CHAPTER ONE OF "AFRIC"
In the Congo Rain Forest 1963; the Simba rebellion.
The woman brought her son to the convent set deep in the forest.
“Take him,” she said in French.
The Belgian nun replied in Lingala, the local language. “Where is his father?”
“He is gone,” said the woman. “They have all gone.”
The small boy gripped his mother’s hand as the nun studied him.
“Was his father a white man?” the nun asked.
“Yes,” said the mother. “I did not wish it, but he forced me.”
The nun showed no surprise. “Do you know where he was from?” she asked.
The woman shook her head. “He was a white man,” she repeated, “from the mines; but they are gone now.”
“We are also going,” said the nun; “we cannot stay here; we will all be killed.”
“Take him with you,” said the mother. “I cannot keep him; he is not of our tribe; he cannot be accepted. The Simbas will kill him.”
“They will kill all of us,” said the nun.
The mother shook her head. “They say that the Americans are coming. They will save you.”
“Was his father an American?” the nun asked.
“He was white,” the woman said, “and he spoke to me in English.”
“Then let us hope that the Americans will take him,” said the nun.
The mother tried to release the boy’s hand; he tightened his grip. “You go,” said the mother. “I cannot keep you.” She pried her hand free of his grasp and turned from him. He watched her walk away into the cool green depths of the forest.
“Come inside,” said the nun. There was no kindness in her voice. She led him through the open gates and for the first time in his short life he saw the brick buildings of the Belgian colonists, the chapel of the nuns, and the statue of the white woman, the mother of the god they worshiped.
The nun took him into a small room, empty of furniture. A little of the friendly green forest sunlight sifted into the room through a barred window.
He stood in the light and waited patiently. His mother had told him to be obedient to the nuns; if they wanted him to wait; he would wait. The sound of a vehicle engine filtered in through the window, and then women’s voices calling and responding in French, the language of the colonists. Doors banged, the engine roared, and then the sound faded away. The boy continued to wait. He waited until the light faded from the room and the night insects began to swarm He was hungry, tired, thirsty; perhaps the nun had forgotten about him. He approached the door with caution; should he go outside? He
pushed the door open and looked outside. Moonlight filtered through the canopy of trees revealing the empty courtyard; the open gates and the dirt track that led back into the safety of the forest.
Two shadowy figures made their way towards him out of the depths of the forest, a tall man and a child walking side by side. They entered through the open gate. The moonlight fell on the man’s face, an African face but not of the boy’s tribe; a face criss-crossed with a pattern of tribal markings, and beside him a skinny boy; also not of his tribe. The man spoke to him in Lingala, calling him forward to stand in the light, and then grunting in surprise at the lightness of his skin.
“Where are the nuns?” the boy asked.
“Gone,” said the man. “By now they will be dead; the Simbas are coming this way.”
“I want to go home,” said the boy.
“You have no home,” said the man.
“I told you,” said the man, “the Simbas are coming; they will kill your mother.”
“They will not want you,” said the man.
He turned to the other boy, the one who had entered the compound with him. “I will keep one of you,” he said, “but not both of you.”
His hands were large and strong and he gripped each of the boys by the back of the neck as he pushed them into the little room where the faint moonlight trickled through the window.
“I will keep one of you,” he said again. “I will keep the one that is alive when the sun rises.”
He turned away from them, stepped outside, and the boy heard the sound of a wooden bar dropping into place to lock the door.
In the morning the man opened the door and looked inside. The small boy; the child of the white father, was alive, the other boy was not.
Gunfire rattled in the distance, the Simbas were coming. The witch doctor and his new apprentice walked away from the convent and the sound of battle and into the deep forest.
