All Burp damn deserved it, Catherine was a real felinist!
Usumbura: with my friend Catherine, in the late 1950’s
THE WET HIDING
It was pouring. I ran and took shelter under the platform of the school playground. Their backs against a pillar, Catherine and Myriam were busy reviewing for the biology test. From where I stood, they looked like two young novices absorbed in meditation. Much too tempting a sight for me to leave them in peace. The rain was now plummeting with such force that it sounded as if the skies had broken forth in a continual volley of hammers.
I approached the girls, stealthily, from the side. Deafening blast of a thunderbolt. Catherine clutched her girlfriend’s arm. For a split second I thought she had noticed me. But then they both looked at each other and guffawed. I moved sideways in order to avoid attracting attention, until I got very close. Luckily, they were so positioned – elbows forming an almost perfect right angle – that they stood within the reach of my hand.
Bang l – in one blow – it came off: hollow resonance of two skulls knocking against each other. I scrammed like a killjoy escaping a swarm of wasps. Turned my head. Saw Catherine flashing a glance of rage at me. Heard a buzz: it was Myriam, throwing daggers in my direction, with the difference that they – the daggers – were following me at a dangerous pace. Had to dart my way through a group of students, bumped into half- a-dozen of them, rounded a few pillars, cursed myself for not being able to climb atop, and spinned on my heels with the hope that …gosh, no, there she was, the fiercest of all wasps. The only way to shake her off – so I hoped – was to leave the sheltered platform. Nothing doing: she ran after me. Lightning ripped the sky. The ground looked like a battlefield, earth turned into quicksand, rivers of mud flowing over what were, minutes ago, pathways. Poor Antonio all splashed up, drenched to the skin, sandals and socks churning up brown foam … and Myriam, still chasing after him.
‘Try to gain time, at least till the end of the recess. Quick, behind those lemon trees!’ There in the grove, she couldn’t possibly catch me.
Fell over a wire net, hands dripping, knees soaked with mud. Tried to get up, but slipped. Heard Myriam shouting, not very far from me: ‘Ha! Thought you could get away with it, you jerk you!’
‘We’ll be late, don’t you hear the bell?’ I lied…in vain. Before I knew, blows showered thick and fast on me.
‘Ask for more, if that isn’t enough!’.
She left me there, startled, nonplussed, in a quandary. Disgraced.
‘I’ll teach you to bully me again, wiseacre,’ she added as she was heading towards the classroom.
My knuckles crackled in complaint. Defective brakes. Temporarily unfit for use. So, there I sat for awhile, brooding in the rain, wallowing in the mud like a creature suddenly turned into a mongrel: half-boy, half-hog. Couldn’t go to the lesson, not in this state anyway. Recalled another scene. Main character: Myriam, of course. Giggled and grunted. laughed myself sick.
The rain was my witness.
Usumbura on the eve of Independence, after the assassination of Prince Rwagasore, slated to become the new country’s first Prime Minister. This ain’t no fiction, it’s ninety percent true, only the real names have been changed. Excerpted from PRINCES AND GODS
Dimitri drives along a side street parallel to Astrida Boulevard. Though there is no traffic at all, he does not want to take chances. Fate has been cruel enough with him these past few days; he should not tempt it further. After all, a political murder has just been perpetrated. Although it seems as if he had nothing to do with it — he was only an intrument of the Common Front — Dimitri has an awkward feeling about the affair. He comforts himself with the name of his lover, repeating it over and over. Yes, he did this to be with her, and very soon they will be together again. He can call Damiana from Athens airport. She is going to get the surprise of her life. Wait till he tells her the story. She’ll open her big black eyes in disbelief. It’ll be a fairy tale.
He remembers, when he was a little boy, his grandmother consoling an old lady friend of hers, saying, “So, your son’s wife has run away with another man. Good riddance to bad rubbish. That’s how you have to take it. He’ll find the girl he deserves, you don’t worry. God sometimes plays these tricks, you know, but it’s often for the better.” Dimitri smiles, half nostalgic, half mischievous. He muses, picturing his married life. Damiana Stavros … it sounds so fresh, so natural on his lips. What about Antoniades?
“First things first,” he says resolutely. “That will be taken care of once we’re settled.” Oh, how much he longs for her right now, for the bittersweet taste of her skin, for her body yielding to him.
The road now climbs and Dimitri shifts to second gear, but the car doesn’t respond as it should. Dimitri puts it in first gear, flooring the accelerator, but the engine begins to jolt. He hopes it’s just a speck of dirt in the fuel tank. A thrust, then another jolt brings the car to a final standstill. He pulls the handbrake. Swearing, he grabs the flashlight from the glove compartment, and steps out of the Dodge to see what the problem is. He pokes his head under the hood and wails.
“Christo, no, the battery’s flat. What shall I do?”
He tries to collect himself. “Stop acting childishly, Dimitri!” he scolds himself. “This is not the end of the world. You have two alternatives. You can either wait here until someone drives by and gives you a lift — highly improbable — or walk the four or five kilometers to the hotel.”
But before he starts back, he pushes his car into a nearby parking lot so it won’t look suspicious. It takes him about ten minutes to maneuver his recalcitrant wagon off the road, free-wheeling it to a halt against a little brick wall.
He is on his way when it suddenly occurs to him that he forgot to turn off the headlights. “Aggravations!” he mutters to himself, turning back. He reaches the car and remembers the golfbag containing his rifle.
Should I get rid of it in the bush, to give them a clue? Then he thinks, Don’t be so stupid!
He is still behind the dashboard of his Dodge when he hears a soft, purring noise. He looks into the rearview mirror and sees a large, luxurious sedan approaching. It stops alongside the station wagon, and in a bass voice, rolling his r’s the way the natives do, its driver calls out, “Can I be of any service?”
