SIAFU – THE TIM BAILY STORY
AS TOLD TO ROBERT LEADER
CHAPTER FIFTEEN: AN ACE UP MY SLEEVE.
As we continued through the Congo our next brush with the Congolese army came at Titule, one hundred and eighty five miles south east of Bondo. This was the heart of a rich coffee-farming area. However, Titule was as drab and war-scarred as any other Congo town and some of the defence fortifications were still left in place after the revolution. There was the usual garrison of soldiers to whom we had to report and initially the two officers in command proved friendly.
The Captain spoke reasonably good English and they led us to an empty house where they told us we were welcome to stay for the night. As this would save us the trouble of hunting for a clearing in the jungle and then hacking away with pangas to make enough room to pitch our tents we readily accepted. We needed the tents and mosquito nets now for the Congo was subject to endless mosquito attacks and rains. We were all pleased to escape this nightly task but our satisfaction began to evaporate somewhat when we found that the veranda of our guest house was stacked high with unexploded mortar shells. They had all been fired but for some reason had not detonated and there was enough high explosive there to blow us all to hell and back. After making the discovery we stayed well clear of that end of the house.
The two Congolese officers were most charming and left us to make ourselves comfortable. Unfortunately they departed only as far as the nearest beer shed and a few beers had an adverse effect on their nature. They came back in a more hostile mood, ordered the whole expedition to line up before them and began to make a clumsy inspection of our passports.
In the meantime two of our most independent girls had wandered off to strike up a friendship with a Belgian family living in the town. The Belgian couple had invited them home for a bath and our young ladies had jumped at the opportunity. Most of our bathing had to be done in the African rivers whenever we could find one that flowed fast and clean enough for me to be sure that there was no risk of getting bilharzias, a nasty sickness that could be contacted from the bilharzia snails that lived in turgid waters. So the chance of getting into a real hot bath tub with no snails and no African audience was too much of a temptation. Without thinking I had given the army officers all twenty-nine passports and they were calling out and identifying each member of the expedition as they checked through them. At the end, of course, they had two passports left in their hands.
“Where are these two girls?” The Captain demanded.
I told him and promptly sent one of my men to get them back as quickly as possible. While we waited the Captain and his Lieutenant studied the two passports and especially the photographs. The missing girls were both very attractive and the Captain was getting ominous ideas. Because he spoke English he was unaware that I spoke swahili . This was an ace that I like to keep up my sleeve in case of emergencies and on this occasion, this far, there had been no need to reveal my knowledge. Now the Captain began to hatch up a little plot in swahili with his Lieutenant.
“These are very pretty girls,” he said. “I think that if we are lucky and play this right we can get them into bed with us.”
His Lieutenant looked interested, “ How can we do this?” he asked.
“It is simple. When they come back we shall pretend to be very angry. We will tell them that they must have something to hide to make them run away from us. Then we will tell them that they must come to our house to answer more questions. When we have them alone we will frighten them even more and when they are really frightened we will tell them that we will only forget their badness and let them go if they will sleep with us. It will be easy.”
The Lieutenant didn’t need many minutes to think it over and decide that he liked the idea. Then they began to put in the groundwork by switching back to English and getting tough with me. They made a great show of their anger and impatience and when the two girls appeared, both well-scrubbed and breathless, they immediately switched their attack.
“Why have you wasted our time?” the Captain shouted at them. “Why have you been hiding away from us while we have been checking the passports?”
Both girls tried to make their explanations and apologies but he had no intention of listening.
“You must have done something wrong,” he insisted. “You are two bad girls. You must come with us to our house while we try to find out the truth of this matter.”
It was time for me to intervene and I did so as calmly as possible in swahili, to leave the Army men in no doubt that I knew what was happening and had understood every word that they had said, and also to try and avoid alarming the two girls any further. The very fact that I spoke their language had them momentarily startled, but when I said that was responsible for the two girls and could not allow them to be taken away the Captain became ugly.
