After that last adage, we all held our breath, for Ndeze examined each one of us in turn, as if to check any blunder we might suddenly make. There was no more doubt left as to the importance of his rank, his whole attitude vouched for it, from his long pauses, during which his eyelids would drop, to his brief coughing fits, which would punctuate his monologues.
At a certain point, Ndeze invited us to drink with him, as a parting toast. Seeing the way Arnaud and I grimaced when our host presented us with the bowl of palm wine in which he had just drunk, and that the same bowl would be passed on to the other guests, Chrisostome motioned us to do likewise, lest we should offend him. I hesitated, with a shiver of disgust, but then obeyed. After the bowl had gone round – it was carved out of a calabash and bore hunting scenes on its upper width; I can still see the poor roebuck pierced by an arrow and which a man carried on his shoulder -, the Sage took it back and put it on tall chair, not before pouring the few drops of remaining liquid onto a specific spot in the hut.
“This I do to honor my forebears.” And he explained the origin of this very ancient tradition: the dead in the netherworld continued to behave like the living, eating and drinking, so that when the latter rejoiced, they would always set food aside for them. It was also customary for the villagers to put fresh fruit and vegetables on their elders’ graves; in times of famine, they would leave instead trays containing wooden bowls, forks and spoons, to mark their respect.
Aware of the fact that his tone at once calm and solemn had intimidated us, and also probably because our presence had tired him, the Mwami decided to put an end to our visit on a more humorous note, regaling us with a Bantu tale, whose title alone was a titillation: “The three nitwits”.
It is the story of three young men whose father had chased from home, because he thought they were too stupid for words. As they began to wander on their long road of exile, the three brothers came across an old peasant whom they found sitting on the ground of his field. The elder asked them where they were heading and the three brothers explained to him that since their father didn’t want to know about them, they were looking for work elsewhere. The peasant then kindly offered them each a job and he invited them to his hut.
The next morning, he summoned one of the brothers and said to him: “Go to the river and get me some fish!” The boy took a net and walked away. To the second brother he gave the following order: “I want you to bring me some bark from the forest, for I wish to make a few ropes.” To the third brother he then said: “There’s a baobab tree over there, I’d like you to pluck its ripest fruit for me.”
At the river, Brother number one amassed a large quantity of fish and he was quite proud of his catch. But then he got terribly thirsty and forgot all about the fish as he came back to the peasant’s hut. The old man asked him: “You haven’t caught any fish?” “Oh, yes indeed,” answered Brother number one, “but I left them on the river shore, because I was very thirsty.” The old peasant was furious and told him to sit in a corner and to wait.
As for Brother number two, he had gathered a big load of bark, but he had abandoned it in the bush, for he hadn’t found any rope with which to tie them. The old peasant asked him why he didn’t use one of the pieces of bark. Brother number two said he never thought of it. The old man was seething with rage and ordered him to sit next to his brother and to wait.
Brother number three also returned empty-handed, for even though he had plucked the baobab fruit, he had his own way to get them. He had climbed to the top of the tree so that he could touch the fruit with his hand, then he’d told the stick he held in his hands: “You see that fruit, when I throw it in the air, you shall hit it.” He had climbed down and threw the stick towards the fruit, but the stick couldn’t reach it. The old peasant then said: “You were so near the fruit, why didn’t you take it with your own hand?” It didn’t even cross the mind of Brother number three.
The patriarch then gathered the village folk, recounted the events and asked them who, among the three brothers, they believed was the most stupid of them all. Since they had come out with the same answer, the villagers concluded that it was impossible to give a definite answer and they consequently decided that they should all leave the village. But the old peasant who had a good heart, gave them each a wife, and they left.
The three brothers then realized that they could never work for strangers and so they founded their own village, built huts and sired many children. The latter grew up, married and had children of their own. Wherever you might come across a man or a woman who’s a little simple-minded, you can be sure that they descend from the family of the three nitwits.