“Well, yes,” Dimitri answers, almost thankfully. “My car has broken down.”
“Then do get in if you’re heading towards town.”
In his hurry, Dimitri doesn’t pay attention to the man whose hospitality he has accepted. It isn’t until they reach the curve that he turns his gaze in the driver’s direction. Dimitri is transfixed and stares at the man as if at an apparition.
It is the Mwami himself, sitting beside the murderer of his son, heir to the throne, Prime Minister designate of the first independent government of the Kingdom of Burundi, Prince Rwagasore (his real name, which corresponds to ‘Ruego’ in my novel).
The Mwami returned to his palace late that night only to learn that the very same man to whom he had given a lift, Dimitri Stavros, had shot Prince Rwagasore a few hours earlier at the Tanganyika Terrace. With the killer were Denis Ntyca, his brother-in-law, and the mayor of Ngozi. All three were members of the Common Front.
It is no secret that the Mwami and his son had differing political views. Rumors even spread that the Queen Mother, who was at Usumbura’s main hospital mourning the death of the Prince, slapped the Belgian Resident-general across the face when he appeared.
A public trial was held in Usumbura and, after deliberation, the following sentences were carried out: The Greek, Dimitri Stavros, was shot on 30 June 1962. Five officials of the opposition party were hanged in Kitega, the founder and president of the Common Front, among them.
All Burp’s Africa: traveling through the Congo, Rwanda and Urundi in the 1950s with his family, as recounted by Léodine.
From the travels across Central Africa by LÉODINE OF THE BELGIAN CONGO
The day of the great departure had arrived. Since I had never taken a plane before, I wriggled with an almost delirious excitement the minute the loud-speaker cracked with the announcement that “the passengers bound for Manono, Albertville, Usumbura, Kindu and Bukavu – which oldtimers insisted on calling by its europeanized name Costermansville, or simply Cost, following the Belgian habit of abbreviating city names (likewise, Elisabethville, Léopoldville or Usumbura, were referred to as Eville, Léo and Usa) – please proceed to gate 2 for immediate boarding.”
The sound of all those names which, when we drove to the airport on Sundays, just as visitors, usually either made me feel melancholy or slightly annoyed, according to my mood – I still can’t fathom why it triggered such a reaction in me – , all of a sudden echoed like a brilliant musical score whose notes pitched into a flamboyant crescendo. I then kept repeating the syllables in my head, so as to immerse myself in them, lest they should be forgotten, for even though I knew that I wouldn’t visit any of those places, they’d no longer appear as simple dots on the map.
The sleek white and silver Dakota of Sabena, the national Belgian airline which prided itself on having developed Africa’s most extensive domestic network, stood there waiting for us, a mere fifty meters from the terminal. It looked like a beautiful and majestic bird at rest, shining in a lofty posture, with wings spread out and beak pointed towards the sky, a sight of perfect harmony.
What surprised then impressed me as we got into the aircraft, was to feel the gradual stiffening of my calves and the shortening of my breath, as when one begins to climb a hill, since from afar, I had not expected the plane to be so sharply inclined. As a matter of fact I almost lost my balance, so impatient I was to gain the row of seats in the front of the plane, to which the steward was motioning us, while at the same time sporting a broad welcoming smile. In spite of my haste, I noticed how delicate his hands were, and I’d swore they were manicured for I had never seen a man before with nails so neatly cut and so incredibly glossy.
There weren’t very many passengers – I thus assumed that the DC3 would unload some of them then pick up others along the route – and we consequently were given permission to choose any seats we liked, ignoring those marked on our boarding tickets.
My mother insisted that we move as far away from the wings as possible, because of the vibrations, which, she informed us, disturbed her a great deal, despite all the dramamine pills she had swallowed before leaving home.
I was far too excited to waste my time with such preoccupations, and, like a kitten curling up in its new litter, I probed my padded orchestra seat, squirming this way and that before I finally settled – wasn’t I going to be lifted into the stratosphere and be regaled with the most unique show of my life, listening to the sweetest music there ever was, the rumblings of our DC3? Then too, I had a window all to myself, since I was separated from Piet and my mother by the cabin’s single aisle.
A few minutes later, the steward came towards me and, bending his slim torso, he buckled the safety belt around my tummy, too loosely I thought, but surely he was the expert and he knew best. As he did this, a potent whiff of eau de cologne emanated from the upper part of his body and engulfed me. It was at once exquisite and dizzying, so much so that I suddenly had a burning desire to press my lips against his cheek, and the thought made me blush. Then, somewhat miffed, I asked myself why on earth did people sprinkle perfume on themselves if their neighbors had to keep at a distance. Wasn’t that a sort of provocation?
When the steward walked away to attend to the other passengers I became aware of the stronger odor that pervaded the cabin, it evoked the aroma of tobacco leaves laid out to be dried in the sun, mixed with that of warm, opiated leather, almost alive, as if it originated from some game animal that had been just recently killed.
I was floating amid clouds of heady scents, even though we were still aground. But as if reading through my mind, the aircraft suddenly bolted forward and began to hug the tarmac with such fury, under the thrust of its engines, that I felt as though every cell of my body was being shaken and tossed in a zany merry-go-round. It was now pulling me away from earth’s gravity with a power that could only be called superhuman. My dreams, at last, were materializing, in a fashion which, if you were not prepared, would have been terrifying. But I was relishing every jolt of our DC3, every squeak of metal, every screech of the tires, every vibration of the cabin, that responded to the captain’s orders up in the cockpit, as if he were conniving with God. I was submitting myself to this violence, blindly, wholeheartedly, with an almost frantic sadism, ready even to add my part should it be requested from me.
