Tales of Colonialism

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Historical Fiction  |  House: Stories by Christian Filostrat
Three stories about colonialism:

I - Tale of Twas recalls a case of intra-colonialism - one group of Africans attempting to usurp the land of another group with catastrophic consequences.

II - Tale of a Belgian Nun or the role of the church in colonial activities.

III - Tale of the Balubas or the tragic results of colonialism.

Submitted: October 21, 2018

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Submitted: October 21, 2018

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Tales of Colonialism

by

Christian Filostrat

 

 

 

 

 

Contents

 

 

Introduction.......................3

 

Tale of Twa......................13

 

Tale of a Belgian Nun..... 56

 

Tale of the Balubas........ 86

 

 

 

 

Introduction

 

Leopold II’s Congo Free State

 

  It is difficult to imagine someone walking on to a continent and claiming ownership over two million square kilometers of its surface, a slice of land some seventy times larger than his own country. But that’s what Leopold II, the Belgian King from 1865 to 1909 did less than a hundred and fifty years ago. He walked in on the Africans in the middle of their continent, – as “an ordinary citizen” in 1878 – appropriated territory as his personal property and named it The Independent State of Congo (l'État Indépendant du Congo.). Africa was in the basement of the world order. Europeans could do anything they wanted there – no license required. But to really understand how Leopold could have accomplished what he did, it’s important to remember the level of influence Roman law had over Europe. Res nullius at the time posited that unless something was already owned it belonged to the person who declared possession over it. Wild animals, slaves, land were all subject to confiscation if they had not yet been killed, captured or put under affidavit. Leopold used res nullius to seize central Africa and in so doing unleashed a European clamor for African land never before heard of in history. (In 1876, when Leopold set his sight on the Congo, European governments were engaged in dispossessing natives elsewhere, and Leopold’s action was just another surreptitious land grab, not the big deal it would become ten years later.)

  Belgium had been in existence only five years, when Leopold was born in 1830.  Made up of rebellious southern provinces seceded from the Netherland, Catholic and French-speaking, Belgium became a constitutional monarchy with Leopold’s father as king. It was a tenuous kingdom that Leopold inherited. Geopolitically insignificant; Belgium was surrounded by some of the most powerful states in the world, in addition to the unhappy Dutch who looked longingly southward for their lost provinces. So Leopold cast his sight aboard in search of the heft he and Belgium lacked to gain a modicum of respect. Armed with res nullius, he went shopping for territory in Argentina, China and other Asian territories. He tried to acquire lands in East and West Africa but there too he was unsuccessful. Without his government’s full support such a quest was doomed, and he returned empty-handed. Belgian disinclination to support Leopold’s colonization schemes openly would later have far-reaching consequences for the Congo.

  Eventually Leopold gave up obtaining government’s assistance and went it alone. A subterfuge specialist, he cloaked his ambitious venture in the extravagant humanitarian slogans characteristic of late 19th century Europe. Civilization was the password of the day; so was exploration, the activity most admired by Europeans of the Victorian Age. With civilization and exploration to front for him, Leopold proceeded to acquire the Congo as his personal estate. Then he hired the most noted explorer of central Africa, John Rowlands, a.k.a. Henry Morton Stanley, to carve out the Congo for him, thereby sealing Africa’s fate.

  Such territorial acquisition wouldn’t leave Europe indifferent for long. When France realized what Leopold had accomplished, it acquired, with Leopold’s self-serving assistance, the land on the other side of the Congo River. Also named Congo, Brazzaville, the capital, differentiated it from Leopold’s territory. Where, after all, was it written that only one European could practice res nullius in Africa? The table had been set for colonial gluttony. With a wedge of land between Leopold’s and the French Congo, Portugal with its posts along the Angolan coast, created its own Portuguese Congo with the Cabinda enclave. Then with Britain’s complicity, sought to deny Leopold access to the Atlantic. So it is that today the vast Congo has only thirteen miles of Atlantic coastlines.

  But it was the Berlin Conference of 1884 – 85 that ignited the European scramble for Africa. Portugal asked for a meeting to divide the continent formally and hereby prevent conflicts among Europeans. Germany obliged and organized the Kongoconferenz, which opened in Berlin in November 1884.  If res nullius opened the gate for the European take over of Africa, the Principle of Effective Occupation agreed to at the Berlin Conference guaranteed that Africa would never return to what it was prior to the coming of Leopold to the continent.

 

  The Kongoconferenz formalized Leopold’s acquisition of the Congo. Unlike the French or Portuguese territories, Leopold’s holdings became known as The Independent State of Congo (l'État indépendant du Congo).

  To administer his state, Leopold created a militia (Force Publique) and hired officers mainly from Belgium to lead it.  He also recruited a few mercenaries from other European countries. Africans thought to be warlike filled the lower ranks.

  Perhaps if ivory had remained the main commodity procured from the Independent State of Congo, Leopold would not be in the pantheon of monsters in human garb.  Unfortunately, the “Golden Age of Bicycles” came about the same time the Kongoconferenz validated Leopold’s procurement of the ill-fated Congo.  The chain driven bicycle with inflatable rubber tires launched the bicycle craze of the late 19th century, and the demand for rubber exploded.  By the time the Belgian state took over the Congo in 1908, owing to the “horror” Leopold had made of it, the Congo had been depopulated by half and no village was free of people without severed hands and feet, including children. The cutting of hands and feet was a favored form of punishment and inducement in the extraction of rubber latex. “Red Rubber” (“Caoutchouc Rouge”), it was called then, the “blood diamond” of Leopold’s reign over the Congo.

  Leopold did all in his power to conceal the “horror.” Finding no exit, he appealed to civilization to justify what he had wrought in the Congo. “What I did in the Congo was in the interest of civilization and for Belgium’s own good,” he said and was heckled at his funeral in 1909.

  Not long after Leopold set his sights on the Congo, the British, seeking to slice the copper-rich province of Katanga from his domain and link Cape Province in Southern Africa to Egypt, took the lead in  “the propaganda war” to denounce in  Leopold’s brutality.

  Such brutality was not limited to Leopold’s Congo. Britain, France, Spain, Portugal, Italy committed more or less the same atrocities in Africa. Germany’s genocide of the Herero and Namaqua peoples in South West Africa is another illustration. To all of them, natives were first and foremost objects to derive benefits from. Rebellion was met with massacres and attempts at extermination.  With imperialism, racism ripened into a collective mass movement. Pan-European racist ententes followed.

If there was a difference, it was in how well these powers tolerated each other’s way of running their colonies compared to their disapproval of Leopold’s. Once the imperial powers, Britain and France, gobbled up all they could in Africa and settled there, they refrained from interfering in each other’s African affairs. Even if they were inclined to denounce atrocities, their Entente Cordiale and other strategic concerns in Europe at that time prohibited them from saying anything against each other. To be sure, the Roman Catholic Church kept a condemning eye on its Protestant challengers in Africa, but they refrained from censuring each other’s punitive expeditions against Africans. On the other hand, a privateer such as Leopold could never receive the same courtesy – independence was frowned upon. When the Belgian government assumed control all that changed.

  Upon taking over in 1908, the Belgian government sought to appease the critics of Leopold’s management of the Congo by adopting a paternalistic approach in administering the newly renamed Belgian Congo. They never considered giving the land back to the people, however. The Brussels Parliament soon took charge of the land Leopold had usurped.

  Synthetic rubber was fast replacing natural latex, and Africans were no longer needed to harvest the landolphia vine. But the colony had to continue paying Belgium for its colonial oversight; so forced labor was moved from the forest to the various commodity mines. The Belgian government’s colonial charter was explicit: “the colony must not cost Belgium anything.”  It had to be self-supporting. Until its independence in 1960, the Congo continued to export more capital to Brussels than it took in.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Tale of Twa

The land of the Batwas, Twa land

 

  In an ultimate effort to escape the boy’s stick, the rat scampered from under the large bamboo bed and flung itself against the hut’s round clay wall, punching a hole in it. A few hours before, Leopold of Belgium’s men had marched into the boy’s village. This was 1908. The stick had killed the rat’s mate with a single whack after being beaten to a pulp. The rat had hidden until hunger gave it no choice other than the gauntlet with the stick and certain death.

  The boy’s name was Kabasu. He was the first son of the chief, Mokonzi Byamungu. He was eleven years old and already famous for his deadly stick, when the Belgians arrived the afternoon of October 17, 1908. The sun had exploded; spraying the village with so much heat and light that everyone rushed out of their huts to see what had caused such a disturbance. The monkeys had joined the blackbirds in the treetops to screech maddeningly as to overwhelm the sound of the rushing river. The ancestors were clearly shocked. “We are the Belgians,” one of the two whites in the group of strangers said, as though self-satisfied they were Gods. These whites were not squinting. Their eyes were not red. They were not albinos.  Frightened, the villagers recoiled at the sight of these white eyes. Perhaps they were the albinos they had mutilated for amulets. Perhaps they had come back as living spirits to take vengeance on the villagers. Through an African interpreter, the white eyes announced the acquisition of Mokonzi Byamungu’s village. “Your brother the king sold the land and everything on it. There’s no more darkness here. A little work is all that’s required.” Then the Africans marching with him started to unload cans of cooking oil and bags of rice from the wagon they were pulling behind them. “Take it, you monkeys,” one of the Africans told the villagers who had assembled to satisfy their curiosity about these white eyes. “It’s for you to put in your ugly mugs.” The women bent down and picked up the oil and rice as if bowing to the new people who had appeared from a hole in the ground. By the time there were only a few cans and bags left, the women were fighting among themselves for the scraps. The boy with the stick knew, as sure as he knew about whacking rats and the swiftness of the river that his world had changed forever. It was as if the sun would no longer shine on his village. He looked at his father; and like all the other children in his age group, he saw what the adults had seen: his father’s jaw drifting lower and lower until it rested on his feet. From then on they would speak of pride as if it were a tribute to the old days, lost forever when the ones believed to be returning albinos marched into their village.

  After the villagers had carried away the oil and the rice, the Belgian addressed them once again through the African interpreter. He informed them that they would stop to collect the men and boys of the village on their return. While the Belgian spoke to the gathering, one of the Africans, as if on cue, left his companions and went among the villagers. He walked casually in a knowing way then turned abruptly and grabbed the wrist of a boy behind him as he pulled a machete from his belt. The boy struggled and his mother screamed. Before anyone could stop her, the mother rushed to take her child from the stranger. Deliberately then, he let the boy go and smiled. A moment passed. The villagers watched wide-eyed, fearful the stranger would grab another child.  Instead he shook his machete in the air and shouted, “next time I’ll cut that hand.” He was from another tribe and spoke in a language unknown to the villagers. The strangers laughed as they turned to leave, taking the river road to their next destination. In less than thirty minutes the villagers’ lives had changed forever.

