Travels in Africa

Fred and Donanne Hunter

CARD PLAYERS

In those days so many years ago we went to the Cercle Wallon almost every evening. The four of us arrived within minutes of each other. Promptly at 7:00 the bridge game began. And so on that particular night when Jamart did not come, we all grew worried.
“Where is he?” Moczar, the UN doctor, asked gruffly.
“Not to worry, Doctor,” Pereira said, throwing in his game of solitaire. “Things do not always happen on time in this corner of the Congo. Not anymore.”
Even so, we were concerned. In those days there were only five white men left in Coquilhatville and one was an outcast. We did not want our number reduced to four.
Ordinarily a little tardiness would not bother us. But the times were unusual. The Africa we knew was changing. Punctuality had become an obsession with us. Punctuality asserted our standard. It emphasized the differences between the old system and the new, between the passing European way of life and the coming African one. It helped us maintain our identity.
“Where the devil is Jamart?” Moczar asked again. In a half-hearted effort to improve his French he was thumbing through old copies of La Libre Belgique. He glanced at his watch. “It’s already 7:20.”
I stood at the door, feeling the hush of the African night, feeling the humid air touch my skin. The darkness was liquid and quiet. Yet it contained a wildness to which I had never fully adjusted even after five years.
No one spoke. Eventually Moczar grumbled something in Polish. It sounded like cursing. As a distraction he actually began to read an article. But the delay irritated him; he was a man who expected things to move just so. “Dieudonné!” he called after a moment. “Un the glacé!” The African steward, who was now all that remained of the Cercle staff, took him iced tea, serving it with a formality that already seemed out-of-date.
I also ordered iced tea and took a chair. There were no sounds in the room except the drone of the ceiling fan and the crisp slap of Pereira’s placing of cards. Often this sound delighted me: a little Portuguese baker’s stylish handling of cards. Tonight it annoyed me.
“Jamart went to Bikoro today,” Pereira said, looking over his cards.
“But he would certainly have returned by sundown,” I replied.
“Perhaps he had trouble at a roadblock,” Pereira suggested.
The last white man to have trouble at a roadblock was pulled from his car at 11:00 in the morning by soldiers who had been drinking for two days. They accused him of being a spy and beat him with rifle butts. He had left the Equateur, the Congo’s remotest province, to us, the five who remained.
“But I doubt it,” Pereira continued. “Jamart is too well known. He has interests these days along that road.”
As Jamart’s banker, I knew all about these interests. I was skeptical about the kind of future any European had in the independent Congo. Since shortly before independence I had advised the bank’s European clients to liquidate their assets. I told them to salvage what they could and start again elsewhere.
Pereira and the other Portuguese had already sent their capital out of the country. Jamart was different. I had to call him to my office. I sent my Congolese assistant on an errand and turned up the air-conditioner so that its rattling obscured our voices. Then I explained the financial facts of life, even how to evade the foreign exchange regulations. Jamart rejected my advice. In helping to colonize the country he had become convinced of its future. He could not believe that it might collapse. That it was collapsing.
“This is a magnificent country,” he told me.
“But not for your money.”
“It’s on the threshold of a great future.”
“That future will not come in your lifetime.”
He did not listen to me. “We only need vision, mon cher ami. Vision!” He stressed the word as if intoxicated by it. Certainly he had more of it – whatever its real name was – than any of the rest of us. As he looked out the window, he seemed to see already built the great river port the Belgians had never succeeded in constructing during the colonial era.
I myself had once believed that we would build it. When I first arrived three years before independence, ours had seemed a community of Europeans committed to making something of this remote, yet peaceful corner of the Congo. But that had been long before any of us considered that Belgium would one day relinquish its control.
In the event we built little. Even now the town, provincial capital though it was, boasted no more than a few dozen buildings standing on a cleared space between the great river and the great jungle. And the white community had shrunk to five men. We had sent our women and children to safer places months before.
