Issue 191, Winter 2009
One morning I saw André, the houseboy from the parish in Minembwe, set off down the hill with a chicken under his right arm. He’d stuffed the legs of his trousers into his rubber boots and he was wearing a crumpled dress shirt over a T-shirt. That was all he had on him—apart from the chicken, which he would carry all the way to Uvira to sell.
He would walk through the hills, valleys, and swamps, cross streams and take narrow paths through the forest—fifty-five miles as the crow flies. All that time the chicken would accompany him. He’d have to feed her and she was bound to soil his clothes. At night she would sleep beside him, tethered to the string he’d knotted to one of her legs with the other end around his finger. None of this seemed to bother André. He was happy; he smiled. He was off to visit his wife. And Curé Jorojoro, the parish priest, had given him a chicken that was worth three dollars in Uvira—fifty cents more than here.
This was April of 2004, and soon I’d be making the same journey. Not in four days like André; no, I’d look about me as I went, visit the markets of the high plains, and try to understand how people lived in this inhospitable part of southeastern Congo—a place without roads or electricity, with inhabitants so averse to bureaucracy that my Belgian forebears never really managed to get a grip on them.
The colonel in command of the high plains lived in a large fenced-off house on a hill at the edge of Minembwe. He’d assigned me a guide, Bavire, a somber man with a little mustache and a glassy look in his eyes. Bavire had broken off his law studies in the valley to be with the colonel, who quickly appointed him boss of his legal service. Bavire would accompany me on my journey, but first we’d take a trip or two in the surrounding area to get used to the “milieu,” as everyone called it. And to each other, as Curé Jorojoro added.
It was market day in nearby Gakangara, and Bavire and I had set out early. He walked beside me, ramrod straight, sweeping his stick. We attracted a lot of attention, because white people rarely ventured into these parts. We were waylaid repeatedly and bombarded with questions: Where had we come from? Where were we going? Bavire kept it short, since every answer prompted another question.
The traders, who walked from market to market with their wares on their heads, laughed and called out to me. They were Shi—one of a half dozen ethnic groups in the province of South Kivu, all of them minority groups because none of them constituted a proper majority—small wiry men who’d come up from the valley to “seek their lives.” I looked at them and realized that after only a few days in Minembwe I’d become used to the introverted ways of the Banyamulenge, the people to whom Bavire, like the colonel, belonged. The Banyamulenge are cattlemen, descendants of herders, most of whom had arrived from neighboring Rwanda by the end of the nineteenth century. With their slender build, their archaic pride, and their majestic cows, they succeeded in overshadowing all the other peoples in the high plains—the Bembe, Fulero, Nyindu, and Shi.
We crossed a river where men were standing up to their knees in water. On the far bank three young men with spades were digging a pit. They were gold diggers, barefoot and muscular, dressed in torn shorts and covered in fine dust from the soil. The dust was mixed with sweat, which ran down in irregular runnels. They’d already made a fair bit of progress, three meters at least, and they waved to us from the depths. They always dug close to water, Bavire told me, so they could sluice the sand. Sometimes their digging would change the course of a river.
They too were Shi. They paid taxes to the colonel, which helped to sustain his military movement. Near the riverbank they’d driven stakes into the ground and laid leaves on top to make a shelter. On the roof, jumbled together, were the clothes they’d taken off that morning, and underneath it were their shoes and traces of a wood fire. It was a touching still life, but Bavire had no time for it. He’d already walked on and was waiting farther along the path.
Now and then we passed women with hard, whitened faces and hair in plaits that stuck out from their heads like antennae. They too lived in the gold diggers’ village, Bavire told me. They’d come all the way from the capital, Kinshasa, a thousand miles away, to provide “ambiance.” During the day they went shopping and fetched water and firewood; in the evenings they shuffled along the dark village alleyways in search of men.
When we arrived in Gakangara after three hours, shouting children flocked around and Bavire used his stick to chase them away. The market had looked impressive from a distance, but the wares laid out on the wooden tables were paltry: cigarettes, batteries, matches, pencils, exercise books, pens, and plastic sewing kits—cheap items, made in China. Dangling from coat hangers were the secondhand jackets, trousers, shirts, dilapidated raincoats, and weather-beaten hats that gave the Banyamulenge an old-fashioned look no matter how young they were. If a girl wanted to buy underwear she had to point to it furtively. While she wandered off for a moment, the trader would pack it discreetly in paper. Then she would pay and take it with her.
My congolese journey had begun almost twenty years earlier in the extreme west of the country. I’d traveled through Lower Congo in the footsteps of my great-uncle, a missionary. In the years that followed I moved farther and farther east, until I reached the border town of Uvira, almost a thousand miles from where I’d started. On one side was Lake Tanganyika, on the other a wall of mysterious blue mountains called Mitumba. Behind them lay the high plains, where a warlike people who originally came from Rwanda were said to live. The Banyamulenge—hardly anyone had ever heard of them and suddenly, at the end of 1996, they were on everyone’s lips. The Banyamulenge helped President Laurent Kabila and his Rwandan allies put an end to Mobutu’s dictatorship. But they couldn’t get along with the new president and soon a second war broke out. Kabila had since been assassinated and the country officially reunited under his son Joseph, but the east remained restive. After independence in 1960 there had been revolts in the region for many years. Now a colonel had established his own republic high up on the plateaus. Getting there was difficult if not impossible, everyone told me. But I’d already started to dream: the high plains would be the last stage of my Congolese journey, the final challenge to be faced.
Through an aid agency I sent a letter to the colonel, requesting permission to visit his territory. I wanted to study at close hand the wounds of history, which seemed to be deeper in the east than elsewhere, I wrote. His consent reached me by word of mouth. A short while later I chartered a small aircraft and flew to the main town, Minembwe. I would make my way back on foot.
An acquaintance in uvira had asked me to visit his father when I reached the high plains. Bavire went with me and along the way he gradually loosened up. Although he remonstrated with everyone who approached me, it seemed he was starting to enjoy traveling with a walking attraction. “Just look at that,” he said as we passed some cows that had stopped to stare at us. “Even the animals are surprised by your arrival.”
My acquaintance’s elderly father lived on a plot surrounded by a fence made of bamboo stakes, which kept out wandering cattle. Unlike elsewhere in the world, where cows graze on enclosed pastures, the animals in the high plains move about freely and the houses, schools, and vegetable gardens are fenced off.
The old man received us in a hut with large window openings that looked out on sloping meadows. His expression was friendly. “How many children do you have?” he wanted to know. The security man in Minembwe had asked me the same question the day I arrived. I’d given him a piece of my mind, but I couldn’t, of course, behave that way toward this respectable father with his threadbare hat.
I glanced at Bavire, who was staring vacantly at the cows on the other side of the fence. “I don’t have any children,” I said finally. That wasn’t a good start in this world of pregnant cows, I realized, so I repeated a saying from the high plains that someone had whispered in my ear: “Those without children can at least leave words behind.”
That saying didn’t strike any chords with the old man. I heard myself explaining that a traveling life was hard to combine with children. “Not even one or two?” He shook his head in disbelief. The pinstriped jacket he wore with a regal air was moth-eaten and the collar of his shirt had seen better days as well. A childless woman doesn’t die, she vanishes, another saying went—I suspected he was more familiar with that one.
His children had caught sight of us and they clutched the bamboo fence inquisitively with their tiny hands. Men go on having children here into old age. If a wife falls sick her husband will place her fate in God’s hands rather than sell a cow so he can take her to a hospital. After her death he’ll marry a younger woman. A wife who dies is like a broken gourd, they say—you have to find a replacement.
“I believe I have a problem,” I said to Bavire on the way back. Hesitantly I added: “What do you suppose I could do about it?”
He waved his stick in the air. “What do you think?”
“Shall I say next time that I do have children?”
His face brightened. “That’s a good idea.”
“Would two be enough?”
“I think so, yes.” He sounded relieved.
“A boy and a girl?”
“Thank you,” he said, pleased I’d understood that two daughters wouldn’t solve the problem. For the past half hour he’d been particularly taciturn, but now he started to talk. “A childless woman has no voice here,” he said. “People think, What could she possibly teach us if she hasn’t got any offspring? Why should we confide in her? She’s sure to tell us a pack of lies. Her words have no value; they’re destined to vanish.”
