Bosobele (Bosobaylay)on the Ubangui River was the least desirable of the Central African Mission stations: two mission families, three Congolese staff, few converts. It was known for oppressive heat and air that never stirred. And for witchcraft and savagery. A terrible place. Hardly more than a clearing scratched out of the jungle. A pier almost ready to collapse reached into the Ubangui River; pirogues lay beached beside it. On the shore stood two stucco houses, a church, no bigger than a chapel, and an infirmary. Nearby sat a mud hut, used as an office. Three Congolese worked at the station: a couple of cathechists who were often traveling in the bush and a man of all skills who kept the place running.
Bad luck stationed Carl and Amelia Morgan there, not God’s will.
Reverend Morgan specialized in spiritual work. He delivered a sermon each Sunday in the church and supervised the efforts of the catechists, often moving about the bush himself. Reverend Dr. Brady Banks provided what medical services the station offered, supervising the infirmary, doing an occasional operation when necessity demanded. His wife Patience served as his nurse.
Morgan was in his early thirties, slight, of medium height, serious in appearance. An engaging smile occasionally brightened an otherwise uninteresting face. Committed to spreading the Gospel, he wrote and delivered spellbinding sermons and collected them, hoping one day to publish them.
Both in their late fifties, tired, their medical skills on the wane, the Bankses no longer felt on fire about God’s work. They looked forward to retirement in a community of missionaries in Arkansas. They received literature from it and already talked about the activities they would pursue there.
An artist in her late twenties, moderately pretty, with a nicely rounded figure, Amelia Morgan kept largely to herself. She enjoyed painting landscapes of the area and rendering portraits of Congolese. The Morgans and the Bankses found little to talk about. Their weekly lunches after Sunday church, generally offered by Patience Banks – the Bankses had the better house – were usually the only time in the week they got together.
Gossips, always plentiful among missionaries, found it difficult to understand what drew Amelia and Carl together. They did not seem well-matched. She had little interest in missionary work or even in religion. Morgan seemed unaware that local Congolese thought his wife a handsome woman. Her body, the locals agreed, would be reassuring to hold in a storm in the middle of the night, rain pounding on the metal roof. Was Morgan even aware of her body?
Amelia Morgan could be quite pleasant to Congolese. She reached out to them. She chatted now and then with Jean-Baptiste, the man of all skills, asking him questions about the local people and their customs. He explained to her about marriage practices – and from personal experience. Some months into the Morgans’ stay at Bosobele, Jean-Baptiste was forced to live separately from his wife and children. This was due to a wife-palaver dispute with his father-in-law. Insisting that Jean-Baptiste owed him another bridewealth payment, the father-in-law removed his daughter and her children to his village until the payment was made. Amelia talked interestedly to her husband about this matter. At this example of local marital arrangements Morgan merely shook his head with bafflement.
Soon after they arrived at Bosobele, Amelia told her husband, “I can’t see us having a baby here.” He agreed. It was one thing to live Bosobele’s slow and quiet life, preaching the gospel, doing portraits and landscapes, but it would be quite something else to have a child there! It would get no intellectual stimulation; its development would be stunted.
So after a year there Amelia Morgan was surprised to discover she was pregnant. The realization made her apprehensive. Bad luck had stationed them at Bosobele. Now bad luck was giving them a child. Amelia was certain that the couple’s bad luck resulted from witchcraft.
Her husband assured her that this could not be the case. The pregnancy was the Lord’s doing. “He has given us a child,” he told her. God’s work rather astonished him. He noted, “We hardly sleep together. It’s so hot here.”
As everything did at Bosobele, the months of pregnancy passed slowly. Whenever Amelia’s body caused her worries, Patience Banks assured her everything was progressing well. Even so, Amelia worried constantly about witchcraft. When her time drew near, she complained frequently about savage practices affecting the birth. These complaints spooked Morgan. He was not sure what savage practices might entail, but there was plenty of reason to believe that witchdoctors and tribal chiefs might invoke witchcraft against the station.
Neither the Bankses nor Jean-Baptiste thought there was reason to worry, but the Morgans were quite concerned. Especially when Jean-Baptiste left the station, explaining that because his father had died, he must return to his village to become the head of his lineage.
Morgan tried to be patient and tolerant with Amelia. Although he harbored fears himself, he assured her that hers were unreasonable. Dr. Banks would be able to handle everything about the birth. Many Congolese mothers came to him. He took care of them all without a single problem.
Two weeks before he was to become a father, Reverend Morgan took a last trip into the bush. He would be gone two nights. Then he would stay at Boso until the baby was born, until Amelia felt comfortable in managing things. Moreover, he would find a Congolese woman, hopefully one of the converts, to help his wife take her first steps into motherhood.
