Unlike Katanga’s ochre-hued laterite earth, the ground here was volcanic and thus had a sooty gray aspect. In Elisabethville, during the rainy season, following one of those terrifying if short-tempered storms, in which the skies were so dark they seemed to plunge the whole world in a hell of thunder, I always expected one or more of the trees that lined our avenue, to be struck by lightning and fall on our house, wrecking it, before it was set on fire. We thought ourselves lucky if the only damage caused by this apocalyptic burst of nature consisted in the drains overflowing on each side of the street, spewing its mudslides deep into our plot. The mess that Tambwe and Amelie then had to clean was awesome and usually took a couple of days to clear completely.
Once we had reached the village of Kalehe, from which you could catch sight of the tiny island of Idwi, sitting on the lake, amid its banana and tea plantations, like a bonzaï garden, surrounded by an iridescent pool, the gritty road began to climb in hairpin bends across a wooded terrain, so dense at times, that you could watch the sun play hide and seek through the leaves, like some whimsical elf. My imagination soon got carried away and I swore I saw the muzzles of ferocious beasts in some of the clearings. That impression was so vivid that I let out little shrieks of terror. Then, ashamed of myself, I pretended those were hiccups, for I didn’t want my parents to laugh at me. I then suddenly remembered Madame Gertrude suggesting that we make a detour to visit the Kahuzi-Biega wildlife preserve, which lay a few kilometers inland, in order to admire the gorillas, which she claimed, were docile enough so that humans could approach them. But my mother started feeling sick again and she couldn’t wait for us to reach Goma. I was so disappointed I almost wished we had a double puncture, and that the next passing car would drive Piet and me to see the gorillas, while my mother waited in the Nash until a repairman came – not before hours, in those circumstances. Of course all that was wishful thinking, for Piet would never have left her alone for so long. Even though I couldn’t entirely blame her, I secretely considered my poor ‘mater’ to be an inveterate spoilsport.
When you’re very young, you tend to put selfishness above compassion, this is probably due to the fact that children don’t encumber themselves with the notion of the future and that their main worry is to discover the world at hand. And this cannot wait, for they are convinced that they will miss out on something important that may, or rather, will not be repeated. Yes, children live with the urgency of events, and this is what makes them appear so spontaneous and so innocently pristine, but this also accounts for their being impertinent and at times insufferable. By imposing all sorts of deprivations upon them, don’t adults subconsciously prove how jealous they are of their own kids?
Anyway, and in spite of being there, so near, almost at a stone’s throw, I never had the authentic privilege of watching the gorillas, those extraordinary primates, in their natural habitat, and, like millions of moviegoers, around the globe, I had to rely on the Hollywood legend of King Kong – which was fabulously efficient, I can’t deny it – swinging from one skyscraper to another, above the streets of Manhattan, and terrifying the population.
After having driven to the culminating point of the area and passed the so-called ‘death curb’, which wrenched pathetic pleas from my mother, who was literally keeling over, bending her head to her knees, we made another stop at Makengere.
A pirogue was gliding on the lake close to the shore, laden with wickerwork, baskets of fresh vegetables and fruit – what an incredible splash of colors, those red peppers made, with the corn cobs, the sweet potatoes, the manioc tubers, the fleshy mangoes and smaller avocadoes, the bunches of stubby bananas and a dozen or so punnets of strawberries – as well as two wooden cages containing ducks which were tied together by the feet, looking miserable and resigned to their lot.
Piet hailed one of the oarsmen, beckoning him to land. He spoke in Kiswahili with the merchant and appeared to enjoy haggling with him, an exercise which always exasperated my mother, who thought it quite vulgar and a waste of time. Soon thereafter we spread an old checkered blanket on the far corner of the jetty for our first real picnic.
An intermittent breeze swept the air around us, teasing our skin with chills, and wafting the suave perfume of laurels in bloom, whilst we could hear, in the background, the babbling of a nearby spring. All of this made us feel very hungry, including my mother, who had now recuperated from her recent emotions.
How avidly I sank my teeth into the leg of roast chicken Piet had offered me! At a certain point I swallowed a long strip of skin whole without chewing it – the part of a fowl I like best, after its tenderest flesh, especially when it is crusty brown -, and I nearly choked. In a panic, I then swiftly grabbed the bottle of Simba my stepfather was going to pour into his thermos cup and downed half of its contents, at once relieved and slightly disgusted, for the beer was lukewarm. I definitely preferred wine, whether it be claret, white or Burgundy, and, occasionally, champagne, even though I must have been an exception under these latitudes, for both the Belgians and the Congolese enjoyed their beer immensely, no matter what hour of the day. Imported by the Europeans at the beginning of the twentieth century, the malt beverage was now brewed in the major cities of the Congo and had the reputation of being the best of the continent. In the bush, however, the Africans still drank a lot of banana ‘pombe’. Tambwe let me taste it one evening, but I had to spit it out immediately.
“It will serve you right!” my mother exclaimed, somewhat alarmed, as she patted my back, “you’d think we left you starving these last days.”
I don’t know why, but her remark conjured up a similar scene in which I was wolfing down a piece of ‘mwambe’ (marinated chicken) Amelie had prepared especially for me. Seeing with how much gusto I was eating it, using my fingers, like the local people, Tambwe grinned and told me that the place to which my parents were taking me on vacation was called the land of Maniema.
“I bet you have no clue as to what Maniema means!” he said, with mischief. “It comes from ‘muntu ya niama’, in other words, ‘he who eats meat’. And soon, you will come face to face with ca – nni- bals”, he articulated the word with emphasis, making big round eyes, “At night you will have to lock your room, for they will want to catch you.” He had succeeded in frightening the wits out of me, and, unable to contain himself any longer, he started to guffaw and slapped his lap.