In the silence that followed I let the curse of my childlessness sink in. Then Bavire started speaking again. “I have a problem too,” he admitted. “I’m thirty-three, but I still don’t have any children.” As a student he hadn’t found the time to look for a wife, and since he started working for the colonel there’d been even less opportunity.
“Perhaps we could invent a few children for you as well when we travel down together,” I suggested.
The idea appealed to him. Three children seemed an appropriate number. “I’ll give you two,” he said, “and you give me three.”
We laughed and slapped the palms of our hands together to seal our pact. “Nous sommes ensemble,” said Bavire, an expression people in the high plains used when they understood one another.
“Thirty-three sure is late to get married,” I said as we walked on. Men in the high plains usually marry much younger.
Bavire sighed. “It’s hard to find a suitable woman. I’ve been away for years, life in the valley has changed me, whereas here in the meantime . . .” Anyone who wanted to marry a girl had to give her father cows. Many young men couldn’t meet the steep demands of their future fathers-in-law and decided to kidnap their future wives.
“Kidnap them? How do they do that?”
“Oh, it’s very simple. The boy lures the girl outside with the help of his friends, supposedly for a short walk. He takes her home with him . . .”—Bavire searched for the right words—“. . . où ils se cognent,” he said finally: where they bump against each another.
I laughed. “Is that what it’s called?”
“In this case, yes. The father-in-law is left with no choice. Once his daughter has slept under a strange man’s roof she’s no longer worth anything.”
It was a clear night full of stars. On the way to our rooms Jorojoro and I stopped for a while on the parish veranda. Minembwe was sleeping; the houses scattered sparsely across the landscape were shrouded in darkness; the hills stood out blackly against the sky.
I thought I could hear singing, faint at first, getting gradually louder and louder. “What’s that?” “A wake,” said Jorojoro. “This late?” He laughed. “Sometimes they go on all night.” “Has someone died?” “No, no, they’re forever holding wakes, whether anyone’s dead or not.” Jorojoro sounded skeptical. He knew the group that was holding the wake. They were the Catholics who also came to the parish church on Sundays. “Only they tend to lose some of their reserve at night.”
Many prophesies circulated in the high plains, passed on by elderly women. I’d heard that even the colonel had consulted a prophetess, who said a great future awaited him. My friends in the valley had tried to persuade me to take a satellite phone along. “A sat-phone?” I protested. That would only make the soldiers suspicious. “Just get in touch with old ladies along the way, then,” they said, laughing. “They communicate with us by telepathy.”
“Shall we go over there and see?” I asked, pointing toward the source of the singing. “Now?” I saw Jorojoro hesitate. “But it’s only nine-thirty!” He disappeared into his room and came back wearing a white cassock. He strode bravely alongside me to a small chapel on the hill, which was producing a good deal more noise than I could have predicted from the shelter of the parish.
I felt sorry for Jorojoro. None of his colleagues envied his posting in the high plains. He tried so hard to understand the Banyamulenge, but after he went to bed they devoted themselves to rituals beyond his grasp. I suspected he’d donned his white cassock to make his entrance a bit more impressive.
In the chapel, people sat packed together in semidarkness. Outside it was cold, but inside we were met by a wave of heat from bodies singing and swaying. Dozens of eyes followed us as we were led to a pew at the front. Voices whispered, “Bwana asifiwe”—praise the Lord.
The singing had stopped. Lit by an oil lamp, a man at a small table read aloud from the book of Genesis. Jorojoro translated, in a whisper. It was the passage where Jacob steals the blessings meant for his brother Esau by tricking his blind father, Isaac.
Only when the reader stood up and began to preach did I see that it was the administrator of Minembwe—I hadn’t recognized him without his hat. On the day I arrived I’d visited him in his office. It was poky and dark, with a little light falling onto his desk from an open shutter. A modest haunt for a man who walked so confidently through the hills in a suit two sizes too big, a bowler hat on his head, energetically waving his stick.
I’d thought him tenderhearted, but apparently he’d performed well as a soldier and he was speaking to his nocturnal audience with a vehemence I wouldn’t have expected from him. He looked like an orchestra conductor and every time he stopped talking the believers stood up and burst into song, swaying back and forth in time with the music.
Such energy, and in the middle of the night! The front rows were occupied mainly by women and to my surprise somebody waved to me. It was one of the girls from the parish kitchen. Her face, so inscrutable in daytime, shone with a feverish glow and her forehead was covered in beads of sweat.
Jorojoro, the white ghost beside me, sat perfectly still. “Shall we go?” he asked after a while.
“So that was the Minembwe disco,” I teased as we walked back to the parish.
“Yes, yes,” he said. “And when the girls are on their way home, they’ll have secret meetings and disappear into the bushes with some man or other.”
I was shivering in my fleece. “You’re joking. In this cold?”
“Sure. It’s their only chance. Everything’s secretive here. The colonel’s soldiers behave impeccably in the daytime but in the evenings they drink strong liquor and then . . .”
Bavire came by earlier than usual one morning. He’d asked for a few days to prepare for our departure for Uvira—had the time now arrived? I’d been feeling a little daunted at the prospect of traveling with the mustachioed guide the colonel had assigned to me. He was part of a splinter movement that saw the colonel as its redeemer—how could I make the descent with a believer like that? But I’d reconciled myself to my fate. “The movement and the man in the movement are two different things,” someone who knew the region had said to me once. “You must always try to meet the man behind the movement.”
Bavire was still standing in the doorway to my room. “Could I speak to you for a minute?” At the entrance to the parish yard I noticed a young man who was doing his best not to look in our direction. Had he come with Bavire? Had my guide started going around with a bodyguard, like everyone else here who had a job of the slightest importance?
“Yesterday I was appointed head of the court,” Bavire began. I congratulated him, although if anything he looked dejected. “What’s wrong, aren’t you pleased?” “Yes, I am, but I have a problem. Two young men have raped a nineteen-year-old girl.” They’d been beaten, he said, and afterward they’d confessed. “The case will be heard soon. I have to be there. It may go on for a while.”
“That’s not a problem. I’ll just wait.” I was getting along fine in Minembwe.
“You don’t understand,” Bavire said. “I can’t go with you.”
I felt my heart sink. There, see—the colonel didn’t want me to make the journey to Uvira on foot. It had all been a sham.
The bodyguard at the gate had taken a mirror out of his pocket and was admiring himself in it. A green plastic thing, mirror on one side, hairbrush on the other—they were on sale at the market. When Bavire beckoned he hurriedly stashed it away.
“The colonel has assigned David to accompany you.” I looked into a young, unformed face with the beginnings of a mustache. The felt hat on his head gave him a dandyish look. I could barely hide my disappointment. Did I have to travel with this boy? It was for my own safety, the colonel had said. Would he protect me if I were in danger?
“David’s only twenty-four,” said Bavire, as if reading my mind, “but in the high plains a man of that age is well into adulthood.” He was head of financial affairs in the colonel’s movement; they knew each other from a school in the valley, where David had studied nursing. “He’s actually a nephew of the colonel—you should feel honored that he’s been assigned to you.”
David said nothing; he just gave me a frank look. He’d been married for seven months and his wife was pregnant, Bavire told me. “Once he’s discussed the trip with her, you can leave.”
Soon the savannah was behind us and we took a steep mountain track through the forest, which smelled of moss and decay. Behind me the carriers breathed heavily through their noses. They were Bangobango, from Mbulula, a town deeper in the interior, about a hundred miles away. Three brothers with the same father but different mothers, they too had come to seek their lives in the high plains, along with an uncle, who’d found them this job. They’d be with us for a day and a half before walking back to Minembwe. It would earn them twenty-one dollars, seven each—out of which they’d probably have to pay a commission to their uncle.
The strongest of the three had knotted my Samsonite suitcase into a sheet and slung it across his forehead with a strap. It was an absurd idea to travel through the mountains with a hard suitcase, but no one had managed to dissuade me. The case gave me a sense of security. Everything else was affected by dust and damp along the way but the suitcase was like a house I could lock up: when I opened it I found all my things intact. This suitcase had accompanied me on my very first journey across the country; the red dust of Lower Congo was still in its seams.
Sometimes, when David slowed down a little, I could hear the suck of his rubber boots in the squelchy earth, but the rest of the time he glided ahead of me along the mountain track. I planted the iron tip of my stick in the ground, grabbed a tree branch, and stumped on upward. Sweat tickled my scalp and ran down my forehead in gullies. Salt pricked my eyes.