What I am about to recount seems to be more a product of the imagination than an actual experience. In fact, I still am not sure it really happened, for I have tried to conceal it to myself until this very day.
After that memorable visit at Mwami Ndeze’s hut, Chrisostome drove us to the Rutshuru Falls, which I’ve mentioned earlier, and the moment we got there, I had the feeling it must be the Eden God had created, as it is described in the Bible. This could only be the place where Adam and Eve first got acquainted, before she took a bite of the fabled apple. Then all at once a sentiment of revolt took hold of me and something filled my palate, like a gob of mush, a question which at the time could not express itself in coherent words, as if it were blasphemous, and which now I am able to translate in the following manner: “Oh Lord, why did You have to spoil everything, so fast? Why have you punished earth’s first couple with such fury, with such disproportionate severity? And especially the first woman you created, supposedly out of Adam’s rib? Couldn’t you have left them in peace, instead of banishing them from Paradise and cast on them and their progeny Your eternal curse? Did You not, by doing so, incite mankind to wage fratricidal wars? Because of You, my family went through the most horrendous of all the wars; I wasn’t born yet – does that mean that by some quirk of fate, you wished to spare me, temporarily? You had something else in store for me, didn’t You, as if You regretted Your initial magnanimous gesture!”
We drove back to the inn as the sun set and a cool breeze began to tickle my skin. We were tired but with, imprinted on our eyes, the magnificent images we had seen. I can still remember the whiff of grilled baby pigeons that brushed my nostrils as the waiter served my fellow travelers, before presenting me with the tray. I had asked for a side dish of mashed potatoes and French beans. Rupert had ordered a bottle of rosé wine from Anjou for the three of us. Arnaud didn’t stop pouring the rosé into my glass, even when it was still half full. It is true that I had never tasted a wine so fruity and so agreeable to the palate, chilled as it was, and that I swallowed it like grape juice, not realizing at first the effect its alcoholic contents would have on me. Yet, I could see how Rupert would try to moderate his friend’s ardor in getting me drunk.
Soon I was floating on an iridescent cloud where scenes of the royal hut – the Mwami’s ascetic face reverberated behind my eyelids in a succession of aborted flashes – alternating with the staggering image of the Virungas, as the twilight splashed them in a flourish of pyrotechnics, the likes of which I had never experienced again, all the while I kept munching lazily on a leg of the baby pigeon which I was pressing between my fingers – it was so tender that I could crack its bones and suck the marrow without gritting my teeth, with the vaguely uncomfortable impression that I was biting into a Host.
The maître d’ had set in the middle of the table a candle in the shape of an acanthus, and through its hypnotic flame I could see the features of my two dinner partners taking on a variety of expressions. At a certain point, Arnaud’s smile turned into an ogre’s grin, and from his teeth, suddenly huge and distorted, I thought I could see blood spurting. Even Rupert whom I had so far likened to a kindly overgrown teddy bear, seemed to have embers in lieu of pupils, and I couldn’t refrain from letting out a muffled cry, which the two men mistook for laughter.
Unlike my two companions who helped themselves from the luscious tray of cheeses, I went straight for the dessert and picked a mix of fresh European and tropical fruits, defying any sense of good taste or propriety. After a bowl of raspberries, smothered with crème Chantilly, I sank my teeth into a rennet apple – apples being under these latitudes luxury fare -, and to conclude, I ate a mango, not quite ripe, for even if I had had my fill, I could never resist the king of fruits. I liked the slightly sour taste of the mangoes of our garden, which my grandmother used to ask Tambwe to pick for her while they were still green and which she would then serve us stewed, one of her many specialties. This didn’t prevent me from casting longing glances at the pastries, and in particular at the turreted almond cake with its fine layer of powder sugar that made it look like some castle model in a wintry landscape.
Arnaud poured the last drops of the rosé wine into my glass and exclaimed: “Down it in one gulp! This will be the year!”