My mother kept her eyes closed whilst she held Piet’s hand firmly, and I could see, the poor thing, how tense she was, gritting her teeth and balling her free fist, with her head tilted back against the cream-colored apron which was tied to the head-rest. I could have bet that she was praying for our plane to carry us safely throughout the trip. What she deemed to be an ordeal, was for me the most exhilarating experience of my life, and the surrounding din which must have sounded to her like hell’s pandemonium, splitting her brain, had the opposite effect on me, in that it only bolstered my excitement.
A strange thought then crossed my mind: what if suddenly the Dakota’s twin engines both failed at the same time and the aircraft crash-landed in the middle of the jungle? I’d heard someone mention, a few months earlier, at the radio, about an incident involving a DC3 whose two engines had been accidentally turned off, and which in spite of it, managed to glide its last leg without a hitch until it reached the next airstrip.
Playing deity, I imagined that we’d come out miraculously almost unscathed from the fall, whilst the plane would have broken apart, without catching fire. We would then use the cabin, or what would be left of it, as our makeshift abode, until we’d find some generous soul to rescue us. I then pictured those Pygmies of whom Tambwe spoke with a grin of contempt. He would ask me why I was so interested in the lot of such petty, half-sized people, who, according to him, were very primitive, compared to the Bantu race, of which he was a proud member. “As a matter of fact,” he would add, “the colonial administration doesn’t even taken them into account, since they neither live in the cities nor in our native villages. And furthermore, you won’t ever see them be conscripted into the Force Publique (the African police), which employs a good number of men from the Lulua and the Bakuba tribes, who have the reputation of being fierce and dependable warriors. And you will certainly never find them working as clerks or even in more menial tasks in government offices.” To justify his low esteem of the Pygmies, Tambwe would go on to explain that you couldn’t trust them, since they were sly and inveterate liars, but that they were left in peace to roam the jungle, for they could be useful to the Bantu. He admitted that they were good hunters and that they produced excellent wicker baskets which they bartered against metal pots and pans and other civilized utensils.
In the Encyclopedia of Belgian Africa, I’d read that more than two thousand years before Christ, Pharaoh Pepi II had dispatched an exploratory escort to Central Africa, as far as the Ituri region, in northern Congo, with the purpose of finding the Nile’s source, and that, after that first military expedition, one of his generals had come back to Egypt, accompanied by a small group of Pygmies. Pharaoh stood in ecstasy before those “midgets hailing from the tree country”, and he ordered his guards to take special care of these very strange and very unique guests, requesting that they be given all the food they wanted and that they never be disturbed in their sleep, for fear that the evil spirits would cut down even further their already diminutive size, on top of which, he was convinced that they were the ‘dancers of Ra’, the Sun God. The Egyptian priests even claimed that only the crowned cranes would dare confront the ‘fairy people’, since those aristocratic birds were regarded as deities.
When visiting Luxor, you may find Pygmies silhouetted on temple reliefs or pictured in some of the tomb frescoes, under the name of ‘Akka’. More amazing still is the fact that, after thousands of years, the Akka continue to live in the Congo’s Ituri region, albeit in very small numbers. Nowadays, the Bantu refer to them humorously as the Tiki-Tiki tribe. But unlike the latter or the peoples of Sudanese descent, they have maintained their ancestral way of life that goes back even prior to the invention of the wheel, agriculture and farming. They still wear, as their only garment, the ‘tapa’, a narrow swath of ficus bark, which they decorate, using charcoal, around their waist. And whereas most Africans and Whites consider the jungle to be a dreadful place fraught with all sorts of dangers and mysteries, they deem it as their foster-mother, inasmuch as they don’t believe in spirits, good or evil.
The male Pygmies spend most of their time hunting with bows and arrows, their traditional weapons. They also catch animals in traps, or using nets, copying thus the Bantu. They generally hunt small game or fowl from a hide, but they also go, rarely, it must be stressed, after formidable preys, many times their size, such as buffaloes, or even leopards and elephants. Only the more agile and dexterous venture here, lest they be torn apart or crushed to death?
The women tend to the family hut and the cooking, over firewood; at other times, they search for fruit, edible roots and mushrooms, as well as insects and frogs. To vary their diet, they also go net fishing along a spring or a river in the vicinity of their hamlet, all the while they keep chewing ‘dawa’ (hallucinogenic herbs) to give them courage. Yet no season is more auspicious than that during which they collect honey.
At sundown, the men start singing in praise of God, showing thus their gratitude to ‘Mungu’ for His goodness and for His bounty. This daily ritual is usually followed by dancing, they hop in circles or march in Indian file. They do it with such joy and such fervor that their Bantu customers sometimes invite them to perform in front of them and celebrate the closing of a deal.
Pygmies are by nature nomads and they set up camp wherever there is game to be hunted, though they never cross the boundaries of the chiefdoms belonging to their Bantu customers, mainly for two reasons, the first one being obviously economic and the second one to gain the latter’s protection. The little men barter game meat, which they customarily bring smoke-dried – thus prepared, the meat doesn’t rot so quickly in the sweltering heat -, as well as the produce of their recent crops, and artefacts such as wicker baskets, against manufactured objects only the Bantu can offer them. And to exceptionally good customers, they yield their ivory, as a proof of allegiance.
The Bantu consider them to be their private property, or even their slaves, even though the little men secretely think otherwise, for they feel so free that, without warning their customers, they can leave overnight as their interest and their fancy guides them, and head for another region, next to a new village.
In the Pygmy society, everyone, adult and child, contributes to the life of the group, performing tasks that don’t follow any strict rules, so as not to disrupt the collective harmony, reigning in their midst. Such an egalitarian utopia, which goes back to prehistoric times, may appear idyllic, yet it is their only alternative for survival. Unlike the animistic Bantu, the Pygmies believe in a single God, who is at once their benefactor and the protector of their children. When one of them is wounded or dies, they celebrate Him with offerings, in order to appease His wrath and regain His benevolence.
