At the zoo in Elisabethville with my classmates, 1950Father Vandamme took us all one morning to the zoological gardens, following a visit to the Cascades. Before getting to the zoo proper, we had to walk down a wide, terraced esplanade dotted with vivid mosaics of flowers. The esplanade was flanked by cypresses, flamboyants, and eucalyptus trees. It had rained an hour earlier and the whole atmosphere was redolent of the pungent scent of eucalyptus mixed with that of lentils. Closing my eyes at brief intervals, I swallowed in the air and let my throat be tickled by it as though it were a rich, delicious brew Mama Malkia had served me. There is no earth more sensuous than laterite during the rainy season, especially before the hot hours.

With his generous beard, his blotchy complexion, and his white cloak, Father Vandamme somehow seemed to blend with the Katangese landscape. He’d wet his lips intermittently as he pinpointed to us the difference between the local flora and the plants more typical of northern latitudes.

“Look around you,” he said, visibly titillated, “and imagine paradise. If you are good during your lifetime, this is probably what you may find up there.”

I still believe, like Father Vandamme, that flamboyants, jacarandas, and eucalyptuses form an idyllic setting. It is at once lush yet gentle…unlike the equator’s foreboding maze of vegetation.

From this “threshold of heaven” we were led to the iron cages in which Africa’s wild beasts could be seen. A strange paradise, indeed. Unless heaven is a place where you are surrounded by the living reminders of sin. There were the pythons and the crocodiles slouching in their pond. Tembo, the female elephant, with hers cub, Simba…poor Simba who didn’t so much as yawn. There was Isabel, the giraffe, who stank to high heaven. The okapi and the zebras, a pair of ostriches.

What had happened to our relationship with animals since Noah’s time?

My schoolmates and I spent the other half of our visit watching our hairy cousins: Kati and Kawa, the two gorillas, the chimps and the baboons, the pink-assed monkeys, so conscious of their asses that Father Vandamme had to drag us elsewhere lest we get the wrong facts of life. But the one who stole the show was Joseph Mayi ya Moto or Joseph Hot Water, a macaque who had established a solid reputation for himself. Joseph Mayi ya Moto, the wizard. He would peel a banana, kiss it, and offer it to whomever stood nearest him. “Ho ho ho,” he would mimic, whereupon he would turn his back to you and eat the banana as if to say, “Don’t just stand there, you stupid, I’m busy.” He held no grudge against us humans.

After he’d had his snack, he would let his eyes roam over us again, impatiently, as if to say, “Who’s next now?” We couldn’t stay there, staring at him like nincompoops. He demanded action. The Congolese warden would then give him a cigarette and a box of matches. Joseph Mayi ya Moto would use three quarters of the matches, but he eventually succeeded in lighting the cigarette. Then he would take a puff, wait until the first round of applause and puff again, clapping at his own feat.

Father Vandamme roared with laughter, and we were in fits.

The story of Joseph Mayi ya Moto has a sad end, though, probably because he deemed he had more humanity than was given credit for.

One day, as the Congolese warden was cleaning his cell, Joseph Mayi ya Moto escaped. He went downtown, frightening the hell out of those he would meet, whites and blacks alike. Amid human shrieks and howls he hopped from store to store, helping himself to fruit and other goodies. I don’t think he had ever felt as happy as during his escapade from the zoo: Joseph Mayi ya Moto smack in the middle of Elisabethville, the thrills and the commotion. Human animals in such cases totally obliterate their sense of humor. From the downtown area, after having wreaked much havoc among the customers, Joseph Mayi ya Moto leapt to the suburbs. And it was in a residential quarter that a squad of kaboke (gendarmes) caught him. Bang, bang, bang! Many a crocodile tear was shed over the death of Joseph Mayi ya Moto, the monkey-more-human-than-monkey. Have you ever read the “Epitaph for a macaque?”

 

MUSINGS AT THE ZOO

the white tiger yawned

you’re no longer my hero

thought the little girl

two lambs stared at her

believing she was a wolf

“what big fangs you have!”

a toad croaked unseen

“they think this is Noah’s ark

but there’s still no flood”

what has a long neck

stinks to high heaven and has

lovely eyelashes?

“yo”, said the raven

“yeah”, echoed the kangaroo

“shush”, whistled the snake

where’s Tommy the chimp?

snoozing behind Rip the mule

dreaming bananas

they gave each other

the once over, beast and man

asking who was who

 a pretty woman

vowed to seduce a baboon

but he ignored her

then god changed his mind

ordering the gates open

all humans were banned

 

 

September 2000, at the New Orleans zoo with Mamica and Shelly

 

LIVE JEWEL

watch that white tiger

watch the way it stretches its back

as if an invisible hand was stroking it

have you seen anything so regal

so very sensual

in whatever position it takes?

does it deserve to be enclosed

in this New Orleans zoo

famed for its generous spaces

and its impeccable state of hygiene?