From this point on, the events unfolded at a surprising speed, like a film reel that the cameraman accelerates, botching down some of the things I had lived, as if my mind had wished to erase them. As we were convened, I rejoined my parents in the early evening at the Rwindi campsite. They looked in great shape, especially my mother, who seemed to have fully recovered from her car sickness.
The moment Rupert hurled, in his booming voice: “How was the honeymoon?” Piet swelled with contentment, turned around and smiled at my mother, knowingly. It made her blush to the roots of her hair. I suddenly realized how much influence Piet exerted upon her, to the extent of sweeping her off the ground.
The Rwindi campsite was quite rustic in appearance and much resembled the native villages dotting the hills of Kivu. Maybe the finishing was a little more meticulous, especially indoors. My parents had reserved two separate rooms – actually, the word ‘huts’ would be more appropriate here – one for them and a smaller one for me. They were thatched ‘rondavels’ with low ceilings, to which hung a naked bulb held by an aluminium socket. Cramped as they were, they contained neither a bathroom, nor a shower, nor a W.C., there was just a wash basin beneath the hut’s only narrow window, protected by a screen of wire mesh. When you turned on the single tap, dirty brown water would trickle out of it in spurts, and it was always luke-warm, as if it had accumulated the day’s heat, for the hut had no boiler. Next to the metallic bed, which was fitted with a mosquito net, stood a little table in raffia, with a kerosene lamp, in case the generator had a power failure – which seemed to occur quite frequently. Beneath it was a large chamber pot in gray stoneware.
I would have been quite happy to occupy this hut all to myself, were it not for the fact that, right next to it, Rupert and Arnaud had their quarters. I then asked my parents whether I could share theirs. After a moment’s hesitation, Piet answered that he had no objection, but it was my mother’s reaction which surprised me most.
“No!” she exclaimed, harshly, “there isn’t even enough space for one person to move around in these huts, and in any case, you’re just next door.”
In spite of the dim lighting, I noticed the sudden flush in her cheeks. She realized it and, like someone who has been caught redhanded, changed the tone of her voice.
“Forgive me my darling,” she added, rather affectionately now, “as you know, we’ve planned to remain here three days, to take full advantage of Parc Albert, and frankly, the three of us in here would be very uncomfortable, especially since the campsite is almost empty. I’m sure you will understand that.”
It was only at the end of her sentence that it occurred to me why she had been so blunt in her insistence. Of course, I should have thought of it before, she wanted her privacy, inasmuch as until now, we had always shared a hotel room. Children usually perceive their parents’ need to be alone, as something of an adult whim, so fearful they are to be left out, or worse, abandoned. At that very moment, I considered it a gesture of high treason and walked away like a wounded animal, at once furious and dejected, because I couldn’t strike back.
That first evening we spent at the Rwindi campsite, I sulked throughout the dinner, gazing at my plate, fiddling with its contents, even though I was quite hungry, especially since the dishes that had been brought to us looked as appetizing as they were rare. I never even touched the grilled leg of antilope, which smelled so luscious, and was served with wild mushrooms and golden brown corn patties. I did nibble at the vegetables, unwillingly. My mother who watched me from the corner of her eye didn’t dare say anything.
Rupert and Arnaud had rejoined us in the middle of the dinner. The latter probably thought he was the reason of my bad mood, for he no longer smiled at anyone and remained poker-faced. It was too bad, and I let him stew in his own juice, after all he deserved it. I, on the other hand, would cast him long poisonous glances, to the point where, every so often, he would look at me askance like a fox who burns to come out of its den but doesn’t dare leave it lest a snake prowls at its threshold. My attitude manifestly bothered him, for whenever he wanted to take part in the conversation with the three other adults, he felt ill at ease.
They spoke of the safari on which we would set about the following morning at dawn. We hadn’t finished eating our dessert – warm waffles smothered with soft brown sugar, which was a real treat here, but to spite my parents, I never showed any sign of contentment – than Piet unfolded a detailed map of the region, complete with bush trails and water holes, for in those days, when you intended to explore the animal kingdom, you did it on an individual basis, and you were lucky to find a guide available, for they were booked a long time in advance by the big game hunters and the rare eminent visitors who came by.