Along the centuries, many of them have mixed with the Bantu and the Sudanese and they have consequently become like them, sedentary, tilling the land and acquiring new skills. They, of course, are somewhat taller than their brethren, who kept away from the process of miscegenation.
Tambwe, one day, came and told me a funny story regarding “one of those foxy and scheming midgets”. A village chief, presumably a distant relative of his, once mocked a little man who had proudly presented him with a large wicker basket and a dozen arrow points which he had made himself, in exchange for some salt and used metal bowls.
“Tsst, tsst,” sniggered the chief, “you pretend to be a man because you can weave a few rotten strings and catch some miserable forest bugs! What a joke! A real man is one who pays taxes, my boy. And I’ve never heard that either your wife or your parents have paid any taxes lately. Why do you think the colonial administration doesn’t even bother to collect them from you people? For the simple reason that they consider you like children. That’s why.”
The poor Pygmy remained aghast for a while, then, still keeping mum, he vanished into the brush. He came back a few days later, accompanied this time by three of his buddies. They were all carrying some game meat: an antelope, a warthog and half a dozen partridges, freshly slaughtered. They headed directly towards the only store of the village and haggled with the owner, convincing him to pay them in money. Once the deal had been settled they walked to the chief’s hut and said to the startled patriarch: “Here are your taxes, Sir! Are we now not worthy to be called real men?”
We had left Kindu, which lies on the banks of the Lualaba river, a mere half an hour when we entered a zone of turbulence, so sudden and so violent it was – the aircraft jolted like a wisp of straw in a whirlwind – that I felt as if I was going to be dismembered by some invisible hand which had introduced itself inside my body, without any warning, unobtrusively, but not before twisting each one of my limbs and squashing them into a bloody pulp.
This time, I didn’t appreciate the plane’s antics one bit, and even less its stupid rattle or its long-drawn wails that reminded me of a stalking old beast in its final stage, being tracked down by a big game hunter. I felt so sick I almost wished it would crash and end the racket. But, unable to avoid the atmosphere’s murderous air pockets, the DC3 continued to swing wildly and haphazardly. I could never have imagined that a maiden flight over the equator could be such an ordeal. All kinds of objects were knocking against each other in the baggage compartment or flying around the cabin like unguided missiles, some of them falling right on top of the passengers’ heads. It was such an ineffable mess: here a plaid landed on the shoulder of a lady, there it was a heavy leather valise, falling over the bare legs of a child, who began to sceam, still farther away, a toilet bag scattered its contents all over the aisle. I even saw a fishing rod hit a couple across the face with such a vengeance, that they remained dazzled for a minute before they reacted.
I then cast a furtive glance in the direction of my mother, almost cautiously, as if this new effort might cost me a dislocation of the neck. Her face had turned ashen and, holding a comfort bag to her mouth, she tried in vain to throw up. Piet soon extracted a small flask from the inside pocket of his jacket and rubbed some eau de cologne over her forehead and her cheeks. Not to become sick myself, I looked away and caught sight of the steward who was busy serving a snack to a couple, sitting three rows in front of me. The man was trying to take a sip from the cup of coffee he’d just been offered but another jolt of the plane made him spill the steaming liquid over his knees whilst his wife heaved a sigh of despair and bent her torso against the back of the seat opposite her. As for the steward, his complexion veered from white to yellowish, so much so that I thought he might roll his eyes up and faint any minute. He was gesturing like an acrobat, trying to maintain his balance. He nevertheless managed to hand a comfort bag to the lady, who immediately vomited all the food she had ingested during the previous hours. As she emptied herself, she accidentally pushed away the sandwich with the still untouched glass of orange juice that stood on her tray, it came down, trickling along her stockinged leg.
I was stunned when, once the aircraft had resumed its smooth journey, Piet informed me that we had dropped fifteen to forty meters in those ghastly airpockets. Could that be at all possible, without the plane breaking in two? I had a hard time believing it, inasmuch as Piet had added that this kind of incident happened quite frequently over the equator, due to the colliding influx of warm and cool air, whereas the ground humidity oscillated between 65% and 90%. Only then did it dawn on me how lucky we were to live on the high plateaux of Katanga, whose climate was so much healthier.
I was even more convinced of our fortune after we had spent three quarters of an hour in the barracks of what stood as Kindu’s terminal and I suddenly longed for the light evening breezes of Elisabethville, for here, the air was so sticky and muggy that I had the impression of being immersed in a huge tank of honey; you’d be short of suffocating as if your nostrils had been instantly glued from the outside.
Thank goodness the stopover in Usumbura was much more bearable, the heat being drier and the atmosphere as translucent as pure crystal. Before landing, the pilot had allowed us a breathtaking view of Ruanda-Urundi’s capital, encased between a majestic row of bluish mountains and Lake Tanganyika, which looked more like a sea really, so large was the bay. The handsomely drawn city was lined with wide avenues whose jacaranda and flamboyant trees gave the impression of a pleasant if dormant location. Never before had I seen a landscape so grand and so magnificent and, for which reason I do not know, it made me think of a Pacific island, pictures of which I could recall from several recent issues of the National Geographic, to which Piet had subscribed earlier in the year. An odd thought crossed my mind: that we no longer were in Africa and that the cartographers had made a gross mistake, like when, in the Middle Ages, the scientists insisted that the earth was flat. It is so human to believe that elsewhere is always a better place. Here, Europeans were forever dreaming of Paris or of America and, much later on, when I was residing in Europe, I would smile each time people mentioned the Black Continent with almost mawkish lyricism, praising its primitive lifestyle and its laid back mentality. I always wondered why the white folk in Africa considered themselves as second class citizens compared to their peers in Europe, no matter what profession and social rank they belonged to, and this in spite of the fact that they had better salaries or earned more money, some having made a fortune in the colonies – yet unlike the ongoing myth, the latter were far and between. As for the indigenous peoples, in what subcategory had they been cast, they for whom Bulaya (Belgium) conjured up images of the Land of milk and honey, blessed by perennial rain or snow, during the cold season? Tambwe, for one, had plastered on the walls of his hut washed out Sabena airline posters of Brussels’ famous Grand-Place, glittering at night with its gold-plated spires and façades, the city’s landmark statue of Manneken Pis, and a snow-covered forest in the southern region of Ardenne. He would look at them every morning when he got up, as one looks at a relic, convinced they were different facets of Paradise, and thinking how the Europeans must feel happy sharing in its bounty.