Swot Jensen; Present Day Uganda, East Africa,
The last thing in the world Swot Jensen wanted to be was awake, but even Swot, in all her misery, couldn’t sleep through the noise outside her room because it had become even louder than the sound of rain drumming on the tin roof. The room was stiflingly hot because the power had gone out in the middle of the night, and the fan was no longer moving the moist air. She wanted to pull the sheet over her head and sleep through the whole thing. In fact, she wanted to sleep through the next three months but unfortunately the drooping mosquito net had plastered itself against her face and once she had swatted it away, she was, regretfully ,wide awake.
She sat up and looked out of the window into the dreary cement compound. She could see her grandfather, magnificent in a snowy white shirt and striped tie. His blue black African face was shiny with sweat and distorted with fury, but his eyes were invisible behind his sunglasses. Sunglasses! They hadn’t seen the sun in three days. Swot’s grandmother was an equally arresting figure, standing ankle deep in mud, her pink skin glowing as she confronted the man she claimed as her husband. Her cloud of pale hair was curling itself into long white ringlets under the constant deluge of rain. Her tie dyed skirt was
spattered with mud and a once-white fringed shawl was slung around her shoulders. She looked, Swot thought, as she must have looked forty or more years before in the Summer of Love; just a little older, but, from what Swot could tell, no wiser.
Swot had no interest in joining in the argument that she had seen enacted daily since their arrival, but she was interested in the other source of sound. A large African woman, wrapped in brightly colored cloth, was beating on the crippled kid. That’s what Swot called him in her own mind. “the crippled kid”; not exactly politically correct but it was Swot’s mind and she could fill it with whatever thoughts she wanted to think.
The kid was hopping on one foot because the fat woman had already kicked away his pathetic homemade crutch, and he was screaming in outrage as the woman, who Swot believed was his mother, or maybe stepmother, who was trying to tie something around his neck; something that he kept grabbing from her and throwing into the mud from which she would retrieve it with more shouting, or cursing, and try again. The boy’s eyes were wide with terror. He was just a little kid, maybe 11 or 12 years old, and the woman was very big and very strong. Well, Swot know something about being little, and overlooked, and she felt for the poor kid. She marched out of the room, barefooted it across the compound and with one well-placed shove, pushed the fat woman into the mud. The woman landed on her large backside with a satisfyingly loud squelch.
They all turned to look at Swot. “I’m going back to bed,” she said to her grandmother.
“Swot,” she said, “what’s wrong?”
“What’s wrong?” Swot shouted back. “What isn’t wrong, that’s what I’d like to know, and my name isn’t Swot, it’s Sarah.”
She reached down and grabbed the object that the fat woman was holding. It was a little leather bag on a string. “He doesn’t want to wear it,” she said. “He told you that last night. Now leave him alone.”
She could see that the fat woman was gathering her breath to express her outrage, and out of the corner of her eye she could see her grandmother headed for her to hug her or hit her, Swot didn’t know which. That’s the way it was with Swot’s grandmother, not that Swot could ever call her grandmother, or gran, or anything warm and cuddly. She was allowed to call her Brenda, because, as she had explained to Swot as soon Swot was old enough to speak, Brenda was her name.
So, Brenda was coming at Swot, the crippled kid was hopping back to his seat on the verandah, and the fat woman was preparing to blast Swot in a language Swot didn’t understand, when someone pounded on the huge metal gates that enclosed Swot’s grandfather’s compound.
Everyone in the compound stood and watched as the guard opened the man door and looked outside. They continued to wait in expectant silence while he pulled back the bolts and opened the gates wide enough to admit a man on a motorcycle. Dressed in blue jeans and a grey tee shirt, spattered
with mud and wearing an enormous crash helmet, the man skidded to a halt, and succeeded in doing what everyone else had avoided doing so far; he splashed mud on Swot’s grandfather’s tie. Her grandfather remained impassive behind his dark glasses while two of his henchmen stepped forward to grab the motorcycle. They didn’t have to worry. The rider had already dropped the motorcycle to the ground and was tugging off his helmet. A shock of white hair appeared and then a sun browned, once white face. He turned to face the shocked little tableau.