David had stopped to look. “What a steep mountain,” I puffed.
“This isn’t a mountain, it’s a hill,” he corrected me.
When we emerged from the long, narrow tunnel through the forest, we flopped down into the grass to rest. “You’re more agile than I expected,” David said. I looked at him out of the corner of my eye. Was he joking? “The old men of the high plains don’t think of Minembwe to Mikenge as a real journey,” he said. “But white people . . . You always go everywhere in cars and planes, don’t you?”
He’d been all the way to Ilumba the previous day to buy a travel bag. At the market he’d come upon his first fiancée. While he was studying in the valley she’d married someone else. At first he’d been sad. “But not any more, because my wife is much more beautiful.” He looked at me dreamily. “Just as beautiful as you.”
The sunset threw a rust-brown glow over the verdant hills. Now that we were approaching Mikenge, huts began to pop up again here and there. We heard loud voices and children crying. People greeted me enthusiastically, wished me a good journey, congratulated me. One old man was so happy to see me he stood still and sang a song. Bembe, Fulero, Banyamulenge—all lived separately here. Behind me the carriers were growing restless. They were tired; why didn’t we take the path to the nearest village? But David signaled for us to keep going. I suspected he wanted to sleep among the Banyamulenge.
The night was less clear than in Minembwe, and the Banyamulenge village seemed to be bolted and barred. Nobody wanted to put us up; everyone David spoke to pointed to the next hut. I’d never been so coldly received in the Congolese interior before. My friends in the valley had warned me, saying I wouldn’t find any hospitality in the high plains. “It’s late,” David said, worried. “People are suspicious.”
The hut we finally ended up in was cold. We sank to the floor exhausted. The hostess was willing to make fou-fou for us out of maize flour, but first we had to pay. Fou-fou, red beans, milk. We ate in silence, David and I from one pan, the carriers from another.
He and I would sleep in the next room, in two beds with a narrow space between them. At least, so I thought, until our host walked in and it became clear that he and his wife were to sleep in the same room. I looked at David. “What now?” He stared at the dirty mattress. “You know I’m a Christian,” he said. “Nothing will happen.” “But that bed’s barely big enough for one!”
After crawling into my sleeping bag I felt guilty. In the other bed David and the couple lay like a set of spoons. The carriers had settled down on the floor in the living room, beneath the sheet my suitcase had been wrapped in during the day. “Won’t you be cold?” I’d asked. “But madame,” they answered, astonished that someone was concerned about them. “We’re carriers!”
I sat bolt upright in my sleeping bag and gave the nail securing the shutter a quarter turn. Light and oxygen flooded into the room. It was a little after six. Our host and his wife were already up and David was lying with his hands behind his head, blinking into the light.
I shivered and snuggled back into my sleeping bag. “Sorry about last night,” I said. “If I’d known that the three of you . . .” “Don’t worry.” David thought for a moment. “The people of Mikenge are odd,” he said. “I’d never allow a strange man to sleep in the same bed as my wife.”
As we were getting dressed it started to rain. “This morning we’ll eat in a restaurant,” David said with an enigmatic smile. High on the hill lay a long reed barracks, a canteen for market-goers on their way to Mikalati. In the misty valley I could make out a steady stream of market traders, commerçants, with bundles on their heads, like termites.
The restaurant was packed. Men in muddy rubber boots and raincoats that stank of kerosene walked in and out. I fought my way inside, avoiding the sooty cobwebs that hung from the ceiling like streamers. I’d barely washed and felt dirty, but at the same time I was brimming with excitement. I’d cut myself loose from the parish in Minembwe: my journey had begun.
David went off a few times to talk to soldiers, some in uniform, others not, and I saw them peer in my direction. It was safe, he said finally—we could leave.
Women with baskets on their backs and cooking pots on their heads; children, each with a chicken or goat; traders with bales of secondhand clothing or sacks of maize flour; Banyamulenge driving single cows in front of them—it was one great mass, pressing forward, a chattering parade, all smiles, with people slowing down to walk next to me for a moment and telling me their life stories before hurrying on to disappear over the horizon.
One spoke perfect French. He had a degree in geology but couldn’t find a job in the valley, so he traveled from market to market carrying a jerrican of fuel and a funnel on his head. In the course of a week he would walk in a wide arc from Uvira to Minembwe and back. By the time he reached Uvira he was so exhausted he had to rest for almost a week, whereupon he bought fresh supplies and left again. A full journey earned him fifty dollars, minus ten for food and lodgings. By the end of the month he’d have earned eighty dollars. It was hard—some traders collapsed on the way—but he prayed to God and kept going.
Another sold secondhand trousers and was through his stock already. Now he only had to get home. He was traveling with the others—it was safest that way. He’d earned twenty dollars, but sometimes he sold barely enough to buy food and pay the soldiers at checkpoints.
A third lived in a gold diggers’ village nearby and was off to the market to buy flour and cooking oil. He’d come from Bukavu two months earlier and spent all that time digging—it had only lost him money so far and he was wondering when he was finally going to earn something. He’d graduated from high school. Didn’t I have a job for him?
It had stopped raining and low clouds were floating across the blue sky. Some commerçants were sitting beside the road, massaging their sore feet, wiping the sweat from their brows. David walked in front of me, holding his umbrella loosely over the back of his neck with both hands, his hat on his head, his raincoat open.
We passed a soldier who had a swing in his step, a cassette recorder around his neck. Music from Kinshasa—it had been a while since I’d heard that. The soldier was wearing a red T-shirt with camouflage trousers and he looked different from the colonel’s men; he must be a Mai Mai. These legendary people’s militias, active all over eastern Congo, were mainly opposed to military infiltrations from neighboring Rwanda and Burundi, but they regarded some Congolese soldiers as enemies too. They’d made a pact with the colonel, but rumor had it they were dissatisfied and acting on their own behalf once more.
Later we encountered the same Mai Mai again, at the edge of a pond, among dozens of commerçants who were washing off the dirt of the journey. He was cleaning his rubber boots, a Kalashnikov strapped to his shoulder, the cassette player dangling from his neck—turned in on himself, paying no attention to the world around him.
After walking for three and a half hours, we saw Mikalati up ahead. Hundreds of gleaming cows with arched horns were standing on the hillside and between them walked Banyamulenge with hats and long sticks, inspecting and valuing. Out of the dip in the hills rose a gentle hum that intensified as we came closer, weaving our way between cows. From the patch of color in the depths, straw roofs began to emerge; crowds of people were milling around down there, talking, laughing, gesticulating.
Between the cattle market and the stalls was a stretch of no-man’s-land. As soon as we walked out into the open, people noticed us. They nudged each other and before long the entire crowd had turned in our direction, and the hum became a long cry of amazement and joy.
I’d forgotten how his name came to be in my notebook, but someone had told me that if I passed through Mikalati I could stay with Madigidigi, a teacher at the primary school. We turned up unannounced that Saturday afternoon, tired, grimy as goats, a bit wary after our poor reception in Mikenge the evening before, but Madigidigi was delighted. He looked at me as if I were a piece of prize livestock that had wandered onto his property, and he slapped David gratefully on the shoulders for bringing me there.
Madigidigi was tall, and heavier than the Banyamulenge I’d met up till then. He dragged his left leg. He’d had polio as a child, he told me later, which meant he was less mobile than the others. Had his disability made him different? Was that the reason he wasn’t suspicious? I knew the Banyamulenge didn’t tolerate handicaps. Until recently they’d throttled albinos at birth; they were said to bring bad luck.
Three huts and a shed—that was Madigidigi’s world. The carriers put our bags in the corner of one of the huts, stuffed the dollar bills into their pockets and disappeared. I flopped into a chair and looked at the walls, which were painted with cheerful patterns in white, brown, and olive green.
Madigidigi’s wife warmed some water and carried the bucket to the shed for me. There was no drain, so I washed balancing on my flip-flops on the stamped-earth floor, which grew increasingly slippery. My clean clothes lay on one stone slab, my towel on the other.
In the next hut Madigidigi’s high, excited voice and David’s sonorous baritone resounded back and forth, alternating with the muted voices of the women in the yard. The cackling of chickens, the wail of a baby—I felt at home again.