The sun was setting when, after a journey of a little less than eight hours, including the many stopovers, we arrived at Kamembe, several hillhops away from Bukavu, our final destination. Assessing the small mountain which had to be razed in order to build the runway, I understood why the heavier aircraft, such as the DC4s or the DC6s, not to mention the brand new DC7s, which were the pride of the more seasoned commercial pilots, couldn’t possibly land here.
Everything here looked more dainty and more civilized than anything I had previously known, whether it be the quaint terminal, smelling of fresh paint, or the airstrip itself, which looked as if it belonged to a golf course rather than to an airport. On the one side, stood, lined up in a neat row, small bush planes: a pair of Cessnas, a Piper Pacer and three Rapid Dragons – I didn’t think the name suited these elegant and slender aircraft, to me, they had the grace and the delicate features of blongio herons. I got all this information from Piet, who was as much an aviation fan as I was. Right now though he had more pressing issues to attend to, and I had to refrain my curiosity, lest I should get on his already frayed nerves. We were all weary and nervous and feeling quite dirty.
Yet, my biggest surprise was the climate’s mildness. I shivered, both from the sudden pleasure and from the cool breeze that twirled around my limbs as if to embrace me in a soft welcoming gesture.
When we drove into Bukavu proper, aboard our rented Cross Country Nash, my senses flared up, so marvelled was I at the sight of all those gardens full of vivid and many-colored flowers, wafting delicious perfumes, I could not identify, amid which villas and mansions, some of them built in the style of medieval castles, with turrets and crenelated walls, rested aristocratically, surrounded by pine and eucalyptus trees. The more lofty residences were set in actual parks, so vast was their area. The gardeners and the horticulturists had displayed their most prolific and imaginative talents, designing exquisite rockeries, here, lush miniature French gardens, there, or reinventing the green terraces of Babylon, that fell to the lakeshore like velvet draperies, with, to crown it all, weeping willows that seemed to bow in reverence before so much beauty.
Lake Kivu, so close to Lake Tanganyika – a mere 145 kilometers away, as the crow flies -, was so different, not only in size, but in its hues, in its genteel nooks, in its calm intimacy and in the stunningly rich vegetation that framed it. And in spite of the fact that it stood even closer to the equator, it benefitted from a bracing coolness, for which the higher altitude was responsible. Yet, unlike its ‘big brother’, in which fish of all sorts abounded, from the succulent and fleshy ‘captain’ to the tiny ‘dakala’, which you could chew fried whole, head, tail and all, and whose more ferocious denizens, the crocs and the hippos, wreaked much havoc, sometimes even among the human population, Kivu was a dead lake, on account of the methane gas fumes which emanated from its bed.
“I can see now”, exclaimed my mother, her mouth all furry, and still shaken by the long and bumpy flight we had endured, “why they call this place the Switzerland of Africa.” Then, with a spark of gaity that lit up her worn out features, she glanced at her husband and said: “Do you think you might ask for a transfer, so that we could, one day, come and settle here?”
Piet was taken aback, and, certainly as tired as the two of us – only he hadn’t shown it until this moment -, he mumbled something under his breath, of which I caught these words: “… no railroad here … would have to quit BCK … give up my career … start all over again …” With a gesture of weariness, mixed with annoyance, he raised his voice and said, “Let’s first find our hotel!”
We came in sight of the imposing neo-byzantine cathedral, which stood on the summit of one of the city’s five peninsulas, and drove along lovely Avenue Royale, hemmed in by two rows of trees of a modest height, behind which unfolded, as if in slow motion, so quiet it looked – for this was Sunday – an uninterrupted succession of single or two-storied buildings, of different styles and hues, but all very neat. Some of them accommodated the civil service, others, banks and insurance offices, others still, hotels and garages, retail stores, bakeries and tea-rooms, as well as a long stream of luxury boutiques, not counting the gift and flower shops.
I suddenly remembered what a schoolmate of the Institut Marie-Jose had told me after she had returned from a visit with a relative of hers who lived in Costermansville.
“It was great, but the people there are such snobs! They look down upon us who come from other parts of the colony. As for the Congolese, you can hardly see them around, and when you do, they make themselves so unobtrusive, you’d think they didn’t even belong to the landscape. My own aunt, who did receive us nicely, I must admit, but who has no more blue blood in her veins than me, kept on insinuating that we lacked sophistication.”
It was true though that, wherever you cast your eyes in Bukavu, whether you were downtown or rode through the residential areas, an air of tranquillity and of refinement pervaded it, and you were then strangely reminded of some European lake resort. In fact, the heart of town, where the majority of businesses and the administration offices were located, was nicknamed ‘la Botte’ (the Boot), by the locals, for the stretch of land on which it was built, had, remarkably, from a bird’s eye view, the shape of the Italian peninsula.