I was on pins and needles and I ran home to look up the Encyclopedia of Belgian Africa to check if what Tambwe said was true. He hadn’t lied, except for the last sentence, which was a joke. Maniema lay indeed in Kivu province, and not long ago, cannibalism was still rife there. According to the author, anthropophagy took place in one of three cases. In the first instance, the victims were chosen among the slaves of the conquered tribes, and were offered in sacrificial rites to the manes of the ancestors, so that the latter would be soothed and would extend their protection over them. Then, there were the warriors who, after having beaten and killed the enemy, would cut them into pieces and eat the morsels of the smarter and more valorous among them, in the hope of acquiring their qualities and their virtues. In both cases, the victors would organize a village feast, for the main purpose of doing this was to honor the sipirits of their ancestors and of the gods. In the last instance, it was a question of survival and it involved no rituals. After a prolonged drought or after a fire that had devastated the portion of forest around their village, destroying their crops and their meager livestock, in order to avoid starvation, the tribe resorted to cannibalism, and no one was spared, neither the women, nor the children, not even the elderly or, the able-bodied men, if no one was left. Colonization put an end to that gruesome practice.
Beneath his playfulness and his contagious gaiety, Tambwe was not only a born storyteller, but also an inexhaustible source of anecdotes. These often appeared to be innocuous, yet some of them, under the guise of levity, bore a fine thread of sulphur, which at first sight wasn’t discernable, but of which I became aware only in hindsight, within the confines of my bedroom, and this usually happened before going to sleep. He had the knack of slipping a word here, a word there, in the middle of a household task or as he plucked hibiscus leaves from the hedge which separated our garden from the servants’ quarters – he gathered them to cook ‘bukari’, the mashed manioc which accompanies most of the Congolese dishes. In fact these anecdotes would slowly seep into my brain much like the drip which enters a patient’s vein on a hospital bed, until it really hit me, and then I would react, either with a chuckle, if it involved a funny incident, or with violent anguish, when I realized the seriousness of his message.
My mother believed it was the shock of having swallowed the wrong way that made me lose my appetite. I would have felt ridiculous to tell her the truth. Yet, Tambwe’s words pursued me and I asked Piet, point-blank:
“How far is Maniema from here?”
He stared at me for a moment, a little puzzled. Even though I already knew the answer, I feigned surprise when he responded. Thank goodness, Piet was not the type of person to bother with metaphysical problems, he was too much of a bon vivant.
To appease my mother, I forced myself and ate an egg sandwich, then munched on a couple of strawberries, for right now, anything that had the appearance of meat, repelled me, including chicken, which I usually couldn’t resist. I wouldn’t even have touched grilled baby pigeon, my favorite fowl, if it had been part of the menu.
Replete and invigorated by the fresh air, we got back into the car and soon started to climb a twisting coastal road. On the one side, the lake slumbered in its late afternoon serenity, swept by the fleeting shadows of a mackerel sky whose clouds had a dapple-gray tint that veered to a lovely pink as they scuttled along, dissipating over the horizon. On the hillside, the steeper the road got, the more ravines we encountered, interspersed with massive boulders, to which shrubs and stunted trees clawed themselves as if for dear life. Once in a while, we could see a hamlet perched on a slope. It didn’t look like any of the villages that dotted the Katangese savannah, which were often surrounded by those ugly termite nests I have described earlier. Here you encountered adobe huts, laced with whitewash and surmounted by cone-shaped roofs, known as ‘rondavels’, the quaint Afrikaans name, which the South Africans give them.
During this third leg of our journey, my mother kept her eyes closed, most of the time, leaning her elbow on the sill of the opened window, as she inhaled the cool air which, I could see, gave her goose flesh. At last, her body and her senses seemed to have grown accustomed to the whims of the environment, albeit if not in unison. She obviously didn’t need to visually contemplate the landscape, like us, in order to appreciate its benefits.
We had started our descent, along some sharp curves, when, suddenly, we became engulfed in what could only be described as a moonscape, so dark and unfathomable our new surroundings looked. We seemed to have been caught in a vise-like grip by waves upon waves of solid ash. Without so much as a warning, we had entered the stony plain over which a succession of eruptions from the nearby volcanoes had spewed rivers of lava, petrifying everything in its trail. The last deadly episode had taken place just a few years ago. Not a single root, not a tuft of grass, not even a wild flower had been able to fix itself onto the crevices of this charred and devastated immensity. It was a sight of desolation which should have normally filled me with anxiety and dread, yet, I felt buoyed and exhilarated, to the point where I believed something extraordinary was going to happen, indeed had to happen, some fantastic event, like the fall of a meteorite or the encounter of a dinosaur. If so many people claimed to have seen the monster of the Loch Ness, amid the gentle hills of Scotland, why then, wouldn’t such creatures be liable to appear here, where crocodiles, elephants and rhinos lived?
But soon the scenery changed again and another surprise awaited us. At the bottom of a volcanic crater, shimmered, like a splendid emerald set in a velvet case, the ‘Green Lake’. At the sight of this jewel, my mother’s face, until now quite sullen, lit up. And for the first time in a long period, she started to smile, enjoying now the landscape, inasmuch as the hairpin curves were behind us and that the road had become wider and less bumpy, since it had been recently tarred. We had reached an expanse of lava that was thousands of years older and which was covered with a lush vegetation. Even the climate here was different, notwithstanding the fact that we were still driving along the shores of lake Kivu. The air was much drier than in Bukavu where, even when it stops raining, you can smell the humidity and continue to feel it in your bones. This also explained why so many Belgians wished to retire there, for, aside from its magnificent surroundings, they found in Costermansville the morning mists, the chilly dampness, at sundown, which reminded them of their fatherland.