“There’s only one bedroom,” Madigidigi said. “I hope that won’t be a problem.” I was about to protest, but I thought of the uncomfortable night I’d caused David in Mikenge and swallowed my objections. “You’re traveling together,” said Madigidigi, “so it’s good to sleep together as well.”
The passage to the bedroom was so narrow I had to walk sideways. As soon as I entered the room I had difficulty breathing. It had started a year or two earlier, in a tent on the coast of Mozambique: suddenly the enclosed space hemmed me in. I inspected the wall with my headlamp and tugged at the small shutter. “I’m afraid we’ll have to open this or I’ll suffocate,” I said to David.
“Are you claustrophobic?”
I laughed. “Where did you learn that word?”
David pulled the sheet straight on the mattress. “Oh, during my nursing training. Some people are agoraphobic, others exactly the opposite.”
Moonlight shone in through the window opening, crickets chirruped in the grass around the hut—the room suddenly felt a good deal less oppressive.
“We’re the only people in the high plains sleeping with the window open,” David said when we were lying in bed—he against the wall under a dirty blanket, I in my sleeping bag beside him.
“Why is that, actually? What could possibly happen?” The opening was so small, there was no way a thief could get through.
“Your enemies could throw something in, couldn’t they? Or perhaps an evil spirit—”
“Do you believe in evil spirits?”
“No.” He did believe in prophecy, and in miraculous healings. “In the colonel’s church I once saw a handicapped boy cry out to God. At the end of the service . . .” David’s voice died away.
I turned onto my side, listened to the crickets, and thought about evil spirits slipping in through window openings. David never would have told me about them in daytime. Perhaps Madigidigi was right: it was good to sleep in the same bed if you were traveling together.
Early the next morning we listened in bed to the African news on the French radio station RFI. There were reported sightings of five hundred Rwandan government soldiers in the valley; they’d been hampering the work of the UN peace mission MONUC. David lay on his back, listening intently. “Soon the Rwandans will put out another of their communiqués denying everything, of course,” he muttered.
“Who knows—maybe they aren’t Rwandans.” Large numbers of Hutus and Tutsis lived in eastern Congo—it was sometimes difficult to distinguish them from Rwandan infiltrators.
David hissed through his teeth. “Of course they’re Rwandans! They’re everywhere. The colonel ought to be appointed army commander in Bukavu—he knows the difference between Rwandans and Congolese. If he was down there no Rwandans would dare enter Congo. He hates them.”
Five years before, objecting to their interference in Congolese affairs, the colonel had fallen afoul of the Rwandans in Uvira. He fled to the high plains, but the Rwandans came after him, along with loyal Banyamulenge from the valley. The colonel and his men hid in the forest. There they started to pray and were said to have founded a church called Jangwani, “in the desert,” after the desolate surroundings where God’s word had come to them. The Rwandan army hadn’t managed to flush them out.
The colonel and his men had felt invincible ever since, and they’d begun to dream of going into the valley to teach their enemies a lesson. Rumor had it they even wanted to cross the border and bring down the Rwandan regime. An elderly prophetess whispered advice to the colonel and the Bible did the rest. According to Curé Jorojoro it was with good reason that the administrator of Minembwe had read out the story of the brothers Jacob and Esau in the chapel. Jacob had stolen Esau’s blessings, just as the Banyamulenge in the valley had stolen the colonel’s blessings. One day the colonel would get even with them.
We walked through a hilly landscape of low trees and bushes. Up and down, sometimes across uneven, rocky terrain, we plodded on and grew steadily more silent. The sun shone, a cool breeze blew, and I could hear a river murmuring far below. The air smelled of grass and wildflowers.
Memories fluttered into my mind of summers long ago when we went fruit picking in the woods near Overpelt. The dry pine needles crackled beneath our feet and the berries made a hollow sound as they dropped into our plastic pots. The buyer’s white car was parked at the entrance to the woodland. How much did we earn? Two francs a kilo? Yet we went back every summer. Drinking lukewarm cola at the roadside, catching sight of a squirrel with a red tail, eating berries till our tongues and lips turned blue, and then, toward evening, cycling home with the money in our pockets, my mother scrubbing the front steps and everything inside smelling of green soap.
“Mind you wipe your feet now.” I heard her summery voice and saw her standing there, brushing a lock of hair from her face. An image of her final days came to me without warning. She was lying in the fetal position, small and frail between white sheets—defenseless in the arms of death. At night I slept in a low bed next to hers. Sometimes she whimpered and I would wet her mouth, helping her to drink from a syringe. Cola mixed with water. She drank and drank, her eyes growing bigger and bigger.
This was the first journey I’d made since her death. It hadn’t been easy to get myself going again; sometimes I could feel how shaky I still was.
The path had become a steep, muddy slope. I plunged the iron tip of my stick firmly into the ground and hauled myself up. At the top we dropped down into the meadowland one by one, laughing with exhaustion. There was a hut where a woman sold curdled milk and grilled cassava. Two customers eyed us inquisitively. They had black briefcases with them. A headmaster and a clergyman, on their way to a religious conference.
“We’re over the worst part,” said David, staring out across the hills. “Bijombo isn’t far now.”
“How many children does she have?” Neighbors of Reverend Simon kept pouring in, wanting to see the white visitor up close. “Only two? Is that all?” They laughed. “We have far more children, there’s plenty of room for them here!” What were their names? Why had I left them at home? Already in college—how could they be? They gave me searching looks, trying to guess my age. We were sitting on chairs in the preacher’s small living room, David and I side by side, the carriers opposite, and we let the hubbub wash over us. There was a private school in Bijombo, Simon said, built with money from an aid agency in Uvira. In one of the wings they’d set up a guesthouse. We could sleep there.
Outside dusk was falling and it had gotten cold. The surrounding hills were shrouded in wisps of mist. At the center of Bijombo stood a large rectangular church with brick houses and huts around it. Men carried radios with them. There was unrest down in the valley, David said—they were listening to the news. The forest where the colonel had holed up was nearby; David pointed it out to me. The people of Bijombo had supported the colonel, he said, bringing him milk and cows.
The school was at the edge of Bijombo; it had brick walls and a corrugated-iron roof. To the right of the entrance was the guesthouse: a large bare room with a table and chairs, and a bedroom with two beds. David went on a tour of inspection. It pleased him to hear that the colonel and his entourage had once spent the night there.
Headmaster Sebagabo came to say hello. Soon someone would bring us hot water and food; would we accompany him to the vigil in the church after that? Famous preachers had come from the valley—all of Bijombo would be there. “No, no, not this evening,” I said wearily. “We’ve been walking for seven hours—I think I’ll have an early night.”
Slightly thrown off, he didn’t relent. “Maybe David would like to go,” I said, trying to appease him. “In Europe some people don’t go to church, even on Sundays.”
Sebagabo exchanged brief glances with David. “So what do you do on Sundays, then?” he asked. “God says you have to pray every Sunday, otherwise you’re a heathen.”
Heathen—it was a long time since I’d heard that word. “The Banyamulenge didn’t become Christians till the late forties,” I replied. “What did your grandparents do on Sundays, do you think?” I felt ashamed of my rudeness, but it seemed wise to head him off right at the start: I wasn’t planning to spend my time in Bijombo praying.
“We’ll come tomorrow,” I said soothingly. “With pleasure.”
A man called Ngiriyomba brought white cabbage and meat with potatoes stewed in palm oil. There were no plates. We ate from upturned saucepan lids.
Later I sat at the table writing while David cleaned his rubber boots. “I find your profession inspiring,” he said. “I’d like to write too.”
“The history of the Banyamulenge. And the disputes that have broken out between us.” At the end of the book, he said, there’d be a chapter in which he’d give everybody advice.
The next evening, escorted by Sebagabo, we walked to the center of Bijombo, where another wake had begun. I’d been putting off the visit, but as soon as I got close to the church I was glad I’d come: the whole village had turned out and we were met by loud singing. It was dark inside, with just a few oil lamps on the walls to light the congregation. At the back of the church stood a row of sticks with hats on top; on the platform at the front four preachers sat at a long table. One of them was wearing a sweater with the words jesus cares knitted into it.
A fifth preacher walked up and down in front of the congregation, one finger high in the air as he spoke, wiping the sweat from his brow with a handkerchief. His shadow walked with him, large and dark on the white walls. The believers followed his every move, agreeing with him, answering his rhetorical questions, reaching to heaven with their hands spread wide and crying out to the Lord.
