This is the final Congo Memoir. The penultimate installment is here. The final installment is below the fold ….
If you are interested in issues pertaining to the Congo that are quite current, consider having a look at Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide (recently made quite well known by being on Oprah).
We arranged for a small plane to fly out on the first leg of the trip home. The plane was a Beechcraft flown by a missionary air service on a regular flight from Zaire, to Kampala, then to Nairobi. Leaving Zaire was always problematic. This was the last chance for the officials, this time airport officials, to obtain their salary from you. This was the way the system known as “Mobotuization” operated. To be a government official meant you had the right to raise fees from those you “served.” Tolls, permits, taxes, whatever. Some of these fees were official and dictated by the national or provincial governments, but much was just made up by the official. And a traveler, or an anthropologist, or a missionary, was expected to pay this fee, which constituted the entire salary of the official.
But one also had the option of bargaining, or of out-maneuvering the officials in some other way. In this case, I simply refused to pay the individual who was putting the touch on me. I did not appreciate his approach, which was aggressive and threatening. I paid the required more-or-less legal fees I knew about and refused to pay more, refused to give him my watch, or for that matter, to allow him to search my luggage.
In any event, we had the officials outnumbered at this small airport on an off day. At this particular terminal, there was one of him and three of us: Joan, me and a large overbearing American woman with big hair who’s husband was in the oil business and who was on her way to a villa in Zanzibar.
The plane we were expecting would be coming from a mission station not far away and would probably have between three and six passengers on it. They would touch down briefly and we would be expected to to get on quickly. But, the official had placed all our luggage in a spot he could keep an eye on it and was refusing to stamp our passports with exit visas. But that’s OK, we had a plan.
Suddenly, the plane appeared in the distance, flying in between nearby hills at an extraordinarily low altitude, and touched down on the runway. There was no taxiing. The plane simply drove down the runway and stopped about 120 meters from the building we were in. And our plan went into effect.
The three of us walked over to the luggage, grabbed it, and ran out the door.
As we ran down the runway towards the air plane, the official came running after us. About half way out, he caught up to us, caught up to the large loud American woman with big hair who was carrying her luggage in front of her like one might carry an extra heavy sack of groceries.
“Arret! Simama!” the official shouted. (“Stop!”)
“Here, take this!” the woman shouted (in English), turning towards him and tossing her bag right at him. “Hurry! This way” waving him on, and turning to run towards the plane.
So now the four of us were running towards the air plane. The pursuer had been converted, by the very act of surprise, into a helper. And we got to the plane, dumped our luggage in the back with the help of the co-pilot, climbed in and flew off.
And then, the storm swept over the nation.
I came back to Zaire two more times after this tip, both for extended stays, and during that time did not visit the Semliki but rather spent all my time in the Ituri Forest. Every few months an incident would occur that reminded me of the soldiers on the green pickup truck, or the soldiers firing their guns in Bukavu or the other incidents I had witnessed or heard of. Somewhere along the line, war broke out in Rwanda, and within a few months, the First Congo War was in full swing.
This was a very complicated historical event. For reasons I don’t fully understand the Congo War is divided into two: The First Congo War and the Second Congo War. But really, they were the same war and that war is still under way today.
Here is a video from The Economist giving a very useful overview of part of this historical period. Gives you a flavor of this particular bitter period in history:
The park, Parc National de Virunga, became a larder for the army. A population of nearly 30,000 hippos has been reduced to a few hundred. The elephants that had started to wander through the park are surely gone. The lions and most of the hyenas are surely wiped out or driven into Uganda. The gorillas in the southern part of the park have been reduced in number due to poaching. The city of Goma has been leveled by warfare multiple times, and has also been destroyed by lava from the nearby volcanoes. The forest is being stripped of lumber and bushmeat. The horrific reports you may have heard of the army reclassifying the Pygmies of the forest as non-human, and then hunting them down and eating them like bushmeat appear to be true.
We got rid of Mobutu. When I say “we” perhaps I’m taking a liberty to suggest that I was involved, but I was involved. Several of us lobbied, with a measure of success, the US Congress to freeze military funding for Zaire, and to stop using Mobutu’s army as a mercenary force in Central Africa. I thank both Ted Kennedy and Joseph Patrick Kennedy for their support of that effort. This drop in funding and credibility helped to drive Mobutu out of power. At the same time, he became ill, and the rebels in the East, up in the Rwenzoris and elsewhere, became better funded, better organized, and more aggressive. Mobutu moved out of Zaire and never came back. His assets were frozen and dispersed, and he died in exile. Mobutu sese seku kuku kibombi anakufa kabisa. Basi. You would have to be the most evil or the most forgiving person in the world to not relish his death.
I cannot tell you what became of most of the Congolese people in these stories, except to give you my best guess: They all died in the war or in the refugee camps or of the run of the mill day to day causes of death that were already extant at the time I was there, which surely got worse since. It has been twenty years since the events chronicled here have occured. Surely, they are all dead.
I wrote these stories to tell you about a piece of the world that you may not have known much about, and to tell you about a time during which you may have been occupied by something else. My loved ones often note that I had missed the 1980s because I was in Africa for much of the time. I can recall almost no movie, no music, no global cultural events that occurred from between 1984 and 1992, because I was either in the field or rushing to get everything done between trips to the field, or finishing the damn thesis. This is not a problem for me. I really didn’t need to know about “Hands Across America.” I was busy distributing antibiotics to people dying of leprosy that year. Oh, and doing my research in between medical crises.
I had meant to do this a little differently, to cover several topics more or less uniformly, including: Fear and the nature of fear, the native perspective for the Eastern Congo; the nature of the nature in this region; life on an expedition; a bit of prehistory and some geology. I think I did fairly well in some of these areas, and dropped the ball in others. I’ll accept this as adequate for a first run at it. Perhaps the Congo Memoirs will be back in modified form at some time in the near future. With more pictures. And maybe a different ending … one where everybody doesn’t die.
Thank you for reading this.