Out of boyish curiosity, Freddy Ernesto Ilunga, then in his mid-teens, joined the Cuba-backed Congolese rebellion.
Che Guevara was flown into the jungle to train guerrillas to unseat Mobutu Sese Seko, who, with the backing of the West, had deposed elected leader Patrice Lumumba. Guevara spoke French but didn’t know Swahili — the local language.
Ilunga knew the region’s widely spoken languages, French and Swahili, and so was assigned to be the interpreter for Comrade Tatu, Guevara’s nom de guerre, in his short-lived attempt at revolution in the forests of what is now the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).
The late Ilunga’s life story is recreated in Freddy Ilunga: Che’s Swahili Translator, a 24-minute documentary directed by United States-based social anthropologist and scholar Katrin Hansing, who has lived in Cuba.
Made while he was still alive, Ilunga narrates how, for seven months, he was Guevara’s constant companion in the Fizi Baraka mountains of the eastern DRC. The beauty of the documentary lies in the fact that Ilunga sometimes assumes the voice of the unsophisticated teenager.
Once Ilunga asked: ”Who is this little guy Fidel has sent us, always perfuming his mouth?” Ilunga was not aware of Guevara’s need to take asthma medication. He was blissfully oblivious of the halo that hung over his companion and was astonished at the random acts of kindness from him.
Ilunga evokes a moving portrait of the compassionate revolutionary — for instance, how one day they shared the same hammock because Guevara didn’t want the youngster to sleep on the earth lest he contract pneumonia. On another occasion Guevara punished a Cuban cook who kept two bananas to himself when Ilunga didn’t have any.
Ilunga was a witness when Guevara gave up on the futility of the Congolese revolution. He told Ilunga to go to Havana, where he enrolled at primary school and eventually became a paediatric neurosurgeon.
Yet another human element of this story is manifest in how, for 40 years, Ilunga lost all contact with his family, who assumed he had died in the jungle. Later a relative looked him up on the internet, learned his story and got a number. Thus he was able to reconnect with his Bukavu-based mother and other relatives
Freddy Ilunga: Che’s Swahili Translator is a moving tribute to this exile who found opportunities he wouldn’t have had had he stayed in Africa.
See the documentary at Encounters on June 6 at 8.15pm and June 12 at 5.30pm. It also shows at the National Arts Festival that runs in Grahamstown from July 2 to 11