While her husband was gone, a planter from upriver arrived at Boso in a launch to deliver a patient to Dr. Banks. While the Bankses tended the patient, Amelia invited the visitor to lunch. Seeing how pregnant she was, the planter did not want to put her to any trouble. But she insisted that his visit was a blessing.
As they ate together, Amelia discovered that he was going farther down the river, even beyond its confluence with the Congo. Then he would go up that mighty river to Mbandaka. There he would pick up some supplies. “Please take me with you,” Amelia implored him. “As far as Wendji. I don’t want to have this baby here. I can’t have it here. Witchcraft spells have been put on it.”
The planter tried to calm Amelie’s fears. But she insisted that she felt witchcraft on her. He explained that the launch was a bad ride for a long trip. The journey was 500 kilometers; the sun and the glare off the water would cause Amelia headaches. She rejected every objection he made.
“I’m hardy,” she implored. “I know I look like I’m carrying an elephant,” – the planter smiled at this – “but I’m not as pregnant as you think. I can feel the witchcraft working against me. You must take me with you.”
“I’d be afraid I was risking your health, Mrs. Morgan.”
“But I can’t have the baby here. It’s just impossible.”
“I wouldn’t feel right about—“
“Please! Please help me!” Amelia begged. “I’ve thought of having one of the men pirogue me down to Wendji—“
“You mustn’t do that.”
“But if you won’t help me . . . I can’t have the baby here.”
The planter was sympathetic to Amelie, far from home, having her first baby at a place like Bosobele with her husband off tramping around the bush. But no, the river trip was too dangerous. Still, she kept badgering him. Her fears struck him as exaggerated, but he could see that they were very real to her.
While he was drinking his coffee, she gathered clothes into a valise and fetched an umbrella to keep the sun off her head. She followed him to the pier, beseeching him. When his back was turned, she climbed onto the launch. She fell to her knees and begged him to take her. He thought her half-insane, but she was in his launch. He would not drag her out of it. He took her along.
The first day they traveled south on the Ubangui. As light faded from the sky, they pulled into shore at a village. The planter found food for her, but she would not eat it. She also refused to leave the launch; the planter supposed that she feared he might abandon her. They both slept on the launch. Amelia was awake most of the night, watching stars move across the black sky, listening to the sound of the river passing in the dark.
Wind came up the second day, stirring white caps on the river. The crossing out of the Ubangui into the Congo was very rough. Amelia felt dizzy; swooning, she held on so tight she thought she would faint. She was afraid she might vomit. Somehow she made her way to the side of the boat, leaned overboard, the bulge of her pregnancy keeping her safe, and retched. She sank to the bottom of the launch and sat in the water that spilled into it. She kept her eyes shut.
The planter feared that he might have to deliver the baby. He wished he could throw Amelia Morgan overboard.
Eventually they reached Wendji. When the planter put in there, CAM missionaries hurried to the pier. They helped Amelia Morgan out of the launch, walked her onto land and led her into a room close to the hospital. Shortly after she arrived, her water broke. That’s when the nurses called for Dr. Larsen.
When he saw her, she struck him as utterly exhausted. As if she had already delivered the baby although it was clear she hadn’t. The nurses attending her explained what little they knew about her. Larsen wondered about the condition of the baby. When she opened her eyes, he looked down at her frantic expression, smiled tenderly, and said, “You’ve had quite a trip.”
She nodded. “I couldn’t have the baby at Boso,” she explained.
“Get as much rest as you can,” Larsen advised. “The baby will come soon. In a few hours.” Although somewhat alarmed by her condition, he put on his reassuring smile. “We’ll do everything we can for you.”
She did not thank him or even nod. Instead she said, “Doctor, I don’t want to see this baby.”
She seemed in a panic. In Larsen’s experience women did not talk this way, at least not ninety-eight percent of them. Still he saw that she spoke with a fierce resolve. “It’s the exertion of that trip talking,” he said to reassure her. “Get rest.”
“I don’t want to see that baby,” she repeated.
“I’m sure you’ll feel differently once the birth is over. Once you hold the little bundle of—
“If you bring me that baby,” Amelia vowed, “I may kill it.”
“Get some rest, my dear. I’m all but certain you’ll change your mind.” Larsen offered her his best bedside smile. But watching her, it occurred to him that indeed she might do her baby harm.
Leaving her, Larsen walked slowly to the delivery room. Inside it he found Matilde, a Congolese nurse with whom he had worked for many years. “A very strange case,” he said. “Keep close watch on her until she’s ready to deliver.”
“I heard her talk of witchcraft,” Matilde said.
