Travels in Africa

Fred and Donanne Hunter


AS THE USIS FILM TRUCK left Bukavu and the peninsulas stretching into Lake Kivu, I felt pleased with the prospect of the day. Night rain had washed the haze from the air. The morning was clear and sunny. As we climbed toward the chefferie of Kabare, I was happy, wedged between two companions on the truck’s torn seat. Paul Wemboyendja was driving. Next to the window sat Mark Stern, a correspondent for America’s premier newspaper.
As we left the lakeshore and moved up into the hills, I appraised Mark. We were about the same age, not yet thirty. Mark might even be younger. But he carried himself like a prince. That came with the position. Hmm. Was I jealous of Mark? Maybe. Why not? Great job, great perks. Everyone deferred to him, hung on his words. They suggested sources, checked his coverage to see if he’d used their tips. Moreover, the guy had a bedmate in Léopoldville, a Belgian girl I had dated in my brief time down there. The bedmate: maybe she too came with the position. Mark really was like royalty, visiting the far reaches of America’s empire.
The Consul had met his plane, briefed him, visited his hotel, arranged dinners for him, taken charge of his weekend activities, even kept him informed of cable traffic. The Consul told me, “Any help you can give this reporter or his paper, you be damn sure you give it.”
“This visit should be fascinating,” I observed.
Mark peered out the window at the shimmer of the lake, at the mountains receding in blue hues all the way to the Ruwenzoris. He turned to Paul. “Quel jour, eh?”
“Ah, oui, Monsieur!” said Paul.
On the road women trudged down from the hills, balancing baskets of strawberries on the straight columns formed by their backs, necks, heads. I surveyed the patterns of the cloths tied about them. Mark studied the huts of the villagers. Was he wondering how to describe them?