It was late in the afternoon when we reached, at the foot of Nyiragongo, the twin cities of Goma, in the Congo, and Kisenyi, which lay just across, on the Rwandan border. If everything I’d seen so far had appeared to me as either admirable or dreamlike in its soothing beauty, what stood before my eyes left me speechless from bewilderment. I was downright flabbergasted. Even though Piet had shown me some pictures, on the eve of our trip – admittedly, they were in black and white -, I was not prepared for this kind of a shock. You’d have thought you were going to witness a confrontation of titans. The sun, in its fake tranquillity, was gradually waning; when I first noticed it, it looked like a mastodon egg yoke, ready to burst, then, at the bat of an eye, the orb turned to violet and ultimately to a deep royal purple. The volcano was facing it with mute rage, almost challenging it, as it kept brewing its bloody magma inside the gigantic caldron; the molten matter whirled in slow, circular movements, as if some invisible master choreographer was in charge. To the west, almost keeping to itself, as if not to disturb the two formidable contenders, the moon looked on, with its valleys and craters standing out against the darkening backdrop which soon glittered with a myriad stars.
From the beach, which, with its golden sand, its striped, multicolored umbrellas and its three stranded pedal boats, evoked a resort on the French riviera – the last bathers were folding their towels and heading towards the hotel -, you had a striking view of both the fading sun and of Nyiragongo. Which of the two would ultimately win the battle? The question was a non sequitur, since the former just marked a pause, to better rear itself in a few hours, with a vengeance that would culminate at noon. But right now, it was the volcano’s moment of glory, as it towered up at a height of 3,471 meters, casting a splash of vermilion against the night.
The change of light was celebrated by nature’s grandest orchestra, the song of thousands of birds. Their blustering cooing, chirping and trilling added a reassuring note to the scene, for the volcano looked more awesome than ever. Columns of fire rose from its caldron, licking the rim, a little too greedily, I thought, as if to remind us, lest we take it for granted, that it could erupt any minute and wreak immense havoc. But what enhanced even further this menace was that it continued to bustle in sepulchral silence, punctuated only by the bird choral. Suddenly, I imagined myself standing before the giant screen of a drive-in cinema, but in this instance I was as much part of the scene as were the volcano, the moon, and the entire firmament.
It was Tambwe again who told me the story of Nyiragongo, or rather, its legend. Actually it bore the name of a woman, whose spirit would forever haunt the place. The youngest bride of a Lega chief, she was known for her wild beauty and her irresistible magnetism. People likened her to those rare mountain orchids that blossom amid tree trunks and rotting vegetation. She indeed had a fiery temperament and stood her ground, for she wouldn’t be satisfied with that old tyrannical chief of her husband, who considered women mainly as reproductive machines, and incidentally as sexual objects. But what irked her more than anything else was that he beat them for no rhyme or reason.
Nyiragongo secretely loved a young man in that village. He was handsome and courageous, and every second moon he would bring in some big game he had hunted: when it was not an antelope, it was a buffalo, a warthog, or even a baby elephant. He once caught a leopard that had been roaming in the nearby forest and presented it to the chief as a trophy. Nyiragongo was quite upset about it, but could he have done otherwise?
Through his bravery and his unflinching determination, the young man not only won the heart of Nyiragongo, but also the respect of his folksmen, especially after he had returned to the village one day with the head of their most feared and hated enemy, hooked on the tip of his spear. It stood as a dire warning to the neighboring village. That despicable individual had more than once tried to sow discord among her people, launching night raids and stealing cattle. He even had the nerve to kidnap one of the chief’s daughters and kept her hostage.
But Nyiragongo lost patience and all she wanted was to escape with her lover. Torn between his loyalty towards the chief and the sentiments he felt for his belle, the young man hesitated. After having weighed the situation, he turned to her and said:
“There are two reasons why I cannot follow you: after all, he is our chief but also your husband.”
His answer made Nyiragongo boil with rage, and one night, while he was asleep, she stuck a knife into the aorta of her aging husband and killed him. She then slipped into her lover’s hut and said:
“Now that the way is free, you shall become the village’s new chief and I your first and only wife.”
But things did not go off according to her plans, at least not entirely. The young man was indeed unanimously proclaimed chief, by the elders. Nyiragongo however hadn’t taken into account her lover’s honesty and his high sense of responsibility. When the villagers learnt who had murdered their chief – a crime of lese-majesty, no less -, the culprit was sent to the stake and burnt alive.
And ever since, the souls of the damned have been atoning for their sins in the volcano’s caldron which never abates, whereas the pure ones continue to hover above Karisimbi’s crest, to the east, between the sea of clouds and the eternal snows.
That evening we were going to lodge at Goma’s Hotel des Grands Lacs, but before taking possession of our room, we made an unexpected encounter. Piet recognized one of his BCK colleagues who was sitting, half in the shade, facing the opposite side of the volcano, on the terrace which jutted out on lake Kivu, now cast in a pellucid darkness, and swept by flickers of light that seemed to bounce between the shore and the mountainside like stardust.
My stepfather put a finger to his lips, signalling us not to move; he sauntered on tiptoe and tapped the man’s shoulder. In a burst of laughter, he then exclaimed:
“Well I never, if that isn’t Arnaud, I am the devil.”