As the remnant of the whites we five now knew each other well. To mitigate our loneliness we used the familiar “tu” form of address. In the old days Pereira, a baker who still spoke French with a heavy Portuguese accent, and Jamart, who owned a garage, employed the formal “vous” when speaking to me, a professional, a banker. Moczar, a United Nations doctor, the first of a promised team of experts who had failed to materialize, had joined us six months before.
The fifth one of us was Van Belle, the lawyer. He was Flemish, born in Africa, educated at Louvain in Belgium. Once independence and the violence came, once his family left for the safety of Europe, Van Belle “went native.” He always seemed relaxed.
“I do not argue with nature,” he told me. He fought no battles with the sky or the jungle or the immensity of time that overhung it. To Van Belle Jamart was doing just that. He was arguing with nature, with the river and the sky, with the jungle and the weight of time.
“Eventually things here will find their bottom,” Jamart declared in my office. “They will start climbing again.”
“It will take twenty years,” I told him. “Thirty maybe.”
“I can wait. I have faith in this country. In twenty years you will see I was right.”
He believed what he said. At the time of independence he owned only a house and the garage. He bought what wiser colonials were selling. Now he owned two small plantations, a used car business and the garage-service station in Bikoro. In addition, he was giving jobs to the Congolese he trusted. His foreman was now in charge of the operation in Bikoro.
At last I told the others, “I think we should find out what has happened.”
Pereira said nothing, as if unconcerned. But he had not yet won a game that evening, a rare thing for a man who permits a little cheating in solitaire. He broke the silence by throwing in another hand.
“Dieudonné!” Moczar called after a moment. “Go chez Monsieur Jamart. Ask if he is coming.”
“Oui, Monsieur,” Dieudonné replied. He wheeled his bicycle out of the pantry where he kept it protected from thieves and rode out to find Jamart.
We waited in silence. Pereira threw in his cards and began to pace. Moczar tossed his newspaper aside. After a while we heard the motorcycles escorting the Congolese governor through town. My ears burned then as they always did when the motorcycles roared. In the Belgians’ day there was efficient government – without motorcycles. Now there were motorcycles and sometimes sirens and the administration had almost ceased to function.
Dieudonné finally returned. “Monsieur comes,” he said. A relief spread across the room. Moczar and I grinned. Pereira laid another game of solitaire and won it almost as quickly as he could turn over the cards. Dieudonné pushed his bicycle under the bar and stood with his back to us, fussing with bottles.
“He comes immediately?” Moczar asked.
“Oui, Monsieur.” But the answer was hesitant and barely audible.
“Tell us the rest,” Moczar growled.
“There was shouting, Monsieur,” Dieudonné whispered.
“Chez Jamart?”
“Oui, Monsieur.”
We glanced at each other, perplexed and apprehensive.
“Did you speak to M. Jamart?” I asked.
“Oui, Monsieur. I knocked at the door and Monsieur opened. He said he was coming immediately.”
“And it was M. Jamart who was shouting?”
“Oui, Monsieur,” Dieudonné replied, whispering again. He seemed deeply embarrassed to have interrupted Jamart in anger.
“It can’t be too important if he’s shouting,” Moczar said. But it was not like Jamart to shout.
“Do you know why he was shouting?” I asked.
Dieudonné shook his head. “Non, Monsieur,” he said and wheeled his bicycle into the pantry.
“Not to worry,” Pereira said. “If he can both shout and answer his door, he cannot be in trouble.”
Before Pereira had laid another hand of solitaire, Jamart arrived. He was a slight man of less than medium height. As usual at night he wore white shorts, a white short-sleeved shirt and white knee socks. We looked at him carefully. His combination of nervous energy and unquestioning optimism ordinarily gave him a buoyancy. But this night he was subdued.
“I’m sorry to be late,” he said. “Let’s cut the cards.”
This matter-of-fact casualness surprised us. So did his lack of explanations. But he avoided our eyes, spread a deck of cards across the table, drew one and turned it over. “Who’s to be my partner tonight?” he asked.
Moczar and Periera chose their cards and flipped them up. I drew mine, but before turning it over, I said, “Is anything the matter?”
“Nothing,” he said.
“No trouble?”
“None.” Still I did not turn the card.
“Tell us if something is wrong,” I said. “We’re your friends.”
“But nothing is.”
“Then why are you so late?” Mozcar asked gruffly.
“A domestic affair,” Jamart said. “A matter of no concern, I assure you.”
