When I arrived in the Congo, a US Information Service Foreign Service Officer who’d just completed a break-in tour in Brussels, Belgium, my assignment was Elisabethville. That was in the Katanga in the southeast. But in the capital, called Léopoldville then, I was told that eventually I would serve in the Equateur in the northwest. But first I would go to the Kivu on the country’s eastern border. It was 1963. Things were a little confused in the Congo.
However, I was assured, “Bukavu is a place you’ll love. Paul Wemboyendja will take care of you.”
Wem-what? How did one pronounce that name? “We are damned lucky to have him working for us,” said the officer briefing me. “It was a real coup to hire him away from the Kivu Information Ministry.”
“In fact, we did not hire him away,” corrected another embassy officer. “Not that operator. He sought us out the minute we arrived to set up a consulate. Asked if he could be of service. We made inquiries. Everybody said: ‘Great contacts.’ So we grabbed him.”
Wemboyendja. Wem-boy-end-ja. Not difficult at all once you got used to it. In any case, I was immensely relieved that someone would show me the ropes in Bukavu.
The ill-prepared Congo had catapulted into national independence only three years before. It had suffered chaotic birth pangs. The army mutinied, refusing to obey Belgian officers. Colonials still resident in the country fled. The prime minister was assassinated. The copper-rich province of Katanga tried to secede. Its future was still being decided by parley and by arms.
The Kivu was quiet, but unrest had a way of traveling. The American Consulate in Bukavu, capital of Kivu Province, was keeping an eye on developments. The USIS operation, a cultural center and a films program was designed to show Congolese that the Americans were friends. It demonstrated that friendship with goodies: books and pamphlets, displays and cinema showings.
In the absence of an American officer, Paul Wemboyendja was running USIS Bukavu. Despite his qualifications this was an extraordinary situation. Paul was a local employee; local employees did not supervise cultural centers. American officers did that.
Bukavu’s USIS center stood on the town’s main street. The consular offices were on a hill above the town half a mile away. The consul was in no physical position to know what went on at the center. Still he felt responsible for what happened there. Because of the Congo’s reputation, USIS was having trouble finding an experienced officer to fill the post. The man slated for Bukavu had refused the assignment and resigned from the service.
That’s where I fit in. In Brussels I completed Junior Officer Training, a ten-month tour, moving around the offices of a very different USIS operation. At an embassy in a European capital, home of the Common Market, USIS Brussels was directed by sophisticated attachés, a press counselor handling official statements, press conferences, and relations with journalists, and a cultural counselor setting up concerts, art shows, and various kinds of exhibitions. Almost nothing I learned in Brussels applied to the Congo. But because Belgians had colonized the country, it made a certain sense for me to be transferred there.
USIS’ immediate need was for an officer to run the Bukavu cultural center. I was sent there on temporary duty.
Bukavu (Boo-KAH-voo) turned out to be a beautiful place. The town rode the backbone of Africa, nestled among mountains that receded line after line into the distance. It lay strung out atop five peninsulas, at the south end of Lake Kivu. In the colonial era Europeans lived in the town itself and in handsome homes on the peninsulas. The American consul, his wife, and two boys, resided in one of these.
The Congolese lived in the cités of Bagira and Kadutu on the heights above the town. A looming presence on those heights was the Mwami of Kabare, a tribal potentate. His powers were real. But since Congolese were beginning to govern their own affairs in what might be called the modern style, those powers were also ambiguous.
Although Bukavu’s beauty refreshed me, I was a bit uncertain what I was supposed to do. I hoped Paul Wemboyenda would prove friendly and a patient instructor of a young American new to Africa.
In fact, Paul was something of a rascal, a wheeler-dealer and a suave ladies man. Fortunately, I enjoyed rascals, especially if they were amusing, friendly, and reasonably competent. Paul was. Before working for the Kivu Information Ministry he had served as a Lomani District delegate to the Congo’s first constituent assembly. Prior to that he had helped local Europeans to escape across Lake Kivu after independence during what were called les troubles.
Paul had also been sufficiently influential (whatever that meant) to get beaten and tossed into prison when activists of the Mouvement National Congolais took control in the Kivu six months after independence. That was all in the past.
Paul was tallish, stocky, charming. He kept his hair clipped so close to his head that he always looked as if he were wearing a black pillbox hat. He had a roundish face, a ready sense of humor, and sparkling eyes. When you looked at him, you felt the good-hearted anticipation that fills the air when a comedian is performing.
Paul entered my office my first morning in Bukavu. I inquired, “Tout va bien?” (“Everything okay?”)
He replied, “Je vais bien” (“I’m good”). That meant that he had heard, “Tu vas bien?” (“You okay?”). Oh-oh. “Tu” was the familiar form of “you” in French, a form colonials customarily used in addressing Congolese. I wanted to be sure he understood that I would not treat him as colonials had.
Having exchanged greetings, he announced, “Je dois aller à Usumbura pour dire bonjour au pere de ma femme.” He had to go to Usumbura to “say hello” to his father-in-law. I was skeptical. Noticing that reaction, he added that his wife’s mother had just passed on. He also needed time to attend her funeral. Hmm.
