Bureaucratic alarms sounded! I had been in Bukavu on temporary duty only about six weeks. I had just begun to feel that the cultural center was back on track, that the films program was operating effectively once more.
The reason for the alarm? It turned out that USIS’ parent, the Information Agency in Washington, had misinformed Congress about progress at USIS Coquilhatville in the northwestern Congo. It had reported that an officer was on the ground there.
And also that this mythical officer had established a cultural center, a tiny light in the Great Darkness of the jungle. Moreover, from this small outpost against Communist encroachment on the Dark Continent he was now providing information about Freedom and Democracy to black masses yearning to breathe free.
None of this was true. In fact, the Agency was having a very difficult time finding officers willing to serve in the Congo. Did it matter what the Agency had reported? Yes, it mattered because an obscure Congressional staffer might discover the facts. That staffer might jump to the conclusion that USIA had intentionally misled the Congress. Charges of bad faith might fly.
So instructions went out from USIA: “Get a body into Coquilhatville.” The body was mine. USIS Léo instructed me to leave Bukavu ASAP.
Aware that I might never again find myself so close to East Africa, I requested leave. I yearned to visit the game parks of Kenya and Tanzania. I regarded their animals as the great wonder of the natural world. My bosses denied the request. A USIS body in Coquilhatville had become a matter of urgency.
Very disheartened, I communicated this feeling to the consul. He smiled with the canniness that was one of the qualities that fitted him for his position. He and his family, he told me, were taking a weekend trip to Usumbura, the capital of neighboring Burundi. They would be gone three days. Charley, the consulate’s communications man, in whose apartment I lived, would have few duties that weekend.
“Charley needs to get out of town,” the consul said.
Charley had been seeing Chantal, a blonde twenty-one-year-old Belgian girl whose mother was trying to find her a husband. Since I roomed with Charley, I knew that the relationship had become intimate. Charley had told me, “I wouldn’t want my Mom to know what I do with that heifer.” (Charley invariably referred to young women as “heifers.”)
Late one evening while maneuvering Chantal into an accessible position, Charley had removed the knob on the truck’s gearshift. In his passion he threw it out the window. The next step would be for him to sneak Chantal into the commo apartment some evening. That might affect security.
The consul’s wife worried about his susceptibility to Chantal’s wiles. Even Mlle Moutarde, the consul’s Belgian secretary who lived with Bukavu’s Volkswagen dealer, warned of the spider web being spun by Chantal’s mother, Mme DeTree.
“Why don’t you take the film truck to Goma?” the consul suggested with a grin. “I’d like to know how that road is, but I sure don’t want to test it myself.”
Goma lay at the north end of Lake Kivu. From Goma we could dash up to Parc National Albert, the Congo’s premier game reserve. I could see elephants and hippos, maybe even lions. My masters in Léo who had denied my leave request need never know of the trip. If they discovered it, I could claim to have been making contacts for program activities.
Few tourists had visited the park since independence. “You’d have the place to yourselves,” the consul said.
That night I found Charley in the Bodega restaurant, sitting alone at a table. He was deeply pissed off. Chantal was supposed to meet him. She had stood him up. Since he was on his third beer, drowsiness had begun to dissipate his anger.
“Maybe it’s for the best,” I said when he told me what was wrong. “Easier to escape the spider web.”
“I’m not caught in any spider web,” Charley said. “And I won’t be any time soon. That bitch.”
“Why don’t we go up to Goma this weekend?” I suggested. I laid out the plan for him.
“Bitch,” Charley grumbled. It was all he said. We ordered dinner.
Soon Chantal entered the Bodega. She joined us without being invited and sat beside Charley. “I’m mad at you,” he snarled. The beer-induced drowsiness had disappeared.
“I thought we were meeting at the Cercle Sportif,” Chantal pleaded. She rubbed her breast against his arm.
“Get lost,” Charley said. “I’ll see ya sometime.” Chantal smiled. She brushed his hair away from his forehead. “Who brought you up here?” Charley asked. “Some guy?”
“Maman,” she said.
Then, as if on cue, Mme DeTree entered the restaurant. When she saw Charley, she mock-scolded him. “You Americans! You expect Chantal to hunt all over town for you?” Madame sashayed to us and stood behind Charley, her hands on his shoulders. He was undeniably good-looking, black Irish, with the innocent American openness that baffled Europeans.
