It was now mid-August. I was in the Equateur on a year’s contract as a UN teacher and the school year had ended. My contract was over. I hung around, ostensibly to write a UN report about the school year, but mainly because I’d been seeing Michelle, the wife of a Belgian advisor to the provincial governor. I did not want to say goodbye to her quite yet. A time that could have been boring for both of us had been given piquancy and danger by our secret. Whenever we met we ran the risk of exposure. Each meeting threatened scandal, disgrace. For that reason our rendezvous were passionate and tender.
Moreover, a scent of danger was in the air. And panic. Because of the Simba rebellion, everything was in flux. Simba rebels were crawling across Orientale Province to the east, toward its large city upriver from us. Once they captured it, as it seemed certain they would, they would push on westward to us. United Nations advisors were called in from the bush. The national capital would be the prize, but to overwhelm the Equateur after successes upriver would strike a major blow at central government morale.
As panic grew, Miche’s husband decided that she should take refuge in the capital. There she could sit out the danger in safety in a pied-a-terre they owned. She had left by plane the week before. I finished and submitted the UN report. Now it was time for me to return to my teaching job in Ottawa. Unlike my friend, I chose to depart by boat, by the Otraco sternwheeler. That was partly for the contrast in case anyone was watching us. But I also wanted to see the river.
Securing passage on an Otraco sternwheeler headed downriver proved to be more complicated than I expected. I had applied to reserve a cabin, but the night before the boat arrived from upriver, I did not have one. I was at the dock at 7:40 a.m. on the departure day. Still I could not buy passage. Nonetheless, in the African optimism that pervaded the office, I was assured that it would all work out.
I went there again at noon. Not yet. By 2:00 pm the boat had arrived. I was finally able to secure a ticket.
The Otraco boat’s arrival was the biggest event of the week for our river port town. Coming downriver the sternwheeler pushed three barges loaded with cargo and passengers. Congolese crowded the open barge decks with all their worldly possessions: personal belongings plus ducks, chickens, pigs and a most incredible mass of dried and smoked fish. Since the barges preceded the main boat, the fish smell wafted back against us throughout the voyage.
During it I would share my cabin with another passenger. He had not yet arrived. My Congolese assistant helped me get my belongings into the cabin. We said our goodbyes and I went portside to watch the boat prepare for departure.
During loading, portside swarmed with people, only a few of them passengers. Among them I was surprised to see the young German Smokler. He was supervising the loading of his motorcycle, a legendary piece of equipment that had brought him to our tiny port all the way from Oran, Algeria, where he’d crossed into Africa from Europe. With him was his Nigerian companion whom we called simply “Madame.” And also Reichling, his fellow countryman; he had come to town about six months before and opened a restaurant.
Smokler was perhaps twenty-five, tall, well-built, with a wheatfield of blond hair. Despite the uncertainty the Simba rebellion caused, he possessed an endearing confidence not only in the Congo’s future, but also in his ability to shape it to his liking. He spoke both passable English and somewhat better French. When he discovered that I was Canadian, he always addressed me in English. Even so, he called me “Mein Herr.” He lacked a talent for names. He called every man in town by those two words.
Madame was younger, a teenager, very handsome. Tall with splendid long legs, a bountiful derriere, and very dark skin. Her face was pleasing if you admired a countenance rarely disturbed by thought. A headscarf always crowned her head, increasing her height. Beautiful women attract men even when they lack the ability to forge real friendships with them. When I first saw Smokler and Madame together, I wondered what they talked about at dinner.
If truth be told, in the horizontal relationship I shared with Michelle, we rarely did much talking. We occasionally had tea together, but never a meal. I hoped that when I got to the capital, she and I could spend real time together. The romantic in me felt certain that our relationship, however fleeting it might be, could mature into friendship.
Smokler and Madame arrived in town on the motorcycle, Smokler driving, Madame behind him, her arms wrapped about his body. A canvas suitcase rode a rack at the rear. We had seen few motorcycles in the Equateur and no women riding them. Madame sat astride the bike wearing jeans that hugged her legs, only sandals on her feet. An African woman in jeans! No one had ever seen such a thing. A lot of men had secret thoughts about those jeans-clad legs.
There was so little to do in town that Miche and I kept tabs on the newcomers’ progress. We saw that it did not take long for Smokler to discover his fellow countryman Reichling. They hit it off. Reichling lived at the restaurant he’d started and had an extra room where Smokler and Madame were soon lodging.
Miche and her husband occasionally had a drink at Reichling’s bar. He gave them to understand that Smokler was looking for land. He hoped to pick it up for a song for his total resources amounted to little. The Congo had been in constant turmoil for years. With the Simbas likely to move into the Equateur, it was possible that some plantation owner might sell out for whatever he could get and Smokler could buy his land.
