Freddy Ilanga

Translator to Che Guevara in Congo who became a paediatric neurosurgeon in Cuba

Freddy Ernesto Ilunga Ilanga Yatii, interpreter and surgeon: born near Bukavu, Belgian Congo 8 November 1948; married (two children); died Havana 29 November 2005.

Freddy Ilanga was a teenage fighter for the nationalist rebel movement in Congo when, in 1965, he had a fateful meeting with Che Guevara. For seven months, Ilanga acted as Guevara's translator in the Fizi Baraka mountains of eastern Congo, during the Cuban revolutionary's little-known attempt to support the African rebels in overthrowing the corrupt post-colonial regime. He ended his days as a paediatric neurosurgeon in Havana.

Ilanga was born in 1948 in a very poor village in the far east of Congo near the border with Burundi. He got some schooling and learnt Swahili, the lingua franca of East Africa, and French, the main language of the European colonisers. His first job was as a newspaper vendor.

In 1964, aged just 16 and partly out of adolescent curiosity, Ilanga joined rebels fighting the corrupt pro-Western regime based in the capital, Kinshasa. The following year the Cuban leadership, flush from the success of their own revolution, secretly sent Che Guevara to help the rebels in the Congo. When Guevara arrived in April, Freddy Ilanga was ordered by the rebel leadership to be the newcomer's interpreter since Guevara could only speak French.

As a military mission, the Cuban adventure in eastern Congo was, as Che Guevara himself admitted, a failure. The idea was that a group of 100 Cubans would occupy the lakeside mountains and foment revolt. The plan didn't take account of the fact that the level of political organisation was extremely weak; that Guevara and his comrades knew almost nothing about the African society they were presuming to mould; or that the pro-Western regime had the help of powerful white mercenaries. These mercenaries, under the command of Colonel "Mad Mike" Hoare, were to chase Guevara and his men out of the Fizi Baraka mountains after just seven months of sporadic combat.

The wider picture of Cuba's involvement in Africa is quite different. Nelson Mandela is on record as saying Cuban support - notably for the anti-apartheid regime in Angola in the 1980s - was critical to the ending of white rule in South Africa. Today, hundreds of Cuban doctors work in poor African countries. That would have pleased Guevara - and Freddy Ilanga.

During the seven months they spent together, Freddy Ilanga lived and breathed Che Guevara's life. As a young black African who saw white settlers as an oppressive force - and who knew nothing about the revolution in Cuba - Ilanga was at first very wary; he once confided that he thought of Guevara as "that sarcastic white". But he gradually grew to admire the hard-working Cuban, who, according to Ilanga, showed the same respect to black people as he did to whites. In those days, in Congo, this was truly revolutionary.

I first learnt about Freddy Ilanga while staying with a friend on the shores of Lake Tanganyika. I was compiling a series of radio reports for the BBC on the Congolese war, and my friend absent-mindedly referred to Che Guevara's time in the region. "Che? In Africa? Really?" He tossed me a paperback version of Guevara's diary, A Dream of Africa (2000). I got lost in the text, and started plotting in my mind how to place the idea of some features to my editors at the BBC. Various Congolese who fought with Guevara were still alive. On that day, two years ago, Freddy Ilanga was one.

After he worked as Guevara's translator, Ilanga's life changed dramatically again. He was told to go to Havana shortly after the departing Cuban military force had left Congo in November 1965. The official reason was that Guevara wanted him to have a decent education. But, given the tense Cold War atmosphere, the Cubans probably also had security concerns about a man who had been so close to Guevara.

When Ilanga first arrived in the Caribbean he was homesick for Congo, but, after realising he would probably never get enough money together to return, he buckled down to life in Havana. He qualified as a doctor and specialised in paediatric neurosurgery. He married a Cuban woman and had two children. Over the years he lost almost all contact with his family members in Africa, most of whom assumed he had been killed as a young guerrilla in the 1960s.

All that changed in September 2003 when one of Ilanga's sisters-in-law, who had never given up on him, saved up to pay for a short session in an internet café in the city of Bukavu, near Freddy's birthplace. She entered his name into a search engine and was astonished to see it come back on a published article signed by Ilanga and marked Havana, Cuba.

Tentative approaches were made, with neither side quite believing at first that the contact was genuine. Freddy Ilanga spoke by phone to his mother, Mwausi Museke, for the first time in almost 40 years. With Katrin Hansing, a South African anthropologist, who contacted me after I wrote about Guevara in Africa for BBC Online, Ilanga began looking into ways of returning home - the principal one being to make a film of the journey, which the two hoped would finance the fares and Ilanga's resettlement. This was where I came in, as a bit-part player; I was hoping to tag along with them to do some reports for the BBC.