The man turned around, startled, at first, then with a slight flush. He then got up to greet us.
At dinner, for starters, we were served a plate of mussels, flown in directly from Zeland, cooked in white wine and smothered with fresh cream, accompanied by golden brown French fries. Then followed a delicious piece of grilled tilapia, fished the same morning in the ‘Green Lake’, with a side dish of cauliflower au gratin, just as mouth watering. As I was biting my last morsel, Rupert Stevenson came out with these words:
“Isn’t this a coincidence? We too were planning to visit Parc Albert. As a matter of fact, I have rented a single-engined plane, which I will of course pilot myself. Flying over the rain forest and the magnificent region of the Great Lakes will certainly be an unforgettable experience. Pity the cabin cannot accommodate more than three people, otherwise I would have gladly taken you all along with us. But if the young Miss wants to slip in, it will be with the greatest of pleasure.”
That proposition, so unexpected, delighted me immensely, to say the least, but I soon had to bow down, for my mother strongly declined the idea. I began to sulk, though I refused to consider myself prey to this rebuttal, and, seconds later, like an angry cat, thrusting out its claws, I jumped at the throat of both my mother and Piet. I whined and complained that it was most unfair of them, that they would deprive me of a unique opportunity to discover the African wildlife, that they were going to ruin my vacation. What finally convinced them to accept the invitation was when Rupert told us he would follow the same itinerary as my parents’ and that they would meet them at the main safari lodge near the entrance of the natural preserve.
“Ok!” sighed my mother. But she wasn’t the only one adverse to the idea. I saw a glimmer of disappointment in the eyes of Arnaud Collard, as he too began to frown. He and my mother were two birds of a feather, I had no more doubts about that.
But, as in a vote, we were the majority, and I won, since Piet, after second thought, rallied to Rupert’s initial proposition. Eyeing his wife, he was lukewarm, at first, then became quite enthusiastic. To reassure my mother, the Rhodesian gave her a sum up of his career as a professional pilot, eliciting the decade he had been flying, not only for Central African Airways, but also for private companies, as well as for a couple of medical teams that brought succor to the calamity-stricken folk in the interior. I don’t recall the exact count, but that must have amounted to several thousands of hours being airborne, a figure that, in my little head, seemed astronomical.
It was thus reluctantly that my mother consented to let me embark on that new and unhoped for adventure. To put some balm to her wounded pride, Rupert told her, with a knowing gesture and a pinch of humor:
“While we shall be taking care of Leodine, up there, in the company of crowned eagles, you will have all the leisure to savor a merited tête-à-tête in the jungle, and, why not, to reiterate your honeymoon. Doesn’t that sound nifty?”
Before an argument spelled with such flourish, my parents couldn’t but acquiesce.
That first night in Goma, I was so excited that, in spite of the fact that I had been allowed, exceptionally, a cocktail drink, followed, during the dinner, by two glasses of Cape wine and, later, a sip of claret, with the cheese – apart from a taste of beer, once in a blue moon, when, in the dry season, the weather was muggy, I didn’t fancy liquor, of any kind -, not to mention the long and tiring journey we had covered, from one end of Lake Kivu to the other, I had a hard time falling asleep. It was only in the wee hours of the morning, lulled by the alternating snore of Piet and the soft breathing of my mother, that I finally got to rest.
If I had relished every minute of the journey aboard the DC3, in the comfort of a civil aircraft, despite the lack of pressurization inside the cabin, which emanated a very specific odor of wilted flowers mixed with that of souring toilet perfumes and cold perspiration, an odor I filled my lungs with, inhaling it like pure mountain air, and apart from those ghastly air pockets over the equator, the small plane Rupert was piloting looked, in comparison, like a magnificent albeit sophisticated toy, which brought back the image of the model car, fully motored, the brother of a schoolmate had gotten as a birthday present and which he was so proudly driving in his garden, to the dazzled admiration of his young guests.
An indescribable feeling of elation gripped me the moment the single-engined aircraft started to roll on the grass field, ready for takeoff. This was so very different from my maiden voyage. Here, I could feel every jolt under the wheels, stone after stone, every pothole, small or large, almost as if I had treaded beforehand on that very same ground with my shoes. The engine’s vibrations echoed in me like those of a second metal skin, making me feel part and parcel of the plane, as if I had been grafted to it. It was nothing like the aggressive thrust of the Dakota, lifting off the tarmac, and in which I had the impression of having been swallowed whole like a worm by a hungry bird. With the Cessna, my imagination took a more fantastic turn: I was suddenly flying on a magic carpet, headed towards the land of a Thousand and one Marvels. After a while, I got so used to the engine’s muffled roar, it sounded as if the noise came from within me, and that I was actually purring like a cat. But the purring reverberated so incessantly in my ears, that it was very difficult for me to hold a conversation with my two fellow-travelers, and I was dying to talk to them and bombard Rupert with questions.
Not even ten minutes had elapsed when we sighted the Virunga mountain range, girdling the twin cities of Goma and Kisenyi like an amphitheater of impressive proportions. It was breathtaking. From the air, the two cities formed one single agglomeration, and it was hard to imagine that a border separated them.
Arnaud who, until now had barely shown any sign of sympathy in my regard, before the splendor unfurling around us, lost some of his reserve and began to speak to me. Thus I learned that the word ‘Virunga’ meant ‘volcano’ in the local dialect. “This is where Parc Albert really starts,” he went on, almost cordially, pointing down.