The expectation that I would have to get up so early only increased my brooding. I wanted to tell my parents that I wasn’t going to follow them, but had to give up on the idea when I considered the alternative: that is, to be left back in this god forsaken place, with, as my sole companions, Monsieur Remy, the owner of the campsite, a rowdy but good-hearted adventurer, and the three Congolese servants who took care of the compound.
Before retiring, the campsite owner made a few recommendations which I listened to absentmindedly, until he pronounced the word ‘scorpion’. Half seriously, half in jest, he then added: “I don’t advise you to put your foot down when you get up from your bed before switching on the flashlight which you will find resting in the drawer of your side table. These bugs love the human flesh, especially when it is fair and delicate. Jokes aside, their sting is quite dangerous, so, whenever you see one, loitering around, get hold of the bamboo stick hanging on the wall next to the table and hit them as hard as you can. Oh, by the way, they also like to hide inside your slippers – they think it’s very cosy -, so there too, be careful and don’t wear them unless you are sure they are empty.”
Seeing how scared I was, Monsieur Remy gently pinched me in the shoulder and said, with no irony at all, this time: “Don’t worry, dearie, now that you know, you will take your precautions. It’s a question of habit, believe me. I, for one, have been living amid these jungle denizens for years, and we get on famously. Of course, you shouldn’t provoke your neighbors. But isn’t that true of humans, in general, of your schoolmates, for that matter?”
And to reassure me, he went on, with a broad smile: “You will probably notice other visitors in your hut, but those, in spite of their appearance – there’s one especially that has the fierce look of a midget dinosaur – are quite innocuous. You will recognize them immediately, they’re the little blue-green iguanas which you have perhaps already seen resting on the lower branches of the trees around the campsite – they’re a lazy bunch, really. Every once in a while, they will tilt their heads as if to salute you. Once the sun sets, you will then meet the amber-hued lizards whose bodies are transparent – yes, you can see through to their skeleton, as well as the blood flowing along their arteries, and even, if you stare at them long enough, you might follow the beat of their heart. These little fellows cling to the wiremesh of your window screen and stay there all night long, without budging. We ought to be thankful for their presence, for they rid us of all kinds of nasty bugs, like the mosquitoes.”
All this explaining was meant to appease me, but it didn’t, and I bore a grudge against my parents for not letting me share their hut. Already the previous night had been agitated and terribly disturbing, especially since what happened, if it did happen at all, would have to remain concealed from everybody, and it would pursue me till the end of my days. Ever since I set foot in the Rwindi campsite, my life seemed to tip over into some kind of limbo. I suddenly invoked, although I knew at once that it would be in vain, Kipling, whose Jungle Book I would read and reread with such pleasure in my room in Elisabethville, or Hergé and his Tintin in the Congo, which always put me in a good mood – how I laughed during the passages where the witch doctor and the fearsome-looking leopard-men intervened, scaring the wits out of the poor natives. When you think that I lived in that very same country, so alien to the author’s imagination. Yet I must admit that he had created for us, who resided in the colony, as much as for his readers in Europe, an exotic world in which we could all extend our dreams, even if it was far from our African reality. Conjuring up these familiar images didn’t help one bit and my hut felt like a prison where soon the awful bugs of which Monsieur Remy had spoken earlier would be crawling inside. I immediately recognized the transparent lizards – they were attracted by the light of the naked bulb I had now switched on, as well as by the dragonflies that clustered together on the window screen in a maddening buzz. To watch those lizards made me sick in the stomach, it was as if they were naked, and so vulnerable, from the inside. And yes, I could follow the beat of their heart. I then thought of my biology class and of the dissections that made my head reel.