He frankly admitted, “I’m not sure what to make of that. She threatened to kill her baby.” Matilde looked alarmed. “I’ve heard of prenatal depression,” he said. “Don’t know that I’ve ever encountered it. This is a very extreme case.”
The nurse assured him, “I’ll keep watch.”
Dr. Larsen and Nurse Matilde were both surprised to see a black baby emerge from Amelia Morgan’s white body. They both stared at it.. They stared at one another. Mathilde’s eyes seemed as large as headlights. Larsen knew she was wondering: Could this be witchcraft? He tossed the baby into the air. It grabbed for breath and started to cry. He caught the baby and handed it to Matilde. “You have a daughter,” Matilde told the newborn’s mother.
Amelia Morgan cried out with anguish. She squunched her eyes closed. She screamed, “I don’t want to see it! Or hold it! Don’t give it to me. I may hurt it.” With frightened eyes Mathilde watched the woman who had just given birth. She held the baby close and moved across the room.
When she had cleaned and swathed the baby, Larsen led Mathilde to a separate room. “Let’s not tell anyone about this birth just yet,” he said. “And let’s keep the woman isolated. Don’t give her the baby. She doesn’t have any friends here. No one even needs to know the birth has occurred.”
Matilde nodded in agreement. She put the baby into a crib and went back to attend Mrs. Morgan. Larsen left the hospital and paced the road that leads beside the Congo. The gathering darkness seemed to him as black as the baby he had just delivered.
In fact, he was attentive to fears of witchcraft. He thought it had power only insofar as its supposed objects surrendered power to it. In her half-deranged state Amelia Morgan might talk about witchcraft, but the derangement was caused not by fears of it, but by the fact that an African had fathered her baby. Mrs. Morgan was not semi-deranged. She was terrified of what happened when the baby’s parentage was revealed. She had managed to escape Bosobele, but she was panicked at the thought of going back. And of what might become of her if she didn’t.
Dr. Larsen knew that the revelation that a reverend’s wife had borne a mixed-race baby would create a scandal in the Central Africa Mission. Congress with a Congolese? Unthinkable! But not really. He had seen enough human behavior to understand that. His sympathies went out to Mrs. Morgan. If she sought comfort with a Congolese, her situation at Bosobele must have seemed truly intolerable.
He also knew that a scandal would deeply unsettle the Mission. Missionaries would whisper about it for months, some damning, others sympathetic to Amelia’s wretchedness. Moreover, African converts regularly exhorted to deny their lusts did not need to know that missionary women surrendered their bodies to Congolese.
In the bright sunlight of the next morning Larsen paid a call on Mrs. Morgan. She was lying in her bed, staring at the ceiling. When she saw who had entered, she turned her face to the wall and would not look at him.
“You delivered a mixed-race baby, Mrs. Morgan,” he informed her.
“Witchcraft! I told you witchcraft got inside me.”
Larsen spoke with kindness, but also forthrightly. “My dear, it’s not witchcraft. We both know how a white woman comes to have a mixed-race baby. That baby has every right to live a decent life.”
“Bring that baby to me, I may kill it.”
Larsen brought a chair beside the bed and sat down. “Let’s talk about some options for that little girl.”
“I’ll kill it. I will!” Amelia still thought pretense would work.
“You and your husband could keep her and raise her.”
“I’d throw it in the river with a rock tied to its foot.”
“Of course, keeping her would require you to renegotiate your marriage.”
“I won’t go back to Boso. You’ll have to drown me first.”
“If your husband is the Christian man I assume he is, I’m sure forgiveness can happen.”
“Get out of here or I’ll start screaming!”
He reached out to pat Amelia’s arm. She kept her head turned to the wall. “My dear Mrs. Morgan,” he said very gently. “Don’t think you’re the first missionary woman to wonder what it would be like to make love with a Congolese.” The doctor let her absorb that idea. “You’re probably not the first to have found out. Male missionaries have consulted me, men who’ve had sex with Congolese women. They come panicked by the thought of venereal disease. They don’t want to infect their wives.”
Amelia Morgan turned to look at the doctor. She spoke calmly, abandoning the false hysterics. Larsen assumed she had decided to trust him. “Don’t think me half-crazy,” she said. “I’ve just been frantic wondering what to do.’
“There are options.” Larsen began to count them on his fingere. Amelia Morgan lay very still, ready to listen. “We could try to find someone here at Wendji to adopt the baby.” He paused, cogitating what this would involve. Amelia Morgan said nothing, shaking her head, listening, her eyes closed, trying to concentrate. “That would involve a scandal. It might take several months for the Mission to get over it.”
“And what happens to me?” Amelia prepared herself to negotiate.
