African Refugees: Some Personal Encounters

Article excerpt

I HAD just started school when I first came into contact with a refugee, two refugees, to be precise. The event was not particularly scary, curiosity characterized the whole thing. We suddenly found ourselves together in the office of the local Catholic priest, a young energetic Dutchman who had barely settled down to work in the country as a 'White Father', the well known missionary order. As it happened, the priest spoke perfect French and even some Swahili. What followed was a direct interview which, I believe, covered mostly basics: food, name, age, class, parents, religion, friends and relatives.

Here is the story which unfolded on that bright sunny day somewhere near Shaba, in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The girl, who was to become a charming classmate, left with her junior brother, her native Katanga as it was then called, because of civil war after it seceded from Congo in 1960. Katanga was the theatre of a bloody shooting war between political factions following the impromptu departure of the Belgian authorities. Patrice Lumumba lacked the strength to remain in power as the first postcolonial Prime Minister. In what turned out to be the only desperate option available, the Army chief of staff Mobutu led a successful coup d'etat to fill what was clearly a huge power vacuum. Before my school term came to an end, the young refugees were back home in their native Katanga. Before leaving, my classmate taught me how to count in French and say certain elementary nouns and greetings, including bonjour. Little did I know at the time that I would discover a French notebook at home, shine at school in everything and find myself studying for my first doctorate at the Sorbonne.

The second time I came into contact with refugees was again in an educational environment. This time we were studying modern languages at the prestigious national university in Lusaka, the Zambian capital. The most striking thing about the university refugees was their pride and political activism. They looked inspired, determined to liberate their countries from various dictatorships: Uganda where Amin was dreaded, minority rule in the case of South West Africa, Rhodesia and South Africa. As certain as the rising sun, democratic ideals were to triumph in Zimbabwe, Namibia and South Africa. Looking back with hindsight, it is clear that the university refugees were more priviledged than their comrades at the frontline. Who can forget the napalm bombs that rained terror on the refugee camps around the city when Rhodesian scouts resolved to strike at the source of enemy fire? Those were the days when all the races in Southern Africa found themselves caught up in a logic over which they all had little control, th e logic of war. Refugees bear the blunt of war, but their resolve to build a peaceful life never dies. They only cry for international solidarity.

The third time I came into contact with refugees was along the Angolan border. The Portugese withdrawal left a power vacuum. Whether it was deliberate or not is totally irrelevant. Who can build an alternative government under conditions of colonial rule? …