David had gone to the front and I lost sight of him for a moment. He was sitting among the worshippers in a side aisle. He too had eyes only for the preacher. He’d confided to me that the colonel’s soldiers always prayed before going into battle against the Rwandans. That was why they had won. Because the Bible said whoever was with God would win.
The preacher in the jesus cares sweater was standing up now. He told of demons who liked to mingle with market-goers and who lay in wait at the crossing points of roads and rivers. I listened with mounting astonishment. These men came from town—was this the sort of news they brought to fellow villagers who had stayed behind? Believers must contribute a tenth of their income to the church, he said, otherwise their prayers wouldn’t count.
Now and then terms from the modern world crept into his fire-and-brimstone sermon. “If a man doesn’t listen to God, then he won’t get a signal—just like a cell phone!” he cried. And: “You must do with your sins what I do with unwanted documents on my computer: delete them!” The girls’ choir joined in, singing about how the devil suffered from high blood pressure because God had put him in a tight spot.
After about three hours I prodded Sebagabo. “How much longer is this going to last?” “Perhaps until dawn,” he said. “Shall we go?” He nodded, reluctantly. We sent a boy over to David but he signaled that he wanted to stay.
David was gone for hours and when he finally came back the adrenaline was pumping through his veins. He’d borrowed a tape recorder and some cassettes with religious songs, which he started playing immediately. One of the preachers was a famous seer, he said, who’d predicted the war between the Rwandans and the colonel. During his sermon the Holy Spirit had descended on the church—he had felt it.
Only yesterday David had wanted to be a writer, today a career as a preacher seemed a better idea. He wrote down the texts of the religious songs in the notebook I’d given him. “One day,” he said, “you too will hear the word of God.”
“Not everyone believes the same things,” said Sebagabo, who’d clearly been thinking about the godless Sundays in Europe I’d told him about the previous day. “Some people are influenced by the existentialism of Sartre.” He admitted he’d once met an American who thought the Banyamulenge were living as the Americans did two centuries ago.
David seemed not to hear him. “One day I’ll come to the Netherlands to preach,” he said. “What do you think, would I be committing an offense if I tried to convert someone there?”
He calmed down only after Sebagabo had gone home. Earlier that day he’d borrowed a book about Sankara, the murdered president of Burkina Faso, from the school library. He stroked the cover: a portrait of the young president in military dress. “Sankara was a simple man who fought against corruption,” he said dreamily. “The colonel likes him.” The colonel was David’s one and only authority. Other than President Joseph Kabila, with whom the colonel had made a pact, he couldn’t name a single Congolese politician. The speaker of parliament, the ministers—their names meant nothing to him. He was a boy from the east; the high plains were his country.
In bijombo i quickly developed my own little rituals. Every morning Ngiriyomba made a fire and warmed some water. David often lay in bed reading—he felt the cold in Bijombo. As soon as school started, I crossed the playground wearing the traditional wraparound pagne and a T-shirt, carrying a bucket of hot water so I could wash in a corner of the assembly hall.
During the day David and I went on outings. We visited the preachers, who’d been allocated a house in the center of Bijombo. They’d come to bring a message of peace, they said. The preacher with the jesus cares sweater spoke English; he belonged to the Assembly of God, a Protestant sect based in the United States that was thriving right across the region. He’d studied in Kenya and visited England and Israel, but the others were far less worldly and spoke only Kinyamulenge. The prophet of the previous evening lay resting on the sofa after the incantatory sermon he’d delivered.
Farther on, in a brick house with wooden shutters and a corrugated-iron roof, lived Mutumitsi, the elderly father of an acquaintance of mine, a doctor in the valley. We found him in his living room, wearing a raincoat, a trilby on his head. He had a strong, handsome face, his skin glowed like copper, and the pupils of his intelligent eyes were encircled by a pale-blue haze. He didn’t know exactly how old he was, but he’d been a child during the First World War—he had to be in his nineties.
As soon as we entered, men in hats streamed in and sat on chairs and benches around Mutumitsi, looking at me inquisitively. Voices filled the room and the whites of eyes shot back and forth like metal in the darkness. David, who was interpreting, had a hard time keeping up.
They wanted to talk about the Belgians, who were so late building schools in the high plains that the Banyamulenge lagged behind everyone else. Though it was their own fault too, they admitted—they’d fled the Belgians, not wanting to carry them on their backs, or to suffer the punishments the colonizers meted out to anyone who disobeyed them.
In the nineteenth century, when their forebears came from Rwanda with their cows, they’d found mostly Bembe here, a rugged people who grew maize and beans, and hunted wild animals in the forest. The Banyamulenge were newcomers, so wherever they wanted to settle they had to pay the chief with cows. Apart from that, they were subject to the local common law. The Bembe had kept them hidden, fearing the Belgian government would officially recognize them.
Sometimes there were disputes and one day the Bembe set off into the valley to complain to the Belgian administrator about the cows belonging to Mutumitsi’s clan, which were frightening away the wild animals in the forest. The Banyamulenge had to pay eighty cows; after that they were given the right to settle in Tulambo, a stretch of pastureland close to Minembwe—until a Belgian cattle merchant discovered the area and drove them off.
This time Mutumitsi went with a delegation to the Belgian administrator to lodge a complaint, but the official refused to relent. They could have their eighty cows back, but not their land or their houses. “We refused the cows, of course,” Mutumitsi said.
The old men had been listening, humming, clicking their throats in agreement. It was a well-known story and I’d heard it in various versions—one of the colonial wounds that kept opening up when I talked with Banyamulenge.
The story of Ngandja came up too. In the language of the Bembe, ngandja meant “very cold.” It was four days’ walk away; the Banyamulenge went there during the transhumance, when the wind of the dry season began to blow through the hills, the grass withered, and the cattle grew thin. In Ngandja the rain was abundant and the meadows eternally green. They were chased away by the Bembe repeatedly, sometimes violently, but they headed there again every year.
“You’re stubborn,” I said.
“There aren’t many of us,” one of them answered. “Running away means putting our whole community at risk. We’d rather die.”
In 1950 Mutumitsi sent his eldest son to a mission school in the valley. He had reservations at first, since there was a lot of malaria in Uvira, and his son would be given chicken and eggs to eat, taboo foods among the Banyamulenge. Eventually Mutumitsi traveled down with a group of elders and asked the missionaries to start a school in Bijombo.
A little boy had walked in. Mutumitsi reached out and pulled him close. He was one of the two sons his third wife had given him. The men around him shuffled their feet and one by one they stood up. The spell of the past that had hung in the room was broken.
Ninety—wasn’t that a bit old to have children? Headmaster Sebagabo laughed when I asked him. “They really are Mutumitsi’s children,” he said, “even though there’s little chance he conceived them himself.” A younger relative had probably stopped by during the night—no one would take offense at that, he said.
Sebagabo and david had already pointed Kagogo out to me during our walks. If I stood still and stared intently, I too could make out the metallic glimmer of corrugated-iron roofs between the green hills. It wasn’t far—a three-hour walk at the most—but to get there we’d have to pass through a forest, and there were persistent rumors about Mai Mai who’d deserted but still had their weapons.
Headmaster Sebagabo had assigned us his daughters as carriers. Since we still had a few calls to pay on the morning of our departure, they’d gone on ahead, but when we reached the agreed meeting place there was no sign of them. We flopped down onto the grass and waited.
“Where have your daughters got to?” I asked Sebagabo after we’d been lying in the grass for some time, peering in vain for movement in the unstirring landscape. As well as the three girls, we were to be accompanied by a group of carriers bound for Kagogo with soldiers’ rations, but they hadn’t shown up either.
Sebagabo wrung his hands nervously. Perhaps the carriers had already left, he speculated, and his daughters had joined them with our luggage.
It was past one o’clock by the time we said good-bye to Sebagabo and set off on our own. The forest was cool and damp. Ferns; wild berries; yellow, white, and purple flowers; trees bearing inedible fruit—I looked about me and tried not to think what might be happening just out of sight.
David talked his own courage up with a story about two Mai Mai he’d come across once who tried to take his bags. He’d stuck up for himself so vigorously that they’d asked him if he was a soldier. “Sure I am,” he’d said. “Just ask the soldiers behind me.” At which point the Mai Mai set off at a run.