At Mark’s request, we were on our way to visit the reclusive Mwami of Kabare. The Consul had set up the interview. He’d sent a messenger to the office of the chefferie, requesting that the Mwami show Mark Stern the hospitality of the region. He had further specified the hour, suggesting that the Mwami offer this hospitality at 10:00 the following morning. Nice for a journalist to have all that help, I thought. I wondered if Mark loved Africa, as I was beginning to, or merely covered it.
Mark probably wondered how his editors would play the story. The fight for space in the paper was rugged like the fight for space in the jungle. Mme Nhu, the Vietnamese dragon lady, was at this moment in New York, demanding coverage. MacMillan had just resigned in Britain. The Congo story was also being covered from the UN. Unless the Mwami said startling things, the piece might get killed. Bastards. Or they’d bury it on page 20. Next to the Gimbels ads.
It was some story, I thought. An interview with an African king, demigod to some; autocrat to others. Mark might have already worked out his lead: “Being received by the Mwami of Kabare, absolute ruler of a quarter million tribesmen here, is like stepping four hundred years back into 1563.” I had heard him tell the Consul that he might portray the Mwami as a traditionalist rogue, a charming anachronism. He might sprinkle gems of Mwami wisdom throughout the piece. He and the Consul had laughed about that.
As we climbed toward Kabare, I noticed the green fluttering of banana leaves, the burnt umber of the earth. As Paul drove, he waved to the Kabare women we passed. They stopped to watch the van, their whole bodies turning. Recognizing it, they called “See-nay-ma! See-nay-ma!” They knew Paul; he worked for the white men; he controlled an entire roomful of their equipment and gave film shows in the communes. Paul waved in a gesture of noblesse oblige. He did not admire muscular work-hardened bodies or bovine stares. The women he preferred were rounded and laughing. He waved because women were women.
“Paul, mon ami,” Mark said. “During this interview, there may be stuff I don’t get. You’ll walk me through it afterwards, okay?”
“Bien sur, Monsieur,” Paul said, grinning. “Bien entendu.”
Pleased with himself, he tooted the horn at an old man hobbling across the road. The Consul and I were treating this famous journalist from New York with such deference that Paul wanted to render whatever service he could. Perhaps the man needed an assistant. Or a representative in the Kivu. Perhaps Paul should inquire discreetly if he needed a woman. What man did not need a woman?
“This Mwami’s some potentate,” Mark remarked to me. “Colonial authorities exiled him twice. First time for twenty-three years. Set up a puppet in his place. You realize that?” I recognized the Consul’s briefing and nodded. “Then when he returned, he had the puppet Mwami and two retainers beheaded. Right?”
I shrugged. The Consul relished stories that made him seem to be holding the line against barbarism. During the summer he had cabled Washington to report that the Mwami had forbidden Kabare women to carry wood into Bukavu, cutting off a commodity important to the town. According to the Consul, the Mwami had confiscated trucks from coffee and tea plantations. Occasionally the Mwami boasted that he would descend into Bukavu with hundreds of warriors to force his claim against Europeans who had taken Kabare land without ever compensating him for it. He would punish Kivu politicians for presuming to rule in his stead.
“The Mwami ordered two tribesmen to be buried alive last week,” Mark said. “You hear about that?”
I watched the road. I was thinking that “potentate” and “tribesmen” were journalist’s words. Had I ever seen those words used outside news reports?
When I did not reply, Mark examined me. Probably he thought I had not been in Africa long enough to respond as Africans did, inspecting questions from every vantage before committing themselves. But why was I studying my answer? I might seem bright enough. But at the Consul’s dinner for him Mark would have noticed that I neither drank nor smoked. Probably I was not getting much either. I had seen some of the world, but would not take a bite of it. Mark might wonder: Why was that? I wondered myself.
Mark asked again, “You hear about those guys?”
“Lot of stories fly around,” I said.
“You don’t think they’re true?”
“What is truth? Didn’t somebody ask that?”
“Is it factual?” Mark asked, a little pissed. He was trying to put together a story.
“I guess it’s factual,” I said. “In Africa it’s why that’s so puzzling.”
Mark shook his head. He probably thought: What a jerk!
I thought: As if facts alone meant anything. But I didn’t say it. Why say it? Why cast doubts on the Consul’s careful briefing?
“Does this sound factual?” Mark asked. “Last week an excited tribesman rushed to police officials here to report that the Mwami of Kabare had ordered villagers to bury two men alive. The officials raced up to Kabare. They found two men buried up to their necks and managed to rescue them.”
I thought: Maybe that’s the lead he’s working on.
I said: “Sometimes I wonder if the Mwami and his counselors don’t get bored up in the hills. So they say, ‘Hey, let’s see how long it takes them today.’ They find someone who’s been questioning the Mwami’s authority and they give both him and the government of Kivu Central a scare.”
Mark shrugged.
“Ought to be a great story,” I assured him. “Your readers’ll get some idea of what’s at stake in bringing this country into the modern world.” I said this because I supposed it was what the Consul would want me to say. I added, “I can see guys over coffee telling their wives, ‘Hey, honey, you better read this.’”
Mark nodded. The USIS man was not supposed to fight him and, good, he wasn’t going to. A tight, satisfied smile appeared on Mark’s mouth. Suddenly he craned his neck at the sight of a child picking lice from the braided hair of a woman. He took a pad from his jacket and made a note.

THE FILM TRUCK climbed past Bagira, one of the communes colonial authorities had built to house workers lured away from Kabare villages. It left the paved road, ascending toward low-hanging overcast on the mountain tops. The air was cool here. Paul held film shows on the Bagira soccer field; he saluted it by honking the horn. Children receiving lessons in a roadside school stood at the sight of the truck. Paul leaned from the driver’s window to wave. Children broke from their class. They ran beside the truck yelling, “See-nay-ma! See-nay-ma! Ay-tazz-oo-nee-dam-air-eeek!” Paul tooted the horn, delighted at celebrity-hood. I watched him mildly distressed. The Consul had seen the film truck parked outside nightclubs and was concerned about appearances. I understood that in Bukavu the truck was an aphrodisiac. It excited desire in the many young Congolese women who had never ridden in a vehicle of any kind. They would gladly offer Paul access to their bodies for a chance to ride in the truck. I worried that Paul was exploiting their generosity and possibly damaging our reputation. Moreover, the previous week Paul had sought an advance of 25,000 francs. When I asked the Consul’s advice, he said, “Don’t give that guy a penny! He owes me 10,000 francs!”
Paul pulled himself inside the van. “Tout le monde m’aime,” he told us. In the rearview mirror he watched children chasing him. “Tout le monde m’appelle Cinéma!”
I nodded and wondered yet again: What do I do about this guy?