We flew over Nyiragongo at such low altitude that I let out a shriek of terror mixed with fascination, and as I was still panting and shaking, Rupert pressed the throttle to rev the engine, then moments later, he decelerated, so that we might contemplate the scenery close up, and drew a loop above neighboring Nyamulagira, where jets of lava surged in columns of incandescent fluid. Inside the crater, the magma foamed in thick clusters of mucus – you’d have sworn it originated in a pitless abyss, for it kept spewing in never-ending, enormous quantities -, it whirled, slowly, diabolically, sending out balls of fire that exploded in an erratic fashion, as if they’d been mislaunched by some drunken fireworks engineer, and which now collided with a muffled crash, now mated, now drowned in unison, sucked in by even larger flames that had the appearance of those dragons’ tongues, twisting this way and that, which I had seen in an art book illustrated with ancient Chinese prints. And in the midst of all that rabid activity, where bubbles, the size of trunks, swoll then popped almost instantaneously, and rocks of various caliber were being hurled in the air, there flowed what resembled continuous streams of blood. At a certain point I thought I recognized, among all the hurtling debris, a giant octopus, wriggling madly, as if each one of its tentacles had a life of its own, then the head of an insect, enlarged a millionfold, flashing its globous eyes. A moment later, against the crater’s opposite wall, the bust of a woman suddenly materialized, dwarfing everything else. It eerily reminded me of the beheaded Venus of Milo. You’d have thought you were witnessing a carnival of ghosts, who, tired of their lackluster aspect, had swapped their diaphanous garb for billowing clothes in the brilliant colors of the rainbow.
Suddenly, I felt terribly hot and, frightened, I imagined that the flames were going to invade the cabin and draw our Cessna inexorably into the vortex. Beads of sweat, trickled along my temples, mixed with tears, for I was sure now that it was only a matter of seconds before the volcano would gulp us. I then heard myself scream at Rupert: “Take us away, take us away, I don’t want to die.”
His face, ruddy by nature, changed to a vivid, almost bleeding purple, as if it had just been licked by a treacherous flame, that lashed out of the magma. I saw his mouth tighten into a devilish grin. At this point of the story there is a blank, I must have fallen in a semi coma, for, when I opened my eyes again, a totally different landscape unfolded under my eyes. Hills of a tender green alternated with darker clumps of trees, then with – miracle of miracles – pastures, where cows grazed and a few stray horses frolicked. Had we left Africa, I wondered, with disbelief. Yet, before I could fix my gaze, the scenery had changed again. The savannah once more spread itself, ubiquitous, unappeasable, like some galloping swell that would stop before no barrier and even roll over the horizon. It was dotted with cactaceae of various sizes and shapes, some ferociously spiked, like knotty fists directed towards an imaginary enemy. Then there were the isolated clusters of shrubs, which would sometimes get drawn into a dense thicket, and the gallery-forests that resembled clumps of bonsai, with, here and there, euphorbias pointing skyward. It was a strange symphony of hues, in faded greens, sapped ochres and pale yellows, as if some divine hand had dropped every night, while the humans and most of the animal world retired, an acid drizzle, washing away all of its original colors.
We soon caught sight of a big herd of buffaloes, all trotting in the direction of the same water hole. This is how I pictured nature in the tropics: somewhat more savage than the Katanga brush – yet without its scarring termite hills, that could look either rachitic or else bloated like the paunch of a mastodon, visible the moment you left the suburbs of Elisabethville – and peopled with feral wild beasts, which you would encounter in flocks, that could, at times, reach several hundreds of individuals, if not more.
Rupert gradually lost altitude, so that we could admire the scenery, and for a while, we skimmed over the savannah. A swarm of pelicans had just invested two acacia trees, lending them an air of festivity with their immaculate white plumage. They appeared so innocuous in spite of their large numbers. Minutes later, the huts of a native village skittered under our wing.
“We’re approaching Rutshuru, our first stop,” announced Rupert, gleefully.
As we were readying ourselves to land on a narrow track of grass, the size of a postage stamp, all of a sudden, I felt Arnaud’s breath over my nape. He had neglectfully rested his arm on my shoulder. This intimate gesture was so unexpected, coming from him, that I didn’t know how to interpret it. When I turned my face, I saw his eyes twitch, while his mouth spread into a benevolent smile, which put me ill at ease. But I decided not to bother, for I didn’t want to spoil the exceptional vision I had just witnessed. A dirt road, flanked by a few banana shrubs, alternating with a scattering of kapok trees, was now leading to the tiny aerodrome which would receive us.
Rutshuru was a small town, almost a hamlet, rimmed by a forest of eucalyptus trees, from which emanated that heady, almost violent odor already familiar to me, but which here was even more pregnant since the temperature was somewhat cooler than in Goma. Now and then, you could detect a subtle waft of mimosa or of frangipani flower.
As in all the other towns and villages of Kivu, the gardens here were lush with a variety of plants and flowers, where strelitzias, the so aptly named ‘birds of paradise’, hyacinths, Cape marigolds, lillies of the Nile, flaunting their dazzling white and blue corollas, vied with hydrangeas and orchids, the noblest of them all, but also with streams of dahlias in a stupendious range of colors, with tulips, carnations, rosebushes, as well as with the impressive albeit odorless carmin arums and, there was, of course, the ubiquitous, yet always splendid bougainvillea, that embraced the whole gamut of hues, from pale pink to mauve, with, in between, flaming reds, oranges and purples. This orgy of shapes, of colors and of perfumes, to which I was totally unaccustomed, made my head reel and my teeth gnash.
