Romano LEDDA


Source: Patrice Lumumba: Fighter for Africa ’s Freedom, Moscow, Progress Publishers, 1961, pp 93-104.
Written: by Romano LEDDA, Italian journalist;
Transcribed: by Thomas Schmidt.

"You say you are an Italian journalist and wish to get a visa for the Congo? Why do you wish to go there?" those were the first words Patrice Lumumba said to me in Conakry at the residence of Sekou Toure.

Why? It was the beginning of August 1960. The whole world was watching Lumumba, and this man whom nearly two hundred journalists were hunting all over Africa was asking me: "Why?" For more than ten days I had waited in suspense in the hope of finding an aircraft that was going to the Congo from the Guinean capital. I was beginning to grow desperate when Lumumba arrived on his tour of the capitals of African states. I pinned all my hopes on my talk with him and therefore prepared a long speech. With his simple question he made that speech unnecessary, and all I could do was to mumble some words that sounded banal to my own ears.

I watched him as he looked through my papers.... Tall and very thin, the Head of the Congolese Government bore the marks of the suffering he had gone through in prison and of the strain of his present work. The austere black suit gave his elegant figure and his entire appearance a modesty that was devoid of any ostentation. But his face was what really attracted me: small, with a sharp chin and a goatee that made him look wily and even sly, it became unusually naive-looking and good-natured as soon as the lips parted in a broad smile.

And then the eyes. Infinitely lively, they reflected all the anxieties and sufferings of the last months of his life: the sufferings of a prisoner of the Belgians, the pride of the Prime Minister of the Congolese Republic, love for the people, abhorrence of injustice, responsiveness to the pulse of Africa, the fury of struggle, and responsibility before history. It seemed as though one image was superimposed over another, changing the picture of Lumumba that I had brought with me from Europe and my first superficial impressions, but making it impossible as yet to form a firm opinion of him.

"I'm sorry," he said with a foxy smile, "but unfortunately I cannot give you a visa for the Congo because all the airports are under U.N. control. All I can offer you is to come with me in my aircraft. But you will have to be patient. You will have to follow me to Monrovia, Accra and Lome. We'll go on to the Congo after that."

...It was more than I had hoped for. For nearly three days I travelled with Lumumba and could see him almost at any time I liked. I found that this person, so hated and slandered in the West, was really one of the most generous and most earnest men in the African continent, one of the most courageous fighters and one of the most gifted and modern-thinking leaders of the national, anti-imperialist movement.

* * *

The official reasons for our meetings with Lumumba were the communiqués on talks first with Tubman, then with Nkrumah and, finally, with Sylvanus Olympio. But in the aircraft and after official banquets he frequently looked for us to have a talk, hear our opinions and sometimes, if there was a need for it, to discuss what one or another journalist was planning to write.

In Lome, Togo, for example, we witnessed the political meetings between Lumumba and Olympio. Hostile to any form of "protocol" (but by no means ignoring the importance of the position he occupied), Lumumba wanted us to sit with his delegation in the meeting room, declaring that he had "nothing to hide from the world". That is why, when the talks ended, we remained behind and got into a conversation. Lumumba had recently returned from a visit to the United States, and Tom Brady of The New York Times asked him what he thought of the country. Lumumba said he found it a wonderful country and that he had been given a magnificent reception.

"As a matter of fact," he noted, "some centuries ago America fought for her independence against foreigners. It would seem that the Americans should never forget it, but it looks to me as if they are beginning to forget."

"Why do you think so?" Brady asked.

"Look what's happening in the United Nations," Lumumba replied. "We gazed at the world, at the whole world, with trust. I am not a Communist, although you maintain that I am. But America, no matter how things go, is on the side of the colonialists. Perhaps she's not on the side of Belgium, but it's obvious that in using the U.N. she has her eye on our riches. It's like that business over the aircraft, for which I was attacked by newspapermen. I flew to America in a Russian plane. That is true. I asked the Americans for a plane, but they refused to let me have one after procrastinating with their reply for two whole days. What was I to do? I asked the Russians for a plane, and they put one at my disposal in two hours. Now it is said that I am a Communist. But judge for yourself what was more important: to be regarded a Communist or to turn down an opportunity to go to the U.N. to defend our interests there? Judge for yourself."

