Travels in Africa

Fred and Donanne Hunter


Iwo Pierre walks through his neighborhood like a king. Were he a chief he would wear African garb, loose, brightly colored vestments. Instead Iwo dresses American. He has done this ever since he returned from an educational internship at the University of Southern California some years back, a period of his life that his attire invites everyone to remember.
Iwo’s gabardine trousers, for example, sport a knife-sharp crease. His belt has a California buckle. His white shirt, French cuffs, of course, with American flag cufflinks, sparkles when he removes the tweed sports jacket which is a little warm, it must be noted, for a Congo town sited virtually on the Equator. The red, white and blue tie keeps his collar close about his neck and it’s held tight against his stomach by a gold tie clasp. Iwo’s eyesight is good, but just now he wears gold-rimmed Ray-Ban sunglasses. He will trade them for a gold-rimmed clear pair when he arrives for work. Iwo’s shoes are brown Bostonian Oxfords, polished to a high sheen, compromised just now by the dust of the road. Atop his head, set at a rakish angle, is a straw hat, a boater, something rarely worn at USC, but an item Iwo set his heart on after seeing Fred Astaire wear one while dancing on TV.
Striding along, he nods to neighbors who rush to their windows just to watch him pass. This morning change is in the air. Iwo contemplates the changes that have impacted his country in the last ten years. He wonders what changes lie ahead for him and his country in the ten years to come. What role will he play in helping change come to pass? He wonders specifically where he and his family will be at the end of the coming decade. Even at the end of the coming month. Today he must make decisions about their future. He does not know what to decide.
Iwo is employed as the senior Congolese – the senior “local” in the workplace parlance – at the Centre Culturel Américain in Coquilhatville. It is one of six cultural centers the Americans have sprinkled around the Congo in order to anchor the valuable, if chaotic country to non-Communist, Western values. It is February, 1964. The Centre Culturel has been open for only three months and although Iwo cannot know this, the Simba rebellion spreading across the country will force its closure before the end of the year.
The center has a small library; it is the only place in Coq to borrow books. The library features volumes about American life, culture, and history, with even some about U.S. foreign policy and politics. It disturbs Iwo that most of the books are in English with which no Congolese in Coq can cope . He would prefer that the books were in French, which Coq intellectuals like himself read, and about Africa, its problems and development. The center’s film service shows French language films about America and its place in the world to audiences throughout the area. Young men flock to the center’s afternoon film shows, which Iwo often supervises, because these men are idle and film projection technology fascinates them,
According to embassy manning charts two American officers direct the center, but they know even less about Africa than Iwo knew about America when he traveled there. Iwo has allowed an impression to take root among Coq intellectuals that he actually manages the center while allowing the American officers to think they do. So as he strides toward the workplace, his admiring neighbors assume that he directs the projects undertaken there while doing his best to keep the Americans out of trouble.
Iwo has assigned the two officers nicknames. The younger man, who is about thirty and came to Coq alone to open the center, he calls Jellybeans. The man loves these candies. He keeps a sack of them in his desk and occasionally shares them with the staff. The older officer, who is in his early forties, came to Coq when the embassy decided it was no longer safe to place single officers alone in Congo towns. He came on an urgent transfer from Manila. His wife remains there, finishing an advanced degree of some sort. Unhappy to be stationed in a middling Congo River port town, this older officer uses the center’s single side band radio each night to contact his wife. Iwo has nicknamed him Radio.
Radio and Jellybeans have plans to extend the center’s influence in the area, plans of which Iwo disapproves. How Iwo will fit into these plans is what he must make a decision about today.
Why an American cultural center with a small library and a film service should be plunked down in this part of Africa is a mystery that Iwo often mulls. During his stay in America he became aware of the immense influence on politics and culture of the Central Intelligence Agency. The CIA often figured in movies and novels and seemed to be the moving force behind American involvement in the Vietnam war. Iwo is not the only person in Coquilhatville to assume that the American Cultural Center is actually a front for the CIA.
Iwo has watched closely to see if the two Americans undertake CIA projects. When alone in the center, he sometimes searches their desks and files. He regularly finds nothing marked “CIA” or “Central Intelligence Agency” and assumes that this is simply the agency’s mode of operation. He wonders if Radio’s constant transmitting messages actually involves CIA work. But if the two men are CIA officers – they insist they disseminate information, not gather it – they do a commendable job of hiding this activity.
Another question Iwo has not been able to answer is this: What could the CIA possibly be up to in this part of Africa?