Hansing still intends to complete the film one day, if only to show Freddy Ilanga's family how one of their own went from being a newspaper vendor to a brain surgeon - via contact with one of the great icons of the 20th century.

Mark Doyle

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Lucerne’s Hotel Château Gütsch, one of the lots in our Homeless Veterans appeal charity auction
charity appeal
Life and Style
A woman walks by a pandal art installation entitled 'Mars Mission' with the figure of an astronaut during the Durga Puja festival in Calcutta, India
techHow we’ll investigate the existence of, and maybe move in with, our alien neighbours
Arts and Entertainment
Tony Hughes (James Nesbitt) after his son Olly disappeared on a family holiday in France

Jo from Northern Ireland was less than impressed by Russell Brand's attempt to stage a publicity stunt

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksNow available in paperback
Nabil Bentaleb (centre) celebrates putting Tottenham ahead
footballTottenham 4 Newcastle 0: Spurs fans dreaming of Wembley final after dominant win
Arts and Entertainment
The Apprentice candidates Roisin Hogan, Solomon Akhtar, Mark Wright, Bianca Miller, Daniel Lassman
tvReview: But which contestants got the boot?
Arts and Entertainment
Jim Carrey and Jeff Daniels ride again in Dumb and Dumber To
filmReview: Dumb And Dumber To was a really stupid idea
Arts and Entertainment
Sir Ian McKellen tempts the Cookie Monster
tvSir Ian McKellen joins the Cookie Monster for a lesson on temptation
Tourists bask in the sun beneath the skyscrapers of Dubai
travelBritish embassy uses social media campaign to issue travel advice for festive holiday-makers in UAE
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Helpdesk Analyst

£25000 per annum: Ashdown Group: An established media firm based in Surrey is ...

Ashdown Group: Java Developer - Hertfordshire - £47,000 + bonus + benefits

£40000 - £470000 per annum + bonus: Ashdown Group: Java Developer / J2EE Devel...

Ashdown Group: Head of Finance - Financial Director - London - £70,000

£70000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Head of Finance - Financial Controller - Fina...

Recruitment Genius: Business Development Executive - Nationwide - OTE £65,000

£30000 - £65000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This small technology business ...

Day In a Page

Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas
La Famille Bélier is being touted as this year's Amelie - so why are many in the deaf community outraged by it?

Deaf community outraged by La Famille Bélier

The new film tells the story of a deaf-mute farming family and is being touted as this year's Amelie
10 best high-end laptops

10 best high-end laptops

From lightweight and zippy devices to gaming beasts, we test the latest in top-spec portable computers
Michael Carberry: ‘After such a tough time, I’m not sure I will stay in the game’

Michael Carberry: ‘After such a tough time, I’m not sure I will stay in the game’

The batsman has grown disillusioned after England’s Ashes debacle and allegations linking him to the Pietersen affair
Susie Wolff: A driving force in battle for equality behind the wheel

Susie Wolff: A driving force in battle for equality behind the wheel

The Williams driver has had plenty of doubters, but hopes she will be judged by her ability in the cockpit
Calls for a military mental health 'quality mark'

Homeless Veterans campaign

Expert calls for military mental health 'quality mark'
Racton Man: Analysis shows famous skeleton was a 6ft Bronze Age superman

Meet Racton Man

Analysis shows famous skeleton was a 6ft Bronze Age superman
Garden Bridge: St Paul’s adds to £175m project’s troubled waters

Garden Bridge

St Paul’s adds to £175m project’s troubled waters
Stuff your own Christmas mouse ornament: An evening class in taxidermy with a festive feel

Stuff your own Christmas mouse ornament

An evening class in taxidermy with a festive feel
Joint Enterprise: The legal doctrine which critics say has caused hundreds of miscarriages of justice

Joint Enterprise

The legal doctrine which critics say has caused hundreds of miscarriages of justice
Freud and Eros: Love, Lust and Longing at the Freud Museum: Objects of Desire

Freud and Eros

Love, Lust and Longing at the Freud Museum
France's Front National and the fear of a ‘gay lobby’ around Marine Le Pen

Front National fear of ‘gay lobby’

Marine Le Pen appoints Sébastien Chenu as cultural adviser