Mama DeTree possessed a roguish charm. She had some talent as an artist and pretended to be one. Her husband, a bland bucket of incompetence, spent his time drinking at the sports club. In her studio Mama DeTree displayed nude studies of a succulent Chantal. Any prospective suitor knew what was on offer there.
But was she consciously weaving a web? I doubted that. She was shrewd enough to see that even in the present uncertain times the blonde, buxom, compliant and rather pretty Chantal could do better than an American with that guilelessness Europeans mocked and distrusted. In these times of uncertainty she just wanted her daughter to have a little fun. She left her daughter with us.
When our dinners arrived, Chantal nibbled off Charley’s plate. He fed her a bite or two with his fork. She grinned at him. He moved his jaw around, trying to suppress the answering smile that was on his lips. “I guess I’ve got to take you home, don’t I?” Charley said. He looked at me. “Can I borrow the film truck?”
I gave him the keys.
After a moment he told Chantal, “I can’t see you this weekend. We’re going to Goma.” He looked at me. “Paul has to go with us,” he said. “I’m not going on that road without Paul.”
Nor would I go there without Paul. The trip definitely required a Congolese. The unpaved road followed the west bank of the lake. It was treacherously pot-holed and ill maintained. If we needed help from villagers along the way, one of us had better be able to talk to them.
By now, Paul and I had learned how not to get in each other’s way. When I tightened discipline on small matters, he was shrewd enough to play for the big score. That was travel. There was per diem in that for him−−and an even bigger plus. While I wanted to see new country, Paul wanted to meet new women.
Paul could hardly contain his glee when I broached the idea of a trip to Goma. His face burst into a joyful grin, the whites of his eyes and the whites of his teeth sparkling in his dark face. With an air of great importance he immediately set about making preparations. He telephoned Goma’s luxurious colonial era hostelry, the Hotel des Grands Lacs, and shouting into the receiver made reservations for Monsieur l’Attaché du Consulat Américain.
Besides hoping to see animals and new country, I had another reason for visiting Goma. Shortly before going overseas, I had met Murielle, a Belgian girl raised on a plantation at Saké, only a few miles south of Goma. We had assumed any emotional attachment would be fleeting−−after all, I was departing soon for Belgium−−but we had fallen in love. I gave a great deal of thought to our marrying. There were, however, issues between us: a difference in religion and questions about how children would be raised. These never got resolved. In fact, because the time was so short once we grew serious, they were hardly discussed.
Gradually we stopped writing during my year-long tour in Brussels. However, once I was assigned to the Congo the correspondence resumed−−with enough interest on both sides that I felt it would be wise to dire bonjour to her parents.
The consul and his family left for Usumbura at 9:00 o’clock on Friday. We departed for Goma at noon. It rained off and on all day. We left the paved road thirty-five kilometers out, drove past clusters of banana-frond huts, away from the lake and back beside it, climbed the escarpment. Almost at the top, we stopped to stretch. When we were ready to start again, the battery was dead. Ugh.
We rolled the truck backwards and started in compression in reverse. We drove on, up the escarpment and down it. The motor kept cutting out. As long as we were on an incline, we could restart it in compression. Finally the motor died as we moved along the water’s edge. Two of us got out. We pushed the truck, but could not move it fast enough to restart it. The rain began again. We corralled a passing African, a banana frond over his head as a rain hat. He helped us push, again in vain.
A European came along. Using bush ingenuity, we restarted the truck by putting the battery from his Land Rover onto our mount. Once the motor was running, we reinstalled our battery; all while the engine was turning.
We went on. The rain grew heavier. We stalled again. Light was fading from the sky. Paul went to find help. Charley and I waited in the truck, grateful that we had recruited Paul. We wondered if there was room for three of us in the truck if we had to spend the night there.
Paul returned shortly with two Europeans: a planter in a slicker, his trousers rolled-up, a woman’s plastic fold-up rain scarf on his head, and a Brit who worked at a Lipton Congo plantation near Goma. The Brit pushed us with his Land Rover. We got started again in compression. The hospitable Brit offered to follow us as far as his turn-off and we found that it was not difficult to keep the truck running in second gear.
We drove on through darkness and rain. Suddenly the Brit’s headlights were no longer behind us. There was no way to thank him for sparing us a night in the truck.
At Saké we hit pavement again. I peered into the blackness, but I could not make out any turn-off to the plantation where Murielle grew up.
We knew we were approaching Goma when we saw the red glow atop Nyiragongo, the active volcano that sits behind the town. There were gorillas in those mountains. Wow! The next day we might see elephants and lions, hippos and gazelles! What heaven!