In that old grey Dodge that served as our taxi and whose windows had been recently washed, with its threadbare seats and rusty metallic smell, I felt somewhat claustrophobic, as if I had suddenly fallen in a moving bunker to which, through some quirky circumstance, wheels had been grafted. That feeling of oppression was accentuated by the slightly musky odor the three men emanated. It was like opening an ancient pharmacy which had been neglected for years and whose contact with your own body struck a new alchemy.
Obviously my parents would take more time to cover the journey by car, and they would rejoin us at the Rwindi campsite a day and a half later, insofar as they had decided to take on a different itinerary, bypassing the spectacular volcanoes we had flown over, for my mother had had enough of all the hairpin roads which had disturbed her so much, on our way to Goma. They would drive through Sake then proceed to the four Mokoto lakes, and finally reach the village of Mweso. They would come across the large mammals, encountering, among them, a great number of hippos, herds of elephants and of buffaloes, as well as chimps and scores of small and large aquatic birds. I’d have to be patient in order to catch up with the wild beasts, but didn’t complain, for I wouldn’t have missed the plane trip for all the diamonds of the world. The animals could jolly well wait.
Two rooms had been booked for us at the Auberge du Parc, a double bedroom, for my fellow travelers, and a single one for me – they were separated by an adjoining bathroom.
Since it was still daytime, Ruppert suggested we leave the luggage at the hotel and start exploring the town and its surroundings, immediately, always in the company of our driver Christostome who whould be our guide during our short stay in the region.
The latter asked us whether we would be attending the Mwami’s fête – Mwami, being the name given to a Tutsi chief or king -, which was going to take place in a couple of days, with lots of merry making, eating and dancing. The Tutsi were presumed to descend from a Nilotic tribe. And indeed, with their dark lustrous skin and their refined features, they bore a striking resemblance to the inhabitants of Ancien Egypt. What’s more, being long-limbed and usually quite slender, they were a very tall folk – apparently the tallest of our planet -, often reaching six feet in height.
Talking of the Mwami, Chrisostome said, as if in cue, that we absolutely must meet with Ndeze, the ‘Sage of Rutshuru’, or that we ought at least to honor him with a brief visit, since he was the town’s dean. Every person who came here, whether famous or not, and spent some time in this part of Kivu, made a point of paying the man his respects. This long list included the governor of the province, the chiefs of the neighboring tribes, business men from both the colony and the mother country, and especially the Belgian royalty who happened to pass here during their official visits. Thus had Ndeze been greeted by King Albert the First, later on by his son, King Léopold the Third, and their respective wives, the revered Queen Elisabeth, and the lovely Queen Astrid. He had also known the young and very shy Prince Baudouin, whom the natives affectionately called ‘Bwana Kitoko’, meaning the ‘handsome bachelor’ in Kiswahili. Among the honored guests, there had also been the dashing Karim, who would become the future Aga Khan, head of the Ismaelites, which numbered a large community in East Africa. With the passing of time, the Sage of Rutshuru had gained an almost mythical reputation. Did he not encapsulate, within his person, the ancestral memory of his land?
The idea of the visit didn’t really appeal to Arnaud. He would have preferred to go directly to the Rutshuru Falls, not very distant from the town of the same name, whence you had a breathtaking vista of the Virunga mountains, mixing thus the primeval elements of water and fire, in a grand polyphonous concert, before which man could only be subjugated. But Rupert and I, heeding our driver’s advice, insisted on paying the venerable old man a courtesy call. And so, twenty minutes later, after having driven through a forest of eucalyptus trees – I kept inhaling the strong vegetal smell with a sensual pleasure, lest I should miss even the slightest particle of its benefit -, we reached Mwami Ndeze’s chiefdom.
I could hardly believe my eyes when I actually saw the man. He was of an indefinable age and just a little taller than myself. He conjured up in my mind a character straight out of the Bible – wasn’t it claimed that Abraham reached the age of 120, or was it 150? – more than a chief from Central Africa. In the shade of his royal hut, he looked tiny, and from his visage, so wrinkled and parched, two eyes emerged, sparkling like crystal marbles that had just been plucked from the depths of a pool. His head was covered with an ashen-tinted mane, which only added to his otherworldly appearance. In spite of his diminutive size, he bore that authority and that dignity one only associates with patriarchs, or at least, that was what I had surmised from my favorite stories in the Old Testament.
Mwami Ndeze greeted us in turn, holding our hand for a lengthy moment each, between his two bony palms. He cast us a benevolent albeit weary smile, as if hundreds of people had preceded us in a long and incessant file. He then began to speak in a low, almost imperceptible tone of voice, addressing no one in particular. It suddenly occurred to me that in front of us sat an exceptional human being, and even though, most of the time, he looked haggard, his words rang like a blessing. It was the first time in my short life that I felt this kind of revelation for someone, and what was more, for an African.
In spite of his being so near, I had the impression of hearing whispers from the netherworld, and his muffled voice – murmurs interlaced with sighs -, would reach me like the sprinkle of a morning dew which the wind blew my way. You really had to lend a very attentive ear in order to follow the train of his thoughts, so jumbled and choppy the events of his life sounded. Within the same sentence, he would sometimes skip decades, then, without so much as a warning, he’d revert back to incidents that seemed totally disconnected or blatantly contradictory, for they appeared to belong to someone else’s past. Yet, we all listened, entranced, utterly fascinated, and here, I include our driver, as well as Arnaud, whose intense stare couldn’t detach itself from the sage’s lips.