OUTSIDE THE VILLAGE of Kabare, oil drums blocked the road. A young guard wearing a brown beret with “Kabare” sewn on it in white thread sat on a stool. In his hands he played a likembe, a “thumb piano,” plucking its metal strips fastened to a sound box. Reaching the roadblock, the truck stopped. Eventually the guard moved to the truck; he peered at its passengers. Paul gestured to Mark and explained in Swahili that the Mwami was awaiting this important guest.
The guard nodded and pushed two oil drums out of the road.
“The Mwami has his own police?” Mark asked Paul.
“Bien entendu, Monsieur,” Paul replied. “And his own tax-collectors. The government of Kivu Province, it’s a joke up here.”
Mark nodded and made half a page of notes in his pad.
The offices of the Kabare chefferie were open, but deserted. Mark’s mouth tightened. He walked through the building, muttering: “Shit! Your Consul better not have fucked this up!” He was scheduled to catch a four o’clock plane to Usumbura; there he would file his story. He shot me a glance that said, “I thought you guys set this up.”
I thought: “Easy, Pulitzer. Where do you think you are?”
An old man appeared. He wore frayed shorts, a threadbare overcoat and a black policeman’s cap green with age. No, the Mwami was not coming to the chefferie offices, he told Paul in Swahili. No, there was no appointment. No, the Mwami did not accept to receive American journalists. I thought: “Easy.” The old man might not even know what a journalist was. The muscles around Mark Stern’s mouth pulled tighter. Yes, the old man agreed, he would conduct the three visitors to the Mwami’s palais.
The “palace” proved to be a complex of buildings, dominated by a large house a European planter had abandoned three years earlier when the Congo acceded to independence. The old man departed to announce our arrival to the Mwami. In a small meadow fenced with chest-high bushes two horses grazed. “The guy keeps horses?” Mark surveyed the surroundings and made notes in his pad.
Glancing around, I thought how heady it must be to live in mountains that scraped the clouds. The gods were supposed to live here. Well, I mused, why not here? They had to live somewhere.

THIS MAY HAVE happened out of our sight:
The Mwami sat on the porch of his palace in pajamas and slippers. He had finished the mid-morning ritual of receiving the tribal notables and clan heads. He watched the horses, thinking about a dispute between two clans that he must adjudicate.
A young man who attended him hurried onto the porch. He bowed low and waited to be recognized. The Mwami said, “Speak.” The young man reported that two white men were on the lawn, accompanied by an African who was not one of the people. The Mwami nodded. The young man stood, apparently desiring to speak, but nervous. It tired the Mwami to see a young man in his service who became agitated at the mere approach of white men. Was he not, after all, the Mwami of Kabare, chief of all the lands hereabouts? And were the white men not mere supplicants? The Mwami flicked his hand tiredly. The young retainer bowed low and withdrew. The Mwami looked back at the horses. The whites could wait.

