The Day I Was Not Disappeared
There was a long history of enemies of Mobutu of Congo (or Zaire, or Congo again), disappearing. He kept himself in power with a powerful army of informers, and executioners who got rid of the troublesome opposition.
I was a very junior lecturer in Statistics in the Economics Department, in the seventies, a danger to nobody, with no intention of drawing attention to myself. We were told that among the thousand or so students at the Université Libre de Kisangani, there were fake students sent by the sinister Governor Ndébo to keep an eye and an ear to what subversive dons were saying, and then report to him.
I used to lecture to a group of 150 students in the large amphitheatre, and I had the feeling that my classes went well. I adopted a relaxed manner, and wherever possible, I would use humour to make my point. On the fateful day, I was talking about zero probability. My example of aiming a dart at a board and hitting one particular point was a bit laboured, and some students were impatient with it. That morning, Radio Kinshasa had been going on for hours about the visit of the timonier du continent, the helmsman of the continent, going to Gabon to visit Omar Bongo.
“Look,” I said, “your president is on his way to Libreville. Air Congo has never crashed, so one could hypothesize that the probability of Monsieur Mobutu dying in a crash today is zero.” Everybody laughed happily. But I do not know when I am ahead, and add. “Although I have no doubt that many among you would wish it different. And it cannot be entirely ruled out.” This is greeted with massive applause and laughter. In this province, the usurper from Mbandaka is not much loved.
For the whole day, the campus greets me with smiles, even cheers wherever I go.
Next day, I am walking home from the market when a policeman stops me, asks for my name, and then orders me to come with him. I am taken to the Police Station and told to wait. An hour later, an unsmiling man dressed in an expensive suit, with Tonton Macoute shades come in and takes me to another room.
Once I am seated, he looks at me in disgust.
“So you are preaching political assassination to your students,” he begins. He then opens his patent leather briefcase and takes out a thin wad of paper, which he passes on to me. He has a similar one which he opens in front of him. It is Questionnaire B47.
“We need to keep track of our subversives,” he tells me, still unsmiling.
He then begins to read B47. There are four A4 printed sheets with questions. I answer in words, and then fill the information in, and he also copies my responses on his own form, making notes in the margin. Name, Date of Birth, Country of Birth, Education. That was of my father, my mother and my siblings. Then finally of myself. What Political Parties do I belong to. I have answered everything truthfully, but when it comes to politics, I thought that I would cause some confusion, by inventing an Anti-Apartheid Party. He seems interested, thus giving me the opportunity of making a political statement about Nelson Mandela imprisoned on Robben Island for his beliefs. I list my educational history. Did I belong to the Communist Party? At uni I did, but I was not going to give him a bone to chew on. Two hours later, he comes to the gist. Tell him word for word what I told my students in my last lecture. The thought of beginning by describing probability crossed my mind, but I dismissed it, as facetiousness was not going to help me. So I gave him an exact version of what I said. He scowled at me at tut-tutted.
“Was that an incitement to murder the helmsman?” For the first time he smiled tentatively, and answered his question himself. “Of course not, but this is The Congo.” His whole attitude and countenance changed at this point.
“As you must know, we in Orientale Province are not fans of the Man from Mbandaka, but at the moment he runs the country, with his brother Governor Rémy Ndebo,” (brother = born in the same village) “watching us like a hawk. I was given this job, and this,” he shakes B47, “will go to him, and what he decides is out of my hand. He may disappear you, or send you to prison, or he may expel you from the country. I had to be careful, but I wrote a note here saying that you did not strike me as a dangerous rebel, just a stupid big-headed academic. My belief is that you will be left alone. But let me warn you: The campus is a hotbed of dissatisfaction and subversion, they’re always grumbling about something, and if the lid can’t be kept on them, and they explode, I am afraid you are one of the first people we will have to come for. It will be out of my hands.” He shook my hands and showed me to the door.
Just as I was crossing the threshold, he smiled and said, “Don’t believe what people say about Governor Ndédo, that some people have been seen going in, but never coming out.”
Years later, when he was sacked, skeletons were found in his cellar.