Full of rage, eyes blurred by tears, I ran towards the wire mesh and hit my palm against it violently, sending all the animals that had taken possession of its space flying to the ground, simultaneously. But they would crawl back, one by one, a few minutes later, reassembling in clusters, offering to my view their phosphorescent innards, with their obscene palpitations. And their feet, those filthy little feet, clinging to the wire mesh! That detail was perhaps more repulsive than anything else, for it was thanks to them that the lizards could maintain themselves motionless for hours on end, with their maze-like stomachs in full view. I would repeat my nasty gesture with the other hand, watching the animals fly once again out of my sight, but they kept coming back, as if to taunt me: “You can play that game as long as you wish, but in the end we shall be the winners.” Realizing that I was fighting a losing battle, I would go to my bed, quite disgusted and depressed. But that wasn’t the end of it and I muffled a cry the moment I saw an iguana appear on one of the two slim laths that crossed each other above the ceiling light. It swung its head hither and thither with a sort of cold insolence that meant: “What you did to the others, you can’t do to me, and I will not budge from here no matter how much you fret or shout.” I bit my pillow as hard as I could, for that was the only revolt allowed me now. And in my mind there was no longer any doubt that soon enough I would be facing a much more perilous visitor: a scorpion. There were two alternatives I could choose from: either I forced myself to remain awake all night, or else I would give up and yield to the fatigue and the weariness of the previous trip, for I was exhausted both physically and emotionally. I tried to fight back the sleep but gradually my eyelids became heavy and before I could count ten, I fell into the arms of Morpheus. Another jungle would be awaiting me, fraught with a whole new gamut of dangers, but here, whatever happened, I could only be a passive witness, and worse still, a hapless victim. I’m not certain of this, but I must have sat up on my bed several times – my pajama, damp and sticky, like a second skin, ready to shed itself, in spite of the cool breeze that blew in gently from the screened window which I had left open -, surveying the ground and the walls around me, to make sure I wasn’t being attacked. Between these limbic stations, these brief surges of conscience, there was a succession of scenes, alternating from the stale to the horrific, sometimes, even, I caught them webbed together, or so I believe. This netherworld was peopled with mutants, closer in appearance to the fantasy and science-fiction comic strips Uncle Jeff used to read, than to the mythical animals of Antiquity. In comparison, the sphinx and the minotaur looked quite tame.
The days that followed were so dense, in spite of the sweltering heat, in spite of the mosquitoes whose vicious attacks were quite maddening, in spite of the bumps our rented Nash made us endure on the hard tracks of the savannah, the encounter with the wild animals was just mind-boggling, it seemed at once so natural and yet almost otherwordly that, before their spectacle, I doubted whether I wasn’t actually hallucinating.
Several times I would hide behind a grove of acacia trees, dying to lunge forward with the intent of trailing some of the animals, like that herd of cob antelopes, so graceful and yet so vulnerable, or that family of lions, looking sated, who were watching from a close enough distance, with a nonchalant haughtiness, as if to tell us to move along and not to trouble them during their digestion, secretly wishing to join them, like Rudyard Kipling’s Mowgli whom a pack of wolves had adopted. Yes, in such moments, I totally identified with these magnificent beasts, who appeared so content with their fate and so very peaceful, and I imagined myself leaving behind the world of humans which seemed to me, in comparison, so terribly complex, so unjust and so futile.
All of a sudden the air around us began to quiver, the ground to shake, dully, at first, then with muffled violence, when I heard a young elephant trumpet. I saw him, a moment later, trotting out of a thorny shrub. I don’t know if he panicked because he was lost or whether our car was the cause of his distress. Very soon, however, his mother came to rescue him, after having trampled a squat euphorbia whose tufts fanned out like a large funnel. She looked furious, not against her cub, but against us, and I had the fright of my life when she started galloping in our direction, looming so large and menacing.
Kombe, our guide, who was sharing the backseat with me, shouted at Piet in Kiswahili, ordering him to swerve away from the track on which he was driving.