Of course, Paul was testing me. Was I a stickler for discipline? It had grown sloppy in the months the center lacked an American officer. After the consul placed Paul temporarily in charge, he was frequently gone, as he wanted to go now. He had been roaming around town in the USIS film truck, doing “contact work.” In the evenings the truck was often seen parked outside nightclubs. There a man with a vehicle was always a magnet for women.
Yes, I was being tested. But why play martinet? I agreed that Paul could go to Usumbura, capital of the tiny nearby country of Burundi. If he liked to travel, so much the better. If I had any goal in Bukavu, it was to see some country.
When I told the consul that I authorized Paul’s trip, he grumbled at me. He decoded what I’d been told. Step One: “Dire bonjour.” “Saying hello” was apparently an African custom. Step Two: His wife’s father. Paul’s wife had left him, the consul explained. His trip was probably an attempt to resolve a dispute with her father. Or one of her fathers. Come again? The consul explained that Africans reckoned kinship differently than Americans did.
By African kinship reckoning the wife’s father was not necessarily her biological parent. He might be any number of men senior to the biological father in the father’s lineage. The same applied to the dead mother. Step Three: Why should he go? He was working at the center. Couldn’t he “dire bonjour” on personal time? Probably, the consul said, he was behind on bridewealth payments.
He explained that Paul owed money all over town. His landlord had dropped by the consulate that very morning to complain that Paul had not paid his rent in five months. Did Americans not pay their employees? Another recent visitor was the father of an African girl (again that kinship ambiguity). He claimed that she was expecting Paul’s child. Hmm. What was to be done about this fellow with “great contacts”?
While he was out of town and away from the center, I worked with Dieudonné, the librarian, to regularize the operations of the library, the circulation and recovery of borrowed volumes and the proper reordering of them on the shelves. To a Congolese that ordering must have seemed a peculiarly American obsession.
I also set up with Jean Rusenyagugu, the planton (janitor), a schedule for cleaning the building.
When Paul returned from Usumbura, without his wife, I began to keep better track of the after-hours use of the film truck. I accompanied Paul when he showed films in the cités.
One night we went to Bagira, high in the hills above Bukavu.
The film truck’s appearance sent waves of excitement through the dusty streets. Children ran toward us, screaming “See-nay-ma! See-nay-ma!” and “Ay-tazz-oo-nee-dam-air-eeek!” (The legend “Etats-Unis d’Amérique” was painted on the film truck door.) Wild with anticipation, they danced in a frenzy, flinging their hips, and flailing their arms, clouds of dust rising about them. Paul leaned out of the window to greet them.
When we reached the place, the cité square, Paul started the phonograph blaring. The music was African, cha-cha-chas from his personal collection. The children danced more wildly. Dust motes flew up into the twilight. Young men joined the dancing. Paul quickly recruited them to help him to set up the film show.
Soon women abandoned their cook fires. With babies tied to the smalls of their backs, they approached the screen Paul had directed his acolytes to erect. He set up the projector beside the film truck. He chose the first film from the round canisters of them. He wound the film into the projector. Each operation heightened the excitement. When all was ready, he began the show with a Charlot, a Charlie Chaplin film. Slapstick in the balmy evening. Paul had his African audience in the palms of his hands. He held me there, too. Paul Wemboyendja was truly taking care of me in the Kivu.
We did film show after film show, always to eager crowds in Bagira or Kadutu, always beginning with a Charlot from Paul’s personal collection. Next Paul showed USIS informational films. They gave our audiences glimpses of a world they could hardly comprehend, sometimes about developments that frankly bored them. But they stayed. While Paul rewound the films, our audience sang and danced. I did the twist, then in vogue in the States, to show that Americans also had moves.
Why did the audiences stay? Because Paul, that wonder-working impresario, had promised to end the evening with another Charlot.
When USIS Léo learned that we were showing Charlots, I received a stern instruction that they were not to be exhibited. USIS films were to inform, I was told, not to entertain. But Léopoldville was a long way off. Better to ignore the rebuke.
Sometimes after a film show Paul and I had dinner together. We ate at the Bodega, a quite splendid restaurant given the Congo’s travails. It was located in the Hotel Royal Residence where Belgian royalty had stayed while visiting the town. We even had serious conversations.
One evening the subject was religion. Paul had two convictions about this matter. First, everyone should have a religion. Second, everyone should be free to choose the one he wanted.
Pre-independence practices at the Bukavu cathedral offended him, he told me. He resented the fact that the heads of black children were shaved prior to baptism, but those of white children were not.
“Le Bon Dieu will punish these priests on Judgment Day,” he said.
“Why’s that?” I asked.
“They willfully refrain from marriage.”
“And that’s bad?” I myself had so far refrained from marriage.
“Marriage is the proper state of man,” Paul said. “Each man has a duty to augment the world. Le Bon Dieu will punish these priests for their arrogance.”
Paul Wemboyendja took care of me in Bukavu. In my turn I took care of him. I did this by taking possession of the film truck keys. I wanted him to keep his job. I drove the truck back to the consulate building where I lived on the second floor. If Paul intended to hit the nightclubs, as I’m sure he did, lighting them with his joy and laughter, known to young women as See-nay-ma, he would have to do it on foot.