PAUL WATCHED the Mwami’s horses frolic in the meadow, cantering in large circles. Presumably to show the prince from New York that he was a man of the world, he enthused, “Ah, j’aime les chevaux.”
Mark ignored him. I smiled to myself. As if he rode.
When the old man did not reappear, the three of us drifted toward the Mwami’s house. We came upon a group of ancients clustered on the steps of a side porch. Many of these men smoked pipes and wore what I thought of as goat beards, straggly collections of tightly coiled chin hair, some of the hairs whitening. Two of the men protected their old heads with monkey-skin caps. Dressed in patched jackets and shorts, in baggy, uncreased trousers turning purple with age, they beheld us newcomers suspiciously. “Les notables,” Paul whispered. “Tribal elders come every morning to greet the Mwami.”
Mark nodded. He watched the old men as intently as they watched him.
Because two of us were white men, the notables stood and stepped forward. They presented themselves with caution and a certain rigidity. They bowed slightly, folding forward stiffly, and offered their hands. We shook them, bowing slightly with deference, then stepped back.
While the ancients examined us, Paul explained in Swahili that Mark Stern, gesturing to him, was a very important visitor whom the Mwami had agreed to receive. The ancients gazed at Mark out of eyes so old that streaks of brown discolored them. They said nothing.
Paul sensed difficulties. They need not be conveyed to the Americans. The Mwami had forgotten the meeting. Or had never been told. The Americans must not know. Paul saw the notables glancing toward the front of the palais. Still praising Mark and his paper, Paul looked in that direction. He saw the figure in the chair; he recognized and broke toward it, exclaiming, “Bonjour, Mwami!”
Mark hurried forward. I grabbed his arm, held him back. Mark shot me a glare of fury. “Slow down,” I whispered. “That’s a king.”
“Take your fucking hand off me,” Mark muttered.
But I did not release my grip until Mark stood respectfully, waiting for the Mwami to signal to him.

THE MWAMI MAY have done and thought this:
He leaned his head back in the chair. His eyes started to close. Suddenly behind him footsteps sounded. Before he could look around, he saw a grinning face bending toward him. “Bonjour, Mwami,” the face said.
The Mwami sat up, thought, “Who is this? How dare he approach without being announced?” Then he recognized the pushy fellow his people called “Cinéma,” the white man’s toady who considered himself a great personage because he drove the white man’s truck and wore his clothes and spoke his language. Cinéma of eager grins, a pudgy frame and a smooth, fast tongue. He had dark skin, almost black, and was not one of the people. The Mwami recalled hearing that he came from the grasslands on the far side of the mountains. He might be a dignitary in Bukavu, but in Kabare he was a nuisance, an upstart.
Cinéma stepped back. He put his feet together and bowed, an overdue gesture of respect for the Mwami’s power, for his being.
Cinéma did not bow low, the Mwami noticed. A feigner of obsequiousness to the white man, he supposed a Mwami would not know true respect. He dared to stand in a Mwami’s presence unannounced. As if a Mwami would not distinguish between true respect owed a man of power and the feigned deference shown to white men.
“I bring an American who desires to talk with the Mwami,” this Cinéma said. He talked on, but the Mwami stopped listening, feeling cold now in his pajamas and old in the presence of this black-skinned outsider from the grasslands who knew no decorum. The Mwami looked off toward the clouds that shrouded the trees. What kind of white men were “Amay Ricans,” he wondered. Belgians, he knew and hated. And the new rulers: toad-eaters, jackals in men’s skins, former postal clerks, to whom the people were said to have given power by dropping papers in a box. He was beginning to know them. But Amay Ricans, the Mwami did not know. He had heard that they came to steal the land. He must beware of them.
“The Consul sent a letter, Mwami. The journalist wishes to ask you questions–”
The Mwami looked up sharply. Cinéma stopped his smooth tongue. Ask questions? Truly, this Cinéma knew no decorum. Visitors entreated. Visitors begged humbly. Or sought the Mwami’s patronage. But questions? No! If there were questions, it was the Mwami who asked.
The upstart began speaking again, but the Mwami did not listen. He stood. Attendants appeared from inside the palace. The white men’s menial burst into smiles, thinking his request had been granted. “An important man, you say?” the Mwami asked. He spoke Swahili because he would not use the white men’s words.
“Very important, Mwami.” The toady grinned like a hyena when it smells carrion. He extended an arm, gesturing toward the porch where his masters waited.
“I cannot receive an important white man dressed as I am now dressed,” the Mwami said. “You see how I am dressed.”
“They will be honored to see you just as you are, Mwami,” this Cinéma said. Finally he bowed low.
“Because he is important,” said the Mwami, “it is proper for me to show respect for that importance. Just as a Mwami might expect to receive the respect rightly accorded a Mwami.”
The hyena grin faded from the fawner’s face.
“Tell him that the Mwami is not yet ready to receive important visitors. Have him wait.”
As the Mwami moved toward the house, one of his young men opened the door. The Mwami entered and did not look back.