  Following the strangers’ departure, Mokonzi Byamungu remained standing in the middle of the market square for an hour in contemplation. Atop his shadow, tall and thin, with a high forehead and a nose as large as two-river tributaries he remained silent, except for the sound of the rushing river, allowing the sunshine to wash over him. Then, having regained his senses, he ran to his hut, as if a hyena was at his heels, shouting his own name to rally the villagers as he ran. He told Kabasu to assemble the elders and the wrestlers under the baobab tree. He ignored the diviner. In less than fifteen minutes they were all on their haunches and on their goatskins, gathered in unfamiliar silence dying to hear what their disgraced Mokonzi had fathomed from the coming of the Belgians. Some had brought their stools, knowing he was long winded.

  As was his duty, Mokonzi spoke first. Unusual for him he was direct and to the point. “The people who came here today,” he told the elders, “are the bosanga men we’ve heard about for years. The threat to the boy was a warning. Unless we tap enough bosanga vines for them, they’ll cut the hands and feet of the children. To save the clan, we must flee and not be found.”

  The oldest of the elders spoke next. “What Mokonzi said is true, we are in a hut that’s ablaze, and people in a burning hut must not stop to argue. Let us not argue.” But he was not listened to as carefully as he should have been. His habit of assenting to Mokonzi’s wishes weakened his support.  Then too, Mokonzi was a disgraced chief, a man whom the diviner never failed to remind the villagers was not as strong as even their weakest wrestler. As a matter of fact, Mokonzi Byamungu was a banished Zande chief, having lost a power struggle with his younger brother when their father the king died. The penalty for losing was banishment. It was also a way of establishing new Zande settlements. Banished leaders were not entitled to the respect conferred on rightful chiefs. Three hundred followers migrated with him from where the sun rose, the savanna, to the bank of the river, to recoup. Unaccustomed to water without limits, he was fascinated by the river and proposed they settle on its right bank. The River God would sustain them body and soul he promised.

  His ancestors warned him that the survival of his new clan depended on preserving Zande tradition; but he himself was not a stickler for tradition. He was governed by one urge: to demonstrate that, while he may not have had the muscles to defeat his brother in hand-to-hand combat, he had vision and forethought on his side.  The diviner could denigrate him all he wanted, but Mokonzi would show his exiled Zande band that losing a battle was not a sentence to oblivion, not when one was as clever as he. So, although it was against Zande law to attempt to depose the brother who had defeated him, he would have his revenge one way or another.  And if the ancestors turned against him, his son Kabasu would do it for him.  Kabasu was blessed with more ferocity than even his grandfather possessed in his youth.

  The three hundred initial expatriates split into three village compounds when Kabasu was born. They didn’t integrate as readily as others who had come from other parts attracted by the river. Resentment was always below the surface in their dealings with their neighbors, the Ngbandi, the Mabale and the Bongos, who accused them of cannibalism and gave them a chewing-sounding name that stuck to this day, Niam-Niam.

 

  The elder’s intervention in support of Mokonzi Byamungu’s plan to flee released a gush of concerns from the other elders, and Mokonzi, who had hoped for a quick consensus was forced to face the complications. Miraculously he held on to his patience, as he adeptly guided the elders to the consensus he sought. Tradition demanded consensus, and Mokonzi would use tradition whenever it suited him.

  The consensus to flee from the Belgians was finally reached, but many questions remained: Where would the village move to? The interior where only gorillas and the Batwa people lived? Down country where other white eyes as ruthless as the ones who had just stopped at the village ruled. They had been there a long time, although no villager had ever seen them. Most importantly, however, these white eyes didn’t seem interested in bosanga. The drums had never said anything about that when they spoke of the down country white eyes. The other side of the river received only perfunctory consideration because the river flowed too fast for a grown man to stand in its stream. Crossing the rushing waters was too daunting and could be done quickly only by young men. It would take many days to move the entire village to that location – they had only two. The most dreaded option was upcountry, where the Arab merchants from the east operated. They snatched people away, where even the ancestors lost contact with them. It was because of these upcountry merchants that villagers warned, do not reduce your lineage to being snatched. They would rather die than risk being taken. So no one would recommend they go upcountry. Consequently, although not ideal, down country was preferable to the alternative.

  As Mokonzi continued to guide the elders to the consensus he sought, he cleverly kept his prized river in the picture, insisting that they could not be so far away from the river that they couldn’t hear its soul-uplifting sound. He was in fact looking to position himself close enough to his brother to kill him on the fly at the propitious time. Fleeing the Belgians was an opportunity to get into a strategic position without raising suspicion that he was intending to violate the succession law that forbade revenge. (Had the villagers paid more attention to his assiduous usage of the bow they might have guessed his intention.) But they agreed that wherever they moved to, they had to hear the river. The agreement was a desultorily one, however, given only because they knew of Mokonzi’s fondness for the river; not to help him get in striking distance of his brother. But he lost ground, as consensus drifted once again. Perceptibly at first, it drifted more and more and irrevocably in the direction of Butwa, the interior, where the Batwas (the little people) lived as children of the forest. Neither the river that circumscribed their world nor Mokonzi’s revenge against his brother was as important to the elders as it was to him. Having lost the battle, Mokonzi sought to maintain control over his band by going along.

  Mokonzi knew that the men of the tribe were fond of Batwa women. Given their limited choices, he should have considered that the draw of Butwa might become irresistible in an emergency. At that point in the deliberation, no reminder that the river was now part of tradition could change their mind. As they became more feverish, unreachable, once again fantasizing about the Batwa women’s bare bottoms began; the river would be no match for that attraction. Moreover, the elders expected the Batwas to provide for them. Already some of them were visualizing a society with Batwas as their slaves.

  Once consensus to flee to Butwa was reached, alacrity replaced debating and the villagers hurried to make use of every minute of the time left from the two days the Belgians had given them. An old bed-ridden woman’s extended family went so far as to agree to leave her behind. Mokonzi went to consult the diviner to assess what effect leaving her would have on the ancestors. Unfortunately, the man, incensed that Mokonzi had not conferred with him prior to calling a meeting of the elders, refused to offer any guidance. Mokonzi worried that the woman soon to be an ancestor would use the spirit world to revenge herself against him. As you do for your ancestors, your ancestor will do for you. He consulted her family and had his first wife, the preeminent village’s healer, prepare a sleeping potion from which the old woman wouldn’t awaken. She would remain ignorant of having been left behind and remember only the attention the village had lavished on her.

  It was decided that the villagers would take nothing with them other than their weapons, their water skins, cassava for two days, their goats, kola nuts as gifts for the Batwas, and their ritual masks. It was through the masks that the diviner revealed to the villagers the ancestors’ wishes. Mokonzi was for leaving all the masks, albeit hidden in strategic locations to guard the emplacement of the village, until their eventual return; but the diviner refused. Consensus couldn’t be reached until they agreed that only a necessary few masks would be left to guard the site. Hours had been wasted pursuing consensuses. Exasperated, Mokonzi proposed that he and the headman of each of the three village compounds be empowered to make all decisions regarding the move to Butwa, to escape the Belgians. The combination of anxiety and galloping dread obliged the elders to disregard consensus in giving Mokonzi the new title of Mokonzi na Bakonzi, Chief of Chiefs. They overlooked Mokonzi’s impulsiveness and the reality that they were following a defeated leader. The coming of the Belgians to their village had created panic and transformed Mokonzi from a vanquished chief into the decisive life or death leader needed for the moment. The ancestors upon hearing the news gasped, and the villagers heard the river howl; then the rushing waters smashed its boulders as far as the villagers could see. The elders would come to rue the day that, in their panic, they promoted Mokonzi Byamungu Chief of Chiefs.

  Standing in the middle of the market square an hour after dusk, Mokonzi told the villagers gathered close to him, “Come with me. If we don’t escape the Belgians, or if the forest crushes us, I’ll banish myself forever.  I’m the Mokonzi na Bakonzi who will lead you. A snake, that’s what somebody looking from above should see of us evacuating the village. I’m the head of that snake. Follow me.”

  He spoke in a hush but confident voice and repeated what he said several times. The wrestlers were empowered to police the departure.  Had consensus reigned, the exodus would have taken place at dawn. Nights without moons were reserved for the spirits, and not even the diviner ventured out after dark. But the cover of night ensured that the three hundred and fifty villagers would be quiet. No one wanted to be heard by a spirit who might make the village pay for the disturbance. Everyone was responsible for keeping the children silent. Darkness also ensured that the neighbors would be ignorant of the direction the exiled Zandes, (who had come to live in their midst four years earlier,) had taken. It would be as if they had vanished; the Ngbandi, the Mabale and the Bongos would be unable to tell the Belgians the direction they had taken or anything else about them. The adults chewed kola nuts to keep hunger at bay and for the caffeine to stay awake.

  In single file, they marched out of the village to escape the Belgians. Their need to survive gave them a sense of purpose. They were not just hoping for the best. They were running to a place called Butwa that they saw as their best chance. They moved out fast, and in minutes the forest surrounded them. When they saw the banana trees copulating behind the trees, speechless, they bunched up; but the wrestlers kept the file single with the reprimands Mokonzi told them to use as lavishly as was necessary. At first they took the hunting trail, Mokonzi, the hunters and trackers in the lead. They followed the path until night began to lose its darkness, and the rushing river was no longer in their ears. Only the cacophony of the forest, loud and chaotic, was left. That was the signal to lean against the trees and rest. Only milking of the goats for the children’s meal was undertaken.

  A family of nine exhausted reddish-brown bushpigs, that had extended their nocturnal foraging, crossed the path of the fleeing villagers. Seven of them paid the price for allowing dawn to sneak up on them as they crossed the path of desperate people at breakfast time. The Zandes preferred to stun their bushmeat animals to keep them alive. They then tied each one on a two-man carrying pole and took them deeper into the forest, where they would feel more secure from any pursuing Belgian. When the sun was at its apex, they stopped to gut and skin the bushpigs, and, as was their custom, they made a contest of who would be first to start a fire to cook the meat. The winner always ate first. Kabasu won only because he was already carrying fire sticks while his competitors went looking for theirs. His father congratulated him for being so smart. The diviner protested, but his objection was ignored once a fire blazed and the smell of cooking meat perfumed the forest.

  Mokonzi made sure the wrestlers had their fill, and everyone had a piece of meat, but it wasn’t enough. To sustain them for the days of walking ahead, they would need much more, so they began eyeing the goats. When all the bushmeat was eaten, they rested on vines pulled from trees that were becoming taller as they inserted themselves deeper into the virgin forest. When cut, the vines bled, oozing a harsh but effective thirst-quenching liquid. Disregarding the diviner’s appeals, they wrapped themselves in Bosanga vines, to ward off malevolent spirits. They figured that if Bosanga was the power the Belgians had over them; then Bosanga must have the power to ward off evil too. Kabasu was called upon several times to exercise his maniacal stick on disturbed snakes. Eager for more action, he stood guard while the villagers rested on the vines. They looked at him with foreboding, as he now carried a blade his father gave him for slicing the snakes. He played with it all the time. For more than two hours they rested on the cut vines and were refreshed until the next stop after sundown.

