Indeed, blessed be the chameleon! I had one in the Congo, where I was born and raised, and called him Léo, after having asked my parents’ veterinarian friend to certify that it was a male. I, who was scared of lizards in general, or, at least rather disliked their slithering manners, adored my chameleon.
He was given to me when I was seven, and he just three months old. How different he behaved as opposed to all the other lizards; he moved so slowly, so carefully, and could see all around himself, while at the same time turning into an amazing range of colors, and, with the same meticulousness that our science teacher would focus his attention on the black and yellow stripes of a honeybee which a classmate had brought along, scrutinizing them through the lens of a microscope.
In a way, he became my mentor, for, intuitively, I sensed that his wisdom had been garnered long before the appearance of human beings on our planet, probably going as far back as prehistoric times.
The first moment we met, I thought to myself: «You’re a strange-looking guy, but maybe we’ll get along.» The word ‘ugly’ flicked through my mind, but I brushed it away just as swiftly. Here I was confronted with someone so exceptional in many aspects, physically and mentally, although our exchange could never have become verbal, like, with the gray parrot that farmer acquaintances of ours possessed, who lived in the bush, and which had fascinated me, since it reproduced words in French, Flemish and Swahili, as well as the barking of their basenji dog, that no qualifier would do, neither ‘ungainly’, nor ‘hideous’, not even ‘monstrous’, in spite of the frightening movie I had seen recently, showing a dinosaur, that had some of his traits, magnified a myriad times. Yet, I couldn’t say it was ‘lovely‘ or beautiful‘ either.
He looked at me in his very unique fashion, first with one eye and then the other, up, down, left, right, as if the one eye had to approve what the other eye had assessed, after having sized me up in a dozen ways and positions.
And whatever he did, whether it was climbing a slim branch of our mango tree, or rolling its tail around a stem, with its head hanging down, aware that a false move would break it and that he would plunge into the void, he never hurried. The only exception was his tongue, which would shoot out, unfolding incredibly swiftly, like quicksilver, to catch a fly, but in this case too, it seemed to have a life of its own, independent from the rest of his body, as if it were indeed foreign. It conjured up in me the image I once had, much, much later on, when I went through an out-of-body experience: there I hovered near the ceiling, watching that person, that … stranger, lying down in a hospital bed, who was supposed to be me.
NOTE: Since I have lived in Africa during and after the colonial period, I thought the readers should know the former names of the cities and places mentioned in this book, with their corresponding equivalents nowadays:
Belgian Congo / Congo (DRC): Elisabethville / Lubumbashi, Léopoldville / Kinshasa, Stanleyville / Kisangani, Luluabourg / Kananga, Albertville / Likasi
Ruanda-Urundi (one country under Belgian trusteeship) / Rwanda and Burundi (two nations): Usumbura (capital of former Ruanda-Urundi) / Bujumbura (capital of Burundi): Southern Rhodesia (former British colony) / Zimbabwe: capital, Salisbury / Harare
Mozambique (former Portuguese colony): capital, Lourenço Marques / Maputo