STRINGER: A Reporter's Year in the Congo
A sequence of wooden kiosks had been erected on the barge. Most were stuffed with supplies. A few were empty. The kiosks were near the center of the deck, where in a long pile running the barge's length, goods were covered in thick nets. Around this pile were groups of people: passengers tending to their affairs. Some had come with food, others with rings of rope that tied together plastic canisters, called bidons. Boxes of imported whisky were guarded by vigilant agents wearing distribution company logos on their shirts. The goods traveled to be exchanged for rural produce: palm oil, roots, meat, banana wine and beer. A narrow corridor on the deck was not covered by cargo, and on this stretch of planks we walked. The wood was painted white, and led at the back to lavatories and quarters for the crew: huts that seemed little larger than pig cages. Sacks that crew members stepped over littered the doorways, and toothbrushes in metal cups lined window sills. Between the cabins were strung clotheslines from which identical overalls, torn in the same places — along the arms, over the chest, at the groin — flapped like pennants, dripping water in a pool that grew sideways with the gentle sway of the barge. Bobby and I were among the more privileged travelers: our quarters lay in a wooden kiosk. Its splintered planks gave us a roof but on the sides it was open to the world, and at night, the dark. Under this Bobby had set up our tent.
The barge's pipes were dry. Carrying my toothbrush I scoured the boat, trying the taps at the stern, near the crew quarters and even in the captain's office. But they only squeaked. Eventually I moved to a side, where the barge sloped slightly, and I scooped from the river with a mug. The water was translucent; twigs and winged insects floated. Everything in the water looked old. Brushing my teeth, I stood at the barge's rear end, watching the river, as a remarkable scene unfolded over the water and along its edge.
We were quite far from the city already, and the houses onshore had thinned, giving way to green and brown bamboo and patches of red earth. Along the water villagers soaped their bodies and scrubbed clothes. The trees moved by slowly. And from ahead of the barge rows of pirogues set off with heavy loads and strong-armed rowers pushing against the riverbank with oars. The long, black pirogues were carried downriver and alongside our vessel; and the men frantically rowed, now coming at us from all sides, from the far horizon of the river and along its length, shooting out of the jungle like arrows. The barge was soon surrounded and the crew gathered at the bow, watching anxiously. All at once the rowers flung thick black ropes, like snakes, from their pirogues. A bell was rung fiercely near the captain's quarters and the crew poured out of their rooms. Ropes flew through the air in high arcs and lashed at the barge, wriggling on the deck, slipping away, falling into the water; they were flung again with more fury. The crew thrust forward, they pulled the ropes with venous arms; they screamed at the rowers. The pirogues fought the flow of the river, approaching and falling away. Our motor's pitch heightened. The canoes were laden with heaps; they bobbed and rolled in the river, threatening to capsize in the swirling currents. The men heaved their oars and restored balance, rowing faster and more desperately until the pirogues drew closer, rose on a wave and dipped, and moved within our wake. Here the river was calmer. The crew tied the ropes to posts and the pirogues flowed steadily, without effort. The rowers drew their oars, dripping, out of the water; they breathed heavily. And by evening we tugged a collection of crafts like balloons wanting to drift away on the river.
At once the pirogues unloaded. And there was even less space. In the morning Bobby and I climbed out of the tent and found our faces against bags of dried fish. It had been a night of noise and movement. The paths on the deck had narrowed. We squeezed between the crates and reached the rear end of the barge, the designated bathroom area, where we pissed off the edge. It didn't feel awkward, or public—the barge was almost an exclusively male environment, and this permitted a level of both immodesty and squalor.
The pirogues were commercial vessels from the villages: and I realized that the scene I had witnessed was the attaching of the city with the jungle. The two quickly integrated. Men walked to and from the pirogues, over the ropes, carrying bottles, nets and livestock. They became for us a source of fresh food, and they relieved the traders of their city stocks. Negotiations sometimes lasted until the morning.
Most pirogues concluded their commerce and left by afternoon. I saw them detach from the barge and drift downriver towards their settlements. In the evening the traders, having few customers left, relaxed by their stalls to reggae and rumba. A pair of drums was used intermittently. The night ambience on the barge was of charcoal-stove fires and radio sets. What beer was available was shared, and when I was feeling social I would buy a couple of bottles, and drink a half.
There was no repose on the barge. Traders lay about the deck, limbs spread over their wares — one had to navigate them. A few stood out, attracting crowds. One sold coiled springs, toys that slunk from hand to hand. A man in a fishnet vest, for a little money, imitated animal sounds — hoopoe, chimps, forest buffalo.
