I was 28 and living in the Equateur, the remote northwestern region of the Congo, in Coquilhatville. I was unspeakably lonely. I’d been dropped into this place, alone, to do a job I wasn’t sure I knew how to do. Best advice: Buddy, suck it up!
No wonder I felt alone. Most everyone in Coq was black. I was white. Most everyone spoke French or Lingala. I spoke English, but could stumble through conversations in highly limited, badly accented French. Somebody at the embassy should have said, “Find a person there to teach you Lingala. It will give you something to fill your time.” What they actually said was, “We can get you a gun. Do you want to take a gun?” God, no! No guns!
Coquilhatville was a tiny place, now known as Mbandaka, a river port squatting at the confluence of the mighty, tawny Congo, so wide that some days you couldn’t see the opposite bank, and a tributary called the Ruki.
Coq existed outside of time. Nothing happened there. Its only realities were the sky, the river, the jungle. Living where nothing happened, it was hard later to comprehend reports of rebel advances somewhere out in that vast, swampy river-laced jungle. It was hard to believe that Coq was a place those rebels would want to capture on their path of Léopoldville, the capital.
But it was.
In 1964 Coq was a shrinking island of civilization. Only a few years before, however, it had served as the capital of the Equateur, one of the Belgian Congo’s six colonial provinces. So it was deemed important enough by the United States government to merit an “American presence.” Not a diplomatic mission, mind you, just a US Information Service post, an American Cultural Center.
I arrived in the Congo from a training tour in Brussels just at the time the married officer assigned to Coquilhatville flatly refused to accept the posting. He would not take his wife to that “pisshole,” that isolated, pestiferous place.
So I was sent there.
For days I felt wretchedly alone. If I hadn’t been a teetotaler, I would have gotten – and probably stayed – drunk. Every evening during the first weeks when I walked from the rundown hotel where I lived to the town’s single restaurant, I mentally composed a letter to my USIS boss in Léopoldville. It said: “I’m outa here! I quit! Adios!”
But I did not resign. I sucked it up. After six months passed, I’d established the post. I’d managed to convert an empty house, already leased by the embassy, into a Centre Culturel Américain, complete with lending library, reading room, and film collection. It was open to the public, serving huddled masses yearning to breathe free.
By then the Congo’s post-independence chaos had caused the embassy to revise its thinking about the isolation and danger of one-man stations. As a result, I was instructed to welcome an officer more senior than myself. As soon as he arrived, poor guy, he hated the place. He kept wondering: Who did I cross that they sent me here?
About the time he and his wife settled in, news filtered into the Equateur of strange happenings in Kwilu Province, south of us, rumblings of insurrection: villages attacked, missionaries maimed and murdered. The disturbances quickly spread to the Kivu, on the eastern border. They threatened the Kivu’s principal town, Bukavu, a lovely place. I had served there for six weeks after first arriving in the Congo. The insurgents placed the town under siege.
They moved swiftly through the forests, picking up adherents. Many were teenagers seeking adventure. Towns whose names I had trouble finding on the map began to fall to the rebels. US military personnel arrived to install a single-side-band radio in the center; our code name was “River Rat.”
Then Stanleyville fell. The famous Stanleyville, now known as Kisangani – and familiar to readers of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness as Kurtz’s Inner Station. An American missionary was killed there. We heard rumors of consular and CIA officers trapped in the town.
The rebels started their trek toward Léopoldville – and toward us in Coq. Would they come by river? Or over land? There was only one road into and out of Coquilhatville. If they came along that road and crossed the Ruki at the Ingende ferry, only six hours drive from town, what would happen? Would the Armée Nationale Congolaise protect us? Or would its soldiers flee, as they were doing elsewhere, fearing that the rebels were invincible, protected by a magic that turned bullets into drops of water? If the rebels crossed the Ruki, would we be trapped?
Our days grew increasingly tense. We curtailed my twice-monthly film trips into the bush. Everyone was edgy. It became impossible to accomplish any real work. Acquaintances in the town, ex-colonials, found reasons to go to Léo – “I haven’t seen a dentist in donkeys’ years”- and did not return.