  For days and then weeks they continued their flight from the Belgians. They inserted themselves deeper into the forest, until it turned into jungle to the point that sunlight was lost to the canopies. The sound of the river had long since disappeared. There were no more clearings.  Mokonzi and the wrestlers organized a relay of men to slash through the bush.  For a few more days they encountered bushpigs to club for food. But after two weeks only small antelopes, monkeys and porcupines, (their favorite) were available for consumption.

  Soon a few of the villagers began to notice strange and puzzling occurrences. There were movements in the bush they couldn’t explain; and the animals seemed to vanish. A couple of villagers said they noticed gnome-like figures trailing another family of bushpigs. All the animals disappeared except for monkeys in the treetops. Monkonzi castigated those he believed were attempting to panic the villagers, especially the deviner’s partisans, whom he was convinced wanted to eat the goats. Backed by the wrestlers and the elders, he forbade their killing. For a while the diviner kept the level of alarm high until he overheard the wrestlers arguing about whether making a meal of him would be wasted because the meat would be too tough given his age.  Hunger nagged at them, and taboos on the consumption of some bushmeats eroded completely. After three weeks, drudgery and hunger robbed them of the power of amazement and suddenly no one could stop them from slaughtering the goats. In four days none was left. There was no milk for the children; some were eaten. The rest perished quickly. Instead of enhancing their cohesiveness, the wretchedness that had descended on them like rain on the forest made them selfish. It was as if the misery of others would end their own. The sun became Nzambi, their supreme God, and they began praying to it when it provided otherworldly light displays never seen elsewhere. The old died at an accelerated rate. There were, however, about as many births as there were deaths. Twins were left for the forest to handle. But no one kept count – they pushed ahead.

  Two Batwas, an old and a young men watched with satisfaction the Zande invaders disintegrate, gratified to have succeeded in creating the scarcity of game that deprived the colonialists of sustenance. That intensified their eagerness to chase away all the bushpigs in the area. They were troubled, however, that the invaders did not die in larger numbers, which would have forced them to turn back.

 

  The first fetish appeared the fifth week of their flight from the Belgians, a pole as tall as the tallest tree. The villager who saw it first screamed and shook in fear; then ran into the arms of the others. But that did not deter the invaders; they pushed on. The following week, Kabasu saw the Batwas, a man with the appearance of an old person but of short stature, shorter than himself – a small naked old man, who came out of nowhere. At his side stood a much younger man. They were just there: stock-still, the surroundings, a halo to their persons. Kabasu could not make out where the bushes ended and the Batwas began.  They stared at each other, the Batwas looking startled that the visitors had made it this far. Startled himself, Kabasu ran back to tell his father. When they returned to the spot where Kabasu had seen them, the old man and the young one were gone. Mokonzi Byamungu reported the news that Batwas had been spotted.  They had finally reached their destination. This was the Ituri Forest.

  The wrestlers took out what was left of the kola nuts from a satchel and went looking for the Batwas Kabasu had spotted. Around sunset they came across a sparse complex filled with tiny shelters made from twigs and grass. The wrestlers didn’t want to enter as there were fetishes protecting the entrance.  Instead, they went back to consult Mokonzi. It was decided they would enter the compound at sunup the following day. The men questioned the wrestlers about Batwa women. They said they had not seen any, so the men decided the wrestlers had probably stumbled upon a temporary camp or a bachelor compound. The women would be at a family compound.

  Although starving, the expectation that the Batwas were going to help them with food and labor and that better days lay ahead allowed them to sleep.  Then too, the men were charged up by the thought of soon having Batwa women, and they gave vent to their fancy with the women on hand before sleep overtook them. When the wrestlers arrived at the Batwa’s compound the following morning, they found a family of eleven around a fire, three men, three women, four youngsters and the old man Kabasu had described.  They were singing harmoniously. On his haunches, the old man was holding a bow and an arrow in his left hand – the type Zande children often played with.

  The wrestlers approached nervously now that they had breached the Batwa’s boundary marked by fetishes. What ensued next was swift: the old man stood abruptly. He put the arrow in his bow and looked up, raising the weapon. But he was too slow. One of the wrestlers fired an arrow first, piercing him above the left rib cage. The tip of the arrow was dipped in bushpig dung, and he fell down withering. The other Batwas stared at the wrestlers as though beholding divine beings, as they continued to approach, arguing confusedly among themselves. The children were the first to run for the nearby underbrush, then the men. The women followed reluctantly.

  By then, Mokonzi Byamungu and the elders who had survived the journey arrived at the compound to see the spirit of the old man rise up and follow his fellow Batwas into the underbrush. Nervously they looked on. When he was at a safe distance, they chased after him; but none of the Batwas were to be found. Back at the compound, they looked for anything useful; but found nothing.  They searched the Batwa shelters and found only leaves for beddings. The Batwas were not storers. Rovers, they consumed what they caught. In the case of game, as soon as a fire was lit. Mokonzi told the wrestlers to wait there for the Batwas to come back, expecting them to return to bury their fallen comrade. That’s what Zandes would do.

 

  Desperate hunger accompanied the coming night, and death quickened its harvest of starved Zande in the Ituri Forest. To deny food to the invaders, the Batwas all joined in to chase away game. Before dying, the villagers cursed Mokonzi Byamungu and the elders for having fled from the white eyes albinos. The Zandes needed the Batwas as a child needs its mother. They needed the Batwas to help them subsist in the forest and to catch the game that lived in the thick underbrush. The Batwas were determined to do otherwise. Starvation fed desperation, which fed rebellion. With the strength left to him, the diviner, by-now demented with fear of being eaten, spread more dissention. He fled back toward the river, spurring on whoever would follow with anticipation of finding bushpigs where they had been plentiful. That place became a site where people go for worship. None of them seemed to remember that the bushpig place was weeks back down the trail.

  The Batwas didn’t return to their compound. They couldn’t. Their customs dictated that the place where one of theirs died had to be abandoned. Instead, they made sure no game remained in the area. The Wrestlers waited in vain.  When Mokonzi Byamungu and the remaining elders came to check on them, two were dying of starvation. Mokonzi tried to dissuade the other four to remain, but hunger was stronger than everything; and the wrestlers limped down the trail back toward the river, following the diviner and his disciples. Mokonzi Byamungu followed them, as the remaining villagers trailed behind. They found the half-dead diviner and ate him and his followers. Some didn’t even wait for a fire. By then, half of them had died trying to reach the location where they had gorged on bushpigs. It was everyman for himself now. Hallucinating, Byamungu grabbed his son and the others fell on Kabasu for a meal. But, they were weaker than the boy, who was stuffed with berries. Brandishing his knife he escaped easily. He fled back toward the land of the Batwas. No one could follow him; they had reached the annihilation point.

  Kabasu continued to eat berries; he could get nothing else. In time his abdomen distorted and his hair turned a yellowish color. He staggered back in the direction of Butwa because he could tell it was closer than the river and his old village and also because the old Batwa he had seen was no bigger than himself. The moon was full; that helped him be less afraid. He was able to walk in the dark by himself. He slept occasionally in daylight, and after a few days of walking, reached the spot where he had seen the old man.  He entered their compound’s quad. The old Batwa was lying where he had fallen, decomposing. Kabasu pinched his nose to block the stench. Humming, the spirit of the Batwa came toward him, and upon reaching him turned around in the direction of the underbrush indicating that Kabasu was to follow.  He trailed the old Batwa all day and part of the night toward the inner heart of the forest.  Upon reaching a small clearing, the Batwa made a bed of leaves and lay down.  Kabasu did the same. At dawn, Kabusu woke up consumed with hunger as ever.  The Batwa was looking at him. Kabasu gestured for food. The Batwa got up, walked a few paces in the forest and pulled a couple of tubers from the ground. He gestured for Kabusu to clean them with his knife. Seeing that the boy wouldn’t be satisfied with what he had given him, he went out again and came back with two more.  To the starving Kabasu, nothing had ever tasted so good.  But having been without solid food for so long, his stomach sickened, and he retched to the amusement of the old man. Juice from nearby vines soothed his rebellious stomach and quenched his thirst. The Batwa, still humming, started down an unseen path. Kabasu followed.  For hours they walked, until the old man stopped and turned around to look at his companion. He pointed at an enormous mound of red clay, a smile on his face. With gestures, he asked Kabasu for his stick, and he began to mutilate the mound. An army of termites emerged, and he stuffed them in Kabasu’s mouth, humming and laughing all the time. The salty termites were delicious, and Kabasu took a handful to reciprocate by putting some in the old man’s mouth; but with gestures indicating that he was part of the forest, he made Kabasu understand that he did not require food.

  A few hours later, they arrived at a large clearing at the edge of which were about sixty twig and grass shelters similar to the ones at the compound where the old Batwa was killed. After clapping twice, the old man took Kabasu beyond the fetish-guarded entrance. Carrying two small antelopes, a group of singing hunters entered through the other end of the compound. There were no fetishes on guard there. They handed the animals to women in the clearing and advanced hesitantly toward Kabasu. At the fetish-protected entrance, they looked him up and down and around and talked for a long time among themselves in a language bursting with hiccups. Kabasu expected the old Batwa to say something to his people about him, but the old Batwa was no longer at his side. The hunters, sensing that Kabasu would soon be dead, treated him as if he were already a spirit and spoke in muted voices so as not to disturb him. They didn’t touch him. They resumed singing, turned and went back to the antelopes. Kabasu remained at the entrance, looking around, uncertain of what to do. For a while he waited on his haunches; then he sat down on the ground.  He noticed a group of enthusiastic boys at the other end of the clearing and approached them. An elder was instructing them with both song and directives in the hiccup language. He couldn’t fathom why a few of the boys had an apprehensive look on their faces. Before he reached them, they silently moved a few paces away and sat back down. Kabasu followed, and again they moved a couple of paces to the side. It dawned on Kabasu that they weren’t moving away but making way for him to pass, assuming he was a spirit. He sat down to cogitate on what this all meant. Like in his village, people spoke in a hushed voice so that the spirits wouldn’t be disturbed. Here, spirits went anywhere, without interference. Hunger was gnarring at him, as if he had a thousand beetles in his belly, and he no longer was able to think of anything other than his need to eat. His eyes were on the antelopes that both women and men were happily getting ready if their singing was any indication. While doing that, more singing men came in with additional game and baskets of tubers and fruits. Immediately everyone began to prepare them for their meal. Were they going to share their food with him? That was his most immediate concern. He went back to the entrance to look for the old Batwa but didn’t find him. He came back in after clapping twice as he passed the fetishes. The people in the clearing paid no attention to him.  They continued their tasks and their singing. They seemed to live according to a code of reciprocity, always receiving and giving something in return. Contrary to Kabasu’s tribe, the Batwas’ was unregimented and chiefless. They knew nothing of hierarchy and nothing of authority, unless it was the forest.  In a vague sort of way it occurred to Kabasu that the forest was responsible for shaping their society.The forest gave freely. Its largess stimulated the Batwas’ inherent qualities. The result was that Butwa unlike other lands was without political or social tension. But Kabasu was too young to grasp the full meaning of what the forest really meant to the Batwas’ way of life.

