A second story from Africa. This one is more memoir than story. Part One introduces the reader to Thérèse and Jules André, a young Belgian couple whose friendship made my life tolerable in the Congo. Part Two reveals what I learned of their life after they left that country, thanks to the Travels in Africa blog.
THERESE ANDRE, part one
At a time when I was battling nostalgia for Africa, a malady that afflicts people who have lived there, I began a blog called “Travels in Africa.” A techie friend set me up on Word Press. Without knowing any of the technical aspects of blogging, I wrote weekly posts and sent them into the world on TravelsinAfrica.com. I did not know who – if anyone – would read them. I was surprised to learn who did.
I had spent two years as a United States Information Service officer in the Congo and later four years an Africa correspondent based in Nairobi. In the Congo I was sent alone into the Equateur, to Coquilhatville, a small Congo River port in the northwest. There I was to establish an American cultural center. This was three years after the country’s chaotic independence, a time when Equateur economic activity had virtually ceased. Very lonely at first, letter writing was my strategy for staying sane. My family saved the letters. As a correspondent I produced three dispatches a week. I had copies of them. So there was plenty of material for Travels in Africa.
Since it was too early after colonialism for expats and Congolese to form friendships – has that era ever arrived? – I would normally have found friends among United Nations staffers working in Coq: doctors, teachers, aid technicians. There was a UN Club, movies three times a week. I hung around there at first, but I did not fit.
Gradually I gained entry into the social circle of holdover Belgians colonials. Most ex-colons distrusted American intentions in the country. They suspected we had come to grab the resources the Belgians had worked so hard to develop. They assumed the cultural center was a front for CIA activities. Although this assumption was wildly off base, gaining their trust was not easy to do.
Thérèse André, 32, 35, was largely responsible for my being accepted. She was the wife of the local electrician – probably the only electrician in the entire Equateur – and the mother of four children, the oldest 13, the youngest six. Alone among the Belgians I came to know Thérèse had a genuine interest in persons from other countries. She and Jules gave occasional dinner parties in which they gathered men – there were virtually no women wandering around the Congo then – and made them feel a part of their social life.
The first time I attended one of these parties, Thérèse was reaching out in part to Ron Sallade, a young American serving for a year as the treasurer of the Disciples of Christ Congo Mission. The side of his house backed up to the Andrés’ property. Since Ron spoke no French, Thérèse’s including him was an act of generosity. I was included in that evening because the Andrés were gathering the town’s stray single men. Jules André had been helping me at the center building and suggested I come along. So, of course, I did. I served as a linguistic go-between.
After we finished dinner, the Andrés’ UN friends Janusz and Barbara Michejda dropped in. He was a Polish UN doctor serving in the Equateur. Welcomed heartily, they joined the group. Thérèse had a tape recorder and played tapes of Edith Piaf singing in that wonderful raspy voice. Our hostess sang along with Piaf. It was the first time I heard the song Milord.
André, a couple of years older than his wife, was short and wiry and living with a basket of problems that caused him endless worries. The most important of these were two: first, uncertainty about whether the family could sustain itself in a Congo whose economic fortunes he hoped were reviving and, second, if the revival did not occur, how were they to survive? He masked his worries well; it took me months after we became friends to understand how deep they were.
Thérèse was short, slim, dark with flashing eyes and a ready smile.. The family cheerleader, careful of her children, she lived with the same basket of problems, with the same uncertainty, but not in the same way. She possessed an optimism her husband lacked. I found her quite attractive: her brightness, her joy masking grit. I was also intrigued by the fact that there was nothing of an American woman about her. I hoped there’d be the possibility of friendship between us.
André lacked her optimism because the Congo had been harder on him. He remained in the country throughout the post-independence turbulence, protecting the business he had developed and the house he had built with his own hands. He sent Thérèse and the children back to Belgium to wait out the upheavals. Once he decided things were getting better, she and the kidé returned from Namur. That was only a matter of months before my arrival. I liked the couple immediately and was grateful that they seemed willing to keep an eye on me. No one else in Coq gave a damn.
Because of a serendipitous occurrence, our relationship deepened. I came to live in their house. I needed a place to live and could pay for it in American dollars. They needed hard currency, banked in Belgium, and, fortunately, André was looking after a house by the river that actually offered the family more room. Their house was adjacent to André’s office and the work yard where his men repaired refrigerators and air conditioners. As a result, once I became their tenant, I saw them daily.
They arrived in the Belgian Congo shortly after the end of the Second World War. In Belgium the privations of the German occupation had been extremely difficult: food shortages, constant uncertainties, family disruptions. Thérèse and her brother became orphans. There was one positive aspect to that occupation: the formalities of Belgian life, the rigidities of social intercourse, relaxed. Informality reigned. People disregarded status and helped each other.
They met during the war. André was a friend of Thérèse’s brother. Once the war ended, the informality stopped. Social rigidities took hold again. Jules and Thérèse both yearned to flee postwar Belgium’s cramped perspectives, its bourgeois patterns, the hypocrisy of relatives. They dreamed of Africa, of wide spaces, of a place where young people could work and accomplish things without waiting forever in lines. They married and immediately left for the Congo.