“Let’s solve the baby problem first,” the doctor said. After a moment he continued, “No one here knows the baby’s been born yet. We’ve got her in a private room. The nurse is staying with her. We’ve called in a young Congolese mother to nurse her. She thinks the baby was born to a light-skinned Congolese.”
“You could say the baby was stillborn.”
“Yes,” Larsen agreed. “After all, you had a very rough passage coming down from Boso.”
“It was rough,” Amelia acknowledged. “The second day the river was so angry I thought the baby and I might die.” After a moment she asked, “If you told people it was stillborn, what would happen to my baby?”
“That could be arranged.”
Amelia Morgan watched Dr. Larsen intently. “A stillborn baby would have to be buried,” she said.
“But not necessarily publicly. If we claimed the death had been caused by witchcraft, we could bury it secretly. So as to protect the community.”
Amelia Morgan struggled to a sitting position and studied him. “How devious you are!” she exclaimed. It was meant as a compliment and he chose to let it be one.
“You could stay here recuperating until you’re ready for whatever is next.”
“I can’t imagine what is next. I’ve been trying to think.”
“It need not be Bosobele. It need not be the Congo. Can you get yourself back to America?”
She shook her head. “I have no money. Anyway there’s nothing there for me. That’s why I married Carl. What I really want to do is paint.”
The doctor stood and put the chair against the wall. He counseled her, “Get back your strength. Things will look better.”
“And you’ll take care of the baby?”
At last she relaxed. She and Larsen had done their negotiating and she was satisfied.
“It’s best if I don’t see her, isn’t it?”
“I’m afraid it is.” Larsen turned to gaze into her eyes.
“Thank you, Doctor. I’ve thought I was going crazy. Still I don’t know what’s going to become of me.” She began to weep.
“I wouldn’t tell anyone about what we decided,” Larsen said. “Mathilde won’t mention it to anyone.” He smiled reassuringly. “Now get some sleep.”
That afternoon Larsen took a very small wooden coffin, a shovel and a cross and walked into the jungle alone. He came to an open area where shoveling was possible. He dug a grave three feet deep and buried the coffin. He marked the burial site with the cross in case he needed to find it again.
When he returned home, still carrying the shovel, he found his wife having tea with two other missionary women. He knew that, as much as they would claim not to, the women could not refrain from gossiping. He told them the account he wanted broadcast: that Mrs. Morgan who had made such a difficult trip down from Bosobele had delivered a stillborn baby. He had just buried it secretly, he told them, because she was certain it was tainted by witchcraft. He asked the ladies not to spread word of this distressing business.
“I hear Mrs. Morgan’s very despondent,” his wife said. Obviously the gossip had started already.
“I’ll go see her,” was his reply.
When he went to see her, Amelia Morgan was asleep. He did not wake her. Mathilde confirmed that she had seemed disheartened.
He said, “Sleep will do her good.” But, in fact, he was worried about what would become of her.
Early the next morning about dawn he and the nurse Mathilde left Wendji Station in a vehicle. The baby girl was with them. They drove south several hours to a rubber plantation at Flandria. Larsen had a colleague there, a woman doctor, which was very unusual. Her husband, who had died, had managed the plantation. Their nephew was now doing that job. The doctor colleague had never had children of her own. However, she was raising a couple of orphan boys. She was delighted to be offered the newborn baby girl. “I will keep in touch to let you know how things are progressing here,” she said. “Would that be all right with you?”
Larsen said, “I’m not sure that’s necessary.”
In late afternoon he and Mathilde returned to Wendji. That was when they learned that Amelia Morgan had disappeared. People had been looking for her most of the day, but all anyone knew was that she had gone.
As the days, then the weeks, passed, the people at Wendji evolved three theories about Mrs. Morgan’s disappearance. One suggested that incipient insanity led her to escape from the hospital and flee somewhere on her own. Reverend Morgan, who left Boso and came to Wendji, endorsed that view, hoping that his wife would be found. But no one knew where she might have gone. No one had seen her on any road. No reports of a wandering white woman came from any of the towns or villages on the roads she would have taken. Dr. Tucker from Ikela reported seeing an unfamiliar white woman managing a hotel in distant Kisangani. It was implausible that that woman could have been Amelia Morgan, but in any case Tucker had had no chance to follow up on the sighting.
A second theory speculated that Amelia Morgan had run off somehow with a companion. But who? And how? She knew virtually no one in the region. Could the planter with the launch have come back for her? Unlikely. She wanted desperately to leave the Ubangui.
A third theory contended that the exhaustion, Bosobele witchcraft and the baby’s stillbirth pushed Amelia Morgan over the edge. It assumed she had slipped out of the hospital in the middle of the night, lowered herself into the Congo and swum out to where the current swept her away. But there never was any report of a white woman’s body being found down river.