“OOOO LA LA!” Paul must have thought. “With this Mwami there are always difficulties. But the Americans must not know.” He put a grin onto his face and stepped lightly across the grass. “Bonnes nouvelles, Messieurs,” he announced. “The Mwami is honored that you’re here. He wants to receive you in a way that befits the occasion!”
Mark was accustomed to this sort of reception and felt encouraged. Things were working out. He opened his notebook to the question list. A couple of controversial ones. Good!
I was relieved that Paul had come through. They were right in Léo. The guy did seem to know everyone. I wondered what a “potentate” made of the Western ceremony of the press interview.
A young man who said he was the Mwami’s secretary appeared from inside the house. He carried himself with a dignity that merited attention from Mark. Was this the Kabare heir the Consul had mentioned, the young man of promise the Mwami had adopted as his son? The secretary invited the visitors to enter the house. He escorted them onto a small, enclosed porch where two other men awaited the Mwami. He showed Mark and me to heavily upholstered chairs drawn up on opposite sides of a low table. Paul stood against a wall.
Minutes passed. No one spoke. Paul took a seat.

ONE OF THE WAITING Africans turned out to be a chefferie tax collector. Mark zeroed in on him. He had heard, Mark said, that the Mwami collected taxes in cattle that the government had not authorized. Was this true? The tax collector glanced at the secretary. The secretary’s expression did not change. The tax collector denied that the Mwami collected unauthorized taxes. He had heard, Mark said, that the Mwami set taxes according to his whim. Was this true? No, it was not true, said the tax collector. If farmers did not pay the taxes demanded, Mark asked, was it not true that the Mwami’s police threw them off their land? The collector denied that this was true. The secretary spoke to the tax collector. Mark and I glanced at Paul. He shook his head slightly, indicating that he could not follow what was being said. The secretary departed. For some moments no one spoke.
Mark jotted notes in his pad. After a time, the tax collector explained that the farmers did not own the land they farmed. The Mwami owned it – for the people. The farmers used it at the Mwami’s pleasure. Mark nodded and made more notes.
Several notables entered. They bowed stiffly and extended their hands. I rose to shake them. I resumed my seat, watched Mark making notes. “The guy’s never left New York!” I thought. Here we were in a place so remote that whites had not settled it until after the First World War. We were waiting for an audience with a Mwami who beheaded people when he felt like it or had them buried alive. Was it not obvious to Mark that he and the Mwami lived by different codes? Mark Stern’s code gave Mark Stern the right, nay the obligation, to grill people he interviewed. He could interrogate the Mayor of New York, who accepted his code, on the way taxes were collected. But the Mwami of Kabare? I hoped the Mwami felt generous this morning. Then he might just let Mark and Paul and me walk out of Kabare alive.
Long minutes passed.
A young African joined the group. “You are Americans?” he asked in English. “I learned English in Kenya,” he explained. Then he added, “I have come to petition the Mwami for money. To continue my studies. It would be well, don’t you think, for the Mwami to have someone in his household who speaks English?”
“Tell me,” Mark said watching him. “The Mwami’s secretary. He was here a few minutes ago. Is he the Mwami’s heir?”
The petitioner’s face went blank. He studied the question.
I thought: Mark must know what he’s doing. But I myself would not have phrased the question so directly.
At last the petitioner asked, “Air?” He waved his hand through the air. “So many words the same in English.”
“That’s true,” said Mark. He made more notes in his pad.