The traders, I noticed, were poor city men. It showed in the way they ate cassava-dough from their palms; their shirts were soiled from wiping their mouths and faces; their slippers were broken. They drank from filthy mugs. The pirogue-men, although poorer, appeared less neglected, less outcast. So, it seemed that, like on 16th century ships with their crews of slaves and prisoners, Kinshasa had sent on our barge its lowest elements as emissaries to the provinces.
The barge advanced northwards, making a breeze against the rolling humidity. And soon even villages were rare: I was startled at how quickly we had left all signs of human development. Passing us was a constant level of jungle, without variation in the kind of tree — buttressed, stout, covered in woody creepers — or in the deep shade of green, the cauliflower-like crowns. The sound of the barge was a steady drone. All this created a distinct tension.
And it was Bobby who, briskly humming the tune to Kuch kuch hota hai, addressed this unease.
Flies covered the crates in clusters, unnaturally still, and rising as a slow cloud; fellow passengers, seeking shelter from the sun behind the cargo, were taken by surprise, exposed as Bobby moved the crates; their hands claimed the bags he shifted. But Bobby made new stacks with the cargo and the flies returned, followed by the shade-seeking crouching men. Room was made around one crate. Two others became chairs. And to pass the time on the slow-moving barge Bobby suggested we play checkers. He had brought a board and counters.
We took our seats. Bobby was clearly in form: from the start his counters flew across the red and black squares. But it had been years since I had played. I took long pauses. Bobby picked impatiently at the splinters on the crate. "You're not in the game of the century man. Don't worry so much about losing."
By the second or third day word had spread and people gathered around us to watch. Dames had been one of Mobutu's favorite games, Bobby told me. The market invaded our cramped space: men smoked over us; monkeys hung from wooden crucifixes; blocks of hippo fat and meat lay on straw mats, heated by the sun, attracting insects. Chicken ran loose, flustered by sniffing pigs, flapping their wings above their heads and clambering, half flying, over men's feet. Cages were pushed out of the way; the pigs panicked, shoving their noses at the ground and chasing the fowl for the length of their leashes. But Bobby and I played on, immersed, and this was how we spent the time until one morning when we heard a shot.
There was the jolt, and the fright, but the emotions seemed somehow unsurprising — one couldn't help but feel that we had been waiting for something to happen; that there could not have been more eventless days. The strain had begun to feel unnatural, too full.
A ragged soldier was at fault. His uniform was typical, scavenged from enemies: the shirt came from Kabila's guard, his hat from an invading Angolan army and his pants, a darker green, belonged to eastern rebels; the pants were folded up at the bottom, revealing a hairless shin. I had seen him prancing about the deck in rubber flip-flops, inseparable from his Kalashnikov — tied to his arm with rope so no one could steal it. For the entire previous day he had walked about the deck like this, swinging his arm, the weapon unusable and its bayonet oscillating dangerously. This was the gun that had been fired.
In the clearing where the crowd had separated we saw him at the barge edge. Beside was the captain — still in short-white pants, and looking through binoculars. The barge had drifted relatively close to the land, and the captain seemed to point at the monkeys clambering over the branches. But the soldier shot uselessly. The fire from his Kalashnikov raised spikes of dirt on the riverbank, and the branches showed no movement. The animals were gone. The captain cursed openly. The soldier puckered his lips and made an obscene sucking noise.
Calm returned to the deck, but in a heightened way. The barge had been unsettled and made alert by the shooting. The soldier stayed on the deck with his gun. And people withdrew: some slunk into the hull; a few crawled along the ropes to the pirogues. Bobby carefully moved our board to the kiosk, where it was quieter, and we continued where we had broken off: with my counters frenziedly fleeing. He joked about how fast I was running, but his voice had hardened, and he looked over his shoulder. The stress seemed to find expression in his movements. The forest was unbroken, a stretch of drifting green. Soon my pieces were cornered. I was three strokes from annihilation when I played a lively combination, breaking a portion of his defense and stalling his conquest. "You're just delaying the end," he said.
"I'm playing to win."
Bobby got up from his seat, as if taken by an urge. He told me to wait and made for the back of the barge. The evening was coming to a close. The sun hung over the water, which glistened red and gold. Migratory birds skimmed the river surface, on their last legs before nightfall. Monkeys screeched across the water, their calls echoing. I could have waited half an hour; it felt too long.