And thus did we learn of Ndeze’s very first encounter with a white missionary, who had come to the region, at the close of the 19th century, accompanied by an explorer and a dozen African porters. I could just picture the meeting of these men who were so different and hailed from such opposite horizons. The event must have been as moving as when Stanley and Livingstone met in 1871 at Ujiji, on the eastern shore of Lake Tanganyika. This now legendary village lay just a few hours away by boat from the port of Usumbura, i.e., considering the distances in Africa, quite near from our present travel point. Ndeze briefly alluded to the place, recalling the excitement which the exceptional event had stirred among the folk in Rutshuru, even though he was still a toddler. He also reminded us how strategic to the Arab slave trade Ujiji had been, and how the sheiks would send whole gangs of mercenaries to this region of Central Africa, coming from as far east as the Arabian peninsula, in order to raid the villages and drag along with them the most valid young men and maidens, they had kept in captivity. The prisoners would then be hauled away on dhows, those small sailboats which still ply the river Nile nowadays, and which tourists find so quaint and romantic. But initially, those wretched souls, shackled to one another, like cattle, were led to Ujiji, where they were gathered with other slaves, in long and incessant columns, to be herded to Zanzibar, on the coast of the Indian Ocean, whence they would then sail for Arabia, their final destination. Those caravans of slaves, the sheiks had been organizing for centuries, preceded the horrific expeditions which the European colonizers launched towards the Americas, after the discovery of Christopher Columbus.
It was much later, having reached adulthood that I learned how the Portuguese, the Spaniards, followed, in their wake, by the English and the French, had wrenched thousands upon thousands, some claim even millions, of Africans, from their birth place, on the Angolan coast, in the ancient kingdom of Kongo, and in what are now Gabon, Nigeria and Senegal, to the island of Gorée, on the Atlantic, where they were dragged, shackled and pressed like sardines, and thereupon finally sent sailing to the New World. Only a small number of these coerced passengers reached their destination, their boats, being nothing less than floating cemeteries.
Apart from the slave trade which the Arabs perpetrated, this last information was never mentioned, either in the Encyclopedia of Belgian Africa, or in any of our history books at school.
Speaking of history, I sincerely believe, it should be entirely overhauled and rewritten, this time, by a team of international specialists, hailing from the six continents, and not just by Western historians, or solely by African, or Asian scholars. We need to gather the most objective studies and leave all the ideologies that have poisoned our lives, behind. I say this, for after the 1960 debacle of the Congo, following its Independence, but also after the more recent massacres in Rwanda, I read the most absurd accounts concerning the ‘cruelty’ of the Belgian colonialists. The so-called ‘new historians’ went from one extreme to the other, negating even the slightest benefit the Whites had brought with them – because there were definitely some good things – in a furious and vindicative campaign which bordered on demonization. It has been politically correct – a still very fashionable expression – to hold this stance, even long after Independence had been granted to the colonies. The more rabid among the historians were those hailing from the former communist powers, not that the Western intellectuals reasoned much differently. I, who was born and have lived in the former Belgian Congo, am aware of all the negative sides of colonialism, believing from the outset that no country has the right to conquer another and thereby impose its laws and customs upon its inhabitants. Yet, especially after World War II, there was an undeniable effort on the part of the colonial authorities in support of the well-being of the native population. As far back as 1958, i.e., just two years before the Congo became independent, an international team of experts, sponsored by the United Nations, had concluded, after an exhaustive visit in the country, that the Belgians had made great progress in enhancing the living standard of the Congolese, and that their health system, as far as the natives were concerned, was the best in Africa. In 1960, when the situation ran amok and civil war broke out, a few days only after the Independence festivities, the Whites fled the country in droves. Then suddenly the Belgians were considered the worst colonialists. I cannot stress enough the harm that the superpowers of the time had caused by pouring oil onto the fire. And here, all of them are to be held accountable for the ensuing debacle: the United States, the former Soviet Union, the People’s Republic of China, as well as France, and to a lesser extent, Great Britain, all vying for the immense riches of my country of birth. Belgium, of course, was much at fault, but not in the manner usually described. The superpowers played their ideologies against each other, and under that ‘morally acceptable’ guise – hypocrites that they were! – they lured opposing factions of the Congolese political spectrum.
It is undeniable that Belgium lagged far behind in building an African elite, and that their paternalism – certainly more humane than that of the British, the French, the Dutch, the Spaniards, or for that matter, the Portuguese – was incredibly naive. One has to remember though that, unlike the other colonial powers, Belgium never asked nor wished to rule the Congo in the first place. It was King Leopold II who had imposed this situation upon her, after the international scandal his mercenary methods had triggered.
And thus, in 1908, was Belgium forced to take over this huge swath of land across the equator, and to put some order to it. This is not to say that the mother country did not profit from the bounty the Congo offered. It did, and how, especially through that huge concern called the Union Minière. But it didn’t do it in the ruthless fashion so often decried. Those who persist in claiming the contrary are in bad faith. People always seem to be confusing the period during which the Congo was the private property of the king – an aberration even in colonial history – and Belgium’s takeover after 1908.
A big game hunter, Rupert asked our host – always through the good services of Chrisostome who acted as our interpreter – whether he had hunted much in his youth. Ndeze paused for a while and looked the Rhodesian up and down, at first incredulous, then slightly offended.
“Of course, I did a lot of hunting”, answered the Mwami, “that was part of our fare in the bush. Every male child, once he has successfully gone through the initiation rites, must prove himself that he has become a man, and hunting is a major element in this test. Throughout his life, a man’s duty towards his family, is to bring home fresh meat and fish, as well as the produce of his work, if he is a craftsman.”