THIS MAY HAVE happened out of our sight:
The Mwami smoked a pipe while waiting for his attendants to lay out his clothes. He remembered the first white man he had ever seen.
He was very young then, the adopted son and presumed heir of the Mwami who preceded him. That Mwami had received in a night vision a warning from the ancestors that beings from the dead would come to Kabare. Late that day warriors raced into his court to tell of a being with white flesh and hair the color of sunset. The being had entered Kabare and was building a camp where the fingers of land extended into the Water of the Ancestors. Many women had left off tilling to watch him.
In the Mwami’s court the vision and the warriors’ report caused profound apprehension. A being with flesh of a hue seen only on the dead? What did this portend for Kabare? The young man who would become Mwami had returned with the warriors to watch. The being with white flesh bartered with beads and mirrors for food and drink. He ate with his mouth. He squatted to defecate and stood to make water. When the being washed in a stream, his whiteness stayed. So this whiteness was not made by ashes rubbed on his skin. All of his flesh was pink-white and except for its color his body was in every way like the bodies of Kabare men. The being came from a people who did not circumcise. The Mwami reported all of these observations to his predecessor.
The being stayed at his camp many days, hunting gazelles with a stick that spat metal and roasting their flesh. He picked fruit without regard to who had the usufruct of the trees. He plundered materials and constructed a shelter in a form different from any ever seen in Kabare. The being enticed a maiden into his shelter and lay with her. Although he mounted her in a manner little known in Kabare, the being seemed to have the same desire for a maiden’s body that warriors felt. Warriors, however, controlled these desires and the white being did not.
The notables of Kabare held counsel with the Mwami. Some said that the being – since he ate, slept, relieved his body of waste and desired maidens just as the men of Kabare did – was a man like other men. As lions and leopards were much the same except for the markings of their hides and some of their habits, so this white being was a man not unlike themselves.
The Mwami of that day concluded otherwise. He proclaimed that the being was a spirit of the dead. The present Mwami had always accepted that conclusion.

MARK PLACED AN X at the end of a sentence. He looked over what he had written.
“That your story?” I asked.
Mark looked at his watch. “It’s 11:47.”
“Head of the U.N. team in Bukavu waited two hours to see the Mwami,” I said. “And he was offering more than his name in the paper.” I grinned. Mark was not amused. “We’ve only been here– What?”
“One hundred and ten minutes,” Mark said. “You don’t wear a watch?”
“Gave it up. When in Rome.”
Minutes evaporated like the fog that had lifted outside.
The secretary who claimed to speak little French appeared. “Entrez, Messieurs, s’il vous plait,” he offered, inviting us into a parlor. For a “palais” the room struck me as small. Three heavy couches of post-Victorian design diminished its size. An archway stood across from us. Lengths of thin, unhemmed material curtained off the room beyond. Mark shot me a look. “I’m supposed to file this afternoon,” he said. “This gonna happen?”
“This is not a deadline culture,” I remarked.
Mark raised an irritated eyebrow.
We heard someone moving behind the curtains. The Mwami? I saw shoes visible below the pink and beige material. I caught Mark’s eye and nodded toward the shoes. Mark noticed them, but said nothing. When the shoes disappeared, Mark said, “Paul, mon ami. Ca marchera?” (“This gonna happen?”)
“Oui, ça marche, Monsieur,” Paul told him. “Bien sur! Le Mwami comprend que votre journal est tres important!” (“Oh, sure. The Mwami knows that your paper is very important.”)
Mark nodded. The muscles of his mouth grew tight once more.
I watched the lengths of material. The shoes reappeared behind them.