  No one made a gesture of invitation to him as the first antelopes were made ready to eat. They just helped themselves – he didn’t know what to do. Finally hunger pushed him to the pit. One Batwa put pieces of meat on a leaf and handed it to him. They wanted his spirit to remember their kindness to him. Kabasu was able to eat his fill for the first time in weeks. Later in the day, the elder instructor approached and spoke to him. When that failed to get a response, he made gestures, asking if Kabasu was going to be a good or a bad spirit. He shook his head no. The elder then spoke at length, explaining the importance of the forest around them and the responsibility the Batwas had to protect their forest home from invaders. Everyone had the forest in him. Everything was imbued with its life. To survive, Batwas upheld their responsibility to it. When he had concluded his peroration, he stood up and moved away, leaving Kabasu to do as he pleased. Kabasu looked around him at the forest trying to grasp the meaning of what the elder had said. When night came, he lay down and slept. He awoke at dawn to the call of a bird he had never heard before. It was as if the bird had come to deliver a speech. The remarkable thing was how insistent it was. The Batwas gathered at the foot of the tree from which the bird was discoursing, listening attentively. When it flew off, the men picked up leaf bowls and ran in the direction it had taken. A couple of hours later, they came back singing. Their bowls were brim full with honey. Others went into the forest and returned with more game, and their baskets were full of forest yams, caterpillars and fruits. They were stockpiling for a celebration and paid him no heed.

  At sunset, drums, string and harp bows began to play. Everyone joined with songs. Kabasu watched in silence as the boys he had seen earlier with the instructor came and stood in the middle of the compound’s quad where six elders were waiting. The instructor was one of the elders. Like the others, he spoke at length. They seemed to be telling stories as if entertaining the boys would amplify their teaching. But that didn’t seem to work; the boys wore apprehension on their faces like a mask. Earlier only a few seemed fearful. Kabasu realized he was witnessing a coming of age ceremony like the initiation rite at his village by the river. The Zande boys went through the ceremony in the rainy season when they turned twelve. Had his village not fled from the Belgians he would have become a man during the first moon of the next rainy season. His experience running from the Belgians these past twenty moons was a coming of age in itself. After over an hour of listening to the elders’ stories, the dazed Batwa boys walked to the largest shelter at the very end of the compound. Shortly a masked man in full regalia emerged from the shelter. After incantations directed at the forest, the sky and the earth he walked with deliberate and portentous purpose back in, and the boys emerged.

 

  Always trying to conquer something, be it his fears or his place among his peers, Kabasu was an inquisitive boy. As Mokonzi’s first son, he had the run of his village, and his father, who understood his aversion to boredom, cheered his never-ending curiosity and relished bringing about impish looks on his son’s face. That curiosity now took Kabasu behind the shelter to spy on a masked man in a far away land that had stood still.  The man now siting on a stool called out in a fierce voice and a boy appeared. Two men inside the shelter swiftly grabbed the boy’s shoulders and before his eyes could adjust to the chiaroscuro, they introduced his manhood into the mask’s mouth.  The masked man struggled to effect the circumcision inside the mask. If he used an implement other than his teeth no one could tell. Whatever it was, blood spouted out, and the two men pulled the boy out and swathed his penis with leaves macerating in a bowl made of banana leaves.  Kabasu remained glued to the spectacle unfolding in the shelter. One boy collapsed and was taken away. The celebration went on well until after Kabasu fell asleep in the spot where he had been spying on the initiation rite.

  At daybreak, Kabasu went back to the compound’s quad to look for food. The place without singing was now silent. Abandoned. Someone had died there. Kabasu went to the shelter where the circumcision rite was performed, but it was empty. He picked up the discarded mask the circumciser had used and went in search of the injured boy. His spirit was sitting next to his body on the ground. Upon seeing Kabasu holding the mask, he recoiled; and the old Batwa, who was at his side gestured that he should throw it away. But Kabasu did not respond; he wanted to hold on to the mask. The old Batwa did not insist; his focus was on the Batwa boy – he was no longer interested in Kabasu.  After a moment, they stood and went out. Kabasu followed. He was hungry once again.

  Walking through the fetish-guarded entrance, the old Batwa and the boy followed a trail only they could follow. Kabasu went after them as rain came suddenly, but they didn’t seem to notice. Kabasu cut a wide leaf to hold over his head, as was the custom of his village. Further down the trail, the canopy became too thick for the rain to penetrate, and Kabasu discarded his leaf. As he did so, the old Batwa noticed him and gestured that he should go away, pointing to the direction he should take.

  It was the mask. Something about the mask that Kabasu picked up in the circumcision shelter offended the old man. Perhaps he himself had been a circumciser. Perhaps he had caused the death of an inductee, and the mask reminded him of what he had done. If he couldn’t be rid of the mask outright, he would get rid of Kabasu.

  Kabasu looked in the direction the old Batwa was pointing to and walked there.  He turned to see what else he had in mind, but the old man and the boy had moved on, abandoning him. He was alone albeit with his Butwa experience. Having observed how the forest had incorporated the Batwas in its ecosystem, his understanding was richer, and he felt less afraid of his surrounding. Immediately he began to stuff his mouth with berries. Hunger made everything palatable, and he ate all that he found. He had seen the Batwas eat caterpillars with relish, and when he found the ones feeding on the berries, he ate them too. His hunger subsided, and he walked more and more, having discovered that walking was one way to beat off fear. Other than his stick and knife and the circumciser’s mask, he carried nothing else. Through the thick canopy, what sun filtered through directed him back toward his village and its encompassing river.

  A bird like the one that had come to the compound quad to talk to the Batwas flew on a branch above his head. It had either lost its way or mistaken Kabasu for a Batwa.  It chatted persistently for a moment and flew off. After a while it came back to the same tree but on a lower branch. Kabasu lifted the circumciser’s mask toward the bird – most likely to scare it off.  To his surprise, the bird became chirpier and began to dance back and forth, back and forth like a bee, pecking and chatting intermittently. But whatever it was trying to communicate was lost on Kabasu. Exasperated the bird called vociferously and waited; then, flew off.  It had given up trying to tell Kabasu where the tree with the cavity occupied by a beehive was located.  In the silence that followed the bird’s departure, the boy felt alone. Surrounded by the forest, he was tribeless; but the encounter with the bird had left him with a sense of wonderment. He passed his hand over the trunk of the tree, where the bird had made its display, marveling at the relationship between forest creatures, wishing the bird would come back to keep him company and give him another chance at understanding what it tried to tell him. But he was filled with energy, and so with optimism he turned toward where the sun was leading the way to the river. He walked aimlessly until after a couple of days he picked up what looked like the pathway his father and the villagers had taken weeks ago. Inexorably, the sun led him back toward the river. When there was no sun because of clouds or because the canopy was too thick, he either rested or walked more deliberately so that he wouldn’t wander too far from the trail. On one such day, he dropped the circumciser’s mask. When he noticed its absence, he went looking for it.  For two days he looked, retracing his steps several times until he found it propped up against a tree as if a conjuror’s hand had placed it there. He looked in the area for the owner of the hand, but there was no one.  He tied the mask with a piece of vine on his back, so that he wouldn’t lose it again. Now the more he walked, the more familiar the forest became to him, like a fish recognizing a water source.  It was as if he were a prodigal returned home. He had a sense of belonging to a universe, albeit separate and obscure. Finally, he became virtually feral, until exhaustion got the better of him. He had lost his way, the ground beckoned and he laid down to die.

 

  The old Batwa stuffing termites and vine juice into his mouth revived him. Had he been alert, he might have wondered about the look of triumph on the old man’s face, an expression of someone pleased with having accomplished something dear to him. Removing the circumciser’s mask from Kabasu’s back was what had pleased the old man so much.

  He remained squatted at Kabasu’s side. When he stood up and pointed toward the heart of the forest, the boy followed. For days they walked. One morning, Kabasu woke up and the old Batwa had left him to die. The old man was satisfied that the last of the invaders would soon be gone. He had made sure that only the hyenas would find the body.

  Kabasu didn’t think there was any reason for the Batwa not to return, and he waited most of the morning, until he thought he heard the bird calling. Reluctantly, he released the old Batwa from his mind and set out in the direction the old man was taking him. A movement he made told him the circumciser mask was no longer attached to his back. He felt lonely without it and for a long time he considered going back to look for it. But he was torn between the mask and looking for food. The mask embodied the months spent in the forest running from the Belgians who had come to his village to make the people tap the bosanga vine for its sap. It had become part of him, a toy a child was faithful to. Except that it was more than a toy, and he had become viscerally attached to it as a child is to his mother. He would have gone back to look for it, but he was not sure how to find it. The old Batwa may have taken it. That possibility decided the issue for him. He would not go back, but neither would he forget the Batwa mask the circumciser had used in the hut. Having no place else to go, he turned toward the heart of the forest and death.

  His mission accomplished, the old Batwa joined the other ancestors watching over the land of Twa.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Tale of a Belgian Nun

 

When independence struck, many Belgians including prelates fled, disbelief on their faces, mobs at their heels, bats and machetes held high. I thought of leaving the Congo too as rumors that the new Prime Minister, Patrice Lumumba, had communist leanings and was associated with the faithless Soviet Union. That thought was momentary, however. The love of my life, Mària, had died in the Congo. I told myself it would be a betrayal if I left now. As a medical nun I appreciated that illnesses knew no politics, colonial or otherwise. I had long since separated myself from my country’s colonial venture in the Congo. With all my heart, I came to believe that my healing presence was proof I was doing the Trinity’s will. Then too, I stayed because the new authority in Wembo-Nyama, where my hospital was located, had asked my order to keep me in place. I had treated many of its members, and when they approached us, they did so with no pretense they knew how to run a hospital for the poor. Auxiliary Bishop Joseph-Albert Malula had urged me to remain as well, and I couldn’t say no to someone whose views of the Congolese church were so similar to Mària’s. A Bantu, Bishop Malula created the Congo Rite, a local liturgy. He was made archbishop of Leopoldville in 1964 if memory serves. Five years later, His Holiness Paul VI made him cardinal. He asked that I accompany him to the Vatican for the ceremony of investiture, and I went. Also, the simple fact – and I say this with utmost modesty –no one else was as proficient in treating trypanosomiasis (sleeping sickness). Treatment with arsenic was effective but necessitated an expert’s hand to administer drugs like melarsoprol. A traditional nun by default, one cast in error, I became a star in my role as a medical provider. That alone would have kept me at my hospital in Wembo-Nyama, if only to train a Bantu staff and the others who came from various parts of Africa to learn from us. I was needed. Blessed are the needed as blessed as those who love much.

