At the end of their retirement trip to East Africa professors Tatiana Poulos and Charles Willson, academics from New York and a married couple, came to Bukavu to stick their toes into the troubled Congo. The trip was presented to them by students wishing to honor their contributions to sociology.
A dozen years before, Harriet Hillis, the consul’s wife, had done graduate work with them. However, rather than finish her degree, she chose to marry the consul, a Foreign Service Officer about to leave for his first post overseas.
The professors had not come pursuing research interests. They wanted merely to tell friends and colleagues that they had visited the turbulent Congo and receive the huzzahs their bravery would evoke.
As professors do, they kept in touch with promising students, even those who did not complete degrees. Knowing that Harriet was living in the eastern Congo, Dr. Poulos wrote asking if they could “stop by” after visiting game parks in Kenya and Tanzania. Harriet replied that she and the consul would be delighted to have them “stop by.”
She felt dismayed, she wrote, that she could not offer to lodge them at the consular residence. Fortunately, however, there was a rather decent hotel in Bukavu, the Royal Résidence. It had a good restaurant, the Bodega.
Tatiana Poulos also noted that Dr. Charlotte Keppel, a colleague of hers and Charles’, was doing a year of research in Léopoldville. She might somehow get to Bukavu to see them while they passed through.
Drs. Poulos and Willson arrived. The Hillises got them settled at the Royal Résidence, dined them at their home and showed them around town, apologizing that there was not really much to see. The consul asked me to dine with them at the Bodega their second night in town. I looked forward to hosting them that evening. Americans with interesting backgrounds did not drop in on us every day.
The professors had a zest for travel and regaled me over dinner with places they had visited, thanks to the academic conferences they attended. East Africa was beyond the range of such meetings. They had chosen it for their retirement gift as unexplored territory.
Dr. Poulos was short, trim and probing, brightly interested in things. She had short, very black hair, wore glasses and despite an intellectual vivacity spoke slowly, ponderously, with frequent pauses that suggested she had lost her train of thought. Dr. Willson observed his wife’s search for words with an indulgent smile. Apparently a scholar of eminence, he would start to hold forth with a smile, perhaps with a witticism or a striking turn of phrase. He then settled into a drone that left his dinner largely untouched while his wife and I had already finished ours.
The professors picked my brain about Bukavu and my short stay in Léo. I picked theirs about what they had seen in the East African game parks: elephants at Keekorok, rhinos in Ngorongoro, lions in trees at Lake Manyara and zebras and wildebeest in Amboseli. I had been reading The Serengeti Shall Not Die and very much hoped somehow to wangle a trip to those places before I left the Kivu.
Their friend Charlotte Keppel negotiated an embassy flight to Stanleyville and would arrive in Bukavu early the next day. The consul asked me to fetch her at Kamembe airport, just across the border in Rwanda.
Paul Wemboyendja was late arriving with the film truck. Undoubtedly he had been out clubbing with it the night before and had found a companion. When I got to Kamembe, only ten minutes late, I was told that the plane had arrived early. Apparently Dr. Keppel had hitched a ride into town.
When I reported this situation to the consul, annoyance flared in his face. “Was that damn Wemboyendja using the truck?”
I said that he was.
“You’ve got to take control of that guy. I know it isn’t easy.”
I assured him I would do better when I brought the three professors out to the consular residence that evening for a dinner with the Hillises.
But when I went to the hotel to pick up the trio about sunset, Dr. Keppel was not there. Moreover, the Willsons had not yet seen her. I checked with the reception. Yes, Dr. Keppel had checked into her room that morning, staying less than half an hour. Then she had gone out to look around the town.
I was not keen on letting the consul think I could do nothing right. The receptionist gave Dr. Poulos a note in her keybox. It said; “Tati, If I’m late for the dinner, go ahead without me. I’ll get there.”
“We can’t just leave her,” said Dr. Poulos.
“Would you want to call Harriet?” her husband wondered.
“What do you think?” she asked me.
I suggested we get into the film truck and drive the length of the town. Its main street stretched to the end of the longest peninsula. Perhaps Dr. Keppel was window-shopping although that was an unlikely occupation for Bukavu. If we saw her, we could pick her up and take her to the Hillises.