After this many people said Lumumba was an empiricist, that he manoeuvred wherever he could, turning this way and that, shifting and dodging. I do not share that opinion. At that time he was only learning to administer a state that had risen from nothing, and in everything he did he proceeded from his own perception of the world. Man was the main thing. All else was mystification. All men want to be free, and that is why all people can and must help the Congo. The only "but" here is that this aid must in no way restrict the Congo's freedom.

Pursuing this general line, he trusted everybody, even adventurist businessmen who, seeking publicity, spoke of unreal projects and gave out that they were planning to put money into them. This went on for the first few weeks after he came to power. But later, in August 1960, he began to be more discriminating. This was dictated by the nature of the struggle, whose objective was to win political and economic independence for the country. Neither Tom Brady nor any of the others who called Lumumba a "frenzied Communist" understood this at the time.

Keen, enthusiastic and determined to fulfil his role as leader of the Congolese, Lumumba was a calm person by nature and, despite his youth, inclined to meditation. He was thirty-four, but he was weighted down by the entire burden of seventy-five years of grief, slavery and poverty. He had absorbed into himself, as it were, all of his people's sufferings.

The whole Government came to the aerodrome to meet him when we landed in Leopoldville. A small group of journalists, myself among them, accompanied him to his home. Formerly the residence of the Belgian governor, the house was built in the taste of a Flemish sausage-maker: salons decorated in baroque alternated with small, colonial-style drawing-rooms, and the only really beautiful things in it were the tragic and grotesque totems from the African bush. Lumumba refused to move into one of the magnificent villas built by Belgian businessmen on a hill. He turned the house virtually into a camp, dividing the rooms into living premises and offices.

His wife and three children waited at the entrance. The small woman, who was still unused to the role of wife of a man the whole world was talking about, and the man, who for a moment forgot everything about him, merged in a long and moving embrace. With a happy look on his face he introduced his three children, François, Juliana and Patrice, the eldest, who asked his father if he had brought back a cowboy hat.

A few minutes later (it was about 11 p.m.), Lumumba made a short statement to more than two hundred newsmen about his trip to America and his African tour, and then got the Government together to analyse the situation. The meeting ended at about four in the morning. I later learned that he worked eighteen hours a day, because he had to look into all sorts of problems, even trifling ones. He patiently endeavoured to satisfy all callers.

There were many volumes in his bookcase: speeches by Sekou Toure and Nkrumah, magazines, poetry, and a biography of Simon Kimbangu.

"All these books," he said, "reached me in the past few years through underground channels. They were our daily bread in the days when we had the luck to be out of prison."

I saw Lumumba nearly every day at his routine press conference. He would walk into the big room, make a short statement and then answer questions for about an hour. At these press conferences each newsman, who was in any way fair, could appreciate Lumumba's statesmanship despite the young Prime Minister's native simplicity and inexperience. He was guided by modern ideas suggested to him by the experience of revolution, which although modern in spirit clashed with the reality that was only just crystallising, with tribal differences, ethnic contradictions, and the grim heritage of colonial rule.

There was, I remember, an amazing press conference in connection with events that disturbed the peace in the city and brought rival tribes into collision. At that press conference Lumumba spoke of national unity, of the honour of being conscious that one was a Congolese and not a Baluba or a Batetela. He spoke of the sacrifices that the people would have to make to create a nation, of the patience that was needed to put an end to the deep-rooted enmity. He was afraid of a war between the Congolese and did his utmost to avert it. That was why he tolerated in his Government even his enemies who were already plotting against him.

* * *

Although these contacts were considerable, each of us wanted to know more, to speak to Lumumba personally, to get interviews from him and learn what was uppermost in his mind. But that was impossible. Pressure of work put him out of our reach.

And yet I had the great luck to see him outside a press conference.

We newsmen were told to come at four o'clock, but the hour hand showed five and still Lumumba did not appear. The newsmen became nervous and grumbled, and one of them, I do not remember who he represented but he was undoubtedly a racialist, declared:

"We can't let a Negro, even if he is a Prime Minister, keep us waiting so long."