Then, over the crates, I saw Bobby with the captain. They were sharing a smoke. I was about to call out when Bobby looked over and waved, as though nothing had happened. At first I was perplexed. Then I felt cheated. I tipped over one end of the board. The act was involuntary — I was surprised that I had done it; but already on this journey I had begun to feel outside myself. In this strange landscape, with its strange people, the monotony had begun to make me feel detached, distant, and it was as though by that act I had for a moment removed years of manners and teaching, obeying a destructive instinct. It somehow satisfied me to see the counters scattered over the deck.
The AP informed me that I was missing a number of stories in Kinshasa. The government had begun to make a number of election announcements. Bentley had returned to Kinshasa, and was reporting a flurry. The editors called to ask where I was — though they had known about my expedition. The line was crackly. They were annoyed. They asked how long I intended to travel. I had also missed earnings from those reports. I thought of the family in Kinshasa. And I felt a creeping doubt — if I had not erred by coming to the jungle. The pressure on me grew — the fear of coming out of this empty handed.
Bobby became unfriendly to me. I would see him walk through the market, alone, to buy grilled fish. He carried them on hooks and ate in the tent, from the newspaper. In the evenings he would lean over the railings, looking over the water, and the foam. When we met it was awkward, and I felt embarrassed—I feared he would bring up the game, though I felt it was he who should apologize for his rude behavior. As the days passed it became clear that neither he nor I would express regret. An impasse formed between us. And during this time the fever on the barge grew: the market, its goods and livestock and kiosks. As more and more city produce was exchanged for animals, the squawks and noises woke me even earlier in the morning. I felt stressed, on edge — and this stress was irreconcilable with the heat, which wanted to draw one into a stupor.
Looking out on the river, often alert, as if searching for something, I one day became conscious of the disappearance of the beaches. The river was walled by jungle. And watching this green continuum, I felt lonely. It was not from a lack of company. I was constantly meeting people in Congo — and also leaving them behind. I came to new people, negotiated with them. I tried to move forward. But there was no continuity in this.
I thought of Mossi. His support had been strange. Yet it had seemed to come from genuine concern and good heartedness. Despite his precarious condition he had made himself my mentor. I felt I could not return what he had given me — the encouragement and confidence when I needed it most. And now I was moving on. The constant movement was grinding, fatiguing.
The solitude swelled within me, creating a sense of abandonment and also an aggression. I somehow felt joined with my surroundings. I feared meeting one of the annoying poor men on the barge. I thought the anger and violence might come out if I were provoked.
One of Mobutu's many palaces appeared on the riverbank. Set on a mud cliff, it was a decrepit colonial-style construction: with pillars, a triangular roof, whitewash, paved verandas. The dictator's palaces were legendary. Jose had told me that they were walled with jade, that the doorknobs were jeweled, and that he decorated them with Picassos and Fabergé eggs: unthinkingly spending wealth that belonged to the people.
Though Mobutu had died nearly a decade ago, one still felt his influence everywhere. Particularly here, in the jungle — an ancient part of Congo, and the world. People here were remote, disconnected. The coming elections were meaningless; everyone of this area would vote for Mobutu's clan. I was coming into an old place, with deep-rooted mentalities from Mobutu's thirty-two-year rule of Congo. By the end he had made himself the Founding Father (le Pere Fondateur), the Builder (le Batisseur), the Marshal of Zaïre (le Maréchal du Zaïre), and a demigod who in videos materialized in the sky, among the clouds.
But the man of these grand titles and visions had simple origins. Joseph Désiré Mobutu was raised by a single mother. Unlike many African dictators he was not the son of a chief or notable. He had been a troublesome child. He joined the army at a low rank. Footage from his years as a journalist show him to be a scrawny young man, uncertain and deferential in the presence of Belgians.
This was the same man who took it upon himself to restore — even create, for Congo hadn't existed until the colonials — a national identity. Like most colonial nations the newly independent Congo was stuck in imitations: of European materialism, tastes, culture. The country as a whole aspired to be évolué. But Mobutu revolted against such dependency: with increasing force he transformed Congo, to the extent that over the years it became difficult to distinguish his willful design from whim and neurosis.
Mobutu's delusion was to create a certain "authenticity". He changed Congo's name to the older Zaïre. The river and the currency were now also Zaïre. He banned European dress. The official costume was now a half-sleeve suit called the Abacoste. He banned Christian names, even his own "Joseph Désiré." Henceforth the president was to be known as Mobutu Sese Seko Kuku Ngbendu wa za Banga: the all powerful warrior who, because of his endurance and inflexible will to win, will go from conquest to conquest leaving fire in his wake.