“I am in command here,” he threatened bluntly. “And I have my soldiers. What I say is right and if we decide to take these girls to our house then that is what we will do. You cannot stop us. If I want to do so I can take you all out into the jungle and have you shot.”
It was a nasty moment but I took from my shirt pocket the letter from the Army Commander in Bondo.
“You are right,” I agreed. “We cannot stop you from doing as you please. But you are only in charge here in Titule. This letter is from Colonel Ikelo who is our friend and if anything happens to us it may be you who will have to face a firing squad.”
The Captain took the letter and deflated as he read it. He handed it back with the two remaining passports, muttered some apologies and left with his lieutenant trailing sadly behind him.
After that little incident we decided to camp out in the bush. The squadrons of mosquitoes and the flocks of assorted African camp-watchers who emerged out of the dripping jungle night were far preferable to being the guests of the Congolese Army. The ordinary Africans were not a law unto themselves and the worst they could do was to stare at us.
After Titule the road surprisingly improved for the next two hundred miles and in places it was even possible to get into top gear. Then we had to make a right turn for Poko and Isiro and the surface reverted to the usual Congolese standards. Back we went into first and second gear with the Rovers weaving and struggling through the deep mud holes, like a quartet of drunks on a Saturday night. “Matilda” slipped into a mud filled ditch and delayed us for a couple of hours and the rains came down. As always the storm was violent but when it was over it left every leaf and grass blade sparking fresh and silver green under the re-appearing sun. We had to drive over several winding brown columns of our indefatigable namesake, the marching siafu ants, and the roadside was gay with yellow, red and white butterflies.
The following day we rolled into Isiro, a large town comprising one main street of predominately Greek-owned shops and stores, a post office and a hotel. Previously the town had been called Paulis and had been the scene of some fearful massacres during the revolution. Here the blood-drunk simbas had slaughtered a thousand white and black “intellectuals,” the communist term for anyone who could read or write or was capable of holding the most insignificant clerical post. With that record it was not surprising that the Congolese had wanted to change the name of the town in order to forget its past associations.
Isiro was still no paradise and we had to go through the usual tedious formalities with the police and customs, filling in their lengthy, time-wasting, never-to-be-read-by-anybody forms. However we made good friends in Isiro: with a group of young Belgians operating a trucking company, a priest, and two British army officers who were building bailey bridges by courtesy of the Her Majesty’s Government in England.
We had work to do on the Rovers and so we stayed there for the next three or four days. Each night we had a cheerful party with the Belgians who entertained us well. Some relationships got more than friendly for when it came time to depart three of our young ladies, two English girls and an Australian girl named Rhonda, approached me through Jan. They wanted to stay behind with the Belgians.
My first reaction was an emphatic, “NO.” The very idea of leaving the three of them behind in the Congo horrified me. Even if the Belgians proved to be perfect gentlemen the girls would still have to make their way out of the Congo at some time in the future and to three of them alone anything could happen. I refused and they went away disappointed.
However, they were a determined trio and they had merely gone to recruit help. They returned later in a solid deputation with the two British Army officers and the priest. The Army men gave me their solemn word of honour that the girls would be accommodated in their home and that no harm would come to them; and the priest assured me that when they were ready to leave he would be pleased to fly them out to Uganda in the mission plane. They were adults after all and in the face of those assurances and arguments I had to climb down.
The expedition pulled out of Isiro minus three and immediately the Land Rovers were again skating along a narrow river of red mud, made interesting by deep, broken gulleys and king-sized potholes. The road was hemmed in by dense primary jungle and the little clearings along the way containing the thatched native huts with their tiny mealie plots and vegetable gardens became fewer and further between. We must have crossed re-crossed the narrow gauge railway tracks at least sixteen times during the day and wherever there was a bridge it was jointly shared by the railway and the road. Our average rate of progress was a toiling ten miles an hour.
