At a lunch at the consul’s home, Monsieur le Minstre de l’Interieur Miruho talked so incessantly that hardly any of the rest of us had a chance. Le Ministre waved his arms. As his gesturings increased, so did the rush and tumble of his thoughts. When his momentum increased, his French grew less and less comprehensible.
The guests had been invited to honor the departing head of Bukavu’s United Nations delegation, an Argentine named Carlos Gaviola. He and the consul had worked closely, fashioning a friendship. Beside the official consulate family, the guests were Ministre Miruho, the thirty-four-year-old Monsieur le Vice-President du Kivu Central, Monsieur Rukaratabare and Charles Morel, a Belgian neighbor who lived three houses down the road, had plantations in the Kivu, and relatives in Argentina.
The consul tried twice to interrupt Ministre Miruho, only to have Miruho increase the volume and speed of his remarks. The consul glanced at Gaviola and oscillated his eyebrows in resignation. Gaviola smiled, settled back in his chair, and reminded himself that tomorrow he would be gone.
Gaviola asked about Morel’s wife and daughter. “Minou is growing up so fast,” laughed Morel. “Sometimes I see a woman across a room at the Cercle Sportif and suppose she’s thirty. Then she turns around and it’s Minou.” (I had seen her biking on our road and thought she might be thirteen.)
Morel inquired about Gaviola’s wife who had already returned to Buenos Aires. They spoke briefly about Argentina and, good host that he was, the consul tried to include his Congolese guests in this conversation. He explained to the two ministers where Argentina was. Neither had heard of it and showed no interest in it. They immediately redirected the talk to Kivu politics.
Gaviola, Morel, and the consul gave each other glances that tolerated the Africans. I myself thought it brave of the consul to attempt a social mixing of black and white, the Assemblée Provinciale and the Cercle Sportif, the future and the past.
The Congolese politicians were discussing practical politics. Not how to deliver benefits to their constituents, but how to get elected senator from the Kivu next year. “Mais, mon cher Vice-Président, comment dirai-je? Pas possible! Vous êtes trop jeune d’être senateur,” intoned Miruho to Rukaratabare. (“My esteemed Vice-President, you are too young to become a senator.”) Miruho hoped to nab that office himself.
“Mais, Monsieur le Ministre, je vous assure, je vais avoir trente-cinq ans avant les élections,” Rukaratabare replied confidently. (“I assure you, I am going to be thirty-five before the elections.”)
Ministre Miruho peppered each sentence with at least one “comment dirai-je” (“how shall I say”) as if he were stumbling for his next words. But he was not stumbling into incomprehensibility; he had already achieved that. He always immediately followed that phrase with some word that required no pregnant introduction. It had been in his mouth all along, waiting to jump out.
The business of titles was very important to the politicians. The other guests observed with amusement as the titles flew around. Protocol was also important, for example, the order in which guests were served at the table.
Rukaratabare was especially sensitive about such things. The consul’s servant seemed to think that Europeans, as whites were called, ranked higher than Congolese. He repeatedly served guests out of the order that Rukaratabare thought correct. He served M. le Vice-Président last, even after me. To show his irritation, Rukaratabare paused unduly before taking the serving utensils. In this way he underlined the servant’s mistake.
When the luncheon was accomplished, the consul made appropriate remarks thanking Senor Gaviola for his significant contributions to the stability and development of the Kivu. Gaviola replied, saying how meaningful had been his too-short-a-stay in Bukavu. He also announced that he would this very afternoon make one last run to deliver food relief. His final destination was Shabunda, a small community about 350 kilometers west of Bukavu, deep in the jungle. He asked, “Would any of you like to come along?”
I jumped at the chance. As did Ministre Miruho. The consul gave his blessing to my going.
Sitting in metal bucket seats, we took off in a World War II cargo plane, painted white to indicate UN and ward off anti-aircraft fire from rebels in the hills to the south. Medicines, gasoline, and US-supplied powdered milk were strapped to the cargo floor. As the plane rose into haze, I looked directly below. Bukavu – and the Cultural Center! – passed beneath us. We quickly left the Rift Valley escarpment, let the altitude chill us, and flew west over the endless green of the Congo River basin.
Suddenly we saw that some of the green had been scraped away to make room for a town. We circled Shabunda twice to announce our approach. The arrival of the white plane and its cargo excited the entire community. Staring from the windows, I saw figures pointing to the sky, some racing toward the airstrip.