Gradually everything became "Africanized" — or Mobutized: all authenticity was his creation. He began to address the nation like a tribal chief from Equateur: Nye Nye (Can you be silent?). The crowd would reply: Nye (We are silent.) Na loba (Can I speak?) Loba (Speak.) Na Sopa (Can I speak frankly?) Sopa (Speak frankly.) Na Panza (Can I speak openly?) Panza (Speak openly). The jungle was where Mobutu came from. This was the authenticity he knew. And he sought in many ways, through his policies, to return Congo to this bush. He didn't build roads — ostensibly to protect himself from coups—but it had the effect of isolating the people and restricting their development. The population became stalled in his fabrications. So when Mobutu told the people that they loved him, it seemed that they did.
There could have been something, in all this, of an attempt to rewrite a horrific past, to deal with the ignominy of history. For the province of Equateur, Mobutu's inspiration for a return to African ways, was also the site of the Belgians" worst massacres: of genocidal killings; of hands cut off for harvesting insufficient rubber. This jungle, along the river, was where Conrad placed his Mr. Kurtz.
But Mobutu was no visionary: that was Lumumba, whose achievement had been to unite Congo and claim independence for all its people. He had created a genuine nationalism. And Mobutu's ideas were from their conception absurd. "Authenticity" turned out to be just the replacement of one imitation with another: his name for the country, Zaïre, was a Portuguese distortion of Nzadi, a tribal word for river. He "invented" the Abacoste after a trip to Mao's China. The chieftain's cane he carried — reputed to be a source of his powers — was said to contain fetish from India, obtained during his visit to Indira Gandhi. Mobutu, having nothing to lean on, became a mimic; he created a disconnected people, and a confused and conflicted Congolese identity — if one could call it that.
The colossal Mobutu creation eventually crumbled. His palaces were pillaged. People turned his airplanes, homes and limousines into camp-like family dwellings. The exotic animals in his garden-zoos—tigers, orangutans, birds of paradise — were eaten. And sympathizers of Mobutu's regime — like Annie, the bank teller in America, and her husband — became exiled. The dictator himself died in Morocco, a guest of the king. The revolution supplanted Mobutu's whimsical order: figures of the new regime replaced his monuments. The country was renamed, along with the currency and river. There were new fondateurs now, new fathers. So history was again destroyed and manipulated; memories were allowed to fade. The palace drifted past; it had begun to be buried by the jungle. A vendor pointed out that Mobutu had once lived there.
I had seen the vendor before. He wore a black t-shirt and dark glasses. I had seen him behind a vendor who had covered his chest with fish, hanging on hooks, open mouthed, like a coat of mail armor. Now the vendor squatted beside me and I saw his leg was limp; he had to half-drag it along the deck. He held out his hand, as if to ask for money. "Go away," I said, waving my hands frantically. But he didn't want charity. "I have gold."
It began the harassment. The vendor would appear before me, by surprise, several times daily, flashing sandlike grains and yellow chips in his palm; he said his wife was in hospital and he needed the money; he explained it was urgent to extract a bullet from his leg; he showed me a grotesque lump at his knee. I started to turn away from him. And for two full days I successfully avoided the vendor. But one afternoon I was peering into the captain's control room, curious to see if the dials and speedometers on the rusty dashboard worked, and the vendor's reflection appeared in the window. He climbed down a container with his arms, pulling himself closer, and from the inside of his pants he unraveled a crumpled sheet of carbon paper. He spoke with gravity. "I got it, you worried about customs people. Put the gold inside paper and X-rays can't see." And without waiting for my refusal he added, "I give you good price. I know you want better quality. In a big nugget, not small like this. I know, I know. You are my most difficult client!" and he dragged himself away making a pitiful sight, to find these new objects he thought I wanted. I felt all worked up, with an unbearable annoyance, a desire to be left alone. Meanwhile the captain had returned to the helm and he ordered the barge to speed up to avoid inclement weather; apparently the rains had come early. Once again the pitch of the engine rose, and I felt the barge momentarily surge.
It had become more difficult to sleep. The tent had begun to smell of sweat and humidity, and we lay wrapped in our sleeping bags, with Bobby occupying most of the space. He refused to budge, even when I pushed him with my elbow. And his attitude to food was also changing. When I asked for sardines from our provisions he said we should save the cans. I began to suspect he was hoarding the supplies, or had perhaps sold a few. My nose itched from the dust, and I sniveled.