There were also challenging new illnesses like the one befalling people who killed chimps for bush meat. Nothing about this pathogen made sense. It began with a cough and ended with cancers. Those infected suffered a hundred percent death rate. Travelers coming from southeastern Cameroon on the big river spread it through an unimaginable number of prostitutes in the new urban centers. Bantus were sure this disease (later identified as AIDS) was another Mbulamatadis (European) scheme to deny them independence. Those were the crucible years I thought would never end. Time was so hectic; it was a sort of comfort whenever I remembered to feel sorry for myself.

These memories have deepened my end-of-life interlude. They have also prompted me to ask, why wait for memories? Blessed is she who grasps the present with both hands and leaves no room for memories or regrets. With my head on Wembo-Nyama made pillows, I smile at the ceiling. I love the sound of the rain on the roof. My smile is also to deride all the efforts to reject nature. Neither bound breasts, nor convents’ ramparts kept desire at bay. Rules cannot invalidate ego, or meanness, or all the other traits we are saddled with. Blessed, however, she who is saddled with love.

 

It was 1955. Unlike most of my years in the Congo that are tied together like a bundle of wheat stalks the year stands out clearly as it was the year the dry season began to linger longer than normal, stretching until there was no other season. Awed at witnessing that nature at its most explicit self did not unfold in a perfect way, – contrary to what we were taught – I prayed over the land, changing in front of my eyes, turning forest into savannah. The drums were mad with questions, wondering what had offended the ancestors to withhold for so long the wet season. A feast of beats the drums were; everyone seeming to have an opinion about the wayward rain and wanting to share it. Every session began with two full strokes. “I don’t understand,” the drummer was announcing.

Bishop Brabant was on his last tour of the season. I knew he had stopped in Wembo-Nyama more to reminisce about Mària than to inspect the hospital and see how the mission was holding up against the Evangelicals, Methodists and what have you. His visit gave me an opportunity to query him more about the daughter Mària gave birth to in 1946. She was named Kolo for Kolongonu, “Perfect” in Lingala, the wonderful fusion of every language ever spoken in the Congo, from Portuguese to Swahili. Her purpose in not choosing a French name came to me in a dream. I was impatient to tell the bishop. Kolo was three when Mària died, and Father Brabant tried to get her from the Nsanda village. He designated an évolués to help him. When he told me what he was trying to do, I offered to help with a sum of money to the village’s headman. I had money available from an inheritance my uncle had left me. The headman refused, saying that Kolo was a living image of her mother. It would be a desecration to sell her. Later, the évolués reported that the villagers sent Kolo “South,” possibly to Angola or Zambia to live with Kimbanguists in case the Mbulamatadis attempted to kidnap her.

“I have appeals out everywhere for her,” Bishop Brabant told me disheartened. “I offered to help get the Kimbangu Church recognized by the World Council of Churches. She has been moved several times, I’m sure. That’s all I know. I have pleaded with the village to no avail – ”

“You should let her go, father,” I interjected. “Mària wants us to let her go. I had this dream: Mària was saying that she gave her daughter a local name because she belonged to the Congo.” He was not convinced.

“Then why did she die,” he asked. He could never say kill herself. He regarded it as his duty or perhaps penance for the blame he felt regarding Mària.

As he was leaving he had a sermon for the staff, which was his custom. A wonderful speaker, he loved motivational lectures about the Trinity’s work in the Congo. The staff responded with fervor to his exhortation and never failed to give him an ovation. In 1955, however, he had more than the Trinity’s work in mind. He had concerns that native practices were conflicting with the Good News he and others before him had brought to the Congo. I made a note of his exact words at the time, “Bantu practices are contrary to the teaching of the Cross.” Devotion to masks, he said, was responsible for the void in the soul of the Bantus; keeping them from becoming full-fledged Christians, carriers of the Cross and heaven candidates. When he spoke, I looked toward the front pews, where the Congolese staff members were seated. They were listening, outwardly unperturbed by the bishop’s denunciation. It was true that most of them were évolués, functionaries of the Belgian colonial administration.  Seekers of European acceptance, they bought into what Europeans called voodoo practices; and they distanced themselves from their mask-devoted compatriots.

“What was that about?” I asked when it was my turn to say goodbye to the bishop.

“I didn’t think you had noticed,” was his answer.

“Come on father. Everyone noticed. Your sermons have always been inspirational. Excuse me, but denouncing masks is not inspirational.”

“The bishop,” he said, “is concerned that when we are no longer running this colony, it will revert to its heathen ways.”

  I was surprised at his misuse of the third person. His temperament and sense of self did not fit such empty presumption. Had he not also said “heathen,” I would have sworn he was joking. I know for sure that Mària would have toned down her zeal for the Congo had he denigrated rather than extoled the people when he was mentoring the two of us for admission to the convent in Tournai in 1938.

 

I remember Father Brabant telling us at the time, ‘my personal feeling is that we’ve an obligation to the Congolese for the treatment Leopold caused to be inflicted on them. That’s why I asked the diocese to send me. Once there, my life’s work will really begin. I’ve been praying for this for a long time. The diocese has heard my prayers, and I’ll be gone in a few months. I hope your aspiration to become renunciants leads you to follow me in a few years. We all have personal feelings that no one who has not held the hand of another in pain can fully understand.’

“Is it your view that the order of the Perpetual Cross is best suited for Maria and me, then?” I asked him.

‘Yes! Because The Perpetual Cross’ focus is the least of these and it’s concentrating its efforts in the Belgian territories of Africa: Congo and Ruanda-Urundi. It’s there that you’ll be allowed to do the most good, where you’ll have the freedom to do what’s best for the people. You won’t have to defend or promote any Belgian imperialism if you don’t so choose. There’s nothing more important for the two of you than to be free to be yourselves. If you go anyplace else, the order will look too closely over your shoulders, and you won’t realize the full potential of your calling.’

I considered these fine, unselfish sentiments. By saying, there’s nothing more important than to be free to be ourselves, he was telling us that he was going to do everything in his power to help us become renunciants of The Perpetual Cross so that we could go to the Congo.

“Tell us about the Congo, father,” Mària had asked innocently, taken in by Father Brabant’s noble assertions.

Father Brabant didn’t hesitate; it’s as if talking about the Congo was a sacred duty.  ‘The Congo story is a classic case of man’s inhumanity to man, and a refutation of Christ’s first commandment,’ he concluded.

In past times, kings and cruelty went together. But in 1938, our king, also named Leopold, attended a seminary in California and was hardly the Leopold in Father Brabant’s account of the Congo. I wondered, therefore, what pertinence that story could have to a prospective postulant like Mària, unless it had something to do with the church itself.

After a moment of uncertain reflection and timidity, I break the silence to ask what to me is the most relevant question: “What has that got to do with the church over there?” I don’t say Congo because it makes me uncomfortable. Why, I couldn’t say. The name of the place makes me uneasy, gives me the shakes, like when I’m getting ready to go to the cemetery to visit my mother’s grave in winter.

Oddly, Father Brabant seems taken aback by my question, and he turns his chair away from us, as if looking to the rain thrashing the window outside to save him from having to answer. He raises his eyes to the ceiling when there’s no answer from the downpour, and he remains silently immersed in his thoughts.

‘Yes, yes,’ he then says resignedly, ‘the church’s complicity in what the Belgian state has done in the Congo cannot be denied. But that’s not unusual. What concerns me is that the Congolese will not make a distinction between the government of Belgium and the church and will hate them as if they were one and the same.  I have a mechanistic, not an organic view of the church, and my greatest worry is that the church will be seen as just another white colonial institution –’

Inopportunely, Mària interrupts him. “But what is the role of the church,” she asks. “What are we doing over there?”

Father Brabant smiles at Mària’s use of the pronoun “We” and for saving him from taking his idea to its logical conclusion.

‘Yes, yes, our role?’ he answers. ‘I am coming to that … it’s to evangelize like the apostles we are; make Christ known in order to save souls. We do that. Unfortunately in our eagerness to fulfill that mission, we compromise ourselves and do what Christ told us specifically not to do, serve God and Mammon at the same time.’

The father may be pleased, but I’m annoyed at this use of the “We,” and I’m looking for an opportunity to give balance to our visit to his church today. When he pauses, I beat Mària to the question, “you say that the church has done its duty. But how has it compromised itself by serving God and Mammon, then?  You did say compromise. How has it done that?”

‘Very simply,’ he answers. ‘The church has sought gains by having one of its own administer the territories. As you can well imagine there’re huge benefits being accountable only to the rules and administrative centers you yourself have established. Religions, as a matter of course, colonize other religions, cultures and what have you. And there’s no law, international or otherwise, against that. Churches have all the advantages. The Church of England, for example, benefits from having England as the colonial power in most places in Africa. With that monopoly in hand, England profits from the church’s evangelization of the Africans. Colonization is made easier by having a population eager to worship like Englishmen do.’

When he pauses, Mària, unpredictable as ever, belts out a laugh. Not a nervous chuckle, but an honest belly laugh. She has given up anger for derision. Father Brabant’s face turns crimson red; he’s embarrassed that a sixteen-year old girl isn’t taking him seriously and is brazenly showing it. Unfortunately, he presses ahead, having put on a brave sheepish look and a smile for an awkward answer.

‘You need to give me at least some credit for not dramatizing,’ he tells her by way of an apology. ‘The truth is that since the beginning of time, occupiers and other colonial powers have imposed their religion on conquered lands. It’s a strategic and spiritual obligation they have. You didn’t laugh when I told you that one of our principal functions is to evangelize the world. Anyway, if you remember anything of what I’ve told you it’s that if you become a renunciant and go to the Congo, I hope Christ’s first commandment will be your guiding light there as well. The greatest of all sins is disdain of others. To the narcissist, the Lord said, "Whores will precede you into the kingdom of heaven."

The high esteem in which Father Brabant seemed to hold the Congo was encapsulated in that speech. In due course, I would discover the torment the issue was causing his soul and realize too late that the priority of his priestly vocation was not seeking perfection or being a bridge between man and the Trinity. Redeeming the injury done to the Congolese was his first and true calling. Deconquering what Belgium had conquered was his goal. What he created and believed in would have remained his business and fine with me if he hadn’t succeeded in beguiling Mària. He had filled her head with tales of the Congo. He had made the Congo the only spot on earth where she could fulfill the Lord’s call to do for the least of these as she would for Him. To a weirdly devout girl like Mària, Jesus’s saying, “Whatever you do for one of the least of these, you do for me,” was the highest order.