“Karibu, muzungu!” Welcome, white person! The shouts came from children playing in a field of waving cornstalks. They ran over to us, thrilled, and led us in procession to Kagogo’s former mission. A neatly swept yard with a rectangular building shaded by eucalyptus trees, a charming whitewashed church on the hill behind—this was the little Europe the Italian fathers had founded here in the seventies.
Some of the people I knew in the valley had been taught by the fathers in Kagogo. They’d told me so much about the place that I could see it in my dreams. The secondary school lay on the opposite hillside. When it was built, the pupils were to be the pride of the high plains.
Most of the Italian fathers left in the late eighties. Kizeze, the headmaster, now lived in the mission house with his family. He came out to greet us; his colleague in Bijombo had informed him we’d be coming. Most Banyamulenge are lean, even skinny, but Kizeze was thickset and there was something slow and uncertain about him, as if we’d woken him out of a deep sleep and he was still unsteady on his feet.
A sheet had been spread on the table in what was once the fathers’ living room. In the middle was a bunch of wildflowers in a plastic medicine jar. Piles of yellowed school files lay in metal racks against the wall and the rest of the house too had been prey to neglect. The room David was shown to had no door. The building had been looted in 1996, at the start of the war against Mobutu, Kizeze told us. Since then the doors to some of the rooms had disappeared and a wooden board traveled around the house, serving as a door when required.
I took my remaining provisions to the hut behind the house, where Kizeze’s wife was cooking. Outside the wind was icy, but Kizeze’s children were barefoot and dressed in thin shirts. “Don’t they catch cold?” I asked. Kizeze laughed abstractedly. “No, no, they’re used to it. We put shoes on them sometimes, but they’re always kicking them off.”
Sunday afternoon stretched languidly before us. In the morning the believers had hurried along the hillside paths to the church and the sound of singing had floated in the air, but now I couldn’t detect the slightest movement.
David came and stood next to me. “Today there’s a market in Gahuna,” he said.
My heart leaped. “How far is that from here?”
He looked me up and down. “For you, about two hours.”
We woke Kizeze from his Sunday-afternoon nap and set off. Uvira was one day’s stiff walk away. I’d assumed people here would be more used to whites, but according to Kizeze not a single white person had been seen in Kagogo since the Italian fathers left. Soon children who apparently had as little idea as we did how to spend their Sunday afternoon were trotting along behind.
We were late. Market-goers approached from the opposite direction. One man had put a chicken in his raffia rucksack; she stuck her head up above his shoulders and followed the commotion on the path inquisitively. Women put their hands over their mouths when they caught sight of me, crying out “Mana-wéééh!” My God! Four men were carrying a sick person on a sheet slung between two bamboo poles. A passer-by caught my eye: “Muzungu, you see how we Africans suffer?”
We ploughed onward, against the flow. The market was already visible in the distance, embraced by a series of gentle green hills. David had met someone he knew; Kizeze and I walked ahead and talked about the schoolchildren in Kagogo, who refused to listen to their elders. “You can’t teach us anything,” they said. “Old people’s words are old.”
“Mana-wéééh!” The cries of amazement when we arrived at the market were so genuine that Kizeze and I burst out laughing and David, who’d fallen behind, walked up to me, casting a meaningful look at the spectacle, and shook my hand.
The previous night Kizeze’s children, sleeping with their parents in the room next to mine, had woken me time and again with their coughing. I wanted to buy a blanket for them, but I couldn’t find one. Like a village idiot I was followed by a crowd of children. Urged on by their parents, they shyly came up to give me a handshake, then darted away and burst into giggles behind me.
On the way back, fog billowed across the hills and crept between the whitewashed huts of the villages we passed. The smell of wood smoke wafted toward us. The walls of the huts were edged with pink, and white clouds hung about the straw roofs, as if the huts were steaming as evening closed in.
The fog softened the outlines and hid the fenced-off fields of maize. I felt light and happy, as if I’d come home in this ancient landscape. To think that on my first Congo journey the east had frightened me. I’d found the people cold—the inhabitants of Lower Congo and Equatorial Province were so much more warm-blooded. That time was behind me now.
David had come to walk next to me. “So we just need to visit the market in Hwehwe,” he said. “Then we’re done.”
Hwehwe was on the way to Uvira—we’d pass it on our descent. “You must have been talking to soldiers,” I said, alarmed. Every time David met them he felt an urge to hurry—as if I were a sensitive package he needed to get off his hands.
“We’re leaving on Thursday,” he said decisively. “That’s market day in Hwehwe and we can cover the last stretch to Uvira with the commerçants.” The soldiers had even offered to send two armed men to accompany us.
“But we’ve only just got here!” I’d had to wait a long time for the colonel’s permission to visit the high plains. Why would I want to leave so soon?
David jabbed vehemently at the ground with the sharp tip of his umbrella. “Do you want the colonel to throw me in jail?”
“Why would he do that?”
“I promised to get back as quickly as possible. And anyhow . . .” He hesitated. “I can’t leave my wife alone too long.”
He slowed his pace and rejoined the soldiers, who closed ranks. Could they make me leave on Thursday? I’d hate to be forced down the mountain on military orders.
Kizeze listened attentively when I put my problem to him. “Did David say his wife couldn’t be left alone for too long?” I nodded. “Maybe that means she’s run out of money. You could give him something for her.”
“But then he’d have to go all the way home!”
Kizeze laughed. “Of course not. He’ll think of something.”
I wasn’t convinced, but when we got back I talked to David about it and Kizeze turned out to be right: it was a question of money. “Fifty dollars,” I said. “Will that do?” David smiled broadly and immediately started working out how to get the money to Minembwe. If he left in the morning he could spend the night with a relative and go to the market the next day, where he could meet someone who would take the dollars to his wife.
He seemed to like the prospect of heading off on his own. It occurred to me he might try to do a deal on the way. He’d told me he sometimes lent a hundred dollars to a Shi commerçant. As long as the man was unable to pay him back, he had to give David twenty dollars a month.
On his return David looked brisk. “Mission accomplished,” he said. The momentum was still in his legs and together we went to the chef de groupement to announce our impending departure. The chef was in front of his hut, talking with a woman; she clasped her hands together as she spoke and moved her body to and fro in an effort to rock the crying baby on her back.
She was a Rwandan Hutu who’d been on the way to Mikalati with her husband to work for a Banyamulenge family. Her husband’s brother lived there already with his wife and children—he’d arranged everything. In the forest between Kagogo and Bijombo they’d been stopped by Mai Mai, who flew into a rage as soon as they heard their accents. “The Rwandans killed our fellow villagers,” they shouted at her husband. “You’ll pay for that. Where’s your money?”
Her husband protested—he badly needed the money to start his life in Mikalati—so they forced him to go with them to their camp. “But there wasn’t any camp,” the woman said despairingly. Her husband became frightened and fled. They shot at him, once, then again, at which point she ran away too. She watched from behind a tree. When it grew quiet in the forest she left her hiding place and bent down over her husband; she didn’t think he was alive.
David translated in a whisper. I was amazed at the calm emanating from the woman—as if she hadn’t fully taken in what had happened. Her meager possessions, knotted in a pagne, lay at her feet. She whimpered softly from time to time, patting her baby’s back soothingly.
The chef went into his hut. When he came out he was wearing a raincoat and rubber boots, and he’d put on his knitted hat. The woman picked up her little bundle and together they set off for the forest.
I could feel the blood coursing through my veins. David and I had walked through that forest together. The story affected David as well. I wasn’t to tell a soul when we were planning to leave, and if we came upon anyone along the way I must be sure not let slip that we were heading for Uvira. “Maybe I’ll take a weapon along,” he said.
The woman’s story set me thinking. So Hutu families came all the way from Rwanda to work for the Banyamulenge? “That occasionally happens,” was David’s reply. But according to Kizeze something else was going on. Many Interahamwe—Hutu militia—who’d fled over the border into Congo after the genocide in 1994 were still in the forests and wildlife parks of the east. They dreamed of bringing down the new regime in Rwanda, but life in the forest was hard, and over the years their ideals had worn thin. More and more men were leaving the forest and trying to build lives for themselves as citizens.
“They pretend to be Congolese, but their accents give them away,” said Kizeze. “The Mai Mai are angry with them, because Rwanda keeps invading eastern Congo to track down the Interahamwe.”