"Stop that," Bobby said.
You stop smelling first, I thought. And then I found myself unable to sleep. I listened to the motor, the insects, the traders moving about at night. Each set of steps that approached I thought would stop at our kiosk. But these inconveniences, and my angst, disappeared once we arrived at port.
It took only half a day for the traders to wrap up their wares. The stalls came crashing down. The noise made me tense. I stood against the railing. Lights on the pier made a glow that reflected in the water, giving it a dark shine. The jetty was not deep enough for the barge to dock so we moored at some distance. And a group of pirogues came from the village. They were loaded by the traders working in groups: sacks and crates passed from hand to hand and down into the boats. Progress was quick. But the moving machine of people suddenly stopped. Agents at the port were calling out to the rowers. That there were sanitary inspectors seemed itself remarkable, and now these inspectors were saying they had instructions for bird flu, and that our barge was teeming with live birds.
The traders decided to cull half the livestock. Chickens were chosen for their plumpness. They tried to fly away, squawking, but were gripped forcefully by their wings. The few roosters were let be, and they watched, standing still, as off the edge of the barge the chickens" throats were slit with old knives and the birds gurgled. Blood fell into the river in a spurt, then in drops. The dead birds were flung into piles, wrapped in fiber by the women and sent away on the pirogues. The birds still alive were marked with paint by their owners, separated by specie and quarantined in mud sheds onshore for 72 hours.
The killing dramatically reduced the level of noise — the cages of flurried activity had become piles of dead meat, and the men and women at work did so efficiently and in silence. Passengers were not allowed off the boat until the inspectors gave a signal. So we waited several hours to disembark. Bobby, in a relaxed moment, pointed to a man in a tight suit-jacket and horn-rim spectacles and said, "He has the Look Baudouin," referring to the Belgian king. Apparently Bobby could tell the man didn't need glasses. It was a fashion that had become popular in the 80s. And he began, of his own accord, to tell me about his past. He had inherited his shop from a cousin, he said—before that he had worked in Kuwait, and before that on a ship. The idea of running an electrical shop had never appealed to him: it was why he had invested in real estate. "Everybody told me not to do it—Africa this, Africa that. But I got a chance to buy this property and look at what happened. If I get even twenty percent of its worth I'll be rich."
I asked what he planned to do with the money.
"Retire, of course. And pay for my daughter's marriage. She lost her mother, poor thing."
The captain announced we would stay the night in the village-town. It was called Irebu, and its residents were hospitable. Most passengers found places in villagers' homes. Bobby negotiated a mattress for us in a storeroom that belonged to man who seemed important, because he had a large yard. But when we lay down to sleep I saw the ceiling covered in bats all the way to the eaves and I convinced Bobby to move to the courtyard. Again we were in the tent. It felt unusual that the floor didn't rumble. I wanted to return to the barge. Outside, familiar night insects cricked and chirped, each playing its part in the forest cacophony.
In the morning we met the yard owner, a burly man called l'Americain (the name was a compliment in Congo, meaning innovator, and nonconformist). Within a few minutes of our meeting he urged me to have children; and he asked if I might possibly marry a Congolese. That afternoon l'Americain took us to the river. A funeral was taking place. Canoes studded the water, and slender girls with powdered-white cheeks sang beside long-oared fishermen. The girls resembled eerie dolls, and their singing sounded like moans. Bobby and I decided to leave. We looked around.
The town of Irebu was organized like in the textbooks: around a market, with the fields at the periphery and houses in between. In places the houses blended with the forest, making it difficult to find a boundary. Passing through the market we inquired about prices; and we huffed indignantly when vendors tried to fleece us. Bobby and I seemed unconscious of our animosity.
Near the river, at the far end of the market, I found some food being cooked (everything else was either raw or unclean). A woman stirred a metal casserole lodged in a mangled dead tree. The casserole contained a bath of leaves and chili, but its vegetarian aroma was polluted by the vendor next door who hung thighs of forest buffalo from iron beams.
The market apparently contained crocodiles as well — they had been found by our captain. And the hides were now displayed prominently on the barge. The beasts had been emptied of flesh and their rutted skins, pale white on the inside, had been cut open and clipped to the clothesline, stretched to more than twice their normal width.