But this was a time to leave. How bright was Smokler if he planned to become a planter in the Equateur?
Soon Michelle came with news from Reichling’s. “It seems these days a man can buy a woman as well as a drink at Reichlng’s.” Giggling, she told me that whenever Smokler was not busy looking for land, he was sitting with Madame in Reichling’s bar, offering her services to any European who drank there.
“Only Europeans?” I asked.
“The man has standards.” Michelle chortled telling me that.
Apparently Smokler approached a prospective client by observing, “Mein Herr, it not easy in this place to find woman who know how to give man pleasure. My friend here, she make love like European. She want to make you happy.”
Men would appraise Madame and, according to my friend, quite a few entered into negotiations with Smokler. He insisted on hard currency. When money changed hands, Madame led customers to the room in the restaurant where she and Smokler were living. UN men who’d come in from the bush visited her and reported her worth the price.
Miche heard the rumors and demanded that I verify what was happening. So I passed by Reichling’s one afternoon and went in for a beer. I sat at the counter, the bar’s only patron. In the mirror behind it I watched Smokler and the girl at their table. He nodded to her. She got up, approached, and stood very close to me.
“Hello,” I said.
She smiled in a way that she supposed was sexy.
“You’re from Nigeria,” I said. “How is Nigeria?”
“I make you happy?” she invited. “Okay?”
“Where in Nigeria? North or south?”
“You want happy?”
“You really came all the way from Nigeria on the bike?”
“Come, M’sieur. We make happy.”
I called to Smokler. “Not today, copain.”
Smokler nodded and whistled for the girl. She returned to him and settled into the chair beside him. New patrons entered the bar. The pair turned their attention to them.
I told my friend that I’d made an inspection. “She doesn’t speak much English,” I reported.
“Where did he find her?”
“Under a bush, I suppose.”
“Was she sexy?”
“I didn’t finger the merchandise. I’m happy with present arrangements.”
“How gallant you are!”
Later that afternoon as we lay together sharing a cigarette and staring at the ceiling, Miche said, “I want you to do me a favor.”
“Anything for you, ma cherie,” I told her.
“Visit the Nigerian girl. Test the wares.”
I rose to my elbow and gazed down at her. “Why would I do that?”
“To tell me what it’s like with a black girl. I’ve always wondered.” She smiled wickedly. “I’m sure you’ve wondered, too.”
“Never,” I lied. “I’m beautifully taken care of here.”
She pouted. “I can’t very well have my husband do this research, can I?” She giggled at the way I regarded her. “You think me depraved, don’t you? I’m only curious. How the other half loves. Why not know?”
“I may like it.”
“I hope you do. I’d want to know why.”
I laughed at this preposterous situation, lay back down, and finished off the cigarette.
“The idea excites you,” she said. “Don’t deny it.”
Anything to please Michellle. I visited the girl, paying Smokler in advance. We went to her room and disrobed. She lay down on the bed with her legs spread. No smile. No chat. No foreplay. She allowed me to kiss her, but did not respond when I did. She made no effort to arouse me. I took care of that myself. I mounted her. She did not embrace me. I pounded into her. I came. When I moved to leave the bed, she did not detain me. I washed myself in the bidet and dried off. I left the room. When I passed through the bar, Smokler grinned at me and called, “Wunderbar, eh?”
I did not know what to tell Miche. I could hardly report the truth: that it was an experience without interest. She obviously wanted titillation, to hear about perversions. I realized that both my lovemaking and her husband’s no longer excited her.
So I exaggerated my experience with the Nigerian. I reported things I had never quite had the nerve to suggest to my friend.
“Let’s us try that!” She giggled excitedly and strutted around, delightfully naked. We embarked on pleasures we had not previously tried. She wanted to be corrupt. My misreported visit to Smokler’s girl opened the door for us to taste new adventures.
Our enthusiasm for these delights made it difficult for us to stay away from each other. We were both unhappy when her husband insisted that for her own safety she take refuge in the capital.
Now standing at the Otraco port I saw that Smokler, his Madame, and I would all be traveling together downriver. I wondered if I should tell Smokler how my visit to his friend had benefited me. Probably not. He did not need to know of my friend.
I went to watch life on the barges riding at the front of the boat. Women washed their children. They prepared food on little cookstoves. Men sat around and talked, chewing bits of smoked fish or watching women wash clothes in buckets. People fetched water out of the river by dropping containers tied to long lengths of rope. Sometimes they drank directly from water lifted out of the river. That was a reminder of how healthy Congolese were, those who survived childhood.