There are scoundrels among newspapermen as well.

There were about thirty people, and gradually all of them followed the racialist out of the room. Only an East Berlin correspondent and I stayed behind. Lumumba, who had been informed of everything by his secretary, appeared a few minutes later. I could see he was angry. But he quickly gained control over himself and, courteously asking us to take a seat, said:

"It's idiotic. Any racialism, white or black, is simply idiotic. I know," he said, turning to me, "that you are a Communist. But that's not the point. You are a cultured person like your comrade here. Tell me, what can I do for you?"

That was when I got my interview.

I got my second close look at Lumumba at the aerodrome in Leopoldville. I was at my hotel when somebody from the office of the Council of Ministers telephoned and told me to drive to the aerodrome. I got there at the same time as Lumumba. With him were General Lundula, Minister for Youth Affairs and Sports Mpolo, and two soldiers. He got out of his car, went to the hangar alone, opened the door and shouted:

"In the name of the Congolese Government you are arrested."

In the hangar were about sixty Belgian paratroopers. They were armed to the teeth and were guarded by U.N. Swedish troops. It was a unique situation. It is quite unusual for a Prime Minister personally to arrest people. And if an unarmed man with only a few companions sets out to arrest armed paratroopers he must be brave as a lion. Lumumba had that courage. It was a sober, conscious courage, a courage that is ruled by common sense and gives birth to true heroism.

There was nothing the Belgians could do. Ten minutes later the stunned paratroopers climbed into a lorry that was waiting for them.

Five minutes after they were gone Lumumba laughed over the episode and said:

"If we had decided to wait until this was done by the U.N. Secretary-General, we would have found the paratroopers under our beds."

Although Lumumba called upon his people to have full trust in the U.N. because he wanted to avoid bloodshed, he was perfectly well aware that Hammarskjöld's behaviour was the principal reason for the disorders. Now he was looking for a solution that would not infringe upon the Congo's territorial integrity or restrict its economic and political independence. The solution lay in appealing to the people, in mobilising them and drawing them into direct participation in the Congo's struggle against old and new colonialism.

The Congolese were his people. It seems to me that I never saw Lumumba so happy and confident as when he toured Orientale Province and visited Stanleyville. It was where during the rule of the Belgians Lumumba had struggled, suffered and worked to create the first modern Congolese party that would stand above tribal discord and be linked up with the African national movement. It was where day after day for five years he had trained personnel, established branches of his party in every village and united the entire province around his programme.

* * *

The huge, jubilant crowd of politically mature people that welcomed him on his arrival was different from the crowds in other parts of the Congo. It was a triumph. One could feel that Lumumba had merged with his people. I remember his old father. His face bore the marks of poverty and he had the coarse hands of a man who had hunted for food with bow and arrow. Now these hands embraced the son, who was carried aloft by young people chanting: "Uhuru—Freedom!"

On the next day we were in the bush. Women, old men and children poured out of every village to the river bank to celebrate, honour and speak with Lumumba, their "son, the son of the earth, their brother in grief and hope". A long Moslem gown, symbol of authority, was put on him. He laughed, shaking hands with everybody, and in each village he spoke, sang and danced with his people, inviting us to join in the dancing.

That evening he made one of the most important speeches of his short career. Starting a very interesting conversation with the people at the stadium in Stanleyville (the peasants asked questions and he replied, and then he asked them for advice and they gave it), Lumumba spoke of the profound transformations that were needed to place the Congo's enormous wealth into the hands of the people, of the new state system under which tribes had to disappear, of popular initiative and the liberation of Katanga, of the future united and peace-loving Africa. He spoke in Lingala and then translated his words into French for our benefit, for the three or four European newsmen accompanying him.

Other Europeans suddenly appeared in the stadium. They were Belgians who had refused to leave the Congo and wanted to co-operate with Lumumba's Government. With a happy smile, he called them to the rostrum, introduced them to the people as brothers and, addressing us, said:

"Tell the whole world about this. We are not opposed to white people. We do not mean harm to anybody. People of every colour must be friends. That is our goal."