I told her what I had surmised: “Father Brabant has conceived a diabolical plan to lure you to the Congo.” But it was for naught. Going to the Congo had gradually beguiled her. In the hindsight of fifty-five years, I’ve come to accept that Mària was the renunciant who went to Africa to help fulfill Father Brabant’s act of redemption. What she found was misery.

 

  My constant proximity to the sick and the poor of Wembo-Nyama and the hinterland, the fatalism the Bantus have infected me with, and the fact that I am now thirty-three years old, all combine to make me a bit independent; certainly less tolerant of the rules than when Mària and I first set foot in the Congo ten years ago. Besides, Bishop Brabant has remained a devoted friend even more so since Mària’s death. I can be direct with him with my reactions and questions.

  “Has there been a change in church policy, father?” I asked.

  He thought for a moment, and, as if taking a dive, he leaped with his answer.

“Like the wet season in these parts,” he said, “Belgium’s colonization of the Congo is also waning. Until now, the mention of independence was an offense punishable by imprisonment. Now everyone, Belgians and Bantus alike, speak of independence in no uncertain terms. The notion of Congolese self-determination has become part of the landscape and will never be considered a seditious offense again. What is the church to do?”

(As I relate this episode, I am also saying aloud in fear, Dear God, why didn’t you gift my dear friend and your dedicated servant 20/20 hindsight so that he could have realized he was pronouncing his own execution? If you had given him that, perhaps he would not have had to do what he did.)

“What is the church going to do,” I asked with trepidation, hearing Mària say, “If you cannot support our Congolese brothers and sisters, at least you will not harm them. You will not be among their killers.”  Dread crept into my heart like that killer disease from upriver that was bewildering us. True enough, Belgium’s colonial prospect in the Congo following the Second World War was dimming; maybe my friend like many Mbulamatadis in the Congo was acquiescing to the nihilistic view of destroying what they could not retain. The French did that when the people of Guinea rejected them.

 

I remember Mària talking passionately about the liberation of the Congo at our reunion in Nsanda, and saying that she would do all in her power to see it fulfilled. Liberation, independence, self-determination, whatever name was given to the movements to separate Belgium from the Congo permeated everything everyone did in Wembo-Nyama over the next five years. I was a spectator with a front row seat of what unfolded. I must say too, that I felt an obligation to look at the independence the Congolese sought, not with Mària’s eyes totally, but with the desire that the side she had supported would emerge victorious.

 

The Second World War had brought water to the mill of revolution in colonies everywhere, and before I left Tournai following the departure of the German troops, I had a prelude to what relations between Belgians and Africans would be. The dirty Germans, sales boches, had turned Belgium on end. As for the Africans living in Belgium, the people sheepishly adjusted their treatment of them as well. It took me a very long time to understand why. It was simple really: the Germans were responsible. The sales boches had done something for Belgium: they had treated Belgians the way Belgians treated Africans. The master race had in effect told Belgians they were no better than the Africans. How could they have done such a thing? Weren’t Deutsch and Dutch twins? The disillusionment that ensued undoubtedly contributed to the increase in suicides in the Ardennes Forest, offerings to the master race’s perspicacity or lack thereof?  The generation that experienced the “master race” treating Belgians like Africans never recovered from the humiliation. In my collection of Godly clichés, there are several about puzzling phenomena and elegies on justice. I’m, however, still searching for a pithy one; so pithy, it will tie Belgians and Africans together with a tidy German knot.

  Myself, I had little say regarding colonial matters. Prayer and a philosophical view of events took the place of any direct involvement I might have had. I was part of it, however, and was interested beyond words in the denouement. When there were breaks; when I was between patients, and at night, I filled my notebooks with what I saw, sensed and understood from patients. Especially from the ones connected to the independence movements who suffered from sleeping sickness and chatted deliriously during the meningoencephalic phase of the illness. I would tell myself that perhaps it was what the Most High intended, sending me here to be a witness and to attest that dominion over others was against His teaching of love of one another.

  Then too, I would remind myself that, if the Trinity “so loved the world he would give his only Son that whosoever believe in him should not perish,” He would surely be against conspiracies to banalize the truth of history because without that truth the present would die. I also believed that by bearing witness I would celebrate the Most High’s love for the world. If He ever spoke to me, He would say, “You shall bear witness to all horrors man commits against man.” That was my epiphany. My notebooks are full of such thoughts. The Second World War had intruded on colonization like a death knell, and the Mbulamatadis didn’t know what to do. “What would the next chapter have in store for us?” Their ubiquitous question was as stinging as insects in the rainy season. I became sick of hearing Belgians moan, “Nous, pauvres colons,” (we poor settlers,) as if that were the Brabançonne, the Belgian national anthem.

  For those who thought that life was made meaningful by reigning over the middle of the Dark Continent were hit especially hard during this time. Before the war, they had their way with the Bantus. Afterwards, they recited verses from the Bible, especially one from Genesis, which says, ‘Perhaps they will hate us and return to us the evil that we have done unto them.’ (I heard with my own ears the wife of a colonial officer relay that message to her husband in our chapel.) No bad conscience ever haunted dreams the way Belgian dreams were haunted in the Congo. In order to exorcise the spirit of wrongs from their colonial past, they initiated campaigns of praise to all that the Mbulamatadis had brought the Congolese.

  The Bantus, however, would have none of it; and as the decade of the ‘60s approached, even the évolués felt shame for what had been inflicted on them. They grieved like rape victims. Colonization would forever stain their soul. When disenchantment set in, there was no way to recapture the moment. They were told they would have to start over again. The Mbulamatadis, however, did not care to start over. They dug in, insisting that the old master servant ways be maintained at all cost, with a measure of paternalism for those so inclined.

  The Bantus, I think, resented our attempt at being parents to them more than they did Leopold’s brutality toward their fathers. Brutality, you see, is forthright. It leaves no doubt as to where the brutalized stand. It is predictable. Paternalism was something else. It had the Bantus wondering what we would subject them to next. They became restless and guarded. The Mbulamatadis responded with disjointed colonial policies. But by then, they had about as much credibility as the dunce who challenges reason. The post-war policies became exercises in contortion, as the Mbulamatadis didn’t know which way to turn as they groped to maintain control of the colony. Violence was easy to abide, as was dehumanization, which had set in long ago. The Mbulamatadis wanted to punish the Bantus for daring to question their authority over them; and they drove themselves to frenzies in the rush to animalize the Bantus; better to curse, accuse them of all evils, and maintain control. Practicality should have inhibited these behaviors, but it did not. Colonization is a genre unto itself, a grim model of man’s unkindness to man through presumption and the practice of dehumanization.

To be sure, most of the colonialists were – God forgive me – lowbrow, petit bourgeois at best, Mària’s nemesis. “Petit bourgeois are loath to accept their inferior position in society; so they search for others to place beneath them,” Mària had adjudged. An African colony was the perfect venue for the petit bourgeois to elevate themselves. Whenever I came across one who reeked of having come to the Congo for that purpose, I rebuked him unreservedly, as Mària would. To be sure, I tried to counter my eagerness to mimic Mària, my own over-judgmental zeal and my duty to the Trinity by reminding myself that, although perverse, the universal trait of having inferiors was human.

  I witnessed this, but as I said earlier, I had little involvement in colonial matters. I was a hospital nurse and administrator concerned with patients’ health. Nevertheless I sought to mitigate our dominion over the Bantus by providing the best service humanly possible to the patients and the people of the Wembo-Nyama region.  The reactionaries among my colleagues sometimes accused me of seeking to displace the Madonna in the Order of the Bleeding Heart. Their malicious reproach did not affect me, however; for until 1955 at least, I had the full support of Bishop Brabant. When independence came to the Congo, others ran for their lives, chased out of the Congo by the arisen Bantus. In Wembo-Nyama, where we were even more at their mercy, it was just another day. That was not due to practicality for the Bantus were not a practical people. It was our ministration – our willing ministration – of the people there that made the difference.

  Undoubtedly, colonization would have been more successful had it been in the form envisioned by Leopold II, personal and direct. Leopold, however, unleashed such evil on the Congo that colonization had to be appropriated by the state and turned into an industrial complex.  Belgians and other Europeans derived their empire from those colonial industrial complexes; and, in their rush to possess African land, created misdesigned unpronoun- ceable borders. They were a curse to the Bantus and a reminder that Europe had passed their way. The borders are witness to colonization’s claim to have created a new world. People who do not fear God are like people who do not fear death – they are ruthless. In the case of Belgium, the Second World War erased all notions the Bantus might have had that Belgium was invincible. Thus alerted, they awoke to the conviction that every facet of colonization, including the church, was the source of their misery. They became aggressive and irredentist. It was their turn to fall all over themselves to take advantage of Belgium’s diminished stature, but with horrific consequences. As befitting a people with a great sense of oral tradition, the shadow of the past was never far from the present. It was as if every Bantu was standing watch over a grave, waiting for his painful colonial memories to rise up.

 

Bishop Brabant said to me, “My thinking is that if Belgium can no longer be in de facto control of this colony, it can nevertheless be spiritually. That’s the most important thing, isn’t it? For that to occur, though, we have to dissociate the Bantus from their heathen worship practices and put them on a path on which they will be more likely to follow the church. I know you favor these people; that’s fine. But as a medical person, I’d think you’d be eager for them to learn that microbes and what have you cause diseases and not local mask-wearing witchdoctors.”

That was the last thing he ever said to me. I never saw him again.

Later that year, he answered his own challenge and went in person to a Ngbandi village near the border with Ubangi-Shari (present day Central African Republic) reputed for its use of masks in ancestral and animistic religious practices. The Ngbandi people raised their children to be warriors and had taken to the church grudgingly. On arrival in that village, he was given palm wine as tradition commanded. The wine was contaminated. His aide, who also drank the wine, became sick as well. Delirious, the bishop gave an impromptu sermon, expressing regret for being a tool of colonialism and imposing his religion upon them, and for what he had come to do to the village. The chief, in all appearance satisfied, put him and the aide in a hut to recover. The investigators reported that when the day was at its hottest, and the villagers were in their huts hiding from the midday sun, the bishop must have walked to the nearest riverbank and waded into the water. Only pygmy chimps in the treetops were witness to his final moment. His body was found two days later on the bank of one of the islands in the middle of the Ubangi River. His hands were clasped in prayer.