Panic began to grip Coquilhatville. US military flights landed every two or three days at the Coq airport. My boss and his wife talked obsessively about evacuating. “If we aren’t accomplishing anything,” he’d say, “is there any reason to stay?”
Then one morning about 10:30 AM I was told that we were evacuating. By 3:00 PM we were gone.
The next day at the embassy one of the American secretaries remarked to me, “You guys certainly turned tail the minute things got rough.”
So I went back.
It struck me even then as a curious think to do. But, unlike my superior, I had established something in the town. I did not want to see it swept aside. Furthermore, the ambassador was agreeable to my returning. Perhaps he wanted a “presence” in the town, some American eyes and ears. Perhaps he realized that I stood at a personal crossroads. Returning or walking away: one act or the other would define for me my identity.
When I returned, the rebels were much closer to the town. Panic was more palpably in the air; like humidity you could feel it.
I checked in at the Center. I had dinner with Jules André, my best friend in town, a Belgian electrician whose wife Thérèse and three children I had helped evacuate to Léopoldville. Depression caused him to talk of setting his house ablaze before the rebels came. He wondered if his life’s work would be lost.
That night the rebels crossed the Ruki at the Ingende ferry. By the time I awoke in the morning looters were at work in the town center. Our single-side-band radio had been evacuated to Léopoldville, but I managed to secure an open phone line to the embassy – no easy feat – and telexed a plea for a plane. A C-130 arrived in the early afternoon. It had a cargo bay large enough to accommodate a house. We loaded refugees onto the cargo floor and took off.
Once in Léo, I was escorted into the ambassador’s presence. I made my report. He said simply, “Well, we’re outa that place.”
The story of my year in the Equateur can be told so quickly that it sounds exciting. But the living of it was slow. And the rebel approach, though fast, excited only dread and emptiness in the stomach.
In the interior of Africa life progresses in slow motion. Often time seems not to move at all. And no wonder. It’s hot there. And so humid that a light skin of sweat always clothes your own skin. In that heat nothing wants to move. Moreover, on the Equator, against which Coquilhatville nestled, the length of the days hardly varies. Seasons do not change as they do in the temperate zones.
In some expatriates these conditions – heat, stillness, boredom – invite lethargy. Vigor seeps out of them the way water seeps out of a mangrove swamp at low tide. They begin to smoke. They drink – frequently too much and much too frequently. They experiment with drugs. Heat and languor turn their thoughts to sex; they plot dalliances and seek seductions, sometimes failing, sometimes not.
Other expats are not undone by heat, stillness, boredom. If they are new to the life, they are busy responding to other conditions: the strangeness of the locals, the vividness of the surroundings, their own outsider status and the fact and intensity of their youth. All these sharpen their senses.
Sharpened senses have a way of staying sharp. After leaving USIS, I became a journalist, covering Africa. During my journalist stint, I now and then wrote things more personal than reportage. These were mainly personal essays, some of them about Coquilhatville. In these pieces a newsman scratched an itch to be not a mere recorder of news, but a real writer. During this time there were also things that came from a very different place, which the high-falutin’ might term the soul. That is: stories. In some of them I called myself Derek Turner.
After journalism, I wrote screenplays for television. When the screenwriting commissions dried up – “reality TV’ replaced television movies – I began to write novels and stories based almost entirely in Africa. I’ve often wondered why that was. The screenplays were not based there. Neither was the first novel, Abe and Molly: The Lincoln Courtship; it grew out of a screenplay outline and was begun while I was teaching in Illinois.
Why the Africa-based material? My imagination clearly responded to being let out of the cage of upbringing and inhibition in which my youth had been trapped without my quite understanding how completely that was the case. I also responded to two different lifeways, Western and African, rubbing against one another. And I happily recalled “the strangeness of the locals, the vividness of the surroundings,” the outsider status that offers its special perspective and the memories of my growing-up that were a part of it.
For a long time after leaving the continent, I wrestled with that persistent malady: nostalgia for Africa. Writing is the way I’ve dealt with it.