THIS MAY HAVE happened beyond our sight:
As they prepared the Mwami to hear a dispute among the clans, his attendants set out the hat of colobus monkey skin that he would wear. They took from its box the leopard skin they would drape over his shoulders. Impatient, the Mwami returned to the room where from behind the closed curtains he observed the white men. He watched his notables detain the men as he had directed them to do. He studied the man writing in the notepad. This business of asking questions, he thought. It was a game of mischief and trickery the white men played. Why they played it, he did not understand.
Long ago it had been possible to humor white men who asked questions. Such men would be brought into court. While the Mwami stood in the rear, watching the visitors, a notable would greet the men. He would listen to their questions; perhaps he would offer replies. While this happened, the Mwami would examine them. But this was no longer possible, for Cinéma, the white men’s toady, knew who the Mwami was. Now a Mwami must study visitors by watching behind a curtain. The Mwami returned to his dressing room. He told his attendants to offer the white men beer.

MARK WROTE IN HIS NOTEBOOK. I noticed the Africans pick copies of Perspectives Américaines off the coffee table and glance through them. Perspectives was a newspaper published by USIS. Should I, I wondered, compose an Evidence-of-Effectiveness report on this discovery? Or perhaps do a reader survey: “Excuse me, M. Notable. Which articles in that newspaper do you find interesting?”
A servant arrived with two glasses of beer. He set one before Mark, the other before me. We exchanged a glance. Eight men, two beers? We would not drink if the others were not served. We ignored the beers.
Paul watched them thirstily. I saw that the shoes that kept watch behind the curtains had returned. I signalled Mark.
He nodded. So the Mwami was watching us. Mark probably felt an almost undeniable urge to rush the curtains, grab the Mwami and say, “Votre excellence, je voudrais vous poser quelques questions.” What would the Mwami do? The fact that Mark did not know kept him sitting at the table.

THIS MAY HAVE happened out of our sight:
The Mwami watched the white man with the notepad. So he came to ask questions about taxes! What insolence! Who sent him? What did he really want?
The Mwami perceived behind the open, smiling face the self-importance that most white men possessed. If he permitted the man to enter his presence, he would ask if the Mwami buried people alive. Or if he beheaded them. The whites were always curious about death. Because they were beings from the dead.
A Mwami embodied his people. Did the white man not know this? A Mwami sought to rule by consensus. Did the notables not greet him every morning to inform him of problems demanding his attention? In this way a Mwami strengthened the people. But if some man challenged a Mwami outside the established system, if he blocked consensus, if he sought to excite the people to rebellion and imperil unity… Well, he must be warned. If he persisted, he must be punished. Sometimes it was enough to bury such a man up to his head. After a day or two he saw that the Mwami’s authority must be maintained. But if he continued to think that his own will was more important than the people’s unity, then he was beheaded. Because a Mwami’s power wasted away if he did not use it. Because the people must know that survival depended on submission to the Mwami. The Mwami alone protected their future.
Watching the white men, the Mwami understood that if he granted them an audience he would jeopardize the health of his people. When these white men left, they would do their small something – whatever it was – to hasten the death of Kabare.
The Mwami stepped back from the curtains and called for his car.

I STUDIED THE ROOM’S adornments: the elephant tusk, the small Kivu drums, the animal horn carved to resemble a fish, the two beers going flat.
“I wouldn’t wait this long to interview President Kennedy.” Mark said.
“You can wait,” I told him. “Or you can blow it.”
Mark whimpered, “I want my Mwami!”
I bit my tongue so as not to laugh. The notables regarded us curiously.
“Mwark mwants his Mwami.”
I stared at the floor, trying not to laugh.
“Mwaiting for Mwami mwakes Mwark mweary.”
Suddenly the pink and beige curtains parted. Mark stood, ready to smile, ready to bow or offer his hand. A notable with a cane hobbled into the room. He announced, “Le Mwami est parti.”
Gone? Mark looked at me, at Paul. Gone? We were standing now, perplexed looks on our faces. Gone? How? We heard a motor. We rushed onto the porch. A black Mercedes was parked outside the house, its engine idling. The Mwami sat inside it. He wore a leopard pelt over his shoulders and a hat of a colobus monkey skin. As soon as he saw the two of us, he signalled the driver. The car sped down the driveway and out of sight.
Mark was furious. He turned to complain. But the notables had disappeared. The secretary who spoke no French was still on the porch. “Does the Mwami always act this way?” Mark asked the secretary curtly in French.
“Easy, Pulitzer,” I soothed.
“I’m not Foreign Service,” Mark replied. “Fuck it! Fuck them!” He swore in French at the secretary who spoke no French.
“Don’t mess it up for us,” I said.
Paul appeared, wiping his hand across his mouth. He had dispatched the beers. Mark swore at him. The secretary disappeared. “I have a certain tolerance for African custom,” Mark said, “but this is going too far.” He started toward the house.
“Don’t get moralistic,” I advised. “That won’t help.”
“Fuck you!” Mark said. “Piss-ass USIS man. Fuck you!”