The news came soon after: a routine inspection by the crew found a malfunction with the engine cooling system. The captain said he had known all along that something was wrong; he had sensed the engine's strain. He ordered an investigation and after a few hours announced we would have to take apart the engine. The town sent its mechanic and together with the technicians among the crew they tried to fabricate a solution. They spent all day inside the hull, which became like a secret cavern. Boys were sent to the village to fetch tools, and to bring platters of soft drinks and food. All of us waited, our plans on standstill.
The engineers said they could fix it in a day, that the problem was not serious. They worked for two days, then four. And we began to wonder if they were intentionally delaying. The captain eventually delivered the outcome: the repairs had revealed a different problem, with the piping. We would have to wait for a barge to bring us spare parts. The town became downcast. The market stayed open later that evening; traders discussed alternatives. A barge could be weeks away. Our journey had run aground.
For supper l'Americain's wife gave us bowls of hot manioc and sugary tea. The night was humid and warm; I left the tent. The sky was covered in puffs and the moon danced behind the clouds, its light dimming and swelling like a strobe. Bats flew out of the attic, moving in wide circles and flapping among the trees. The village no longer seemed charming; the water lapped continually against the mud, and I could only think of the dark depth of the river, which seemed impassable, and of our disabled boat.
A small festival started on the barge. The doors to the hull were wide open and people swarmed the deck, dancing to music from the large speakers. Villagers joined. At the back, under his crocodiles, the captain emitted misty fumes from his pipe. The scene, and the music, seemed foreboding: our predicament would not be soon resolved.
I felt the urgency of needing to move forward. I had staked too much on this journey. My irritation grew. During those days Bobby and I ate at a single restaurant (we called it "the shack") because of a promotion running for barge passengers. The establishment seemed dubious, thrown together at the last minute, and one had the impression it would shut the day we departed. Lunch was advertised as a buffet, but the staff served meager portions. It was a murky place. The odd shaft of light shot through holes in the wall and roof, and a lamp without oil stood in the corner. The restaurant also appeared to never stock food — it possessed no refrigerator, and as soon as we ordered the owner would issue instructions and a boy would run out of the back, returning with bags from the market. Even though our time was now worthless, perhaps because we were reduced to waiting for the barge I became annoyed at this slowness.
The owner of the shack became excessively friendly with us — and one day we discovered why. It was the day the goldseller pounced on us while we waited for dinner; he said he was the owner's cousin. Mon frère, Mon frère — everyone in Congo could be your brother. He decisively pulled himself onto a chair and announced he had found a nugget. When I told him I didn't want it his face darkened, and I thought he was going to be angry and leave; but his smile returned. "I know. Your friend want nugget." Bobby stamped his feet, dislodging the bench, and the goldseller was about to say something but Bobby stamped again and the goldseller was dragging his leg away. He appeared at our tent. Bobby threatened to beat him. But the man would not be dissuaded. Finally, tired of the evasion and realizing its futility, we agreed to meet the duo at the back of the restaurant. It was our intention to make clear that this would be our last discussion. But that would not be: it was the goldseller and his cousin who offered us the most viable exit.
They tried to sell us anything: promises of gold turned into promises of diamonds, into truffles and truckfuls of timber, into maps of hidden treasures left behind by Belgians. When the cousin learned Bobby traded with India he chattered with the goldseller, who drew a plastic wrapper from inside his pants. It contained a map, heavily stained and covered with what seemed to be the rectilinear shapes of buildings. "I need a metal detector," he said gravely. Bobby asked to see the map but the cousin smiled knowingly. He said we could have it for one hundred thousand dollars. He tried to sell us a diesel generator — for light and cooking in our tent — and Bulgarian-manufactured Kalashnikovs; he said there must be something he had that we wanted; he asked where we had been going before the barge stalled. And he offered to take us by boat. The clamor rose outside our shed.
Boats were easily available. The cousin said we should have at least two engines. Canisters of petrol were purchased, foraged from various houses and businessmen. Bobby was hesitant initially but the duo moved forward with such speed and conviction and when they spoke it seemed so utterly sincere — they asked for an advance of only half the money — that already it felt too late to refuse. We became accustomed to the idea, even optimistic. Bobby said if we were lucky to find good motors we could make the journey in two days.
I began to enjoy the port in my way. I bathed in the river, near the rocks, where the villagers said crocodiles didn't swim. The water was cold and stagnant. I gave it iridescent patches of soap. Once my toe slipped on a slimy smooth object and I nearly fell. I waded out of the water, jumping, making big splashes. Later in a dark room packed with townsmen I watched Sholay, a Hindi movie from the 70s — probably gotten from a trader — on a 15-inch television. The movie had no subtitles. The villagers clapped during the dances.