The Hotel des Grands Lacs was splendid. We showered and met for dinner. Throughout the meal Paul was restless. He could not wait to hit a nightclub. I wanted to be rested for the next day’s animals and tried to beg off. Paul insisted that we accompany him.
He led us to a brightly-lit room in a building on the main street. When he made his entrance, I understood why it was important that we accompany him. He was a Big Man with Big Friends. The copain of white men, he shook hands with everyone, explaining to all that we came from Bukavu and had just dined at the Hotel des Grands Lacs where we were staying.
The bar was devoid of atmosphere. The room was stuffy and smelled of beer. The light was so bright that we needed safari hats and sunglasses. Stick-figure paintings adorned the walls. Crudely-made wooden tables and chairs circled a dance floor. But although music played, a steady cha-cha beat, no one danced.
The men sat on one side of the room, the women on the other. It was a little like Miss Ryan’s dance lessons I had attended at a time when I knew next to nothing about what was clearly on the minds of those sizing each other up across the room. Congolese men sat stolidly at their tables with tall brown bottles of Primus beer before them. They eyed the predatory females who sat across the room, measuring their victims.
Most women−−girls really, some no older than middle teens−−wore Congolese dress: elaborately tied headcloths, bodices of patterned material, cloths tied about the hips with second cloths draped to emphasize the size and succulence of those hips. Others wore European clothes.
The women knew why men came to the bar: to find a companion for the night. But Charley and me? It was not clear to them−−nor perhaps to us−−why we were there. Had we come for companions? Or merely to credential Paul?
But it was obvious why Paul had come: to spend money, to make an impression, to carry off the best-looking girl in the place. Soon a candidate approached. She was very pretty with lustrous skin, flashing eyes, and a bad case of the giggles. She was clad à la européenne: a white dress with large blue polka dots and a tight waist displaying a body that had not yet begun to thicken. In the light of the room her aureole of combed-out hair shined like a gray mist about her head.
She slid onto Paul’s lap. She put an arm around his shoulder. She kissed his cheek. Paul smiled. He gave Charley and me a what-can-I-do? shrug and became as giggly as she was.
Charley watched Paul getting the Big Man treatment. I wondered if he wanted it, too. Charley had boasted to me that he and Paul had gone “girling” together before I arrived even though their friendship lacked a common language.
Charley spoke no French, Paul no English. Their conversations were uncomplicated. Charley would mime holding a Primus bottle by its neck, bringing it to his mouth and tilting his head backwards as if to drink. “Primus. Mademoiselle,” he would say to Paul. Paul would answer: “Let’s go!”
“I don’t know about you,” I said, “but I came to see animals.”
“Not heifers,” Charley said. “At least not these heifers.”
We left Paul to be the Big Man in Goma and walked back to the hotel.
The battery repaired, we headed out of Goma through slowly rising countryside, watching three volcanoes jut into clouds. We traveled through country given over to tea, coffee, banana, and quinine plantations. Paul was dressed like a mwami, in office slacks, a tie, and a French-cuff shirt. Charley and I wore jeans.
We reached Parc National Albert in the early afternoon, coming off the Rift Valley escarpment from Rutshuru and moving out onto a long, wide, seemingly empty plain. In some places grass grew higher than our heads.
We drove beside a flat-bottomed stream that cut across a rust- and dark orange-colored gulch through the plain. Paul claimed to have sighted hippos in his binoculars. Oh, sure. We stopped. Damned if he wasn’t right. Hippos! Excitement overtook us, the elation of kids. We drove close to their wallow, jumped out of the truck, and gawked at them.
The creatures luxuriated in mud. They seemed a cross between rubberized pigs and Michelin-man horses. From the water in which they stood, they watched us, a mother nuzzling her young one. Sometimes one of them would arch back its neck and open a gigantic pink mouth. Each jaw had the shape of a huge guitar. “Ho, Mama!” Charley said. “Those jaws could take a fender off this truck!”
As we crossed a bridge into Ruindi Camp, a tree burst into life. Branches waved. Leaves rustled. Baboons! The road jumped alive with creatures scurrying in all directions. Hairy, suspicious faces turned around to observe us across hairy backs. Those backs ended in hairless rumps of shiny leather.
We were the only guests at Ruindi, probably the only guests for weeks. We got our cabins, put our duffels inside, engaged a guide, and returned to the film truck for a late afternoon game run.