RETURNING TO THE TRUCK Paul insisted that the Mwami had confirmed the interview. Mark grumbled all the way back to the chefferie. The chefferie office was closed. Mark and Paul walked about the building, peering into windows. I assume that once I was out of sight, Paul whispered, “Monsieur, si tu as besoin d’un representant à Bukavu…” Whatever he suggested, Mark walked off. Paul shrugged.
Out of nowhere appeared an old man with two missing teeth and a narrow beard that dropped from his ears to follow the line of his chin. Veins stood out on his forehead. He demanded to know why the men were peering through the chefferie office windows. Not one to tolerate questions, Mark demanded to know if the man was a chefferie clerk. The old man refused to admit that he was. However, he wore an evident badge of rank: an old tuxedo jacket with black satin lapels.
Mark exploded at the man. If the Mwami did not want to be interviewed, why didn’t he just say so?
The tuxedoed clerk exploded back. Everyone, he insisted, must arrange interviews with the Mwami – in advance, by writing.
“How many days in advance?” Mark asked.
The clerk answered in an incomprehensible approximation of French.
“Deux jours?” Mark repeated.
“Oui, deux jours!” the clerk snapped back.
“Ou est-ce dix jours?” I had heard ten days.
“Mais oui!” exclaimed the clerk. “Dix jours!”
“Dix-deux jours,” I said.
“Deux-dix jours,” said Mark.

AS WE HEADED back down the mountain. Mark said “This fucking Africa! Nothing works. The people are ignorant, primitive, stupid.” He had seen the Mwami, but had not spoken to him. Was there a story in that?
“What the fuck’s gonna happen here?” he asked. He leaned his head against the seat and tried to concoct a way to write up an interview that had not taken place. He’d do something. Relate the “wild and bloody saga” of the Mwami’s beheadings, of his burying his tribesmen up to their ears. Call the old fraud “a tribal despot.” That’d show him.
When we drove through Bagira, children again recognized the film van. They shouted, “See-nay-ma! See-nay-ma!” Paul leaned out of the window to wave.
Reaching Lake Kivu, we passed small beaches with huts crowding the shore. Pirogues cut slowly through the water. Trees bent toward the lake, their leaves drooping into the water. Across the lake blue-gray silhouettes of mountains rose tall and misty in the far distance. Islands seemed to float on the lake, not as distinct shapes, but as blue patterns. Above them cumulus clouds, blue-black, the elephants of the sky, marched along. Water stretched between the film truck and the islands, some of it dark, reflecting the clouds, patches of it silvered by the sun.
“Fucking Africa?” I thought. “Oh, no!” It was so beautiful! I wondered what mysteries dwelt on those islands. What adventure beckoned from the mountains? Then I understood that the islands, the mountains, the clouds were not realities at all. They were dreams, yearnings that nature had given blue shapes. They were longings set across an uncrossable stretch of dark and silvered water. They were out of reach like the Mwami, like all dreams.

1 Comment

  1. Ted Anagnoson

    June 18, 2020 at 4:36 pm

    what a great story. I loved the supposed mwami musings and can understand why the mwami might think that way – you just wonder if sam huntington had thought of some of this stuff – I guess he figured he operated at a higher level of abstraction than trying to understand how people from different backgrounds understood each other. Thanks! Loved this one.

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