After Mungbare, eighty miles from Isiro, the road improved slightly and plunged south through the dense tropical Ituri rain forest where we frequently began to encounter pygmies. These diminutive little people, never more than four feet tall, are some of the most primitive in Africa. They still wear nothing but scraps of rag or bark cloth around their loins. They live by snaring small animals and rodents in crude traps and by shooting down monkeys with their bows and poisoned arrows. We camped for a couple of days in order to make contact with them and were finally able to visit a group of their huts deep in the jungle.
I had persuaded a full-size African to be our guide and he led us through huge towering trees, draped with creepers and vines and choked all round with foliage. The narrow footpath we followed joined the course of a shallow stream and we squelched through rotting leaf mould and mud. Birds chattered overhead where the tight canopy of green blotted out the sun but as always we never saw them. Then, after we had penetrated for half a mile through the shadow-drowned gloom, we found the pygmy village. There were just four tiny, igloo-shaped huts made from a framework of branches thatched with leaves.
The pygmies were afraid of us for we out-numbered them two to one and were twice their size, but we did our best to put them at ease. They looked like hairless chimpanzees with thick lips and receding foreheads above flared noses. Their hair was like tiny coils of sparse wool. We offered them cigarettes but they indicated that they preferred their own tobacco which was made from hallucinatory jungle leaves. Their pipes were almost as tall as themselves, the wooden bowls being fitted into the end of a long hollow spine of palm branch.
They finally performed a little dance for us, forming a shuffling circle to a chanted rhythm that sounded something like, “Eeeh-ah-eeh-ah---ho-ho-ho,” repeated endlessly with minor variations. Everyone joined in, the little ones swinging their half bare bottoms as an old slack-breasted granny began to clap. It was fascinating to watch as they swayed through the filtered bars of sunlight and shadow, and at the end of it we gave them all our old clothes in return for their surplus spears and bows and arrows. They seemed to enjoy the bartering and from their satisfied expressions seemed to think that they had got the best of the bargains.
When we left we drove down to Mambassa, an absolutely vile road that ended with yet another military roadblock. It was dark when we arrived and ground to a halt. The Congolese soldiers looked very business-like as they shouted to each other and levelled their guns and one of them quickly used a radio-telephone to ask for advice. A few minutes later their Captain appeared at a run, brandishing a revolver in his excited hand. I explained to him who we were and that we were only passing tourists but he was very suspicious and far from satisfied.
“You must leave your vehicles and come with me to see my Army Commander,” he said curtly.
His men began to turn the expedition out of the remaining vehicles and line them up at gunpoint along the road. From “Sarah” there came a brief struggle and I learned later that one of my exasperated males had voted in favour of “ignoring the stupid buggers and move on.” Andy had been obliged to bundle him out of the Land Rover fast with terse instructions to, “get moving and use his bloody head.” It was obvious that this particular bunch of soldiery were grimly serious.
However, I wasn’t leaving my vehicles and all our equipment unattended. I told the Captain that we would accompany him but that I would have to leave a couple of men behind to stand guard. The revolver jerked dangerously in his hand as we argued but finally he conceded that I could leave two girls behind. I wasn’t wearing that either and insisted that at least one man must stay with them. The Congolese captain gave me a hard long stare, as if trying to decide whether I would play any tricks, and then he nodded and said okay.
I asked for volunteers but there were none forthcoming. Nobody wanted to be left behind. Finally I had to select three and ask them outright. Because Jan was my girl friend I couldn’t risk any dissention by favouring her and leaving her out. Jan had to stay, although she was far from happy about it, plus one of the Australian girls and the ever-reliable Dick Jeffries.
The rest of us were marched off at gunpoint along the Congo road, being fast swallowed up by the rustling darkness. I could feel the tension growing as we walked along and knew that this time the members of the expedition were really scared. It was the first time we had been forced to leave the vehicles and the guns and the hard, watchful faces of the Congolese soldiers were anything but reassuring.