It was on my lips to confront him about the shouting. But he looked in control of things and he had a right to privacy, after all, especially if we were to stick together.
During the first hand of bridge Jamart blundered badly. Mozcar, his partner, a man who took bridge seriously, closed his eyes with icy disbelief; he cleared his throat. Jamart saw his mistake immediately. His face went ashen, showing us the act of will required to maintain his casualness.
“I’m afraid I wasn’t concentrating,” Jamart said at the end of the hand.
Mozcar regarded him carefully, but only commented, “No matter.”
Other blunders followed. Mozcar almost scolded Jamart once or twice, but managed to choke the words back. I began to play poorly. I felt that nothing must rupture our solidarity, certainly not a game of cards.
Finally Mozcar bid extravagantly and took the play. Jamart seemed relieved to be dummy. But he had not finished laying out his hand before the doctor began cursing in Polish. “What have you done to me?” he asked Jamart. “How can I play this?” Jamart had misarranged his hand; he had bid it improperly. “A matter of no concern, indeed!” Mozcar growled. He threw his cards onto the table. “Score it any way you like,” he told Pereira. “I’m not going to play it.” He glared across the table. Jamart said nothing.
“Tell us what happened that you cannot bid a decent game of bridge!” Mozcar ordered.
Jamart glanced at me for support. “Perhaps we should know,” I said quietly.
He examined his grease-stained hands, deciding what to do.
“Come on!” Mozcar commanded. “Out with it!”
“When I returned from Bikoro this afternoon,” Jamart said at length, “I took a bath. When I went to dress, I found my best suit, the one I wear to Leopoldville, on the floor of the armoire. I haven’t worn that suit for months, and I always hang it very carefully. It would not have fallen by accident.” He hesitated. A look of revulsion settled on his face. “I picked it up and I smelled it.” He paused again. “Can you guess what it smelled of?”
No one answered.
“A thick, foul odor. Like the smell of a doused fire.”
“Unwashed African,” Pereira said.
“Exactly.” Jamart shook his head as if the odor were again in his nostrils. “While I am out trying to make something of this country, my domestic is parading around in my clothes.”
For a time none of us spoke. Periera finally said, “You threw him out, of course.”
“On the spot! Paid him off, threw him out of his quarters and told the sentinelle to hose them down. He’s going to wash out the armoire, too. My suits are airing on the clothesline.”
For several moments we all stared at the table. Then Mozcar began to laugh. “And this is all that’s bothering you?” he asked. “You are teasing us!”
Jamart stared at him with hostility.
“But this is not serious, my friend,” Mozcar insisted. “It’s charming! Your domestic plays dress-up in your clothes. It’s sweet, Jamart! You aren’t using the suit so he does! What’s the harm in that?”
Mozcar laughed harder and, although I did not laugh, I too thought it more a joke than a catastrophe. Jamart looked away in disgust.
“Mais non!” Mozcar insisted. “It is charming! We’re all independent and equal now. So let’s share our clothes.” He continued to laugh. “See the joke, mon vieux! Haven’t your children ever played dress-up in your clothes?”
“But they are clean,” Jamart replied.
“And your domestic is not clean?”
“Not clean enough to wear my clothes.”
“But clean enough to cook your food!” The doctor could not stop laughing.
“The man smells!” Jamart said, growing annoyed with Mozcar. “How do I get that smell out of my best suit? For all I know he has lice.”
“Impossible!” Mozcar said. “They’d have jumped into your food!” He continued to laugh. Jamart turned his back on us and sat hunched over in his chair.
Pereira looked irritatedly at the doctor and leaned toward Jamart. “Do you think he’s been wearing all your clothes?” he asked.
“I hadn’t thought of that,” Jamart said. “What if he has?”
“Maybe best to wash them in gasoline,” Pereira suggested.
Mozcar went on laughing. Finally Jamart turned in his chair and said, “Stop it!”
The doctor looked up, surprised by the vehemence. For a moment his laughing subsided, then began again. “I’m sorry,” he said, “but it’s really very funny.”
“Stop it!” Jamart repeated. He stood. “You are six months in this country and I am here twelve years. I will not be laughed at!”
“But, mon vieux,” Mozcar pleaded, “we thought you might be dead someplace. And it was only this!” He laughed again and Jamart walked out of the Cercle. Pereira followed him.
“I am sorry,” Mozcar assured me. “But it’s terribly funny.” He went on laughing to himself.
