo’s finest. It went down, hit bottom, and then everything in his stomach came up like a fire hose. That ended our alcoholic adventure.
A lady arrived with a large cooked fish that overlapped a platter. Canned peas had been poured on the fish. This was to be dinner; a limited but acceptable menu. As she approached our table, she staggered, lost balance and dropped the fish on the Belgian consul’s head.
At this point, he was just recovering from his whiskey experience. I still see him with the fish draped across his head and shoulders. A pea rested on the end of his long nose.
We plucked the fish off him, dusted it off, and ate it. Clearly, we were in no position to be too concerned with hygienic problems.
“He cleared the table with the flat of his sword, bottles and glasses flew every which way”
After dinner, the local army commander came to take us for a night out. He commanded the local battalion that, a year earlier, had eaten a platoon of Ghanaian troops with their British officers.
The Ghanaians were serving with the UN forces when they came into conflict with the Congolese. He seemed an agreeable fellow when we met him. We all boarded cars for the drive to a local nightclub. It was the only place in town with electricity. They had their own generator. Later, I learned that it was owned by the colonel and some other local political figures.
The club was crowded when we entered. Our host, the colonel, went to a table next to the dance floor, and he drew his sword out. People were sitting around the table with no apparent regard for their safety, he cleared the table with the flat of his sword, bottles and glasses flew every which way.
Startled people sitting at the table fell over backwards trying to get away from the vicious swipes of the saber.
Very smartly, we had the best table in the house. Terrence and I were still in shock when the colonel graciously offered us seats, still warm from their previous occupants.
Sitting next to me he affably inquired, “Do you wish to dance?” Somebody had told him that I liked dancing. I replied in the affirmative thinking it would not be politic to say no. He might even consider my declining as a breach of protocol.
Reacting to my mumbled reply, he grabbed a woman from another table, someone’s wife, sweetheart or whatever, dragged her to our table and ordered, “Dance with him.”
Not wishing to incur the colonel’s displeasure, I danced the lady to the other side of the crowded floor whispering that she should make her exit quickly. I found many willing partners and danced the evening away. Sometime early in the morning we were taken back to our hotel traveling at high speed on the dark, unpaved streets. I was very pleased to see our hotel again despite my earlier bizarre experiences.
“I found a very frightened lady had been in the bed awaiting our return”
Q: Did you finally get a plane and get the hell out of that town?
MCNAMARA: Not yet! When we returned from the nightclub, the British consul and I went to our room. We were both tired and welcomed any kind of bed that did not rock and jolt, after our week aboard a train.
I was in the bathroom when, suddenly, I heard an awful scream. We couldn’t see much, as it was pitch dark. We did have a lantern, but it didn’t give much light. The twin beds had white mosquito-netting canopies over them, further obscuring the beds themselves.
As I rushed back into the bedroom, I found Terrence thrashing about in his bed, now enmeshed in the mosquito netting. With some difficulty, I extracted him from the bed to find a very frightened lady had been in the bed awaiting our return. Her sister in labor was in the other bed. The good colonel was thinking of us all the time.
After calming ourselves, we dismissed the girls with a fistful of francs. In those pre-AIDS days there was plenty of gonorrhea and syphilis around, especially in those little port towns on the Congo. Neither of us was keen on screwing around with the local prostitutes.
The next day, we again went to the airport to await our promised aircraft. We waited and waited and waited. And while we were waiting, we were joined by an interesting gentleman who turned out to be a minister in the provincial government at Port Francqui. Shortly after we became acquainted, he pulled me aside offering a sackful of things that looked like little pieces of glass. He claimed they were diamonds.
Intent on making a deal with me, the Minister proposed that I become his sales distributor. “Just send me things like radios and record players and I’ll send you packages of diamonds in return. Here is a package as my first consignment.”
One of our party had a small portable radio. The Minister offered his sack of diamonds for it. I didn’t know whether they were genuine diamonds or not. I do know that diamonds are mined near Port Francqui. I declined the Minister’s kind offer, as did my colleagues.
Ultimately, an airplane did arrive. It was not sent, however, by the friendly Union Miniere Director. Anyway, we got on the airplane, and returned to Elisabethville.