I really don’t know

at least here in its golden cage

no poacher will go after its pelt

no medicine man will crush its testicles

mixing it with spices and powders

in a millenary ritual

to increase the fertility

of a Chinese warlord

you still hear

from the remote area of Punjab

that a tiger has mauled a lad

or killed an old woman

plunging the whole region

in a state of disarray

if I were the boy’s father

or the old woman’s nephew

would I still admire

 the beautiful beast

or would I rather want

to catch and crucify it?

Strange how much more romantic

we feel concerning the big cats

as opposed to snakes or crocs!

Tiger, tiger, I know why this is

you are, in the human canon,

the closest to perfection

 

 

Usumbura, 1958, interracial sport at All Burp’s school, from one of his African novels.

5

The following day was an eventful one in Usumbura’s sporting life. The city’s two best basketball and volleyball teams, the Athénée Royal Interracial and the Collège Catholique, were playing each other that Saturday afternoon. Both sets had a fair balance of black and white players, and the Athénée teams included a couple of Asians and an Arab, as well.

There were perhaps a hundred supporters gathered around the courts, girls from the Stella Mattutina Institute among them — they, of course, sided with the Collège boys.

There was a festive atmosphere to the games. It was pleasant to see the camaraderie that existed among the players and supporters, irrespective of race, while the country itself underwent its most delicate period.

The games ended in general euphoria. No one had lost. The Silver Basket went to the Collège boys, while the Athénée volleyball team won an equally beautiful trophy for their performance.

To celebrate the event, the organizers had reserved the main wing of the Tanganyika Terrace for their protégés and their girlfriends.

Hugging the restaurant’s curved walls, the tables formed a large, almost perfect horseshoe. Three huge bowls of punch stood in the center of each section.

Round upon round, the glasses passed from one hand to another, causing a few incidents that, given the circumstances, appeared somewhat comical, in spite of the underlying embarrassment that could be detected in several of the participants. Like the girl who was hesitant to drink when she couldn’t decide whether the glass of punch she was holding belonged to her or to one of her black dinner partners. Or the thin-boned Indian girl who every now and then would pass a napkin over her plate to wipe off the sputterings of the boisterous boy sitting to her left — a broad-shouldered and rather handsome Fleming — who had almost crushed her knuckles when they were introduced. As if to complete the frame, she was flanked to her right by a six-foot Tutsi who never uttered a word, but snuck glances at her from the corner of his eye. She didn’t know whether to smile at him or stay aloof. Then there was a Mediterranean-looking fellow who had an unfortunate twitch below his cheekbone that profoundly disturbed the young Hutu girl seated across from him, until she realized he wasn’t making faces at her.

 

Oswald, who had refereed the basketball game, was presiding at the head of one table and having a marvelous time.

Pints of draft beer were swallowed — one of Belgium’s contributions to Central Africa. Well traveled folks even claimed that the beer here was the best to be found on the Black Continent. And it continued to flow profusely, into and out of the king-size mugs, until the whole restaurant was bathed in a sort of of malt-laden mist. Everyone toasted amid the joyous sound of clinking glasses.

“You know,” Oswald said, slightly enmeshed as he lifted his mug, “if this were to happen in my country, two-thirds of the people here would be arrested.”

“And for what, may I ask?” his shocked African neighbor asked, laughing.

“Because they’re under age. You have to be eighteen to drink alcohol in the U.S.”

“What a ridiculous law! It’s crazy.” The African kept laughing, pointing a finger to his temple. “Here, we get pombe (beer) even before we can stand up. You are the underdeveloped ones, not us.”

Oswald clinked his mug against his neighbor’s and toasted, “Well, then, to crazyness and to brotherly love!”

The chef appeared, wearing a spotless white cone hat and holding, as only acrobats can, a huge tray on which stood his creation: a dome-shaped cake sprinkled with multicolored candy flakes and chocolate chips.

The bravos burst in unison from all corners of the room, while the chef, beaming, spun about on his heels.

After dessert, everybody adjourned to the terrace, where a band was already playing a tango. Then someone from the far end of the terrace shouted, “Could you give us something livelier, please? Cha cha or rock ’n roll.”

It was the jovial Fleming who had somewhat managed to sit next to the Indian girl again. At the same table was the six-foot tall Tutsi, now flanked by a blonde amazon, who looked as uptight and haughty as the Tutsi himself: a matched pair, indeed.

Oswald joined them with a pretty Portuguese named Caterina.

The Fleming took the initiative. “Get up, all of you! Time to dance.”

Without so much as asking the Indian girl’s opinion, he took her by the hand and headed toward the dance floor.