On the almost deserted Avenue Royale, Piet stopped the car to ask for directions. The person who spoke to us was a very tall and slender African, most probably an Intore of the Congolese branch of theTutsi, since he wore the long traditional toga – it was of a lovely pale blue shade -, and bead bracelets around his two wrists, as well as raffia sandals. He told us that we had taken the wrong road and pointed his finger on the city map which Piet had opened out before him. This man, whose lordly bearing evoked the pharaohs of Ancien Egypt, not only spoke French with a certain poise, albeit with the lilting accent typical of his tribe, articulating each word, as though he were a teacher dictating a maxim to his pupils and expected them to be able to repeat it after him, but there emanated from his demeanor a nobility that called for respect. I had heard about the famous Intore ballet dancers and their lofty performances, and remembered seeing them on the newsreel at the cinema some time ago, but never could I have imagined to encounter, in the flesh, such grace and such pride, joined within a single African man. This one must have been over two meters tall. My mother kept staring at him all the while he spoke, as if struck by some ghostly apparition. He didn’t seem to take notice of her and, once the conversation ended, he greeted us farewell, clasping both hands, then slowly walked away.
The Hotel Pointe Claire, which sat on a narrow expanse of land, jutted into the lake and was built in the form of a horseshoe. The main building accommodated the reception and the restaurant, the latter occupying the greater part of its surface. It was twilight and the water glistened with a dark blue iridescence, veering to a cobalt hue that lent it an eerie aspect. Bungalows were disposed on both sides of the horseshoe and were surrounded by orange-colored lilies, mauve agapanthuses and nasturtiums, which all together gave off the spectacle of a firework of petals. Behind the main building stretched a freshly mowed lawn, dotted with wild flowers and shrubs, that sloped down to a little beach of dark volcanic sand, where half a dozen tables stood, along with wrought-iron chairs and sun umbrellas which, in their closed position, looked like harpoons. Farther away, a motorboat, the kind used for waterskiing, was moored to a pontoon. At this late hour of day, there was, of course, no one left on the terrace, inasmuch as a brisk and chilly wind was blowing, which forced you to wear a jacket or a woollen pull-over.
That first evening, we ate by candlelight, in an atmosphere that was totally dreamlike. It seemed to me that we had entered an enchanted world. There were about a dozen tables, all taken up, and decorated like ours, with a vase full of pink and red carnations and a squat oval candle, standing in the middle. I stared, fascinated, at the wax that was melting around it, under my gaze, as if it wanted me to participate in its transformation, for something was dying to be reborn again, as the translucent beads kept falling to the stand, coagulating almost instantly, and begging for me to touch the hardening skin that was aggregating around its base.
You would have thought we were inside a Swiss chalet, with all its panellings and woodwork, its bucolic paintings and its main chandelier, a wide circular contraption, made of oak and wrought iron, with lantern-like bulbs that cast a subdued light over us, only here, the two lateral glass-roofs opened onto Lake Kivu, which now appeared like a huge oil stain, in its pitch black surroundings.
A long table stood in the center of the restaurant, leaning against the wall, with a sumptuous variety of hors d’oeuvres, sprawled on it. You had a choice of tiny Paris mushrooms, red and green peppers drenched in olive oil, fleshy yellow asparagus, salads in half a dozen preparations, including romana and niçoise, smoked anchovies and conger eels pickled in a green sauce. On the two opposite corners of the table, you could make your pick of all manner of vegetables, boiled, marinated or fresh, such as beetroot, leek in vinaigrette dressing, sliced cauliflower, radish or celery. My favorites were potato salads, with hard boiled eggs and mayonnaise and, especially, canned sardines – I don’t know why, but I never could fancy them cooked, after they have been freshly fished from the sea. Then there were those divine petits fours, with crunchy and still warm bouchées à la reine, spinach pies, bacon chips, Ardenne ham and sausages, the size of your thumb, not to mention the different qualities of liver and kidney pâtés, all so scrumptious looking. And to put a last touch to this feast of smells and colors, you could rest your eyes upon the oblong wicker baskets, filled with the most beautiful and rich assortment of fruit that had ever crossed my gaze: oversized red apples and granny smiths, bunches of white grape, sunny Williams pears – all of these were flown in from South Africa -, as well as succulent midget bananas, langue-de-chat mangoes and plump strawberries, the latter, locally produced. I must have left out a few other goodies, there was such an abundance.
My eyes almost popped out before this splurge of food, from which you could take as many helpings as you wished. But, in spite of my mother’s insistence that I try new dishes, I felt it improper to fill my plate with all those mouth watering delicacies, many of which I didn’t know even existed. Yes, I suddenly became very shy and didn’t want people to think I was a spoiled brat, or worse, some kind of a sponger, out of the bush, inasmuch as I was the only child around.
I couldn’t understand all that bounty spread before my eyes, especially after I learned that this was only for starters and that several ‘plats de résistance’ were to follow. And lo and behold, we were given the choice between a golden brown ‘coucou de Malines’, a delicious looking chicken, served with roast potatoes and buttered endives, a Flemish stew called ‘Waaterzooi’, boiled salmon, with carrots and cut onions, tartar steak, prepared with a raw egg, capers, parsley, and a variety of spices, which the Belgians call ‘filet américain’ – I never understood why, maybe they believed that the original Indians ate raw meat -, with splendid French fries (this is actually a misnomer, they should be called ‘Belgian fries’), as well as the classic and juicy beefsteak, grilled on charcoal. As if this wasn’t enough, you were then presented with a huge platter of cheeses, among them, an assortment of French ‘fromages’, Camembert, of course, Roquefort and a variety of goat cheeses. You could also have your pick of Dutch Edam or Swiss Emmenthal, not mentioning cheddar, one of my favorites, Parmesan and Gorgonzola, and … and, the list goes on. Oh, I forgot, there was also that Belgian cheese, so rich and smooth, it looked like fresh cream, with which Amelie made thick sandwiches, cutting them in four slices, so that I could eat them at recess without dirtying myself. As for the desserts proper, aside from the fruit, I counted at least a dozen cakes and tarts that looked like those medieval Flemish still-lifes, with cherries and strawberries and red currants, so realistic, that you become hungry just admiring them. I personally couldn’t resist the Black Forest with chocolate mousse, of which I took two helpings and almost swooned with pleasure.