The revolver-waving Captain led us to a large colonial-style house on the outskirts of town where we were surprised to find a floodlit tennis court. We were ordered brusquely on to the concrete square and made to stand in line under the bright white glare of the arc lamps. The soldiers took positions all around the court with their automatic rifles and their sub-machine guns still at the ready and their fingers on the triggers. It seemed as though they would open fire and cut us to pieces at the slightest movement or excuse. Most of our girls were pale-faced and the men had their fists tightly clenched at their sides. Nobody dared to move or even breathe. The Captain stared at us for a few moments, as though examining us properly for the first time. Then he pointed to me with his revolver.
“You – You must come with me.”
I followed him into the house, acutely aware of the desperately frightened faces behind me and of the rapid beating of my own heart. We went into a well-lit room where a Congolese Colonel, the local Army Commander, sat behind a large desk. He listened closely to his Captain’s report and then asked me in English to explain myself.
I did so as calmly as possible. The Colonel nodded his head to one side, and then to my great relief he looked up and smiled.
“This is a gold-producing area,” he informed me. “Recently there has been much looting and stealing from the mines. The Captain was correct to bring you here but I think everything is alright. Would you like a drink while I examine your passports?”
Thankfully I accepted the offer and a moment later I was sitting back with a gin and tonic in a comfortable chair. The Colonel was most friendly and helpful and so I lost no time in reminding him that my friends were outside and that most of them were badly frightened by all the pointing guns. The Colonel jumped up promptly and hastened out to give his soldiers the necessary orders to stand easy.
An hour later we were released and returned to our Land Rovers where Dick and the two girls were greatly relieved to see us. They had imagined the worst and it had been a heavy burden on their minds. I felt that everybody needed a beer so we jumped into our vehicles and sped into Mambassa to find the nearest bar.
It wasn’t a difficult task for the coloured lights and the beat of music was unmistakeable, even though the local beer garden was fenced off from the road. We parked the Land Rovers and flocked inside and too late I realized that we had made a mistake. The open-air tables were filled with soldiers and their first reaction was to decide that their plain duty was to take us back to see their Area Commander.
In exasperation I refused to go and explained that we had only just left the Colonel’s HQ. They were adamant at first but then their resolve began to crumble because they had no officer with them to give them any definite orders. I felt that I was winning and steered my party back into the street and into the Land Rovers. We started to leave but although the soldiers were in doubt a Congolese civilian had appeared and deliberately drove his car in front of “Henry” and parked it there to block the way.
I reversed and tried to drive around him but the excited Congolese shunted his car to and fro to check every move I made. For the first time I felt my temper slipping and got out of “Henry” all ready to haul him out from behind the wheel and drive his damned car out of the way myself.
The civilian jumped out to face me, insisting that I must go back with the soldiers. He was a man in a smart white shirt and dark trousers with his eyes glinting furiously behind spectacles. Whether he had any real authority or not it was difficult to tell for he did not offer any. He simply blocked our way and told me that we must go back.
I told him to move his car or I would move it myself. At that he ducked inside the vehicle and then re-appeared with a large steel tyre lever which he brandished in my face.
I had to get a tight hold on my temper, realizing that if I started a punch-up the watching soldiers would almost certainly intervene on my opponent’s behalf. There was really no choice but to swallow my gall and precede him back to the Area Commander’s HQ.
We were half way back to the big house with the tennis court when a jeep appeared containing the Captain who liked to flourish his revolver. It was a lucky meeting for we shouted for him to stop and he was able to verify that we had paid our respects to the Colonel who knew all about our presence in the area. The haughty civilian with the spectacles was most disappointed but again we were released.
We made no more stops and drove through the rest of the night. “Maggie had no lights but we sandwiched her between “Sarah” and “Matilda” and kept going anyway. We were less than a couple of hundred miles from the border and we had just about had enough of the Congo.