As we came in for the landing, the heat of the jungle offered its welcome. The plane settled onto the spongy grass runway cut out of thick vegetation in the very center of the town. As we disembarked, onlookers with silent, curious faces, all men or boys, greeted us from the edge of the runway, from behind a stake fence, from nearby trees. One tree must have held fifteen boys in its branches. They remained on their perches until we left an hour later.
Gaviola emerged from the plane and waved to the townspeople. He immediately began shaking hands with the local dignitaries. They were anxious to bask in the reflected glow of his presence. Ministre Miruho quickly moved beside him to wave and grasp out-thrust hands.
Local dignitaries proclaimed their thanks to the UN in French and feted Gaviola. He answered in French. Monsieur le Ministre took the microphone to express his thanks in Swahili and to do some politicking. He spoke about the future he could bring Shabunda as if the relief supplies we had brought were his doing.
At the edges of the crowd stood hordes of young men and boys. They crept forward to listen and observe with the same relentlessness that the jungle shows in reclaiming cleared land. A policeman tried to hush them. When they did not retreat, he picked stones off a gravel pathway. He hurled them. A cry arose. The boys dashed off with a high-hipped run that resembled stampeding gazelles.
I caught sight of a woman pushing her way toward us. The policeman backed away. She was white. Unique. And undeniably American, perhaps the daughter of the farm couple in Grant Wood’s “American Gothic.” A tallish, thin woman with a work-worn breastless figure. Her cheeks hung straight from the edges of her colorless eyes. Her mouth was thin, just a line across her face. A little stake fence of wrinkles ran above the bridge of her nose. Her hair dropped down from a knot that had come undone. Her dress hung on her as it might have hung on a hanger. Breathing heavily, she smelled as if she had run a long way.
She watched the speakers on the platform, then spotted me as a fellow countryman. Emboldened by this recognition, she approached me. “I’m Miss Helen Hoffman,” she said. She smiled with a coyness decades out of practice. “An old maid missionary,” she added. Her manner surprised me.
“I ran a mile to get here,” she said, glancing at me shyly. Coquettishness may have been the only way she had ever known to talk with men of her own kind. “I came as soon as I saw the white plane circling.” She looked down as if embarrassed. I saw that her bare feet in sandals were as splayed as the feet of a duck. “I’ve been here thirty-five years,” she said.
“Really?” I could hardly believe that.
I nodded with encouragement.
“I’m with the Evangelical Bible Society of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania,” she said. “I’m particularly partial to spiritual work.”
“Have you been back home in all that time?”
“This is my home.”
“Of course. I meant−−“
“Only twice back. Wouldn’t leave at Independence. Even when it seemed like Armageddon. I had a house full of orphans. I preferred to die for them rather than leave.”
“They must have been grateful to you.”
She smiled shyly.
The relief supplies had been off-loaded. Monsieur le Ministre continued his politicking. We were called back to the plane.
“Before you go,” Miss Hoffman said, “I must introduce you to two of my prizes.” She ran to two men nearing middle age. They were standing nearby. She pulled them toward me to introduce them. One was the chef du district, the other a doctor. They shook my hand, treating her with affectionate respect, although she clearly struck them as odd, a sexless creature in a society that judged women by their procreative capacity. Still they willingly acted as evidence that she truly had accomplished great things in spiritual work.
When I shook her hand, saying goodbye, she once again murmured, “Just an old maid.” I smiled, a little embarrassed. She held my hand a moment, still Flapper Era girlish in the presence of a man like me. She was a jungle Rip Van Winkle. She had spent her life in the waking sleep of the deep bush, in that isolation chamber where every week was the same, where the daily routine of life and the annual passage of seasons never changed. It was as if she had been sleeping all those years in the eye of a storm that had never shaken her awake. Our dropping out of the sky was a mere stirring of her sleep.
“Goodbye,” I said. “Nice to meet you.” As I loosened my hand from hers, I hoped that she loved the Congolese, that her service had fulfilled her. I hoped that the donation of her life to the people of Shabunda had satisfied a longing for purpose.
Monsieur le Ministre was the last of our passengers to return to the plane. He grinned as if our stop in Shabunda had definitely advanced his senatorial campaign.
As we rose into the sky, I watched out the window. The last figure I saw was that of Miss Helen Hoffman, loping at the edge of the runway, waving.