I told myself that whatever the tale of Mària’s life; Father Brabant’s among the Bantus and mine, it would serve as an allegory for all the rivers in the Congo.  Rivers that meander uncoiled and placid to entice presumptuous European missionaries to their shores to ensnare them; then to suffocate them with boa constrictor-like curls as lethal as a hangman’s noose.

 

No about face could have saved Belgium’s colonial venture in Africa. The Bantus no longer saw us. We were history’s ghosts. As if they were witnessing God’s punishment for our having been presumptuous to assume we were His instruments, marching hand in hand with Him as friends, doing His will, they now laughed at us. Instead of laughing, I wish they had appreciated what was about to befall them. For fatalists, they were remarkably optimistic that independence would initiate a golden age in the Congo. Liberation exerted a gravitational pull, irresistible – malefic in many ways. They were eager for a new day, any new day! I was in the whirlwind, watching decolonization give the Congo a wild ride. People who had no idea what it was about got on the bandwagon. Would they have done so, knowing it was for their own funeral? Within days, the new country turned against itself as if an evil had seeped into its pore and infected it. The elites, prompted by neo-colonialists, cracked the Congo along ethnic lines. Mària would have been appalled.

The Congo became independent in May 1960. History defeated the colonial protagonists, and without their comprehending how. I was amazed.

 

I have one regret, that of having followed Mària in the quest to serve the least of these to the Congo. But never having considered anything that would have interfered with my love for her, I did what I had to do.

I’ve chosen to follow my mother and Mària in suicide – blessed solitude, the purveyor of freedom. Later this evening it will help me go to sleep to the sound of the rain on the roof. I will bless my closed left fist with a kiss, before swallowing its melarsoprol content that’s full of arsenic organic compound. I will chase the melarsoprol with a few satisfying swigs of cassava-roots brandy that I brought from Wembo-Nyama. I will then pick up the piece of rope made of interwoven sisal that I found on the ship that ferried Mària and me to the Congo from Antwerp back in 1945. I have slept with it since 1948. As you can imagine, I thought of using it as Mària had. I was afraid, however, that having lost so much weight I would not have enough to ensure a successful procedure. Lightly I will pass through the neutral zone between the inside and the outside-of-time gates.

I smile at what the orderly, who didn’t know there was a place called the Congo – a dunce if ever there was one – will say. He will cackle when he finds me in the morning: “La Folle de Tournai is as cold as a prison door and holding a piece of rope in her left hand.” My story will then be told. May yours be as rewarding.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Tale of the Balubas

 

 

The Kinshasa dictator believes the Katanga Balubas are helping the Tutsis invade his country and end his thirty-two-year rule. He orders his security chief to make an example of them.

 

  Having received the order from the Dictator’s own lips, Maka M’Gonu, the security chief, spared neither himself nor his agents in the search for Balubas in Kinshasa. The Balubas had betrayed the Dictator and joined the Tutsis and Ugandans in the struggle to overthrow his regime. The Balubas’ betrayal, M’Gonu told his people, was causing the disaster the Dictator was reeling under. He had to make an example of them. The agents and their hangers-on scoured Kinshasa in wider and wider circles, looking for the traitors. M’Gonu’s pockets were bulging with the Angolan diamonds he had confiscated from the safe of the Continental Hotel’s manager. A Lebanese merchants’ payoff for use of the hotel.  Taking care of the Balubas would make them rich.

  The Dictator’s son, too, lent M’Gonu a hand in hunting his father’s enemies. A cruiser, its two Honda BF 90 horsepower churned at a private pier ready for fast passage across the river to Brazzaville. Before escaping from the Tutsis and Ugandans pouring toward Kinshasa, the son had his squad, “The Invincibles” kill General Liekungu, the regime’s chief of staff. They said he had conspired with the Balubas against the Dictator. They then assaulted the Kinshasa Continental Hotel during a noisy, rage-filled interlude.

  Beggars from as far away as Gombé also joined in the search; they had much at stake besides better living conditions when the Balubas were captured. In addition to the customary payment, the security chief promised them unimaginable wealth. And after twenty-four hours, he placed an even steeper price on the Balubas’ heads.

 

  The Balubas’ pursuers thought it senseless to continue the chase. The regime’s exodus was underway, its collapse closing over Kinshasa like a Tutsi fist. What difference would it make now if Balubas were caught? Regardless of the every man for himself in progress, locating all of them was the single most important item on the security chief’s agenda. “When a man has lost his senses, he can walk on water,” a beggar quoted a proverb.  Nevertheless, most of them deduced that such a nonsensical commitment was proof that Maka M’Gonu was following the Dictator’s orders, or else the ancestors had made known a wish – a conclusion that strengthened their dedication to finding the Balubas.

  As they had done elsewhere, the Tutsi and Ugandan invaders simplified their offensive by leaving an escape corridor for Kinshasa’s fleeing soldiers to withdraw west. The corridor resembled a gigantic funnel, pouring thousands of the Dictator’s soldiers from east to west through its miles-long sprout.

  Informed that enemy forces had opened their corridor out of Mbuji-Mayi in Baluba country, M’Gonu left the Kinshasa operation in the hands of his deputies and with two lieutenants lifted off in the interior ministry’s SA 330 Puma helicopter.  His gestures assured, precise, as though he had divined the triumph of his mission, M’Gonu’s self-assurance and the bonus he had promised them carried his men along with renewed enthusiasm.

  They were flying to the town of Mbuji-Mayi, seventy kilometers to the north of the Angolan border. There they would use ground transport for a stealthy entrance into Mwene-Ditu, where Baluba collaborators would be on hand to do the security chief’s bidding. Once he had set fire to the villages and killed as many people as possible, the security chief could exult in contented triumph. Further plans were only for the benefit of his associates.

  The pilot was told to abandon the helicopter upon landing. If necessary, they would move across the border where the Dictator’s Angolan allies would provide safe conduct to reach Boma on the Atlantic coast. But really, what happened after he had his way with the Baluba villages was of no concern to the security chief

  Like all men, life imposed itself on Maka M’Gonu; and, as long as he could settle this one score, he went along. The bargain: kill the regime’s Baluba traitors. That was the condition for his acceptance of life; and life acquiesced, permitting him to take whatever measures he saw fit to fulfill his stipulation.  His men heard him pray, "May N’Zambi never allow me to die until I have taken due vengeance upon the Balubas;" and they took heart from his words.  Mystification obliging, they nodded approvingly – the chief was conversing man to man with his patron saint.

  Maka M’Gonu hunted the Balubas to satisfy his master’s retribution order. They had disobeyed his express command not to surrender to the Tutsis. They had not only surrendered but also provided logistical support to the Tutsis swarming from the east.

  M’Gonu knew the Mwene-Ditu area well, having gone there in person once before to raze a Baluba village thought to be disloyal to the Dictator. It was during the regime’s consolidation period, following the Dictator’s murder of Patrice Lumumba and the Moise Tshombe Katanga coup. It was the period of tough love and lesson teaching. The villagers had mythologized Maka M’Gonu’s ferocity, his cruelty, his invincibility and the multiple spells that protected him. They spoke of the aura that proceeded him to light his approach. In subdued fear, they spoke of him in the tales of their oral tradition, and in the hatred the Balubas were known for.  But it no longer mattered that they feared him; presently, his regime was disintegrating as fast as the rain was falling

  Upon the helicopter’s landing, a ubiquitous, deep and ominous sound from the forest echoed the rumor that the Dictator’s evil one was spotted at a clearing southwest of Mwene-Ditu. The hum was electrifying; it was more powerful than the Tutsi Ugandan invasion from the east that had disrupted the region. The elders hurriedly made every effort to divine the ancestors’ intent behind this occurrence.

  “Disaster, what else?” They all nodded agreement. Fatalism was a comfort their hearts could not do without.

  A widow whose husband the Dictator’s security chief had massacred along with the village also heard, and with hasty calm she prepared to receive Maka M’Gonu in the manner she had been dreaming of ever since her husband’s death.

  The Tutsi and Ugandan troops sensed that a change had taken place in the area around Mwene-Ditu. The wind mellowed and the rain that had fallen in sheets for four days straight suddenly ceased as if a faucet had been turned off; the trees became still, the birds silent, and the monkeys in the treetops stopped screeching and became watchfully thoughtful. It was as if a maniacal being had entered the area and the forest awaited his purpose in silence. A living being would have been reason enough for optimism any place else, but here, where fatalism ruled, it was cause for fear and many departed hurriedly for higher grounds.

  Unable to pin point the cause of the disturbance, the Tutsis and Ugandans spurned “another Congolese superstition” and kept the Mbuji-Mayi escape spout open for the dictator’s soldiers to flee. Their forces were running unabashedly to capture Kinshasa, where an abundance of loot awaited the conquerors. It was only a single bridge away, and they focused on no other objective.

 

  The widow was a large, middle aged, very handsome Baluba woman. She lived in the village of Kandayu near Mwene-Ditu. Shoemaking was her trade. She had waited a long time for Maka M’Gonu to come back to Baluba country. Bitterness and weight gain characterized her since the death of her husband. They had had a prosperous shoemaking business and everyone in the village knew how much they delighted in each other when night had fallen. Only intrepid or inebriated men approached her now.

  When M’Gonu killed her husband, she stopped making shoes. A year later she came back to her shop as a sole cutter for other shoemakers in the area. In cutting thick leathers for soles, she found an outlet to express her rage toward the Dictator. On hearing that his security chief had returned to the Mwene-Ditu area, she raised the alarm, shouting as if a thief had been through her village. The elders, however, thought it wise not to interfere with one so well provided for by the ancestors. Maka M’Gonu was terror incarnate. They went to see her.

  “Rain beats a leopard's skin, but it never washes out the spots,” they reminded her.

  “Yes,” she agreed, “but though the axe forgets, the tree remembers.”

  “Myths are made of more than imagination,” they cautioned her.

  “Thirst for revenge is stronger than any myth,” she argued.

  “Between fear and hatred, hatred is stronger,” they agreed.

  The cutter of soles offered herself and all she owned to whoever isolated Maka M’gonu for her. Hers was a once in a lifetime proposal, and it had come to the village at a time when the people were looking for something beyond the world-altering turbulence of Ugandans, Tutsis and Hutus. Men in all the surrounding villages, moved by a newfound meaning in their chaotic lives, hoisted their machetes to their shoulders. Bounty hunters, they joined in the hunt for the security chief.

  The Puma helicopter that landed west of Mbuji-Mayi drew the attention of the Tutsi and Ugandan troops, as would a new car to young men everywhere. The passengers of the helicopter did not interest the troops; they were confident that their allies in the Baluba villages would locate the passengers. If any of them was a regime official, the elders of the village would notify the troops.