“They’ve killed the Peace Corps worker,” he shouted in a voice that was pure Virginia. “They dumped him on my front porch.”
“Another one of John Kennedy’s ideas gone bad,” Swot’s grandmother muttered. She approached the
white man and looked him full in the face. There was what one can only call a “pregnant”pause.
“Rory Marsden,” she gasped.
“Songbird,” he said, in tones of disbelief.
Songbird? When, Swot wondered, had Brenda been called Songbird?
“What did you do with my cows?” Grandmother Brenda Songbird asked.
“What cows?” the man asked.
“The wedding cows,” Brenda said.
“We ate them,” the man said impatiently. “What are you doing here?”
Brenda turned to Swot’s grandfather. “He didn’t return them; he ate them,” she said, “so we’re still married.”
The grandfather flicked the mud off his tie, took the grandmother by the shoulders and more or less lifted her out of the way. He was now face to face with the elderly white man. “Tell me again,” he said in his deep rumbling African voice.
“It was years ago,“ said Rory the white man. “What is she doing here?”
“Never mind about her,” said the grandfather, “tell me about the Peace Corps Worker”.
“Multiple stab wounds;” Rory said angrily. “Dumped on my porch. It looked like he’d been in a hell of a fight.”
He hesitated and his voice softened. “He was just a kid,” he said; “really, a nice kid. Why do they
have to go so crazy when they come here? “
He splashed through the mud to the verandah where Swot stood. “Welcome to Africa, “he
said, and then he sat down suddenly on the cement, as though his legs had given way.
“Hi,” said Swot.
Rory looked at Swot’s grandmother, “Is she with you?” he asked.
“She’s my granddaughter,” said Brenda, “and she’s a genius.”
Swot winced. Why did Brenda have to keep saying that?
“Are you?” Rory asked, looking at Swot.
“Yes,” said Swot, “but I am also a person.”
She glared at her grandmother. “I am not just defined by the fact that I am intelligent,” she said.
“No, of course not,” said Brenda, “but she did graduate from college last month, and she is only eighteen.
She finished High School at fourteen.”
“So she’s the daughter of___”, said Rory.
“Yes, she’s the daughter of my daughter, and Herbert is her grandfather.”
“Family reunion?” Rory asked.
“Some reunion,” said Swot. She couldn’t think of anything else to say on the subject of her grandmother’s reunion with the husband she had not seen in the past fifty years, so she turned her back on Rory Marsden and went back into her room, slamming the door behind her. She sat down on the bed and buried her head in her hands. So she was a genius, so what? Life would have been so much easier if she had been born beautiful instead of smart but the mirror didn’t lie; it only confirmed her own opinion of herself, horrible hair, mud colored eyes, skinny legs; a loser in the gene pool.
Her reflections on her own lack of beauty were interrupted by someone knocking on the door; a very timid kind of knocking – nothing that could possibly emanate from Brenda who pounded loudly whenever she wanted Swot to join in the ongoing family squabble. Swot opened the door and admitted the crippled kid who hopped over to the bed and sat down. His earlier terror had passed, now he just looked incredibly sad.
“He was my friend,” he said, in careful, soft-spoken English.
Swot dragged her mind away from the contemplation of her own shortcomings and gave some thought to the fact that Rory Marsden had come to report a violent death; the death of a Peace Corp worker.
“Who was he?” she asked
“Zach,” the boy said. “He was really nice. He was not a fighter. He would never be in a fight. He’d come into the village every night and play football with the kids, and sometimes he’d just sit and talk with me. He was going to help me get my leg fixed. He said he knew a doctor.”
“Oh!” Swot didn’t really know what else to say. Her high i.q. and her rapid progress through high school and college had left her with no friends her own age and no experience at offering sympathy or putting herself in someone else’s shoes but obviously something was required of her.
“I’m sorry,” she said.
