Che Guevara in the Congo: Another Look
DR Congo's rebel-turned-brain surgeon
By Mark Doyle
BBC World Affairs Correspondent
A Congolese rebel-turned-brain surgeon, who worked
with the Cuban revolutionary Che Guevara, is the
subject of a planned film by an anthropologist who
struck up a friendship with him before he died late
Freddy Ilanga worked as Che Guevara's translator when
the South American went secretly to the Congo in 1965
with a mission to foment revolt against the
pro-western regime in Kinshasa shortly after the
assassination of Congolese independence hero Patrice
Guevara's mission failed and he was chased out of the
region by white mercenaries led by Colonel "Mad Mike"
He returned to Cuba, followed shortly afterwards by Mr
Ilanga, who trained as a doctor specialising in
My encounter with the extraordinary life story of
Freddy Ernesto Ilunga Ilanga began with a story for
the BBC News website, which prompted e-mails to me
from South African anthropologist Katrin Hansing.
After seeing my story about Guevara in Africa, she
revealed to me her plan to make a film about Mr
Ms Hansing added another internet tale - that shortly
before his death last month, Mr Ilanga had been
contacted by a sister-in-law back in the Democratic
Republic of Congo, who had found him via a search
engine and that together they had planned a reunion
after 40 years' estrangement.
That family meeting never took place, but Freddy
Ilanga's amazing journey from being a teenage rebel in
eastern Congo to becoming a brain surgeon in Cuba can
now be told.
I first learnt about Freddy Ilanga while staying with
a friend on the shores of Lake Tanganyika in eastern
I was compiling a series of radio and web reports for
the BBC on the Congolese war, and my friend
absent-mindedly referred to Che Guevara's time in the
"Che? In Africa?" I sat up abruptly; "Really?"
I was fascinated.
"Oh yes", my friend said, pointing up from our
lakeside lodging to mountains that loomed over the
water; "He was up there, in the Fizi Baraka
He tossed me a paperback version of Guevara's diary,
The African Dream (Harvill Panther, 2000).
I immediately 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
Mr Ilanga, I learnt from Ms Hansing, was a teenage
fighter for the nationalist rebel movement in Congo
when, in 1965, he had a fateful meeting with Che
For seven months, he acted as Guevara's translator in
the Fizi Baraka range during the Cuban revolutionary's
then-secret attempt to support the African rebels in
overthrowing the corrupt post-colonial regime.
Mr 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, he joined rebels fighting the Kinshasa
The following year the Cuban leadership, flush from
the success of their own revolution, secretly sent Che
Guevara to help the rebels.
When Guevara arrived in April, Freddy Ilanga was
ordered by the rebel leadership to be the newcomer's
interpreter since Guevara could not speak Swahili or
any of the local Congolese languages.
As a military mission, the Cuban adventure in eastern
Congo was, as Che Guevara himself admitted in his
diary, a failure. The idea was that a group of 100
Cubans would occupy the lakeside mountains and foment
The plan didn't take account of the fact that the
level of political organisation in the Congolese
rebellion 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
The wider picture of Cuba's involvement in Africa is
Nelson Mandela is on record as saying Cuban military
and political 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
During the seven months they spent together, Mr 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 - Mr Ilanga was at first very wary;
he once confided that he thought of Guevara as "that
But he gradually grew to admire the hard-working
Guevara, who, according to Mr Ilanga, showed the same
respect to black people as he did to whites.
In those days, in Congo, this was truly revolutionary.
After he worked as Guevara's translator, Mr Ilanga's
life changed dramatically again.
He was told to go to Havana shortly after the
departing Cuban military force had left Congo in
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 Mr 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
Over the years he had 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 Mr
Ilanga's sisters-in-law, who had never given up on
him, saved up to pay for a short session in an
internet cafe in the city of Bukavu, near his
She entered his name into a search engine and was
astonished to see it come back on a published article
signed by Mr Ilanga and marked Havana, Cuba.
Tentative approaches were made by e-mail, with neither
side quite believing at first that the contact was
Freddy Ilanga then spoke by phone to his mother,
Mwausi Museke, for the first time in almost 40 years.
With Katrin Hansing, Mr 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 Mr Ilanga's resettlement.
This was where I came in again, as a bit-part player;
I was hoping to tag along with them to do some reports
for the BBC.
Despite Freddy Ilanga's death last month, Ms Hansing
still intends to complete the film.
One of her motivations is to show his 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.