By Scott Graber
It’s Saturday morning and I’m sitting in my tasteful, minimalist dining room watching the two squirrels harvest birdseed that has fallen from our feeder onto our still-wet deck. This morning I’ve got the Wall Street Journal, which tells us that Felix Tshisekedi has won the presidency in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The name, Tshisekedi, rings a faint bell in my fading, faulty memory. But as I read the piece my memory carries me back to the spring of 1993, when Felix Tshisekedi’s father, Etienne Tshisekedi, was doing battle with Mobutu Sese Seko for control of the Democratic Republic of Congo — though in those days we called it Zaire.
In those long-gone days I had a room at the M’Bamou Palace Hotel overlooking the Stanley Pool on the Congo River — then called the Zaire River — in a small, obscure country now called Congo/Brazzaville. In the evening, those of us staying at the M’Bamou Palace could go up to the rooftop bar, where one could drink beer and watch tracer rounds light up the sky over Kinshasa — just across the Zaire River — in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
In those troubled days Mobutu Sese Seko was the president of Zaire and Etienne Tshisekedi was prime minister. Tshisekedi had accused Mobutu of stealing millions of dollars — and putting the money in Swiss bank accounts — and had become the face of Mobutu’s opposition in Zaire. Normally, Mobutu had little or no opposition. As long as he paid his army he was secure. But now there was inflation and the currency issued by the Banque Du Zaire was worthless. The Congolese troops weren’t happy and they were rioting in Kinshasa. Tshisekedi and Mobutu were in a struggle to the death.
In February 1993, I was friends with several men who were interested in the outcome of this struggle and who believed in a Congolese ex-pat named Thomas Kanza. Kanza was born in 1933 in Leopoldville, Belgian Congo, and was the very first Congolese National to receive a college education (at the University of Louvain). Then he did a year at Harvard. Then he met Patrice Lumumba and they — with others — worked for Congo’s independence from Belgium. For a time he represented Congo at the UN, but with the rise of Mobutu he was forced to flee. Now we were interested in getting Kanza a seat at a “roundtable conference” that Tshisekedi planned to convene when Mobutu was ousted.
So we hung around the bar waiting to see what, if anything, was going to happen. The rooftop bar was a great place to wait because every diplomat, every wealthy ex-pat, every foreign correspondent eventually found their way to the roof. The M’Bamou Palace also served a surprisingly good beer, NGOK, and, of course, the hotel was overrun by African prostitutes.
These beautiful women would sit down with you, uninvited, and place one of their manicured hands on one’s upper thigh. Fearful of AIDS — I had been told by a physician that if I had sex with a prostitute, “You will die” — I would gently remove that manicured hand saying “Je suis desole.”
Eventually we got Kanza a seat at the “roundtable,” but that conference didn’t eliminate Mobutu, and Kanza (who was hoping to be named prime minister) did not get a significant job in the new administration. In the end Mobutu survived, he got his army paid in currency that would actually buy something, and he stuck around for another four years.
We came home to Beaufort.
I am a small-town lawyer — spending my days reading deeds, mortgages and pleadings. From time to time I go to court. I have lived a small, useful life and usually I’m contented and happy about my time on Earth. But once, in the spring of 1993, I dreamed of land reform, of representative democracy, of helping the Congolese people reap the benefits of a county that has huge deposits of bauxite, copper and uranium. Once, long ago, I dreamed larger dreams.
I dreamed of Africa.
Scott Graber is a lawyer, novelist, veteran columnist and longtime resident of Port Royal. Email Scott at firstname.lastname@example.org.