“Mbio, tembo a hatari, mbio! Kwenda ivi!” (Quick, this female elephant is very dangerous, quick! Get us out of here!), he exclaimed, spelling each word in a clicking sound, to stress how perilous our situation had become. His pupils were dilated and his neck looked so knotty, I thought, any moment soon, his veins would pop out and splatter me with blood.
Piet pressed the accelerator with all the might of his calves and sent us jolting on our seats, so harshly, I was afraid my spine had cracked. But the big elephant continued to run after us – the thump of her heavy feet on the plain still echoes in my memory – then, in a swift gesture, my stepfather led us off the track, and into the high grass. He did this with such brusqueness that I was almost projected out of the car, the door, which I hadn’t thought of locking, flying wide open. The elephant flapped her enormous ears then stood still. Satisfied that she had set her cub out of harm’s way, she walked back towards him, resuming her maternal task.
This incident in which I could have been seriously hurt or even died, didn’t diminish my enthusiasm, on the contrary.
Still panting, I asked my parents when we could go and admire the giraffes, those extraordinary herbivores, that moved in such a unique fashion, with their leisurely and imperial sway, and of which I had seen a splendid male specimen at the zoo in Elisabethville.
They told me that we would have to skip them, since they were to be found much farther north from here, in the Gambara Park, or else eastwards, at Serengeti, which was situated in the British territory of Tanganyika, and this meant a drive of several hundred miles. I almost cried with disappointment.
Before reaching Lake Edward, through a shrub of thornbush, next to a giant mimosa tree, we caught sight of a herd of buffaloes, grazing peacefully in the company of several warthogs, with, in the distance, a gang of hyenas which were feasting over carcasses of roebucks, probably left over by lions. A flock of vultures, those ugly long-necked and bald-headed scavengers, hovered around the scene, waiting for their turn, when all the other predators had had their fill.
“Angaria chui!” hissed Tombe, pointing towards the west. Slumped on the main branch of an acacia, rested a magnificent adult leopard, the spots of its thick pelt, flashing intermittently like beacons in the sun. I suddenly felt a twinge of remorse as I recalled that black and white picture of me, lying naked, on my third birthday, on a leopard skin, the trophy a big game hunter friend of ours had brought to my parents as a present. Watching that beautiful feline in the wild, as it embraced the landscape around him – of which we were now a part, for he did see us -, with such regal poise, for the first time in my life, I learnt the meaning of human shame.
A cacophony of gut-wrenching bellows greeted us as we neared the lakeshore. It wasn’t an extended family or even a few dozens of hippos which were wallowing in the muddy water, no, you could count them by the hundreds.
Kombe told us that this was the realm of the hippopotami, since there were no crocodiles in this particular section of the lake. Watching them in society, looking almost docile, with their protruding eyes, their tiny ears and their missing teeth, it was difficult to imagine that these big noisy mammals could, with a simple thrust of their back, send a man hurtling onto the shore, breaking his spine, or actually killing him on the spot. In spite of the pandemonium they produced, a flock of small elegant woodpeckers were busy attending to them, grooming them anywhere on their body – some stood on their heads, others on their backs, others still on their bellies, busy plucking bug eggs, ticks and other kinds of vermin out of their skin, in an exercise that could be likened to spring cleaning. The diminutive birds and the huge mammals lived in perfect symbiosis. What a sight! And here it didn’t look one bit shocking or out of place.
It was easy to see where the ‘Birds’ lake’ got its name from. Here lived thousands of pelicans, ducks, kingfishers, egrets, ibises, as well as the Nile geese, among other winged species. In fact, one of the sources of the mighty river of the pharaohs flows into its waters, some of which cascading from the crests of the neighboring hills.
“Do you see that forest of bamboo trees, over there?” signalled our guide, “it’s the abode of the gorillas. But you mustn’t disturb them, especially in this season where the vegetation is still sparse, for that’s when they’re most fragile. If you come back at the end of the year, I shall take you to them.”