Eventually it came time to depart. As we moved out on the river I positioned myself to keep observing life on the barges. We moved fast enough so that air stirred past, cooling me.
It was not until dinner when I was shone to the table where I would take my meals that I discovered that my table mate was Smokler. “Mein Herr!” he greeted me. “We travel together!”
“Our good luck,” I said. We shook hands. The steward took our drink orders. “But where is Madame?” I asked.
“She stay behind. We are in same cabin.”
“Really?” It took me a moment to process this.
“Two beds. Not much room to turn around.”
“And you are going downriver to look for property?”
He shrugged. “Maybe. We see what happen. Land in Equateur too swampy. With Simba coming, I should leave earlier.”
“Madame will be joining you? Will she fly down?”
“No, she stay.”
I must have looked puzzled. Smokler laughed merrily. “I make good business. I sell her to Reichling: $250.”
When the look of surprise on my face deepened, he laughed even harder. The steward brought our drinks. We raised glasses to one another.
“When I decide to leave, I say to Reichling, how much you give me to leave her with you. I propose five hundred. He say two hundred. We settle at two hundred fifty.”
“She understands that you are not coming back?”
He made his hand flat before him, then waved it back and forth. He laughed again.
Over dinner we talked about his trip to Africa. He and two mates had hatched an idea of buying land and becoming planters. The threesome left together, all traveling on motorcycles. They would finance their travels with young women they found en route and could set to work for them. His mates had traveled to Kenya; he went to Nigeria. Smokler was to rendezvous with them in the capital.
The next day the boat slowed as it passed Bolobo.
Piroguemen paddled swiftly out to the boat, hooked up alongside the barges, and traded pineapples, fresh produce and fish to the Congolese.
This water-borne market was fascinating to witness. Smokler and I stood side by side on the upper deck to watch it. I had been thinking about Madame and asked, “How did you ever find Madame? She was quite lovely.”
“Yes,” Smokler agreed. “Reichling very lucky. I dream about her last night.”
“No woman in my bed. I miss her.”
“How did you find her?” I asked again.
He explained that he had stopped at a market somewhere in southern Nigeria. She was selling yams with her grandmother. Struck by her beauty, Smokler flirted with her. Her grandmother spoke sharply to her, telling her to pay attention to business. But Smokler hung around. When the grandmother went off for a moment, Smokler offered the girl a ride on his motorcycle. He had gestured just around the market.
Once the girl was on his bike, sitting sideways because she wore a cloth, he took her out on the road. It led to a highway. Smokler stopped there and asked the girl, “Go? Return?” The girl did not answer, an enigmatic smile on her face.
Smokler hit the highway, both of them laughing. After some twenty miles, he pulled over. He opened the canvas suitcase, pulled out his other pair of jeans and handed them to the girl. She went behind a bush and put them on. Her cloth went into his suitcase. Once she was dressed for travel, they made real time. Smokler was not even sure where the market was from which he’d taken her.
When they became lovers, Smokler gave her tips about technique. He claimed that she had no objection to being put out for others. Especially since Smokler made sure the customers were always European. He stayed nearby so that nothing got out of hand. “I tell you, she like it,” he insisted. “My experience: women like several men in one day. Variety make life interesting.”
The night before we completed our voyage I stood out on the deck, watching the stars and the dark water below. I wondered if Smokler would reconnect with his pals. And what would happen to Madame and Reichling? Would Miche be happy to see me? Would I now be able to spend nights with her as we had talked so longingly of doing?
The next morning I watched Smokler leave the boat, regain his motorcycle, and disappear among the wharfside warehouses. I gathered my bags, got an African to help me, and found a cab. I got a room at the Hotel Memling where I’d often stayed. After I’d showered and shaved, I went to find my friend.
When I located the pied-à-terre, I knocked repeatedly at the door. No answer. I fished paper out of a notebook and began to write a greeting. As I did, the door to the apartment opened. An African with a certain presence stood in it, barefoot, wearing a tee shirt and shorts. I asked for Miche.
“She’s not available just now,” he told me in French. I intuited that he was not Congolese. More likely an homme du monde she had met somewhere. His French sounded polished in Paris.
“I’m hoping to see her before I leave for Canada,” I said.
“Why don’t you join us for lunch,” the African suggested. “Chez Henri. Say two o’clock? We’ll see you then.”
With a smile he closed the door. He’d handled my appearance with such finesse I felt sure he was a diplomat.
Returning to my hotel, I was a little sad. Clearly the friendship I had hoped would blossom between Miche and me was never going to happen. But over lunch, eaten alone, I could not help laughing at how things had played out. I had been nothing more to her than a convenience, a lover. How naïve of me to think that we could be friends.