A strange event occurred one night when I was reading by a flashlight in the tent. Bobby and I were camped in the yard. A family of three arrived. The visitors were poorly dressed and without slippers. The skin on their feet was so cracked that it looked like dried clay. The father was the only one who spoke. He seemed simple enough, until he asked me to make his girl speak. She had been mute from birth, and he had heard of Indian magic. I shook my head helplessly. The father grew annoyed. He said he knew I could cure his girl. This was the reputation the Indians had in the country. The family sat by the gate for many hours, and left sometime in the night. The next day I told some villagers about the incident—the supernatural was daily conversation at the port. They said I had done right. It could have been a ruse. Those people were from the bush, and the village was at a delicate time. There had been a vampire visit some months ago; it was said to have arrived with a terrific sound, terrorizing the people for weeks until it was slain by the shaman. Villagers shared their stories of misfortune: the vampire ate livestock; it caused a roof to implode; it emptied the fishermen's nets of riverfish; it infected their lungs. A fisherman's boy told me he had found the dead beast. He wanted to show me. It was just outside the village, he said, near the fields. I tugged at his shirt as he climbed with agility over fallen trunks. We passed old dwellings without tops, shielded by tall grass, and we entered a clearing in the jungle where covered with creepers and leaves was the frame of an aircraft. The fuselage gaped open, half sunk into the floor. The boy, standing behind a tree, thought it could be worth a lot for its strangeness, that he could sell it at the port. I looked up — but the forest was impenetrable and I couldn't make out the path by which the plane had come.
We left the carcass as we had found it. And on the walk back I learned the boy — whose name was Bahati—was a refugee from Rwanda. His family had been killed by the Rwandan army. A villager had adopted him. He said he liked international news, so before my departure, at his request, I bought him a small radio.
At the last minute I worried something would go wrong. Even Bobby sensed the precariousness. Over and over he inspected the boat — his marine experience showing as he scrupulously checked the hull, the engine and the safety equipment. We ran through our provisions and checked the maps, with Xs at landmarks so we wouldn't get lost among the islands striping the river. We checked with l'Americain that the goldseller and his cousin were trustworthy. Everything seemed in order, and I felt vaguely satisfied.
The sky was overcast on our last night in Irebu. Only a strip of stars remained, in the northeast. It looked like the Big Dipper, but I fancied I could make a Big Dipper out of any five stars. I felt heady, on the brink of new discovery: I had worried that our journey might end with us stranded in the village. Suddenly the starry strip made a huge circle and melted into the black. "Are you alright?" Bobby held my arm. I had fallen, tripped on a root. "Help me up."
I was still uneasy the next morning when our party of three — the cousin came along — set off. The craft rocked less once we started moving. My nausea eased. It was a relief to see the forest pass with speed. The boat angled upward, and I sat at the bow to give myself a view from a little height. The shore grew distant and the river bloated. There were the familiar islands of reeds, called "floating islands". We passed an area where the water was so wide that it extended to the horizon; we could see no land, and the river seemed an ocean. The cousin navigated our canoe through the marshes. Perspiration dotted our faces. The wind made waves on the water. And the rains arrived.
They first appeared as a white mist wrapped around distant trees. It made a beautiful sight: the water hit the earth and rose as pale fumes among the green. The trees were empty of monkeys, and eagles circled above, expecting invertebrate meals. A hush broke the silence. It sounded like rustling leaves; but too steady. The rain approached and grew louder and louder. Our envelope of water, from above and below, became complete. A howling wind rode the river and slammed into our boat. The motor whirred noisily, raised in the air, and plunged into the water. We pressed our legs against the boat's sides. The rain had become a deluge that hit us like stones; the boat rolled; water climbed its sides and seeped into the hull; the river began to threaten. I was newly aware that we could drown. With a mug I scooped out the water, but it felt futile.
Night came more quickly because of the clouds. We moored the boat. The wetness made me cold and clammy. We were not alone: I saw figures flit among the trees. There was a glow: a torch carried its canopy of light into the jungle. And it occurred to me that we could have been followed. But by whom?
I had become dirty, and I had begun to itch uncomfortably on my legs and back. The constant rain gave no respite, and it was dangerous to sleep nude, but I was worried I could catch pneumonia. I wrapped myself in a damp towel and fell asleep, shivering on a raised plank of the boat. For as long as it rained we wouldn't have to worry about the mosquitoes.