“Oh no!” I wailed, “it’s the second time we miss them.”
Seeing how disappointed I was, Kombe told me the story of Toko.
“This happened just before the rainy season. A family of silver-backed gorillas – there was a male, about fifteen years old, with three females, younger than he – were resting, slouched on the ground, amid the leftovers of their last meal, which consisted of tree leaves, twigs and bamboo shoots, whilst two of their children were gamboling in the vicinity, joining them every so often for a hug and prodding them to take part in their games. Though the gorillas don’t like to be disrupted during their digestive nap, they can be quite patient and debonair with their cubs, allowing the little ones to play and to climb over them. But little Toko was very turbulent and kept jumping on his father’s belly or pulling his hand, or, if there was no reaction, tickling him under the armpits, in sheer provocation. His daddy would remain still, letting out a muffled groan now and then, more as a sign of affection than one of wrath.
All was very peaceful until, suddenly, the atmosphere darkened as if the night had invaded the forest and a cloudburst rented the air. Minutes later, torrential rains swept through the mountain. The water fell from the leaves with a deafening echo, and very soon, everything got drowned in a thick mist. Panic took hold of the silver-backs, and the daddy gorilla accidentally kicked Toko away, who hadn’t stopped teasing his father and doing foolish things, like pinching and now splashing him with water – you must remember that gorillas don’t like to get wet. Poor little Toko went tumbling down a steep slope of the mountain and he found himself stranded several hundred meters below, with a deep wound in the shoulder. He was afraid and started to feel the pain, expressing his distress with little squeals that became louder and louder. But no one could see or hear him, for the rain drops were now producing such a din that they muffled every sound of the forest to which he was used, as well as the familiar noises that surrounded him, like the cries of protestation his sister would address him, the creaking of a branch which he’d just left, using it as a swing, or simply the twitter of birds, even when the latter remained invisible. All his traditional points of reference had disappeared. And so, for several days, still bleeding, he wandered in the forest, sustaining himself by eating young shrubs and saplings, until he had reached the bamboo grove. He would rub his wounded shoulder with leaves, using them as an unguent, to soothe the itch. He cried a lot for having lost his family and for not being able to play with his sisters and his parents anymore.
It was during a lull, between two downpours – as of the month of October, in this part of the Virungas, the rain falls abundantly -, that I happened to pass through that section of the park, accompanied by a young safari guide who’d been entrusted to me, as an apprentice. At first our presence scared Toko – he had obviously never come across human beings -, but little by little, realizing that we wished him no harm, he felt more confident and let me tend to his wound. I then took him to the Park’s chief veterinarian, to make sure that he wasn’t, as I had presumed, mortally hurt, in spite of the deep gash, and that, thanks to the medication, he would heal swiftly. Well, little Toko was back to his mischievous self, up and running, just a few days after we’d seen the vet. You should have seen how affectionate he was with me, it was touching. From that moment on, he considered me like his new father. But that created a dilemma, to which I hadn’t been prepared. Should I adopt the gorilla cub, as my heart dictated? I posed the question to the vet and he strongly dissuaded me, for two reasons, mainly: the first one was legal, I could not keep him as a pet, and the second was of a practical nature, what would I do with him once he became an adult? I would have had to put him in a cage or give him to a zoo. I don’t know which of these two alternatives was more cruel?
I thus had no choice but to lead Toko back into the mountain, always with the apprentice-guide by my side. The poor beast didn’t want to leave me, and the closer we got to the gorilla preserve, the sadder I felt. At around the altitude of three thousand meters, we caught sight of a group of silver-backs and I pushed Toko towards them. But it wasn’t his family, so he trotted back with cries of protestation, punching my torso with his fists. “Old bastard!” he seemed to say, “you wanted to drop me with these strangers, hey! I hate you, I hate you!”