  The security chief, his two men, and the helicopter pilot, spread out in case they had to search for the vehicle a Baluba collaborator parked in the area to take them to the heart of the Baluba villages.  M’Gonu found it, a blue Toyota Tacoma truck. He walked to the vehicle, his mind consumed with fires and killings he almost regarded as his salvation. However, none of the collaborators were in sight. How many villages could three men torch? Suddenly, M’Gonu’s head exploded in pain. A villager as tall as the security chief, who had recognized him by his shaved head, sunglasses and dark suit, had quietly sneaked up behind him and struck him full force on the back of the head with a fire extinguisher taken from the abandoned helicopter. Frightened at what he had done, the villager ran off.

  Not expecting an attack from the villagers, the blow to M’Gonu’s head stunned him. He stumbled and fell on his hands and knees. He would have stood back up if a shouting throng had not fallen on him like a cascading deluge on an uprooted tree, smothering him.  When they heard the shouts, M’Gonu’s two men came running. However, when they saw that the security chief had been overpowered by a Baluba mob, they were shocked. It was as though the river had suddenly dried up, leaving them stranded. Dumbly, they looked on, incredulous at seeing the security chief incapacitated. Without the chief, they were mindless, lost in a desert, a laid up guide at their feet.

  They reached for their weapons, but they did not shoot; the villagers were too many. Moving backward away from the crowd that now had swarmed from the bushes, M’Gonu’s men backed away, turned, and ran for the welcoming underbrush. Had they fired a round or two, even in the air, the crowd would have scattered the way crowds always do.

  The mob peeled itself from the body of the security chief lying face down on the ground. After a moment, he regained his senses and turned around to see the setting sun, the clouds, and finally the faces and the eyes that were peering at him as if he were a supernatural being. They had left only his shirt to cover him.

  Around him, men had already formed their circle, standing as close to one another as possible like bars of a prison wall, preventing his escape. Three feet behind the men, chanting women waited in their circle in keen resolve. M’Gonu recognized the formation; knew what that ritual called for next. One clapping of hands, and the women’s circle would swiftly change place with the men’s. A blade would appear and one of the women would mutilate him, as was the custom with all thieves.  He had feasted on tales of such rituals. The last was about the man in the district of Kimbanseke, who frantically ran to catch what his assailants were discarding of his body.  As the man bent over to pick it up, they kicked it out of his reach. Life gone with his blood, he fell down grateful for oblivion. “Thieves threaten the traditional order,” the security chief adjudged in the clinical way he had of settling the affairs of men – “they deserve such time-honored punishments.”

  He tried to stand, but the man behind him pushed his shoulders roughly down. He tried again, this time remaining in a sitting position. It seemed that the crowd was not going to mutilate him, after all. Apparently, the circle formation was to hold him captive. He guessed that they were holding him until an elder from the nearby village notified the Ugandans or the Tutsis that the regime’s security chief was a prisoner.  It would be best if the Ugandans came; to them he could explain, and he was sure he would get a second chance. The Tutsis, however, would regard him as a génocidaire and most likely finish him on the spot; leaving him unable to execute his master’s orders. There would be no Baluba carcass for his pyre. That was the worst fate he could imagine at that most particular moment.

  Knowingly, long-necked vultures gathered in the treetops. Hunger lent their croaks a strident persistency, as they moved their heads and bare necks in and out; anticipating a fierce struggle over scraps. A yellow anole that was taking in the last of the remaining sunshine suddenly jumped into the trunk of a tree just as a yellow hawk, venturing in to investigate swooped to catch it.  For a moment, the hawk’s angry screech, daring the lizard to show itself, masked the vultures’ croaks.  Like Aesop’s fable, all the characters were assembling to witness or take part in an unfolding drama.

  The villagers like the vultures waited impatiently, their excitement gnawing, uncontrollable, exasp- erating. The most determined ones reproached the security chief for being there, for having to undergo a degradation, and for stirring the children to such frenzied excitement. People were arriving from the surrounding area as if invited to a chief’s feast. Witnessing a man’s degradation was a great event, an ultimate moment. Eyewitnesses real or imaginary would speak of the degradation of the Dictator’s legendary security chef as the highlight of their lives. M’Gonu mumbled to himself and, for an instant, all conversations ceased and the mob bent to hear him, to fathom his words. Women crouched to size up his genitals; looked at one another in awe, questioningly. They then flipped up their dresses in his direction and resumed speaking in an incomprehensible drone.

  The men no longer stood as close to one another, and M’Gonu heard the one who had pushed him down earlier remonstrate loudly and, for a moment, the circle was as tight as prison bars once again. Ten minutes later, the man again brought back order to the tattered circle.

  M’Gonu sat on his bare rear end, his muscular arms holding his knees close to his powerful chest. He seemed not to breath, and the mob thought terror had suffocated him. He continued to mumble, rocking to and fro. For a moment, he sat still as if contemplating, and then resumed his muttering and swaying.  The crowd didn’t pay attention; words they did not understand, no longer interested them. They continued talking ceaselessly, to cheat their impatience out of the frustration that had swelled like a balloon as time passed and their fervor for the security chief’s degradation increased.

  Suddenly someone announced, “He is saying, ‘burn me.”’ ‘Burn me,’ “that’s what he’s saying;” the explanation shuddering through the minds of all the bystanders. Softly at first, an imperceptible whisper, as though praying, Maka M’Gonu’s voice became louder and the mob quieted to the resonance of “BURN ME,” from the security chief. When they had all heard him, they jeered, “Is that what they do in your part of the country? Don’t tell him what Balubas do to thieves here; he might die of fright.”

  “Balubas are colonial whores,” Maka replied in Tshiluba, the language of the Balubas. “Tradition has it right, Balubas are Belgium’s whores.”

  He could have stood up and walked away, so shocked were they by his words. Had he walked away, they would not have moved to stop him. The mob remained silent a moment, better to experience the indignation his words had caused. Balubas had suffered massacres and constant hardships at the hands of the regime and those in the crowd, who had experienced M’Gonu’s brutality, shouted for his immediate degradation. They would refuse to let an elder surrender the security chief to the Tutsis or Ugandans.

  Twenty minutes later, elders finally arrived, and the mob reluctantly opened a path to let them pass. Angry words of remonstrance were exchanged; the people had had enough of waiting. The elders reached the clearing where M’Gonu sat surrounded by the men and the women in the circles, keen for the ritual to begin. Each walked up to him for a look at a man who was not a mere man, examining him with expressionless faces. They then conferred briefly and nodded, as if saying in unison, “I told you so.” Then, unbelievably, two went to M’Gonu and lifted him up to take him to the closest Ugandan outpost in the area. The mob shrieked its disapproval, as if the elders had repealed an ancestral right; but the elders imperturbably marched the security chief out.

  The cutter of soles stood at the edge of the crowd, holding at her side the scalpel she used to cut leather for soles. The handle was dark gray, the color of iron hewn by sweat; its well-honed cutting tip shining silver from a recent sharpening session on a riverbank rock. His manner urgent, M’Gonu was speaking to one of the elders at his side regarding being taken to the Ugandans. The cutter of soles waited, swaying from one foot to the other. She was waiting for the elders to go through the uncomprehending, jeering crowd, who fell behind them, asking where they were taking the security chief. One of the elders turned around to speak to a colleague about the Ugandan outpost where they could handover the security chief. The man vehemently shook his head and pointed in the direction of the village. The Ugandans should come to the village and pay a ransom. The regime’s security chief should bring a tidy sum to the village. At this, the woman ran toward the village, repositioning herself at the first clearing. Bending her knees and swaying, her right hand at her side, she eagerly readied the scalpel by twirling it with her fingers and whispering the Baluba adage, “Mukaji utu wasangana nzubu katu wasangana biuma.” (In an empty house there’s nothing for a woman.)

  The elders walked faster now, urgency in their steps, keen to leave behind the jeering crowd still following them.

  Maka M’Gonu gazed at the woman standing at the side of the path to the village; and as if sensing what she was about to do, his eyes bulged. A latent will to live took hold of his mind, as he desperately lifted his right arm then his left to free himself from the hands of the elders supporting him. The sky had turned horizon blue.

  The crowd behind surged forward, their hands outstretched as if to catch a rooster on the run. The woman on the path rushed toward M’Gonu, her bare feet thundering like drums on judgment day, resonating the assurance of what she was about to do.  Running gave her arms and hands additional energy; so that when she got close to M’Gonu, she only had to point the blade in the direction of his throat, just below the chin. Momentum did the rest, and the blade swiped across his throat left to right, in one exuberant stroke. The elders supporting the security chief stood transfixed as if caught in the light of the ongoing horror, in effect propping M’Gonu up, an offering to the shoemaker’s blade.

  M’Gonu’s powerful throat muscles had protected him from immediate death, however. Reflexively, he grabbed the blade from the shoemaker’s hand and fell backward, holding the blade in his left hand at his side. He thrashed on the ground, as if protesting his fate, his feet and head digging fiercely into the wet earth. His blood spurted, spattering the ground around his head, which he used to push his blood into the ground. After a while he ceased trashing, and gurgled, “komimona mawamawa, komimona mawamawa, (the mediocrity of fate, the mediocrity of fate.) During his ultimate moment of total understanding, he seemed to realize, as suddenly as his mind had reached out to the will to live a minute ago, that nothing mattered anymore; and he ceased to struggle. Nevertheless, eager for purgatory, where he would be cleansed and not hell, where he would spend eternity, Maka M’Gonu prayed to the missionary Père Blanc who had come to his natal village and baptized him.

  For a moment he glimpsed at a figure in the distance, and seeming to whisper put out his right hand to touch it. One of the elders asked, “Is one of the Dictator’s wives named Manawa?”  They looked at each other.

  “There was more to this man than a hard speech and a shaved head,” one of them answered. “Would that his brain had gotten in the way of his heart.”

  “He behaved as if he were a character in a tale, told to teach through entertainment.”

  “Does someone like him occur in nature? I mean naturally?”

  “He was what he seemed, no more.”

  “But I can’t understand it; he was as skittish as a pregnant hyena. What could possibly have made him come to Baluba country at a time like this?”

  “It was written – the ancestors willed it.”

  “He was a vulture! Not one with mwikadlilo muyampe (virtuous existence.) Let his brothers there in the trees have him.”

  They resumed their march to the village.  In the time it took to get there, the forest made Maka M’Gonu its own. He would not be an ancestor. His vita argued against membership. He was not a man of harmony, and he had no descendant to link the living to the ancestors with entreaties and offerings. To compound his unsuitability, he did not have a fine death. Besides, he could not claim the prerogative of a first-born son.

  While waiting to enter the Christian hell or purgatory, Maka M’Gonu was satisfied to be a spirit, haunting the woods and the neighboring Baluba villages he had failed to torch, declaiming the unfathomable prayers the missionary Père Blanc had taught him and tales of the ritual of his death at the hands of a Baluba woman whose husband he had massacred – another malediction in a region that knew nothing else.

 

 

 


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