Every workday morning when Iwo enters town, he goes to a bakery and has a coffee. He shared this habit with many of his Los Angeles friends; continuing it reminds him of his good times there. Sitting outside beneath an umbrella, he thinks today of his wife since he has already been wondering what happens to his family in the next days. His wife has given him two small children, both girls, and he wonders if she will give him a son.
Ah, his wife! That beautiful woman! Her beauty still astonishes him. He first saw her at a Disciples of Christ Congo Mission worship service when she was only thirteen. Iwo was into his twenties, a Christian and a married man, but the delicate beauty of that teenaged girl, her obvious grace and self-possession, made him fall in love with her before the service was over. So possessed was he by her that he might have wondered if she were the Devil, dressed in physical beauty.
But he did not have time for such a thought as he made his way to her side. He introduced himself to her and her family and welcomed them to the service. He found out where they lived and allowed his feet to take him there oftener than he had ever before had occasion to enter that part of town.
Iwo was then doing clerical work at the DCCM offices. When he happened by the girl’s home late in the afternoons after he finished work, he brought candy and cool drinks. The girl’s name was Yaka, which did not fall mellifluously on his ears. He began to call her Jolie. Her father was pleased that his young daughter had caught the eye of an office worker. The father himself was a laborer, but one with a sense of what a beautiful daughter could fetch in the way of bridewealth.
From the beginning of his visits Iwo made no secret of his intention to marry Yaka. She came to think of herself as his intended – so did her father – long before he revealed that he already had a wife. Eventually he proposed that she become his second wife. As Christians they knew that he was permitted only one wife, but Iwo vowed to leave the church if Yaka agreed to marry him. That meant he would also lose his job, but he was sure he could find another even better. He promised Yaka that although she would be second to his present wife in ranking, she would be first in his heart. The girl was furious. “Don’t call me Jolie,” she railed at him. “I am not going to be any man’s second wife. A beautiful girl like me can do better than that!”
Marriage palaver was a desperate step, almost as disruptive as renouncing the church, but if Yaka would promise to marry him, Iwo agreed to divorce his wife. Of course, Iwo’s wife never knew that he had given his heart to the beautiful young girl he saw across the church. Or that he had made promises to her. Yaka’s father said, “She is so young. Maybe it is best to wait a year or two. She can continue her schooling.” To Iwo’s distress, the matter was left that way.
Then fortune smiled on him. Just as these negotiations were concluding, the DCCM recommended Iwo for an educational internship being offered promising young men by the American Embassy. Iwo immediately grabbed it. He left both Yaka and his wife to spend a year in southern California. There academia largely sheltered him from the worst of American racial problems.
While acquiring the appearance and habits of an American, Iwo learned a smattering of English and a bit of American history and culture. He wrote weekly letters to Yaka and occasional postcards to his wife. He also allowed black women students to show him the latest modes of American lifestyle. He even participated in occasional protest marches against the Vietnam war.
In southern California Iwo learned the importance of having a beautiful wife. Didn’t wealthy and famous American men have such wives? When he returned to Coquilhatville, he went immediately to Yaka, found her not only more beautiful than he remembered, but even more willing to marry him now that he carried himself in the American style.
Iwo went to his wife’s father, complained that she had given him no children (the basic purpose of a wife, but difficult to accomplish while they were separated). He announced that he was sending her back to her family and demanded return of the bridewealth he had paid to acquire her. Wife palaver followed. As did Iwo’s estrangement from the DCCM. The first marriage ended; the original bridewealth was returned. Iwo then had sufficient money to pay what it would cost him to marry Yaka, whom he henceforth called Jolie.