Jules’ electrician’s talents won him a three-year contract with Otraco, the colony’s internal shipping firm that ran paddlewheelers on the rivers.. They must have arrived in Léopoldville looking undernourished and untested. They were mocked rather than welcomed.
“Léo…” Thérèse once told me with an ironic smile. “What a dreadful place! Longtime colons belittled us because we hadn’t spent the war there. That place! It was too much Belgium, not enough Africa.”
Part way through that first contract Jules was transferred to Coquilhatville well up the great river from the capital. Although some considered it a place for outcasts, the Andrés took to it immediately. In the ‘50s there was a building boom of sorts. André saw that opportunity existed for an electrical installation business and for an electrician who also dealt in refrigerators, air conditioners, lamps, light bulbs, transistor radios. They went out on their own.
“Our friends said we were crazy,” Thérèse told me.
I asked if they had amassed some capital.
“The decision to try,” she said. “That was the capital. Not so very much to lose. Except there were three children by then.” We were drinking tea together. She sipped hers, remembering that time. “Jules thought it would be cheaper and easier on the children if I returned to Belgium. He stayed. Lived in the back of his pickup for a time. Later he worked in exchange for lodging.”
When she and the children returned, the family lived in a government guesthouse: two rooms with thick earthen walls and outside plumbing. “We made our furniture from crates.” Her eyes glazed over with memory. “We slept in beds cast off from the hospital.”
I stared at her with a kind of wonder.
“It was fun!” she insisted brightly. “Before long Jules had sixty employees and jobs throughout the Equateur. We worked full days and built the house I expected to live in for the rest of my days.” Then after a moment, “That was a good time.”
How could a young man like me not be attracted to such a woman? When they married, I wondered, what was the basis of their love? The impulses of being young? The desire to flee war-ravaged Europe together? The mutual yearning for space, adventure, opportunity? Was it what a young American like me, product of creative class comfort, considered love? No,
I felt sometimes that Jules treated this wonderful helpmeet too harshly, as if discipline was his obligation. I chalked that up to European marital practices, to assumptions of male dominance. Maybe love was what happened when a man and a woman lived together and had children and overcame the challenges that inevitably had to be faced. Thérèse and Jules had certainly done that.
I admired them unreservedly. In terms of the way I handled the challenge of Coquilhatville it was important that they merited that admiration.
Unfortunately for the family, the revival Jules had decided was occurring did not take place. After a devaluation of the Congolese franc, for example, the local Interior Minister made an attack on Coq merchants. He had police seize goods that he claimed had not complied with devaluation requirements. He and his police seized much they had no right to take. The merchants called it “the pillage.”
I went to swim at the public pool the day the searches began. I was surprised to see Jules there. He rarely swam. He came over to say hello, looking very thin in his bathing suit. We sat at the edge of the pool, our feet dangling in the water. He seemed tense and depressed, furious inside. He peered deeply into the water, as if staring at the collapse of his hopes that he and his family could resume their lives in Coq and live supported by the business it had taken him so long to create.
“Were you searched?” I asked.
“They held a gun to my head and demanded that I write a check for two hundred thousand francs.”
“Write it to whom?”
Again he nodded.
“What did they take?”
“Whatever caught their eye.”
Our friend Boudart, a local building contractor who also attended Thérèse’s parties, claimed it was just “the Wild West” playing itself out in the Equateur. A happy participant in that game, he had tricked the Interior Minister into avoiding his storehouse. Boudart had savvy. I admired Jules for not doing trickery.
It was “the pillage” that caused the Andrés to offer me their house. They had begun to realize that hard currency might prove to be valuable.
At first when I lived in their house, we called each other Monsieur and Madame. Eventually at the instigation of Thérèse we began to use our given names, a significant acknowledgment of friendship in Francophone culture. Thérèse and I had little trouble adjusting to this change. It was more difficult for Jules. He would start to address me as Monsi– Then he’d stop and use my name.
The Simba Rebellion broke out in the east of the country. The rebels captured Stanleyville, now called Kisangani. Who knew where they would go from there? Would they threaten us?
André sometimes talked of leaving the Congo. He would not return to Belgium, he swore, with its storekeeper’s mentality. He mentioned Australia. I could not discern how serious he was. However, I thought that if Australia was a real possibility, the Andrés would need some familiarity with English. I proposed that I give them weekly English lessons. I wanted somehow to repay their generosity to me. They agreed to give lessons a try.
As things turned out, André was often too tired from his work and from his worries to focus on English lessons. Often he would go upstairs to take a sleeping pill, leaving Thérèse and me together, sitting across the dining table from each other, drinking tea and playing at English. Thérèse needed the companionship of a man who concentrated on her, not a man consumed with worries. I had no contact with women in the Congo; Thérèse became the woman in my life. I cherished the contact. Yes, we were attracted to one another. But nothing would ever be done about it.
I will end the first part of this memoir/story here. It will conclude it the next time I post a story. That’s when I learn what happened to the Andrés after they left the Congo. See you then.