Translator to Che Guevara in Congo who became a paediatric neurosurgeon in Cuba
Saturday 10 December 2005
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.
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