Sitting on the bakery terrace Iwo wonders how Jolie would adapt to a place called Kiri. Iwo and the DCCM have repaired their estrangement. Hearing that he sometimes feels annoyed by the way Radio and Jellybeans treat him, by their lax supervision at the center, the DCCM offered Iwo a position running the mission’s primary school at Kiri. Kiri is more than a village, but not yet quite a town, and the headmaster of the school there is the most important person in the community, a leader whom everyone admires. Iwo is tempted by the possibilities of being the biggest fish in this small pond, by the opportunities there to build the school and the community. The position offers considerable prestige, something Iwo feels he lacks at the cultural center. Regardless of whatever he does at the center, an American officer will always be in charge and take the credit. And if circumstances change, the Americans will pull out, leaving him with nothing.
Iwo stares out across the open space that is the town place where market women are already setting up their stalls. He mulls the advice of intellectuals whose counsel he respects. “Take the Kiri job!” they urge him. “Why work for the Americans? Who can trust them? They say they are our friends. But, in fact, they only pursue their own interests. You could be the most important person in Kiri.”
Iwo wonders how to present Kiri to his wife. Given the prestige he would have, all the women of the place would want to be her friends, to help her. And he could assure her that their children would receive decent educations. After all, he would be in charge of the Kiri school.

Iwo finishes off his coffee, rises, and leaves the bakery terrace. He makes his way past the post office, along the road that leads to the Mongo restaurant and over to the house converted to the center. He enters and sees N’Djoku Philippe, the second local, in the room that stores the cans of film. He comes face to face with Radio who, hearing him enter, emerges from the closet called “the radio shack.” Radio demonstrates that he has no respect for the position he holds for he wears chino pants, a short-sleeved white shirt without tie and sandals. “We start work at 9:00 o’clock,” Radio shouts. He glances at his watch. “It’s now 9:15. You’re late again.”
Iwo knows he is being berated for lateness – promptness obsesses Americans – but he can no longer accurately make out Radio’s individual words. He finds it impossible to keep his English in shape. It seems each day that he loses a bit of his comprehension. This is a closely guarded secret. Despite it, he boasts often to comrades about his English fluency; he peppers his speech to them with Americanisms. Often, however, when Radio gives him instructions in English, Iwo does not fully understand what he’s asked to do. If Radio were a more generous boss, he would intuit this situation and give instructions in French. His French is better than Iwo’s English. But Radio is not a generous boss.
Iwo absorbs the abuse without speaking. He notices the smile that briefly crosses the face of his rival N’Djoku, doffs his boater, places it in a desk drawer, and seats himself at the library desk. He begins to study papers without actually seeing them. He thinks about the position at Kiri and inside his head tells Radio, “You would not yell at me if you knew what alternatives I’ve been offered.”