That afternoon David went to a wake to pray for blessings on our journey. At the last moment I received word from Jorojoro: he was in Minembwe waiting for a plane that would take him to Uvira. With any luck he’d get there before us.
We set out the next morning in bright sunshine, but as we walked an icy wind got up, the sky clouded over, and it started to rain. By the time we got close to Hwehwe the carriers wanted to go home.
The market in Hwehwe was a desolate sight. Beneath the low gray sky hundreds of market-goers trudged back and forth through the mud. David set off to find new carriers, while I waited on a slope with the luggage. “What is it?” I snapped at a young man who was staring shamelessly at me. “Je t’aime,” he said.
It rained harder and harder; the cold crept up the hillside and my shoes sank into the spongy soil. The blue raincoat with the pointed hood that I’d bought at a market in Ilumba stank of kerosene. I pulled the plastic sheeting out of my rucksack and wound it around myself and the luggage like a cape. There I stood, a pillar of salt in a biblical rainstorm, for the whole of Hwehwe to see.
“Habari, padiri!” How’s it going, father! A passer-by nodded encouragingly at me. I laughed. So that’s what I looked like, an Italian father.
After Hwehwe the sky cleared and I was soon too hot in my raincoat. We strode into a wet forest. Market-goers were walking behind and in front of us, as were Mai Mai with cassette recorders. They were our guarantee of safety between Hwehwe and Uvira, but David wasn’t reassured. We must watch out for thieves, he said, and for people who slowed down to listen to what we were saying. The carriers told us that the previous day, close to Hwehwe, they’d been attacked by Mai Mai who took them into the forest and forced them to hand over their money and coats.
We crossed streams, one minute jumping between slippery rocks, the next balancing along narrow tree trunks. A group of brightly dressed women and children shot past, chattering—Fulero, to judge by the way they carried their baskets. They raced on ahead, small and lean, like dancing elves.
As we finally left the forest behind, night began to fall and a thick fog came up. We groped our way into the village of Mitamba where we would spend the night. There was a hut for travelers, with a host who called himself Jesus. We lit a fire and dried our bags. I was given a bucket of hot water to wash with.
We were sitting with the other guests talking and roasting corn cobs when there was a knock at the door. Rubber boots shoved at my back impatiently. “Passage!” ordered a voice high above me. Soldiers. The colonel’s. They put their weapons down next to my walking stick and David’s umbrella at the entrance and installed themselves in the little rooms where I’d thought we were going to sleep.
Later they joined us. They spoke Kinyamulenge, but it wasn’t hard to tell what they were talking about, since Mai Mai, Interahamwe, and the familiar word for white person kept coming up.
Two of the other guests were women on their way to Rwanda. I suggested we sleep together on the floor in front of the fire, but they refused: they were too dirty for that, they said. So I unzipped my sleeping bag and for the last time David and I lay down next to each other fraternally on a thin mattress.
Cows were sleeping around the hut—I could hear their heavy, reassuring breath. I tried not to think of the smoldering fire at our feet and the lack of oxygen in the hut. From time to time one of the soldiers would open the door and a swirl of cold fog would blow in. Deep in the night I heard a rustling sound near our luggage. I nudged David. “There are mice here!” He obligingly stood up and inspected our bags with a flashlight.
The Kalashnikovs at the end of the bed, the soldiers in the neighboring rooms, the Mai Mai and Interahamwe in the forests around us—at any other time I’d have felt frightened, but that night in Mitamba I felt oddly protected.
At four-thirty i crept outside to brush my teeth. Soon, when everyone was awake, there’d be no time for that. It was pitch dark and the fog clung to my clothes. The cows were still sleeping peacefully. We were to leave very early and travel in convoy; that morning a final perilous trek through the forest awaited us. Nothing had happened for four months, the soldiers had said the night before, but recently the attacks by robbers had started again.
We set off in a group of six: David, our two carriers, the two women, and me. We hadn’t had breakfast and the carriers complained, but David was unrelenting: first the forest, then food. An old man in a buttonless raincoat joined us, coughing. He was ill and on his way to Rwanda for treatment. David addressed him with the honorific mzee, wise man, and every time he and his younger companion threatened to fall behind, David urged us to walk more slowly. I suspected he saw the old man as a talisman, a guardian angel who would make potential attackers think twice.
The walk through the forest was heavy going. The earth was rock hard and sometimes we stumbled over tree roots that arched up and looped across the path like cables. The carriers, despite their hunger, strode bravely ahead of us, singing a song about their walking sticks, which took up the fight against the hills time and again. We followed at a good pace, but whenever David heard voices behind us he slowed down and perked up his ears to check who was coming.
When we emerged from the forest everyone heaved a sigh of relief. The sun shone fiery red and I thought I could make out Lake Tanganyika. Every one of my Banyamulenge acquaintances in the valley had told me about the first time they saw that vast patch in the depths. In good weather some thought the blue sky had fallen to earth, on dull days that the savannah had been scorched black. They were aware for the first time of a world beyond their own. It was different—alien. I’d been looking forward to this moment, but there was barely any time to contemplate the view because a disheveled posse had appeared in front of us, leaning on trees with rifles slung over their shoulders.
There they were: the Mai Mai. Our carriers had stopped and I instinctively slowed down to wait for David. They were about twenty-five years old and they must have had a few lessons in intimidation, since two of them remained nonchalantly leaning against the trees while the third walked up to me and shouted: “Feuille de route!” David’s answer—“I’m her feuille de route”—which had worked so well elsewhere, was met with howls of derision.
“Whites are forbidden to move around without a feuille de route!” The Mai Mai pointed to the top of a hill, where he said his captain was. Don’t leave the path, I thought, but David had already started to climb. “You too, MONUC!” shouted the Mai Mai, addressing me by the name of the UN mission in the valley.
“Tell them the colonel in Minembwe has ordered me not to deviate from my route,” I said. “She refuses!” roared the Mai Mai in the direction of the invisible captain. The carriers stood watching fearfully, our other traveling companions were nowhere to be seen. Here came the captain, walking down the hill with a tape recorder in his arms, blaring music, David in his wake.
“Gimme your money!” my waylayer hissed, but the captain spoke soothingly to him and almost immediately the farce was over. David slipped him an unsealed pack of cigarettes and we were allowed to move on.
In the forest we’d been cold, but now I could feel the heat rising up from the valley. We walked along a narrow mountain pass with tall grass on either side. This had to be one of the dangerous places Jorojoro had told me about. Sometimes cows fell into the abyss, he’d said—impossible to get them back up. Many a market-goer too, returning drunk from the market in Kirungu, had lost his life at this spot.
Streams babbled far below and here and there Fulero villages had been gouged out of the wooded hillsides. The vegetation was more varied now and in Kirungu we came upon banana trees with leaves ten feet long.
We settled down in the yard of a Fulero family’s home for breakfast. The woman of the household had hair like little antennae all over her head; she smiled at me encouragingly. The mud walls of her hut were crumbling, her child drummed on the lid of the pot with a stick, and handmade rattles were scattered about in the sand. We were back in cheerful, disorderly Congo.
David was perturbed by our meeting with the Mai Mai—the power of the colonel was starting to fade. He immediately went to the colonel’s local representative to ask for advice and came back with a written autorisation de passage, accompanied by an impeccably dressed soldier who spoke French and welcomed me to Kirungu. He sank onto a stool beside me and called for two bottles of Primus beer. It was only ten o’clock, but I drank in greedy gulps.
The colonel’s soldier looked down longingly into the valley; Lake Tanganyika was clearly visible now. He felt bored in Kirungu, he admitted. He was still young, his wife and children lived in Rwanda—he’d much rather have a post in town.
“What kind of post?” I asked.
“They’re going to appoint a new governor of Bukavu,” he said dreamily. “Maybe I could be the vice-governor?”
We’d finished eating and David signaled to me discreetly. Time to leave—we still had a difficult journey ahead.
It was busy on the path from Kirungu to Uvira. Men with planks of wood on their heads ran on ahead of us, dodging people coming the other way with sheets of corrugated iron. Everyone was in a hurry. The route was steep and sometimes stones slipped out from under us so that we slid sharply downhill. How could people walk along such a dreadful path for years and do nothing about it?
Every now and again we came to a Mai Mai checkpoint. “Muzungu!” they shouted, saying I couldn’t go through just like that. But when David showed them our permit and handed out cigarettes they calmed down.