The best view was from the top of the truck. We three took turns sitting there. It gave us a view of the entire plain. Soon we saw a herd of about fifteen grazing elephants, females with young. Then at the distance of about twenty-five yards we came upon a lone bull.
I was sitting atop the truck and watched him with amazement. At that range the animal seemed enormous, even in the immensity of the plain with mountains rising all around us to the west, with Lake Edward shimmering off to the east. I felt awe at being so close to the elephant. We did not interest him. He observed us and moved off.
The grass began to sway. Pig snouts appeared at the front of these waves of motion, erect tails at the end of them. Wart hogs scampered into view, their ears and long tails lifted to the sky. They trotted in a businesslike way, then turned toward us to back into their holes. Large tusks sprouted from their snouts. They’d win no beauty contests, but the way they trotted, the tufts on their tails raised like flags, delighted me.
We drove on. Antelopes watched us. Some, possibly elands, were tawny in color with spiraling horns. Others, topis, stood with their front legs seeming half again the length of their back ones, their hides red and black. When they ran from us, the difference in leg size produced a strange, yet graceful stride.
We saw monkeys and more baboons, waterbuck and more hippos. And Cape buffalo with their wide boss of horns. “Ce sont très dangereux,” murmured the guide, eyeing them carefully. (“Very dangerous!”)
Charley was driving. Paul and I surveyed the world from our cushions atop the cab of the truck. Suddenly we spotted a huge shape in a mud hole, only large enough to contain this shape. It emerged, a huge hippo, freshly coated in mud. It moved off, glinting in the sun, a plodding blob of light and liquid earth.
We reached the shore of Lake Edward. We stopped, left the truck, and stretched. We watched waterbuck and pelicans and bathing hippos. Monkeys frolicked on the beach. Fish eagles perched in the tops of trees. Paul peered into the distance and pointed off along the lakeshore. “There’s a commercial fishery over there,” he said. “Vitshumbi. An interesting place to visit.” I would not look. I did not want to see it. I did not want to think about the works of man. I had come to commune with nature.
Alas! The game run had to end. It was well after 5:00. Here, a mere handful of miles south of the Equator, sundown always fell promptly at 6:00. We started back toward Ruindi. We moved slowly along a track that led beside Lake Edward. We were between the lake and, fifty yards off, a dozen hippos lolling in a wallow.
Charley braked at the edge of a questionable section. It had rained the day before. Mud was everywhere. He hesitated before a patch of it. He consulted the guide. The guide urged him forward. Charley started across the mud. Five feet into it, the truck sank. It settled to its axles in mud.
“Oo-la-la!” Paul exclaimed. We climbed down from the top of the cab. Charley got out, insisting that the guide had assured him the truck could get across.
“You think the guide does a lot of driving?” I asked.
“Thank God, the truck has four-wheel drive,” Charley said.
“Yeah, we’re lucky.” I gestured him to return behind the wheel.
“You know how to use four-wheel drive, right?” he said.
Paul who used the truck more than anyone was also ignorant about four-wheel drive.
There was nothing to do but push. Charley, the guide, and I shoved mightily. Paul stood off to the side so that his mwami clothes would not get soiled. Despite our efforts, the truck only settled deeper into mud.
The sun was moving behind the mountains. Charley and I scurried about, uprooting marsh grass and breaking up a small tree, trying to find anything that would give the tires some purchase. The immaculate Paul kept his distance. He shouted suggestions. The guide feigned efforts to help us, but kept his eyes on the hippo wallow. “C’est très dangereux,” he said again. Nothing was supposed to block hippos’ access to water. We continued to push at the truck. But nothing worked. It was stuck fast.
Light was disappearing from the sky. Our options were not attractive. We could not hike back to Ruindi Camp. It was too far. Before long the coming night would engulf us in a blackness so deep we could see nothing. Wild animals, however, could see us.
It was unlikely that anyone from camp would search for us. The camp staffers had no vehicles. We could spend the night in the truck, hoping that curious hippos did not push it over. Or we could try to reach the fishery at Vitshumbi. Before I had refused to look at it. Now I was grateful it was so near. With luck we might get there before nightfall. With luck angry hippos would not come after us.
We started for the fishing village. How far was it? Less than two miles? Should we run? Could we? Suddenly hippos began to grunt. They surrounded us. There was no cover, no trees to climb. So we ran. And walked. Walked and ran. We hoped that hippos, which have bad eyesight, would lose us in the twilight.