The tall blonde girl stared straight ahead towards the glimmering dots playing their magic games on Lake Tanganyika, as they did every night at this hour that God created, concentrating her whole attention on the string of fishing boats.

Caterina looked inquisitively at Oswald, whilst the blonde amazon kept her eyes glued to the sparks flickering on the watery horizon. Then, suddenly, she turned round and addressed the Tutsi player.

“Don’t you think we might join the others? I’d like to dance, if you don’t mind.”

The Tutsi smiled meekly, but didn’t answer. He then bowed and helped her out of her chair. They were the most striking couple on the floor. The band was playing an Elvis Presley rock ’n roll. All the others were jiving or jigging up and down, when the Fleming boldly slipped his Indian partner under his legs. She shrieked with excitement. Oblivious to their surroundings, the Tutsi-amazon couple moved about in slow motion.

A waltz followed, turning the whole floor into a swirling mass. A young African girl lost her balance and fell down. Her Arab partner kneeled, asking if she was hurt.

“A few bruises,” she answered, “that’s all … I hope.”

The others paused until she stood up again and reassured them by waving her hands.

Except for the Tutsi and the amazon, most dancers swapped partners, especially when the band played cha chas or other Afro-Cuban music. But those two had become inseparable, though they never exchanged more than a few words.

La vie en rose: the amazon was now nestling her face against the nape of his neck, a gesture which pleasantly surprised him. He enjoyed the silky feel of her hair brushing his cheek, almost tickling him, and the fragrance of her milky skin. She must be wearing an expensive French perfume, he thought.

White girls, and Europeans in general, have a smell that is either nondescript or repulsive to Africans. She, in turn, liked the strong natural scent of musk behind his ears.

A cool breeze coming from the lake swept through her hair, teasing it softly. They now danced cheek-to-cheek, hardly moving, their fingers entwined behind her back.

More than once, Oswald had thought of asking the blonde girl to dance, but noticing, as did the others, how enraptured she and her Tutsi partner seemed, he dropped the idea.

At the table next to Oswald’s, a plump freckled girl whose red burnished hair was coiled in a plait sat all alone. She looked rather sullen, and he had noticed that she hadn’t budged from her chair since the dancing began. One of the Collège players, an African, approached her and invited her to dance. With a faint smile, she refused. The African insisted, but she shook her head and said, “Sorry, I can’t dance.”

“You can’t or you don’t want to, just because I’m black!”

She stared at him uncomfortably as he took a seat next to her and grasped her hand, speaking before she could utter a word.

“Look here, Mademoiselle, in less than one year, this country will be independent. You Whites have had it too good for a very long time. If you want us to treat you fairly, you will have to give up a lot of your privileges. We are no longer your servants. The house you live in, the car you drive, all the beautiful clothes you wear at parties, we’ll take away from you if you carry on like this.”

He had spoken softly, but loud enough for Oswald to hear the monologue. Upon his last statement, the African got up, darted a spiteful look at the now haggard girl, then added, before taking final leave of her, “Let’s take a rain check.”

Oswald, who was half engaged in a conversation with Caterina, moved his chair so that he could catch a glimpse of the redhead. Her unpainted lips were quivering as if she were about to cry. Oswald was full of remorse and wished he could do something, maybe tell her that she shouldn’t take it so seriously. But instead he felt a burning sense of powerlessness in his chest. The euphoria he had felt all along was marred by the scene he had just witnessed.

 

 

All Burp’s waxing poetical, some of it is really exaggeratedly farfetched-in-and-in-between.

 

Usumbura, 1950‘s, at the Kitkat cinema,

 

VARIATION ON SADKO

 

I am the child born of Wisdom, the water sprite and the terrifying Ocean.  My brethren are the rivers that flow into the azure horizon.  Yet so few of them reach their moments of bliss.  Instead, they merge into anonymity.  You have searched for so long, braving the Elements’ treacheries. Come Sadko, you have almost won.  There lies the kingdom of my father.  His crystal palace is concealed under deep cerulescent gorges.  Follow the wake of the silver fins until you encounter three sharks.  They guard the secret entrance to a fabulous world …”

Strange creatures people this kingdom, creatures unknown to the common run of mankind … witnesses of prehistoric times, others, so old that human memory cannot recall.  A wonder lamp ploughs its way in the green darkness of the ocean bed, whilst a starfish glides by — one would love to pin down on a glass stand. A sea-fan suddenly lights up like a bonsai Christmas tree, illuminating the generous, bloated sponge everyone seems to ignore.  Farther away, a school of pelican eels has surrounded a pellucid feather, transfixed by a pink-eyed indicus whose saw-like teeth flash in a monstrous grin.  Innocent anemones stare at the skeleton of a sea gherkin, next to a bald-headed atolla that looks as pious as a monk, appearing so terribly vulnerable opposite a giant cypris.  An orange octopus swirls as gracefully as a ballerina.  And all around, a legion of scout fauna twinkle in a hundred whimsical colors.