After a moment Jellybeans emerges from the center office. He dances up to Iwo’s desk, says “G’morning” in English and leaves two jellybeans before him. Iwo pops them into his mouth without saying thanks. Switching to what passes for French with Americans, Jellybeans says, “I’m hoping that you and N’Djoku will do a film show tomorrow night at Kalamba. Ça marche?”
“Bien sur,” Iwo replies although he resolves to queer the showing. He dislikes N’Djoku who deserves more reprimands for being late than he does, but rarely receives them. In fact, N’Djoku endangers him. N’Djoku is a thief. He steals from the center, bits of equipment that he sells in the town market. Last week he stole two glasses from the governor’s residence while doing a film show there. N’Djoku expects that Iwo, who knows of the thefts, will stay silent about them in furtherance of African solidarity. But if the Americans wake up to what is happening and mistakenly assume that Iwo is also involved, he could lose his job.
Jellybeans is presently devising a schedule of film showings four evenings a week. Three evenings will be in and around Coquilhatville; the fourth will take place at a location outside the town.
Two weeks previously Jellybeans took Iwo and N’Djoku to do a film showing at the town of Ingende. It was to train them in how he expected them to do showings. Jellybeans first paid his respects to the town administrator, gave him pamphlets and a free book from the center and was heartily encouraged to show the townspeople films.
With the administrator’s help Jellybeans established the site of the showing. Then he set up the projector and the translucent screen, expecting Iwo and N’Djoku to help him. N’Djoku lent a hand. Iwo did not. He was astonished – in fact, he is still astonished – that manual labor is expected of him. Iwo has traveled overseas. He has studied at the University of Southern California. How is it possible, he wonders that Radio and Jellybeans do not understand that once a man has proved himself by doing such things, he does not work with his hands?
Jellybeans had N’Djoku drive the film truck around Ingende announcing over a loudspeaker that the showing would be held. He had Iwo explain the films’ contents to the audience in Lingala so they could understand what they were seeing. The Ingende film show was a great success.
At the office the next morning Jellybeans assembled Iwo, N’Djoku and Radio to talk about film showings. To start the meeting he passed out jellybeans. Then he explained that he and Radio expected the team of locals ¬– that is, Iwo and N’Djoku -to venture into different outlying communities one evening each week to show films. “This is why we hired you,” Jellybeans said in both French and English. “You must understand. This is your job. Both of you – repeat, both – must set up the projector and the screen.” Iwo and N’Djoku agreed that they understood.
The week before Iwo and N’Djoku did a film showing together at Bikoro. As the senior local Iwo took charge. He supervised – that is, stood watching – N’Djoku set up the projector and erect the screen. The supervision did not require him to do any physical work. Iwo introduced the films; N’Djoku actually showed them. They reported the next day that the showing had gone well. N’Djoku understood that if he complained that Iwo did no actual work, Iwo would reveal N’Djoku’s thefts.
Even if he and N’Djoku have come to this working arrangement, Iwo does not like film showings in the hinterlands and is intent on escaping the trip to Kalamba.

That afternoon Jellybeans springs a surprise on the entire center. The process of announcing film showings has presented problems. Now Jellybeans believes he has solved it. They will take an age-old African practice and adapt it to their purposes. To announce the showings they will use a talking drum. Jellybeans is excited, almost irrationally, by this idea: melding the African past – one of its “admired traditions” he terms it – to solve a present day problem. He talks about USIA, the sponsoring agency in Washington, hailing this adaptation in its public relations.
If Jellybeans exudes enthusiasm, Iwo is horrified. The Congo is making Herculean efforts to modernize, to develop. Can’t ‘Beans understand that? Have he and Radio learned nothing in their time in Coq? Iwo feels certain an announcement played on a talking drum would drive potential viewers away from showings. Involuntarily he shakes his head. “This is not good,” he says in English.
“Why not?” asks Radio.
“It’s bad propaganda,” says Iwo. He fights to get the words out in English. “We bring people the future. They don’t want the primitive past.”
“No, no!” insists Jellybeans. “This is a great idea! Talking drums can be heard five miles away. They will do a better job of announcing film shows than driving around using a loudspeaker.”
Radio needs information about talking drums. Jellybeans explains that they are made from a large single log. A carver fashions two wave-like ridges, one on either side of the log, each with a different tone. The player beats rhythms on the two ridges. They do not accurately replicate speech, but the rhythms give a sense of the words. “In any case, it doesn’t matter,” says Jellybeans. “We’ll devise our own signal. People will understand we’re calling them to a film show.”
Iwo watches the words fly between the two Americans. He hopes that Radio will nix the idea. Instead, Radio says, “Great! Let’s make it happen!”
Iwo’s heart sinks. He sees Jellybeans appraising him as a possible drummer. But could he hammer on a log wearing a tie and a cuff-links shirt? No! He imagines the friends who have advised him to take the DCCM job at Kiri, laughing at him as he beats a drum. He will be forced with his own hands to erect the screen. To set up the projector. To haul the talking log out of the film truck and begin to pound on it. His stomach turns at the idea of having to do this.
Iwo’s head is shaking involuntarily. “Not a good idea!” he tells the Americans.
“Come on, Iwo-man!” cries Jellybeans. “You’re not at USC. You’re in Africa! We’re honoring Africa!”