Darkness descended. Lights came on at Vitshumbi. We hurried toward them, walking, running. We were breathing hard by the time we came to mud-and-wattle huts. We trudged more confidently as we passed permanent one-room structures. A hippo wandered in the village street. A fisherman waved it back toward the water. Villagers looked up from cookfires. A hippo loose in the village did not surprise them, but four spooked figures stumbling out of the darkness did.
Paul asked to see the director of the fishery. An African led us toward a lighted building. Its porch overlooked the lake. On the peak of its roof perched half a dozen marabou storks.
On the porch sat a group of people having apéritifs: a Belgian of middle age and a family of East Indians. The Belgian stood squinting as we came out of the darkness. An Indian woman, enough younger than the Belgian to be his daughter, rose to her feet. She was a quietly attractive girl, slender, but full-breasted. In the dim light and for smelly, deserted, end-of-the-world Vitshumbi she was very beautiful. I knew that Charley was thinking “Heifer! Heifer!”
We all stared at one another. Then Paul laughed. “Ah! C’est toi!” he exclaimed. (“It’s you!”) The Belgian studied him, then grinned and stuck out his hand. “Tu habite ici, eh?” Paul asked, using the familiar form. (“You live here, do you?”)
“Qu’est ce que tu fais ici?” the Belgian asked, responding in the familiar form. (“What are you doing here?”) He and Paul shook hands.
During “les troubles,” when the Kivu was in turmoil immediately after independence, the Belgian had needed to flee. Paul rowed him across Lake Kivu to safety in Rwanda. Now the Belgian introduced his wife, the beautiful young woman. Her family was visiting, she explained. She offered us drinks.
We relaxed on the porch, chatting and relieved that we had escaped. The motor of an invisible boat fishing out in the lake sounded. It was using the village lights to steer by. Wallowing hippos grunted nearby. A pair of them waddled ashore below the house. Villagers shooed them away.
The Belgian offered to let us use the fishery’s large Volvo truck. He had it brought around for us. We headed back into the park, accompanied by a dozen villagers. Certainly now we would extricate the film truck.
We took a dry route to reach it. Paul directed the expedition, drawing on night-driving experience gained in cruising nighttime Bukavu. We passed indistinguishable animal shapes. A tree that moved turned out to be an elephant. We caught the glowing eyes of animals in our headlights. The driver extinguished them when the animals charged.
We caught sight of the film truck in the Volvo’s headlights. As we neared it, the Volvo slid around in mud. My heart sank. Could the Volvo get stuck? Was Paul really the man to be in charge? The Volvo sank for a moment, but moved on. Once again we came close to getting stuck.
I shouted at the top of my voice, “C’est fini pour ce soir!” (“It’s finished for tonight!”) I would not risk miring the Volvo truck. “C’est fini! C’est fini!” All of us returned to Ruindi camp.
We had locked our cabins well and had left the keys to them in the film truck. We bedded down in other quarters in muddy underwear.
I did not sleep. I stared at the night. I said prayers and wondered what would happen if we could not rescue the film truck. Would leaving it stuck in Parc Albert cost me my job? How would Léo react to learning that I’d gone dancing off to see animals when I had been specifically instructed not to? Would I be sent home from Africa in disgrace?
At dawn the Volvo took all of us back out to the film truck. With fishery men to help us use long planks for traction, we rescued the truck from mud in short order. We thanked our helpers and sent them back to Vitshumbi.
I’d escaped! Léo need never know I’d been to Parc Albert! I was so elated that I was ready for another game run, for the circuit where we could see lions. But Charley had had enough. Paul was anxious to return to the arms of his blue polka-dotted amie. We drove back silently to Goma. We reached the Hotel des Grands Lacs by noon.
The following afternoon Charley drove us home−−all too quickly. Paul had reconnected with the young woman in the blue polka dot dress. A night of passion had left him tired and speechless. His friend had so extracted the juices from him that halfway down the lake he insisted we stop at a plantation house. He ordered an African there to fetch him a glass of water. Charley was equally quiet, thinking probably of Chantal awaiting him in Bukavu. I contented myself with wondering if there would be a letter for me from Murielle DeMunck.
We stayed in second gear until well within sight of Bukavu. The streets were deserted. A rumor had spread that the Mwami of Kabare might stir up trouble, perhaps even send warriors to invade the town. Where usually the night was full of cha-cha rhythms from Congolese bars, this night there was only silence.