I am a partaker of this deep-sea fairyworld with its immersed castles and its riot of subdued lights.  Oh wait!  Here comes the King with his retinue.  They escort him to his shell-throne.  Long white hair, curly beard, framing an emaciated face.  He is imposing with that severe look of his.  At once paternal and compassionate, not only is he the undisputed master of this realm but also the conductor emeritus of Rimski Korsakov’s symphonic poem.

I listen spellbound to the ‘Indian love song’ … a song so melodious, so captivating that all through the film I will try to hum it.  Fascinated, Sadko stands in the midst of this Waterama, the Treasure Ocean.  He is weeping for joy.  So do I. His eyes are mine now. But where is the Princess of the Seas?  A sensation of warmth on my hand.  Is it the spell of all that beauty?  Of those images blurred through distorting mirrors?  Swaying shades stroke the movements of a diabolic ballet. That Indian love song again.  Against a fluorescent background the princess emerges, at last she rejoins Sadko. They exchange their first kiss under the purple canopy of the coral chamber, in full view of the royal assembly.  The king, resting high on his shell-throne opposite them, nods his head with a smile, signalling that the festivities can commence.  The members of the court are being served whilst a flowering of nymphs, guards, mermaids and rainbow-hued fishes suddenly appear, descending from the ocean’s surface.  They begin to swirl in a stupendous merry-go-round and form a glowing choreography.  Explosion of fireworks, shower of sparks which gradually spreads into halos of bright greens, blues and turquoise.  In the kingdom of the sea, the consummation of love is a ritual which cannot be dissociated from the wedding ceremony.  “Kiss me my beautiful princess,” the words flow from the young man’s mouth like a wild gush of petals, and as they embrace, oblivious to the spectators, the princess helps him shed her mother-of-pearl gown.  Sadko does likewise, casting off his scale jacket and seal-skin tights. The halo around them slowly changes into a bright orange glow.  There is a second explosion of fireworks, like a splash of jewels, a continuous eruption of topaz, emerald, opal and jade, to hail the newly-wed and their love-making.

 

 

Talk of an angel of looove, a setchual poyvoyt is what I call her.

 

Talk of an angel of looove, a setchual poyvoyt is what I call her.

 

Usumbura in the 1950’s

YOHANNA

I remember the sleek pink convertible

with tailfins that made you want to fly

it was a 1957 Cadillac

with chrome hubcaps

and immaculate white stripes

it belonged to Yohanna

the mayor’s beautiful wife

she would drive down the hill

with her reflective sunglasses

and her jet-black mane

floating in the warm breeze

like an angel behind a steering wheel

she was indeed

the angel of love

whom at least half

the town’s male population

had courted, benefitting from her largesse

she and that pink Cadillac

were made for each other

you coudn’t but envy

the one and the other

and feel totally elated

unless, of course,

you were the fiancée

of one of those ‘lucky’ men

or called him your husband

then you would sense

a burning jealousy

that could only relent

with the demise of the woman

 

 

Muranvya, Ruanda-Urundi, at the King’s feast, 1956

Muranvya, Ruanda-Urundi, at the Kingʼs feast, 1956

INTORE TUTSI DANCERS

Rolling heads combed with ivory fleeces

A leopard skin around the waist

One hand gripping the spear

The other brandishing a baton

The Master of Ceremonies lifts his arms

Frantic movements electrify their ephebic bodies

Muscles ripple to the beat of the instruments

In collective harmony

Jingle of the feet like a melody mowing the grass

Nacreous silhouettes

Limbs that sway, lips that quiver

Before the ultimate leap

Feline somersault

Black sons of Pharaoh

Features polished by an ebony sculptor

Crest of hair undulating

Like the gentle hills of Burundi

Hush the Royal Drums

Sprinkled with the blood of a young calf

In otherwise celestial spheres.

 

 

Usumbura, on the eve of Independence,

A TUTSI TRAGEDY

Motionless behind a mango-tree

Gazing at the isolated terrace

Rumors of laughter on a dancing melody.

Heart throbs against the humid trunk

Sweating in anguish, clasping that sordid thing

Two accomplices watch, squatting nearby,

A poisoned arrow at their flanks

The one mutters in Kiswahili:

“Wait until the moon is veiled,

Run away and you’re a dead man!”

Feast of sounds coming out of a music box

The prince arises and they applaud

Stately carriage of an ebony pharaoh

Pale and adulatory, they are mesmerized

Mihali shudders – vacillating lines –

Presses on the trigger

A purple stain maculates the princely cheek

Falling in contorsions,

Groping for invisible crutches

Until the king’s son stretches out

Lifeless on the waxed floor.

An African prince has been shot

By the son of a Greek god

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