In the evening we had dinner with him at the residence of the provincial governor. There was nervousness, tension in the air. I was told that important news was expected from Katanga. An hour later we heard a car drive up, and Lumumba started. He rose, ran to the door and cried:

"They've come!"

They were several Baluba who had arrived from Katanga. In order to slip through the Belgian guards, they had made the journey in an ambulance. Throughout the week's journey they had had only one hour of fresh air at night and several bananas as their entire ration. In rags, hungry, and seeming to fall asleep as they walked, they looked like phantoms. I hurried over to them. The Baluba chief, who was fighting Tshombe, shouted when he saw me with a notebook in my hand:

"We haven't come here for a press conference. Lumumba, we've come for fighting men."

Lumumba embraced each one of them in turn, questioned them and solicitously looked to their needs with a tenderness I never suspected him capable of. And yet such was Lumumba. On the following morning our cars came across a large group of ragged soldiers, with whom were women and children. Lumumba stopped his car and wanted to know who they were. They proved to be Congolese soldiers, who had been transferred to Ruanda-Urundi and had refused to serve the Belgians. The Belgians had requisitioned all their property and told them they could walk back to the Congo. It was the first time I saw tears in Lumumba's eyes. He took all the money he had on him, emptied the pockets of his Ministers and gave it all to these people. At the same time, in spite of the financial crisis in the Congo and the shortage of funds, he ordered these people to be given housing and 50,000 francs for immediate needs, and enlisted in the Congolese National Army.

Such was Lumumba. He shared all he had with his people. When he became Prime Minister he did not draw a salary, ate very frugally and in no way took advantage of his high position. Many of the Ministers, of course, did not act in the same way. There were Ministers who spent money right and left (they had never had money before), and frequented luxury cabarets and bars, learning of their existence for the first time. They enjoyed all the blessings of authority, and all of them were on the other side of the fence, with the Belgians, with the colonialists.

I saw how Lumumba lived with my own eyes. One day I went to see a doctor at an out-patient clinic and there met his wife, small Patrice and his driver Maurice, a devoted and intelligent young man. Maurice told me that Lumumba was looking for me. He had been given an Italian magazine rifle and wanted to show it to me. I went to his home and, as usual, found him immersed in a multitude of affairs. He invited me into his flat. It consisted of a tiny room with three beds for the children, another room with a bed, wardrobe and chest of drawers for himself and his wife, a small and very simply furnished dining-room and a kitchen. They had no servants. His wife, a small, pregnant woman, did the cooking for the family and also for Maurice and Lumumba's brother Louis. They were expecting another child and were thinking of getting another flat. This was Lumumba's only plan for his family.

* * *

Later I saw Lumumba at the All-African Conference in Leopoldville, where he made one of his most magnificent speeches. In it he gave full voice to his nationalist convictions, his all-absorbing love for the Congo and his ideal of a united Africa. One of the phrases sat deep in my mind. I should say it revealed most fully what he felt and wished. He said:

"We were offered a choice between liberation and the continuation of bondage. There can be no compromise between freedom and slavery. We chose to pay the price of freedom."

The last time I saw him was before my departure from the Congo. It was a Saturday. I went to say good-bye to him and thank him for his assistance. I doubt if he ever knew my name. To him I was simply an Italian journalist, a correspondent of one of the few European newspapers that watched the struggle of the Congolese people with sympathy and understanding.

I found him, as usual, at work. The situation was not very good, but at least it was calm. No one expected a coup d'etat (it took place on Monday). At the time Lumumba was working on two or three decisive problems: the liberation of Katanga, relations with the U.N., and aid from abroad in order to allow the Congo to hold out. Famine was knocking on the door. Lumumba took a few minutes off for a talk with me. He spoke optimistically of the future. He had profound faith in people. I wished him every success and a long life. Once more he told me that his life was of no importance whatever but that he was firmly convinced that no Congolese would ever raise his hand against him.

"We are all blood brothers."

His last words to me were:

"You will probably come back to the Congo and we'll meet again. You will find a free, rich and flourishing country with no survivals of slavery."

That is what he wanted most of all, and for that he was murdered.