The Congolese are generally ebullient and inexhaustible when they travel, but the climbers sitting here and there at the side of the path with their loads had hardly anything human about them. The smell of their sweat hung heavily in the air, mingling with their sighs, moans, and wails.
“Curé Jorojoro is waiting for you,” a catechist I’d met earlier in Kagogo whispered as he passed. Before I could thank him, he’d gone. I turned on my cell phone and watched as the bars hesitantly multiplied: we had a signal. On impulse I rang the church office in Uvira, waking one of Jorojoro’s colleagues from his siesta, and said we’d begun our descent.
A pounding of feet behind us. “Muzungu!” Two indignant Mai Mai. The older of the pair gave the carriers a shove. “How dare you walk past our checkpoint without stopping! And why don’t you listen when we call you?” I gestured protectively in the direction of the carriers, whereupon the Mai Mai turned to face me. “And you—how dare you use a walkie-talkie!”
The second Mai Mai was a lad of barely fifteen with bloodshot eyes and a vicious look. Recruits—you had to watch out for them; they were the worst. The boy held his rusty Kalashnikov awkwardly in front of him.
“Go back,” the older one said. “Our commander’s waiting for you.”
David took out our permit and mumbled something about the colonel. The young recruit pushed the paper away crossly. “The colonel,” he scoffed. “Who’s he fighting nowadays? We’re Mai Mai—today we’ll show you the war in Congo isn’t over yet!”
They chased away onlookers. The carriers would have to wait while we went back. David was about to obey their orders but I tugged at his sleeve. “We’re not splitting up,” I said to the Mai Mai. “And the colonel has strictly forbidden us to turn around. If you have a problem with us then come along to the next post.”
People had started giving us a wide berth—they’d be wise not to get involved. From the opposite direction a man in civilian clothes approached, apparently a superior of the two Mai Mai, since they sprang to attention and called him chef. The man assessed the situation at a glance. “Leave those people alone,” he said. He sent the pair back and walked with us for a while, apologizing for the behavior of the “little ones.”
We sped on till we came to a broad, fast-flowing river. On the far bank commerçants were waiting at a checkpoint under a tree. Soldiers sat on the lowest branches. David peered at them anxiously.
“The government army,” he whispered.
Some women got men to carry them across, but I pulled off my shoes and rolled up my trouser legs. A group of Fulero women stood among the bushes watching and encouraging me, calling out and clapping. The four of us waded the river. The soldiers had spotted us. A white—she’d pay. One of the carriers received a kick to the head from a soldier sitting in the tree. “You there, a hundred Congolese francs each!” The traders were paying twenty francs, I noticed.
“Why should we give you money?” I protested, combative suddenly after our confrontations with the Mai Mai. “What do you do for us? Nothing!” They looked at me resentfully. “Are you government army soldiers?” “We sure are!” “Then tell your boss he should pay your salaries!” We shouted back and forth like that for a while, till they shrugged and let us through.
Fortified, we walked on. We’d reached the suburbs of Uvira and one checkpoint followed the next. Ropes had been slung across the road and the commerçants were being prodded and confused. They’d been traveling across the high plains for a week—the soldiers knew they had money on them. The traders cried out, pleaded, defended themselves as if their lives were at stake.
“Two hundred francs!” The fat female soldier with a red wig at the next barrier was implacable.
“But the others only have to pay twenty francs . . .”
“Didn’t you hear me?” she sneered without looking up. “Two hundred francs, and quickly!” Like a gold dealer, she was sitting behind a little table covered in bank notes. Everybody was shouting at once. My problem couldn’t be solved by money alone, her colleagues argued: I had to go to the office of the security service. “Pay first!” she shrieked.
The phone in my trouser pocket rang. It was Curé Jorojoro, who’d come to the entry point to Uvira by car with a driver. His voice was a light in the darkness. “We’re waiting for you,” he said. “Just tell them to bring you here.” Escorted by a soldier we set off toward him along the sandy streets.
The first houses appeared and people stared at us openmouthed. A fine lot we were: David with his funny hat and his umbrella, the carriers with plastic-wrapped luggage on their heads, and me, a grubby white woman with a walking stick and a sunhat, pouring with sweat.
There was the car from the church office. Jorojoro stepped out, smiling, happy. We embraced, and while the driver loaded our bags I paid the carriers. People had followed us and soon there was uproar. A white person handing out money! “Me too, me too!” they shouted. I smelled cheap alcohol and found myself looking into a man’s wide-open mouth: regular teeth, a red uvula. He pointed to his belly. “Maman, njala!” I’m hungry!
With great difficulty David and I managed to extricate ourselves from the jostling mob and slip into the car, which was firmly stuck in the crowd. It was hot inside. People thumped on the roof and when I wound down the window they stuck their hands in. I thrashed about and received a couple of slaps in return.
All this time Jorojoro had been negotiating with the soldier who’d escorted us and now he squeezed his way in too. “Get going,” he said to the driver, but a man from the high plains had come to stand in front of the car with his legs apart. “Ho, ho, what’s this? Where are we going? Feuille de route!” He wanted to see not only my papers but David’s as well.
Jorojoro got out again. The man was swaying; he seemed drunk, but that didn’t make him any less determined. Suddenly the crowd turned against him. Who did he think he was? Demanding to check the papers of honest citizens when he wasn’t even a real Congolese? They’d see about that! In the ensuing commotion we managed to drive off. I looked at myself in the rearview mirror: a strange, flushed face fringed with wet hair stared back.
The evening buffet was laid out in serving dishes on a long table in the refectory. Potatoes, rice, fou-fou, chicken, beef, cassava leaves, beans, pineapple, bananas, papayas—I stared, wide-eyed. I was hungry, and thirsty. I drank and went on drinking, like a camel at a reservoir.
Jorojoro sat across the table from me and smiled. “If your mission hadn’t succeeded, that would have been a defeat for us all,” he said. “Now that it’s succeeded it’s a victory for everybody.”
One of his colleagues eyed me suspiciously. Had I been with the Banyamulenge in the high plains? Complicated people, he found them. “They’re obstinate,” he said. “They refuse to adapt.”
“They sleep with their mothers,” another backed him up. “I guess they didn’t tell you that.”
“Banyamulenge, is that a Congolese people? Why aren’t they on the old Belgian maps, then? Don’t be fooled, they’re just Rwandan Tutsi,” a third declared.
I’d heard it all before, and I saw Jorojoro sigh wearily. Year in, year out, he had to hold his own amid the rebellious Banyamulenge in Minembwe, only to be criticized by his colleagues, who felt that he was too understanding toward them.
In my room I pulled my clothes out of the suitcase and threw them into a pile. They smelled of wood smoke. In a corner stood a single bed with a mosquito net. David had walked in behind me when we arrived and had looked around, rather put out. “Where do I sleep?” “But David, we’re in town now!” It took him a while to realize he’d fulfilled his task. But when he was gone I missed him. His raucous, slightly impudent voice still rang in my ears. For five weeks I’d been surrounded by people; I felt alone in this big, high-ceilinged room.
Lying in bed I could hear the regular tick of my walking stick on the gravel and the pained sighs of the women with their heavy loads; I saw the knotted trees with their roots snaking up over the path and looked into the young face of the Mai Mai with his rusty rifle.
The next morning I woke up refreshed, but as the day wore on I began to feel stiff all over. The earth moved under my feet, as if I were just back from a long boat trip. I walked through town with David and the cousin who’d put him up the night before. Barely two hours after breakfast I was hungry again. At a roadside stall I bought three bananas. David and his cousin refused to eat, so I devoured them one after the other.
I missed the milk of the high plains. The fresh, creamy milk of the first day; the curdled milk, like liquid yogurt; the milk with lumps in it that you stirred with a bamboo stick into a thick porridge. The cows were so close, but on the breakfast table there’d been only powdered milk. I pointed to a shop across the street. “Shall we go and drink some milk?”
“Not there,” the cousin said firmly. “They add sugar to it.” He knew a Banyamulenge family that sold milk from home—that was a better place.
I was tired. The traffic blared in my ears and every step on the loose sand hurt. Buckling knees, cramp in my neck—I must be getting malaria.
David had left his jaunty hat at his uncle’s house; he looked vulnerable bare-headed. He and his cousin had been quiet for a while, but now they started talking again. They walked ahead of me on the sandy path, whispering, holding hands—as if looking to one another for protection.