“From the earliest recorded period, the vast West African region which became the Belgian Congo, had inspired many of the myths of darkest Africa. Here in genuine jungles and on the banks of rivers alive with crocodiles were to be found the pygmies, the cannibals, the witchdoctors, the mumbo-jumbo, the Tarzans, the apes, and all manner of wild, lurking, hostile creatures. In 1960 the world suddenly realized it was all too true. “
In 1959 riots erupted in Leopoldville. The Belgians who seemed the toughest of Africa’s settlers panicked on the turn and pulled out leaving behind a kicked over ant pile of tribal bloodshed.
And thus, our story begins.
— — — — —
By Sai Selvarajan.
Not much can be said about Harry Youngblood and Marvin Kingsley other than they gave up their ghost on March 7th, 1961. Well, at least one of them did.
Harry Youngblood: A bush pilot for hire, flying goods and people in and out of the Congo in the early sixties. A British born Congolese on his ninth life and perhaps his ninth wife. Black skin and a British accent was just the type of juxtaposition that got Harry in and out of sticky situations in the Congo. Harry liked seeing Africa from above, a wide screen cinemascope. Navigating with a map on his knee, his imagination running wild and his English mind filling in the gaps. “A country painful to the touch but achingly beautiful to the eyes” he would say.
Me: A freshly twenty oned Nigerian, proud and certain of magnificence, even as I squatted and ate parched rice with my hands. I learned my English from audiotapes and paperback novels given to me by a Dutch missionary. My Fair Lady, Henry the 8th, etc.…
I smuggled fine wine into Elisabethville, the hub for Congo’s wealthy mining companies. The remaining French and Belgians still craved their luxuries even in war. To call it a war stretched the truth, we called it organized genocide, fratricide, suicide and plain old fashioned homicide. However, my contraband brought a brief state of sanity amid the maelstrom. I would hire Harry when my funds were up, the Belgians called us brothers but I never saw the resemblance. I didn’t see my job as something dangerous, but those words have sealed many a man’s fate.
Enter, Marvin Kingsley, an up and coming Fleet street journalist for the The Daily Mail. It was life threatening work, but an Africa assignment became the top priority for many journalists in the early sixties. Back then a catchy dateline could make or break your career. Two words made up a dateline, the location and the date of filing. Getting the scoop only marked half the battle in the Congo. Conjuring up an eye-catching dateline consumed many a journalist in the jungle. Marvin Kingsley was young and lucky to be posted in the Congo, young men his age were waking up to alarm clocks and screaming babies. Our friend Marvin was waking up to machinegun fire and screaming babies.
In Congo sat a port called Banana. Marvin found that name on a map and became obsessed. As it goes, a battle occurred there on March 5th 1961. A Sunday. Marvin desperately wanted to get to Banana, snatch the story, and more importantly file the dateline BANANA SUNDAY. Hello Pulitzer.
As the situation in the Congo escalated, traveling by car became far too dangerous. Marvin hired Harry to take him to Banana. Since The Mail picked up the tab, I hitched on at a bargain, fine wine in tow. Our itinerary took us from Elisabethville to Banana and then to Brazzaville so Marvin could telex the story back to London. In those days getting the story out of the Congo posed a harder challenge than getting the actual story. It didn’t matter the force in which your prose and pen came down, if you couldn’t get your story out to the housewife in Cambridge or the milkman in Kansas City.
Shortly after leaving Elisabethville we took some fire from the Katangese forces. Bullets ripped through the fuselage, an almost customary tradition in the Congo. You expected a couple of rounds fired in your direction. We didn’t expect half the wing tearing off Harry’s Tiger Moth. As we braced ourselves for a fiery crash I remember thinking about all the penance those grapes went through to become wine only to be finally mixed with blood and oil. We crashed in the jungle, in Balubas territory. Cannibal country. Harry, a consummate professional till the end, jammed the plane sideways on the flattest piece of green in that jungle, her good wing reaching for the sky she would never touch again. Blood and fire gushed in abundance, the red flames spread like fingers through the cockpit. I looked down at my mangled arm as my head pounded. Marvin Kingsley, still breathing as he sputtered blood. As I managed to pull him out I noticed he had no motor skills below the waist. Harry’s vacant eyes told me he died on impact, I got him out nevertheless. The Balubas descended on us almost immediately with a “how dare you” rage that shook the ground and I swear turned the air blue. They went straight for Kingsley, his white flesh contrasting strongly against fresh blood. They severed and consumed him right there on the spot. I couldn’t help but think about that famous line from My Fair Lady, “A cold bloody murder of the English tongue”. Harry and myself being African were spared the initial feast. As the last bit of Marvin Kingsley disappeared into their mouths they turned their attention on Harry and myself. I took Harry’s jacket off and used it as a tourniquet on my bleeding arm. I rolled the dead Harry towards the encroaching throng and fled the scene. I never looked back, in the Congo, you never looked back. I limped my way to Elisabethville in a dream like haze.
I woke up in a hospital to a nurse calling me “Mr. Harold Youngblood.” Harry’s bloodied passport and a roll of money lay next to his jacket on the table next to me. As I boarded what would be my last flight out of the Congo, I did look back. Harry Youngblood would have taken one last look at the Congo, a country painful to the touch but achingly beautiful to the eyes.
Marvin Kingsley never got to file his Banana Sunday dateline. I’ve attempted to write that article for him, my imagination running wild and my mind filling in the gaps. But I could never hit the stride of a college educated Londoner who had a knack for catchy datelines. There’s something to be said about those eager Fleet Street journalists of the early 60’s, I just can’t ever find the words.
Harry Youngblood landed in Heathrow beat up and battered. A dateline that rose from the ashes wrapped in a secret never to be read by that milkman in Kansas City.