Exhausted, bleary-eyed, I was no longer sure as to whether I was really facing this gargantuan scene, or whether it was all a fake, a mirage suddenly emerged from some fairy tale? How I was fighting off sleep and ached to keep my eyes open, all the while I kept munching on my piece of cake! I was involved in a battle of the senses which I found very cruel.
We stayed three days in Bukavu, driving and strolling about the city and its suburbs, marvelling at the landscape and the sights, such as the splendid Royal Atheneum, which, seen from the lakeshore, resembled more a state palace than a school, or a few kilometers from there, covering an entire hill, the Catholic institution of Notre Dame de la Victoire. I was amazed at the size of those buildings, especially under such latitudes. Piet gave us the explanation: the schools were renowned in the whole colony for both the quality of their teaching and the region’s bracing climate. Consequently they not only hosted the children of the local and surrounding white population, but also those whose families lived and worked in the interior, where there existed neither kindergartens nor primary schools – sometimes even in other provinces. For the toddlers however, this wasn’t a problem, since the African wet nurses cared for them, often better than their own mothers.
I must admit though that the colossal scale of these schools – they accommodated from one thousand to two thousand students each -, no matter how appealing their architecture was, frightened me, and I would have hated to be one of their boarders. The Institut Marie-Jose, which, unlike many of my classmates, I had the privilege of attending, as a day pupil, in Elisabethville, was large enough for me. And that was already considered very big.
We had also tried several restaurants in the area of ‘la Botte’ – for both Piet and my mother insisted that variety was part of the vacation -, and even though each one of them had its charm and its cuisine was excellent, nothing, in my eyes compared with the one at the Pointe Claire Hotel. This was certainly due to the fact that it had been our very first dinner, following our arrival, and that, because I was so tired, I had the impression I was floating inside of a magic bubble. More than the food itself, of which I hadn’t eaten that much, it was the fresco-like set-up, added to the delicious flavors, that remained with me.
And of course, you didn’t travel to Costermansville without window-shopping, then, inevitably, splurging, filling your suitcases with the latest goodies the city had to offer, such as clothes, lace table-sets, silk shawls, cameras, cosmetics, expensive gifts, books, records and all manner of knickknacks, most of which were flown in directly from Europe or from America. You could state, without exaggerating, that Bukavu was the most luxurious and well-attended place anywhere around the equator, and probably in all of Central and Eastern Africa, and that its position, at an altitude of 1500 meters, made it the ideal resort. Among the few Belgian aristocrats who had chosen to live up ‘the great colonial adventure’, some had decided to reside here permanently and built those magnificent mansions I mentioned before, as well as small castles, the likes of which you could find in the posh suburbs of Brussels and Antwerp. You just had to look at the landscape to convince yourself that this was paradise. If you had been brought here, blindfolded, and not been told where you were, not in your wildest dreams could you imagine you had reached ‘the heart of darkness’. It would seem anachronistic or even preposterous.
Since we knew no one in town, Piet bought a copy of ‘Centre Afrique’, the local daily, and looked up some useful addresses in it.
My mother purchased six or seven cotton frocks in one single boutique, so impressed was she by their selection. They all looked very pretty when she tried them on. The plain ones were in bright colors, the printed dresses were more subdued and had mostly geometrical motifs. I especially liked the one with red dots, for which she chose a pair of matching high-heeled shoes, coral-hued. To that list, she added an array of lingerie, including brassières, cut very low and quite sexy, they all bore the Playtex brand, heaps of cosmetics by Max Factor – of the dozen lipsticks she acquired, the glazed orange one was the most provocative -, and to top it all, she filled two vanity-cases with French eau de cologne and perfumes, among them, four bottles of Shalimar, from Guerlain, her favorite; they were so large they looked like decanters. The fatigue of the previous day had completely disappeared, and with all those parcels around her, my mother smiled like a little girl in the middle of a merry-go-round.
As for me, I didn’t know where to turn. Here, I wasn’t interested in garments, for Elisabethville provided everything I needed, and then too I’ve always hated fittings. On the other hand, I ran to the record shop, next to the ‘Boutique de Paris’, where my mother was still busy, collecting her parcels. Piet had to temper my ardor lest I raided the store. I still came out of it, loaded with five lpr’s and ten 45 rp’s, making a solemn promise that I wouldn’t ask Santa Claus for any other presents, adding, in a mumble, “neither for my birthday”, but I managed to keep this phrase inaudible.
Piet considered feminine errands to be a whimsical exercise, and he had little patience for them, nevertheless, once his presence was no longer needed, he rushed into a neighboring camera store and bought a poachful of 100 and 400 Asa films, that would last the whole trip. He took a variety of Kodachrome, Gevacolor and Ferrania reels – he liked the Belgian and Italian brands for their softer hues, and used the American films during daylight only. As we were about to leave the store, he spotted the latest marvel of photographic technology, the first Polaroïd that was ever produced. In this instance, we were the ones to show some patience, for he couldn’t make up his mind whether he wanted to acquire the camera now or wait till we returned to Elisabethville. My mother and I did put a slight pressure on him, and we finally came out with the Polaroïd. It cost him, of course, quite a lot of money, and to justify this ‘folly’, he warned us:
“I’ll only take a few close-ups with this one, once in a while. Don’t ask me to shoot any old how, this is not a toy, ok!”