The next day we moved ahead, along eroded cliffs of black mud and between marshes and riverine reeds. Branches arched over the water, along with colonnades of green bamboo. Roots protruded from the cliffs of dissolving laterite, which made the river muddy. The rain poured, then slowed to a drizzle. Bobby passed around fruit; the bananas were mashed, and I licked the paste with my tongue. The goldseller set up the tent like an awning over the boat's rear; it was hardly effective because the rain came in from the sides. Our progress that day was meager. And at night for a long time I watched the blackness pass; shapes emerged, black on black; I seemed able to discern different shades; perhaps the forest gave the blackness new dimensions, new degrees, I thought. A mosquito came into the weak beam of my torchlight. It settled on my knee, stretched taut; the insect, brilliant in the light, spread its legs and probed. I smacked it. Poor mosquito, I thought, what a delirious death. I scratched my knee. We passed a house on the cliff. It had lights, and seemed a bungalow. Yellow filled the doorway and window, and there was a form. Against the light we saw the silhouette of a person looking at us.
I tried to sleep but the motor roared all night. We were trying to outrun the weather. Some hours before dawn I was woken by a heavy thud. I sat up. The cousin cut the wailing engine. The boat was stuck. Bobby thought it was a sandbar. The water was too opaque to see. Leaning over, the cousin reached with his hands into the propeller blades and pulled out some knotted weeds. He pushed us out of the swamp with an oar. The boat budged by centimeter; the cousin slipped and fell. It had been two full days and we had not made a third of the distance. Sometime that night I asked if we should turn.
Bobby thought we still had a chance. The cousin rubbed his bruise as though it wasn't his decision. The boat labored. The engine choked and we turned it off. Just before dawn the rain grew furious again. The currents swirled and the boat twisted. Visibility diminished. We became stuck in more weeds. The river turned violet. We stopped and passed the morning on a bank, eating bananas and canned sardines; there seemed no point in saving our stocks. Twigs and felled trees floated by, still alive, bearing green leaves. And in the torrential downpour we pushed the hull into the water; it made a splash. Bobby now held the rudder. And the boat moved more quickly, now aided by the current.
Only on our return did I notice how the rainforest bloomed. Everything seemed calmer. Lightning arced through the sky, but without thunder. The animal cries were muted by the sounds of rain. And the forest gained definition: details became visible against the green. Creatures leaped from the trees with outstretched arms. The throats of bullfrogs expanded into bottles. Monkeys hung by their tails and playfully touched the river. Areas of the shore were covered in white mushrooms. Lichen colored tree barks glowed orange. Cicadas called at 6pm.
At the village a monkey had been imprisoned in a bamboo cage. L'Americain kept it as a pet, feeding it passion fruit. He was sitting in an open-walled hut. Half a trunk of wood had been lit and smothered, and smoke from the orange-glowing log rose through a hole in the thatched roof. L'Americain rested in the shade. His wife brought us a buffet of pineapple. The monkey licked its fingers. I ate so quickly I wasn't aware when my hunger was extinguished, and I finished the meal moving slowly and giddily, like a bee that had feasted on honey.
The barge was still stranded, and the only sign of life on it was the clutter around the crew quarters. Another barge had passed in the interim and embarked most of the beached passengers, but it hadn't had the requisite equipment to repair our barge. L'Americain proposed we borrow his motorbike. He offered to arrange a party on foot: local boys would serve as guides. If we waited a week it might be possible to rent a 4 x 4. But they seemed ideas of folly. The cousin backed out. We would soon reach the peak of inundation, he said, and any journey would be too risky.
Bobby rashly promised that we would return in a few months. The cousin said once the rains slowed he would be glad to join.
Bobby had contracted a cold. Solemnly, sniveling, he made for the bat room.
I sat on the riverbank for a long time. I felt exhausted. Our journey had clearly failed. I had made a mistake by taking such a risk. And I had now gone several weeks without writing a story. The money I had given the family would have been finished. I thought I would have to pick myself up and return to the old routine in Kinshasa. It would be a struggle.
But something happened that afternoon to change the course of my time in Congo. I heard a noise behind me, in the bush. It was Bahati, the Rwandan boy, who came to the water. He had brought his radio, and together we listened to the international news. I told him about our misadventure upriver. He had heard. And after we turned off the radio he said we could perhaps go cycling together. Two Pygmy settlements were located not far away, he said. If I was interested. I was not particularly hopeful — but it seemed a last possibility. So the next day we borrowed two bicycles from l'Americain and set out.
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