Sometimes love flees at a look, a gesture, a small betrayal. So it was with Jamart’s love of the Congo. That evening ended an era. Jamart never again played cards with the same zest. Soon he developed a light rash. Fearing witchcraft, he burned his clothes. Pereira suggested that he destroy them at night and in secret and he did so. Since all the Coquilhatville stores had closed, he had new clothes sent to him. He insisted that the new domestic scour his house completely. And now when he left the house, he always locked the armoire; the new servant would never wear his clothes. Despite these precautions, his skin condition did not improve.
Eventually Mozcar recommended that he go to specialists in the capital. Jamart seemed frightened by this suggestion, but eventually he agreed to go. Mozcar and I took him to the airport. As we waited for the plane, Jamart tried to seem hopeful. But finally in a whisper he asked us, “What if I don’t come back?” Tears of hopelessness and rage shone in his eyes.
“It’s not a terminal illness,” Mozcar answered roughly. “You’ll come back to this God-forsaken place – although why you should want to is beyond me.”
I tried to joke as well. I had promised to make regular checks on Jamart’s house and garage and asked, “Do you think I’d have agreed to that if it were going to be weeks?” He smiled, but the waiting dragged on. Mozcar and I both felt relieved when his plane finally took off.
As we drove back to town, I said, “I hope they will be able to cure him.”
“He will not be cured,” Mozcar replied. I looked at him in surprise. “There is no physical explanation for this ailment,” he said. “He may think it is witchcraft, but I have talked with Africans. It is not witchcraft. It is not poison. It is an affliction of the mind. Medicine won’t get rid of it.”
“What are you getting at: that it’s not real?”
“Of course, it’s real,” he snorted. “That man’s in misery.”
We drove on. “He has developed an allergy – to blacks,” Mozcar said. “Apparently it’s his reaction to realizing that his servants were wearing his clothes. An unfortunate malady for one so heavily invested in the Congo.”
“And what will happen?” I asked.
The doctor shrugged. “There will only be four of us left.”
When Jamart did come back to town, it was to wind up his affairs. It was a difficult period. Jamart had everything tied up in his properties and, understandably, did not want to sell them. I agreed that he need not. Compassion required this concession of me, but it was not an important one. There were no buyers in any case. He asked me to manage his holdings for a percentage of the return. I had time, but not enthusiasm, for this project, and it would certainly earn me no money. But I agreed. What else could I do? Especially when, after making our final business arrangements, it became clear that Jamartt would not have the money to buy an air ticket to Belgium. I wrote out a personal check to cover this.
When I handed it to him, he would not take it. I laid it on the table before him, and he closed his eyes. Tears ran down his cheeks. “Who has done this to me?” he asked.
I could not answer.
“I worked to build this town,” he said. “While others laugh at this country, I believe in it. When others ran from trouble here, I stayed. When others exploited the Congolese, I trained them.” His voice broke. “Why has this happened?”
I did not know what to say. Moczar’s answer was not one I could offer. I said nothing.
After Jamart left, we invited Van Belle to join us at cards, but he refused. We stopped meeting so often at the Cercle Wallon. There were evenings when Dieudonné was the only person at the club. Congolese friends began to drop by to see him. They played the phonograph – so loudly finally that one could hear it all over town at midnight. The Cercle became a kind of African dance hall-bar, with Dieudonné as proprietor. Pereira, Moczar and I stopped going there altogether.
After several months Jamart sent me a query about his properties and a check to cover the airfare. He had found a job in a garage outside Charleroi, where his wife had family. “Good possibility,” he wrote, “I can move up to foreman in two-three years. Proprietor’s getting on. With luck I’ll buy the business.” Then he added, “Luck likes me here. The rash is gone. In Charleroi the weather’s cool and we’re beyond the range of juju.” He finished with a postscript, “Miss our little corner of Africa. But regret the waste of years.”
That’s a long time ago now. I doubt that Jamart thinks very often of that wild continent. I do feel certain, though, that there are times when he plays cards or draughts at the bar he frequents in Charleroi when he grumbles about bad luck. Then he curses the money lost and years wasted in the Congo. I imagine he blames juju for those losses, never understanding that witchcraft is an excuse for something darker in his heart.

1 Comment

  1. Great story, and catches an essential truth about humanity…..thanks!

    Ted

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