“In other words”, exclaimed Rupert, clearing his throat, like an adolescent whose voice is breaking, “you caught elephants.”
“That is not given to everyone”, rebuffed the Mwami, “but with my background, and since I was destined to become a tribal chief, to prove my valor, I killed my first ‘tembo’ two rainy seasons after I had undergone the rites of circumcision.” Ndeze then recounted how, with the help of two fellow hunters, older than he, and with more experience, he had trapped a young elephant, after having lured it away from its mother.
He also explained how determined he had been, while still an adolescent, to become ‘Fundi’, i.e., a man of exceptional aptitudes, a position that would cast him above ordinary mortals. Just as the wood and stone sculptors, the ironmongers, a Fundi didn’t have to pay the community any taxes. And so, very soon, Ndeze had earned the enviable title of elephant hunter, regularly providing the village folk with the coveted meat, while he regaled the artists with beautiful tusks.
His enthusiasm unabated, Rupert insisted that our host tell us in detail about his most memorable hunt.
“In this instance, we were after a male elephant who must have been over three years old. My partners and I were able to approach him without being spotted. We had covered ourselves in marsh mud, so that the herd which we had been following couldn’t smell us. And above our camouflage, we wore roebuck pelts, to confuse the animals, in case they did hear something.
We had cautiously waited for this individual, the last in line, to momentarily withdraw from the rest of the herd, for he had been attracted by a thicket he could munch on. And so he did, without warning the others. I took advantage of the situtation and, having sneaked in behind a tree, I pointed my spear between his hind legs and pierced his belly as far in as his rectum, causing the beast to hemorrhage abundantly, following which, he emptied his guts.”
Ndeze recounted this feat with astounding equanimity, as if he were just telling you how to cook a plate of ‘bukari’ (manioc flour).
Arnaud and I glanced at each other, sharing the same distaste at the details that had been elicited, whereas Rupert and Chrisostome hung on the Mwami’s every word, mesmerized, like schoolboys. Arnaud stared at his Rhodesian friend, still agape and goggly-eyed, then he lifted his gaze towards the ceiling, as if to say: “Gosh, Rupert, did you have to ask all those questions? Damn you, hunters!”
Ndeze went on, in the same monotone: “I knew that the wound I had inflicted on the beast was fatal, but being such a large animal, he kept heaving and huffing for a long long time, so that my partners and I had to kill him off, plowing our three spears into different parts of his stomach, until he was finally dead. This last stage was very dangerous, because we had to beware that the elephant didn’t fall and crush anyone of us. We jumped aside as soon as we knew he was at the end of his tether and would collapse. Once our prey lay competely still, we spread the news around with our tom toms.
Waiting for the village folk to come and share the spoils, we began the arduous chore of carving into the elephant’s flesh. The three best parts came first: the tail, which I would hand over to my father, who was at the time our Mwami, the pair of ivory tusks, which would immortalize our feat, and lastly, the trunk, which we allotted to ourselves, since we could now be considered to be the bravest hunters around.
Once the villagers rejoined us, we designated the clans and told each which portion of the animal’s body they could cut out. They had then to build their own racks whereupon the pieces of meat should be laid to dry. In this, the women had an important role, for they had to chop wood from the nearby trees, assemble the timber, then carry the meat that was allotted to them, all the way back to the village.
Each clan was allowed five basketfuls of meat. My father, the Mwami got a special basket containing, as I mentioned earlier, the tail, but also the heart, the liver, the lungs and the intestines. The remainder of the trunk as well as the choice parts were destined to the notables. As for the bones, they were hacked asunder, in order to extract the marrow which would be used as cooking oil.
The meat was then thriumphantly carried to the village, where each clan had the task of dividing it among their own kin, and thus the festivities could commence.
You ought to know however”, concluded the Mwami, “that we have great respect for the elephants and that we would never hunt them solely to get their tusks, as the poachers do. In fact, it is strictly prohibited to kill a female elephant who happens to be pregnant, or who is still nursing a calf.”
Mwami Ndeze sprinkled his memories with Bantu proverbs, that were at once savory and filled with common sense and wisdom. Among those I remember, I can cite the following:
– Do not shear two lambs simultaneously, the one could bite the other.
– The lion sleeps with his teeth.
– The leopard’s heir also inherits its spots.
– The one-eyed man still has his good eye to cry.
– If a small tree should grow under a baobab, it will die a sapling.
– Do not hurl into the air the snake you have just killed, for its fellow creatures will be watching you.
– Once you have eaten salted food, you can no longer eat without salt.
– The road doesn’t tell the traveler what stands at the end of it.
– If you throw a piece of wood in the water, and you come to retrieve it the following day, beware, it’s a crocodile that you will find instead.
– When a fish cries, you can’t see its tears, for they are drowned in water.
– Even if an old and sickly lion looks at you downtrodden, you will not compare him to an antelope.
– A goat that shakes itself does not lose its powers of hearing.
– The wind can shove a leaf into a deep hole, but it cannot dislodge it.
– If the hairs didn’t take so long to grow, the turtle would be covered with a pelt.
– Whatever a fish swallows will enrich the crocodile’s fare.
– The snake should always be feared, even when it has no ill feelings.
– If you happen to be in the middle of the river, do not instigate the crocodile.
– The turtle doesn’t like to be part of a clan, that is why it carries its own coffin.
– The lamb should never mistake a hyena’s tail for a swing.
– If the chameleon is slow, it doesn’t mean that it will not reach its target.
– To keep a king’s respect, it isn’t enough to show him what you can do, your words and your intentions are even more important.
to be continued…