He became fidgety then downright obnoxious, for he no longer trusted me. He even started hitting my companion, who had to run to catch him every time Toko tried to escape, he wanted to spite us. We searched the forest in these uncomfortable conditions, for several hours, until he finally recognized his mother. His change of attitude baffled me, even though his was a natural reaction. Once in his mother’s arms, he forgot about me and didn’t even cast a glance in my direction to see what I intended to do. In a jiffy I had lost his affection, but it was better that way; each species can only flourish and be fulfilled among its own.”
Spellbound, I listened to Kombe’s story, as one listens to a fairy tale, but here instead of princes and princesses, the hero was the cub of a silver-back. I was no longer angry with my parents, for the missed opportunity. It was as if I had relived our guide’s fabulous encounter, so vivid were his words.
Soon a totally different landscape – I wondered if we were still on the planet earth – unfurled before our eyes as we began to climb towards Ruwenzori, the snow-capped and highest peak of the famous ‘Mountains of the Moon’, so called by Ptolemy (in the third century B.C.), Alexander the Great’s general, who succeeded him as the ruler of Egypt. Yes, even the names sounded otherworldy here. Thus did I discover ‘the Bottled Camp’, the ‘Black’, ‘White’ and ‘Gray’ lakes, and the ‘Emerald Pool’. The setting was ethereal, the air, crisp and pristine, as if it had sprung straight from the virgin crest of Ruwenzori, before any human or animal had touched it. The slopes were covered with a thick spread of moss and floating lichens, alternating with briar and fern, in a mute choreography of greens and yellows, and, here and there, like guardians of a vegetal realm, stood lofty lobelias, gigantic hypericums, clumps of hagenias and candelabrum-shaped groundsels. Actually, this very strange and peaceful environment conjured up images of the deep-sea more than anything else, except that there was no water.
How sullen and how terribly spare did I feel upon returning from this journey! It wasn’t that I was unhappy to be back home, in Avenue Kasai, on the contrary, I wished to lock myself within its walls, indefinitely, so that I could retain all those superb images of the Great Lakes region, lest they dwindle away the moment I resumed my school routine.
That this paradisiacal swath in the heart of Africa turned, four decades later, into purgatory, if not hell, for hundreds and thousands of refugees – among them so many murderers; who will ever know the exact number of these Tutsi killers? – wrecks of the 1994 Rwandan genocide, as well as the victims of opposing factions, still taking place in Eastern Congo, where soldiers and mercenaries from the neighboring countries fight each other and plunder the local population – some claim that no less than three and a half million people have lost their lives in the ongoing massacres -, tears my soul.
To have stepped into nature in its primeval magnificence, but also to have had a taste of its more repulsive aspects, skirting danger, even though I came back unharmed, left me slightly discombobulated. Until now I had led the privileged life of a little European girl who, in spite of the genuine sympathy she felt for her servants, wasn’t really very much different from her colonial peers, who never doubted their superiority over the natives. Weren’t we all implicitly “contributing to the grand task of civilizing the heathens”? All this certainty began now to crumble in my head as I recalled the highlights of that trip, especially with the encounter of those Congolese people without whose help and savvy we would have missed the best part, not mentioning some of the secrets they were generous enough to want to share with us. I can still see that dignified-looking Tutsi shepherd with his immaculate toga, that flaunted the color of the sky, striding along Costermansville’s Avenue Royale, with his long cane, or the sage of Rutshuru who, with his tales – it didn’t matter whether they were true or partly fabricated – had opened new gates in my imagination, and, lastly, our guide at Parc Albert whose intimate knowledge of the wild allowed us to partake in this unique adventure, with the encounter of animals which we would otherwise never have been able to approach so closely – thanks to him we were also spared those minor catastrophes that can ruin the trip of inexperienced travelers, such as us. They had in common that supreme quality so few humans seem to possess: the respect for all living beings, whether these belong to the fauna or to the vegetal world. We only had to show them a small token of our appreciation for them to shower us with their generosity, common to most Africans, especially of the interior.