In spite of what he had just said, Piet immediately tried the camera and took a couple of snapshots of us. You should have seen how he blinked his eyes, round with wonder, as the camera ejected the first black and white picture, and developed under our gaze. Actually, he wasn’t the only one to be gaping. My mother and I oohed and aahed like two kiddies. Piet handed me that miraculous photo, which I have kept until this day, even though it has lost much of its sharpness.
Our stay in Kivu’s provincial capital came to its term, and we left it with a twinge of sadness, the trunk of our Nash, three-quarter-filled with our recent shopping.
Invoking the schoolmate at Marie-Jose, who had traveled with her parents by boat from Bukavu to Goma – she couldn’t stop raving about it, claiming it was the grandest trip of her life – I asked Piet and my mother whether we could take the cabin cruiser ‘Général Tombeur’, which I knew, from reading this morning’s issue of ‘Centre Afrique’, would be sailing in a couple of hours. My wish couldn’t have been fulfilled, since we had rented the Nash for the whole trip, still, I voiced the question and, when the obvious answer came, I didn’t conceal my disappointment.
“What you may not be aware of,” said Piet, to mollify me, “is that it takes about nine hours to sail there, which is double the time we will spend traveling by car.”
During the first hour of our journey, I remained sullen and never uttered a word. The tension was pulling at the muscles of my jaws and my mother’s euphoric comments concerning the landscape only intensified my bad mood. In the brochure she was holding, they called this ‘the Road of Beauty’.
Piet, the perfect instructor – before taking on his job at BCK, he had taught science in a secondary school for native pupils – pointed at the succession of cultivated fields and pastures which sloped down on the other side of the lake. Feigning not to listen, and still sulking, I learned to differentiate coffee trees – at this altitude, they only grew arabica – from tree plants and pyrethrium, eucalyptus from quinquina, both could reach a height of ten meters if not more, and to identify an aleurite. Isn’t the mind so very peculiar and double-edged, in that it assimilates a formidable quantity of data to which you may not always want to adhere? It is a bit like those pop tunes that fray your nerves, but which you nevertheless, against your better judgment, keep on humming. There is definitely an element of masochism in such attitudes.
Though we had filled the picnic basket generously with cold cuts, sandwiches and drinks, including a thermos of boiling coffee, before we left Bukavu, Piet suggested that we stop for brunch at an inn on the way. It was quaintly built in dark wood and covered with a thatched roof, and it bore the name of ‘Little Gorilla’, which I thought quite funny, as well as engaging.
The landlady, a tall and stout blonde, with ruddy, almost wine-colored cheeks, welcomed us as affably as if we’d been some long lost relatives that had just been reunited. The invigorating air, I surmised, must be responsible for her florid complexion, added to a rich diet and the ingestion of liberal quantities of beer.
No sooner had we settled at the terrace, which was wrapped in bushes of white roses, intertwined with bright red and pink bougainvillea, than she brought us, herself – the servants were probably busy in the kitchen or attending to some other household chore -, an aluminum tray, containing a bottle of Coca Cola, for me, still frost-rimmed from the ice-box, a piping hot teapot, for my mother, and a jug of warm milk, for Piet. My step-father could drink liters of beer without ever seeming inebriated, which amazed me, but he never touched a drop of alcohol when he sat behind a wheel.
Madame Gertrude – she insisted that we call her by her first name – came back, this time, with a much larger lattice-work tray, on which she had set a turret of thick slices of buttered wheat bread, with plates of mortadella, ham, salami, cream onion cheese and radishes, as well as a huge papaya, cut in quarters. As a little girl, I couldn’t stand that fruit which I found mushy and a little sickening to the taste, but now, I love it, especially with a zest of lemon, or pressed in its own juice.
Having invited the landlady to sit with us, Piet asked her about her job and the kind of guests she received. Thus, Madame Gertrude told us how her late husband, a doctor specialized in tropical diseases, who had also been a big game hunter, renowned across the whole Kivu province and beyond, had opened the inn a few years ago. The building consisted of only three bedrooms, the lounge serving as an extra guest-room, when the inn was full. The poor guy had been gored to death by a wounded rhino, whereas he believed his three shots had finished the animal. Reminiscing, she became all flushed and a tear ran down her cheek. But then she pulled herself together and added, with a slightly hoarse voice:
“My only regret is that we had no children together. But the spirit of Jules remains, it roams in every nook and cranny of this house, you know, and, particularly, in this garden, where, conforming to his wish, I had him buried. We needed a special permission, of course, to make it possible. One day, I shall rejoin him and lie by his side, for it is in this land, that I have lived the most extraordinary adventures of my life, and it is here that the real meaning of happiness was revealed to me.” She went on, now, almost jovially, as I bit into my second salami sandwich. “You may have noticed the hunting trophies in the dining-room. Above my bed there is an elephant skull, his most prized catch. I really have nothing to complain about, for I feel Jules next to me, in whatever task I perform or even when I am about to go to sleep. I’m sure he is content, knowing that I carry on his work and that, in the evening, sitting in front of the fire, the guest travelers share with me their experiences, their joys or their pain. I must admit that, contrary to what most people would think, I haven’t an idle moment to myself, for there is always someone passing by or stopping over for one or two nights, sometimes more. And it is not rare when I get a whole family visiting. A number of travelers are sent to me with the recommendation of friends who themselves own or manage a hotel in the region, or from as far away as Usumbura and Albertville. Then there are those who come back and want to spend weekends here, just because they have fond memories and enjoy the beauty and the quiet of the place.”
Listening to how well she treated her customers, whom she considered almost like friends, I had the impulse of asking my mother and Piet whether we could stay here overnight, but this was highly improbable since we had just begun our tour. We told her, however, that on our way back we would stop to greet her. As a farewell gesture she presented us with a magnificent strelitzia, which she chose from her garden; it was a large blood-red and orange flower.
to be continued…