Iwo knows that there is a talking drum at the DCCM offices. In his old life, before America, he used to fool around with it. Ai, yai! It turns out Jellybeans also knows that the drum is there. “Let’s go over to the DCCM right now, Iwo!” cries Jelllybeans. “We’ll talk to Joe Taylor. Maybe he knows a carver who can make us a drum!”
Jellybeans practically pulls Iwo out of the office. They march together toward the DCCM. Jellybeans is so excited his feet barely hit the ground. Meanwhile, Iwo can hardly move. He thinks only of his friends’ laughter as they watch him pound a talking drum wearing a tie.
At the DCCM Jellybeans pokes his head into the office of Joe Taylor. “We want to check out your talking drum,” he enthuses. “Do you know someone who could carve one for us? Someone who could teach Iwo to play it?”
Taylor accompanies the visitors to the drum. Jellybeans admires it, runs his hands over the two ridges, picks up the wooden hammer, beats vibrations from the ridges, and tests the opposing sounds. He tells Taylor of his plan to use the drum to announce film shows. Iwo hopes that Taylor will discourage Jellybean’s enthusiasm. Taylor’s longtime residence in the Congo gives him a sense of the drum’s inappropriateness. But Taylor says only, “It takes a real touch to get that thing to talk.”
“That’s why Iwo will be our drummer. He’s African. It’s in his genes.”
Taylor returns to his office, leaving Iwo and Jellybeans at the drum. Iwo manages to slip away. He hurries to Taylor’s office and blurts out, “I have decided to take the job at Kiri.” Having announced his decision, he feels light enough to float.
Taylor smiles broadly. “Wonderful!” he says. “How soon can you start? We need you there as soon as possible.”
Iwo promises to disentangle himself from the cultural center the very next day.
This time, walking back to the center, it is Iwo’s feet that hardly touch the ground. He wears the gold-rimmed Ray-Bans and giggles behind them. “You sound jovial,” notes Jellybeans. “Can’t wait to start beating that drum, eh?” Both men laugh, but for different reasons.
At the center when he knows they are both at work there Iwo enters the office that Radio and Jellybeans share. “It is so complicated,” he begins. At this moment when he needs it, his English functions well. “I know I am letting you down. But there are many who want to work here.” Radio and Jellybeans look at one another, mystified. “I have taken a position with the DCCM,” Iwo explains, all smiles. “Very prestigious. I am to be the DCCM’s man in Kiri.” Frowns cross the Americans’ brows. “You know Kiri?” Iwo asks. “A coming place. I will be the Big Man there. Perhaps one day you can bring your talking drum and show your films there.”
Once the two Americans understand what Iwo is saying, they do not plead with him to reconsider his move. They do not talk about the future that awaits the senior local at the cultural center. They merely grin, pleased at Iwo’s opportunity and shake his hand. Iwo is happy. He assumed the Americans would try to persuade him to stay; he did not want the embarrassment of disappointing them. It’s arranged that the next day will be Iwo’s last. Radio will pay him the wages he’s owed and they’ll look forward to having a friend in Kiri.
Iwo does not bother to finish his workday at the center. He offers N’Djoku his congratulations on becoming the center’s senior local. He wishes him success in learning to make the talking drum speak.
Outside the center Iwo plops the boater on his head, puts the Ray-Bans back on, and fairly skips along. He thinks once again of his wife, that beautiful girl. He is certain she will be pleased with his good news. If she is a little uncertain about Kiri, that’s understandable. So Iwo will make it sound like paradise. He will overcome any resistance by selling it to her the way a West Los Angeles realtor would push a prize property in Beverly Hills.

1 Comment

  1. Ted Anagnoson

    May 16, 2019 at 9:46 pm

    Makes you realize that subordinates in all cultures have their own agendas….great story.

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