The boy said nothing and continued to sit on her bed looking dejectedly down at his twisted leg.The silence grew uncomfortably long. Swot searched for something else to say and realized that she didn’t even know the boy’s name; so she asked him.
“I’m Matthew,” he told her. “I am in S1.”
Swot had no idea what that meant or why that was significant, but she pressed on.“I think you’re my uncle,” she told him.
“Yes,” he said solemnly. “Your grandfather is my father. I am the son of Jubilee. She is my father’s least favorite wife.”
“I’m Sarah,” she said.
“Your grandmother calls you Swot,” said Matthew.
“It’s a nickname,” she said. “A swot is someone who studies hard, but actually I don’t need to study.”
“Your grandmother says you’re a genius,” said Matthew, “I wish I was a genius.”
“No you don’t,” said Swot, “it’s highly overrated. I would give anything to be normal.”
“So would I,” said Matthew.
Nice going, Swot said to herself, he can’t even walk properly and I’m complaining about the fact that I’m
brilliantly clever and I don’t even have to work hard in school; very tactful.She was grasping for something to say when the need to speak was cut off by a loud clanking sound outside, which finally settled down to the steady roar of an engine.”
“The generator,” Matthew said; “now your fan will work.”
It did. The blades started to move, and the moist air began to circulate,
“Why have they turned it on now,” Swot asked, “why not last night?”
“They will be charging their phones so they can call Kampala,” Matthew said, “to report the murder.”
So Matthew was calling it murder. He was probably correct; apparently the Peace Corp worker had
been stabbed like a pin cushion and his body has been dumped at someone’s door so even if he had brought it on himself by getting into a fight, it was still technically murder.
“Who would want to kill him?” she asked.
Matthew looked as though he wanted to tell her something, but it didn’t happen.
“I have to go,” he said. “My senior mother will be looking for me.”
“That fat old cow,” Swot said. “Why do you care about her? She’s not your mother.”
“She’s the mother of all the children,” Matthew said, “if she is Senior Wife. But perhaps your grandmother is Senior Wife; then she will be the mother and responsible for our discipline.”
“Oh good luck with that,” Swot said flippantly, before she remembered that she had started to care about this kid, and this was not an appropriate moment to be her normal uninvolved self.
Matthew hopped to the door. Swot followed him out and very nearly tripped over a bundle of extension cords draped across the verandah.
She traced them back to an orange generator that was running noisily in the corner of the compound. Like a web of umbilical cords all of the wires sprouted phone chargers and phones, with a person attached to each phone. The whole mess was supplying power to every one of Swot’s grandfather’s male compatriots and they were all engaged in loud conversation, shouting above the noise of the generator.
Rory Marston was shouting louder than anyone else in his Virginia English. Swot gathered from his side of the conversation that he was talking to the US Embassy and the conversation was not going well.
“Zach”, he shouted. “That’s all I know. Don’t you have records? He’s one of yours.”
He paused, listening. “ Nyalawa’” he shouted. ‘Rory Marston, Nyalawa. Dammit man, you know where
I am. “
“You can’t just leave him here,” he said. “I know it’s tricky, but someone has to be told. The kid has parents. Just do your best but keep my name out of it. “
A long pause.
“Who?”” he said questioningly, and then “ I don’t know. You’re supposed to know these things. You’re supposed to tell me.
I can’t do everything for you.”
He cupped a hand over his other ear and strained to hear what was being said by the Embassy official.
He shook his head. “I’ve lost the signal,” he said.
Swot looked around the compound, thinking what a strange conversation she had just heard, although, of course, she had only heard one side of it. Nonetheless something seemed a little off. She wondered if anyone else had noticed, but all the other people were staring at their phones, and shaking their heads. One by one they crossed to the verandah and laid down the phones, still attached to their umbilical cords. Someone turned off the generator. All was silent except for the steady drip of water from the roof onto the muddy ground.