I drove the professors slowly as far as the army camp at the end of the farthest peninsula. Each professor scanned one side of the street. We did not see Dr. Keppel. When we returned to the hotel, I suggested that we drive along the unchecked part of the main street. We did not find her there either. Since we were close to where the Hillises lived, I took them to the residence.
The professors embraced Harriet and shook the consul’s hand. He did not seem unduly concerned. Dr. Keppel would arrive on her own. But as soon as he had gotten us drinks, the professors started in on him.
“I’m terribly worried about Dr. Keppel,” Dr. Poulos said.
“I don’t think you need to be,” the consul replied. “Shall we go out onto the terrace overlooking the lake?”
“Do you think something’s happened to her?” asked Dr. Willson.
“What could have happened?” said the consul with a smile. “This isn’t Central Park.”
“But it is the Congo,” Dr. Poulos observed. “Isn’t it possible she’s lost?”
“She’s a white woman among Africans. She can’t get lost.”
I wondered if the consul believed this. Certainly mollifying the professors was the right response. We went out onto the terrace. Harriet passed hors d’oeuvres. The professors talked about their impressions of Africa as if the others of us were not living there.
Half an hour later, with the consul refreshing drinks and the cook holding dinner, Dr. Poulos declared rather firmly that she was worried about Keppy.
“So am I,” agreed Dr. Willson. “You don’t know Keppy. She’s hopelessly punctual.”
“She’s been down in Léo for a while, hasn’t she?” said Harriet. “One gets casual about time here.”
“Perhaps,” agreed Willson. “I noticed that very thing in Kenya.” He beat his winter-bleached thumbs together and began to drone. His wife cut him off.
“The thing is,” she said. “Keppy’s not Congolese. I’ve never known her to be even five minutes late.”
“Isn’t the lake beautiful?” said the consul. Twilight was fading from the sky. Soon the lake would be cloaked in darkness and mosquitoes would force us inside.
“Once it’s dark, how will she ever find us?” Dr. Poulos asked.
The consul and his wife exchanged a glance. Harriet feared that her guests’ concerns were going to derail her party. The consul gave a small shrug. “I’ll call the hotel if you like,” I said. But I saw that, in fact, he was not worried.
“Let’s give her another few minutes,” he suggested.
Dr. Poulos settled back, knowing she mustn’t insist. I could see that this was difficult for her; she seemed a woman whose academic position had made it customary for her to get what she wanted. “Keppy in Africa!” she said. “I can hardly imagine it.”
Her husband chuckled in agreement. He described her to us: a delicate, pale-skinned sociologist with hollow cheeks and long hair unfailingly dressed in a bun. She walked across my mind in the gray wool suit and sensible shoes Willson mentioned as her characteristic attire. In my mind I saw a parched, stereotypical maiden academic.
“How did she happen to come out here?” asked the consul.
“Did it in a fit of madness,” Willson replied. “Utter madness!”
“It wasn’t quite that,” chided his wife. She looked at her watch and tapped a finger against it. She explained that Professor Keppel had taken a sabbatical year to conduct a study among Congolese women in Léopoldville.. “Do you know if she’s going to finish out the year?” she asked.
The consul and Harriet looked blank. “I have no idea,” said the consul. In fact, none of us had met her. However, her finding her way into Bukavu from Kamembe did suggest she took Africa in stride.
“She’s certainly come a long way to see us!” Willson said. “Probably lonely and homesick for shop talk.” He began an explanation for us in his instructor’s mode. “You see, a maiden academic’s social life is very bound up in her professional relationships.”
“Maybe she wants reassurance that her career won’t be damaged if she doesn’t finish her study,” broke in Dr. Poulos. She was less patient with her husband’s style tonight than the evening before when she had let him rattle on. “No one in New York would blame her.”
“Shall we go in?” suggested Harriet. She glanced at her husband, as if to ask, “What now?’ He gave her a smile.
As we returned to the living room, we heard a car drive up. A moment later the lady entered. “Keppy!” exclaimed the professors.
“Darlings!” she said. “How nice to see you!” She embraced them and kissed their cheeks in the French style. Harriet, the consul, and I introduced ourselves. Miss Keppel kissed our cheeks, too. Then she said to all of us, “Don’t you love this country!”
She was wearing sandals and a dress made of mammy cloth. It was quite becoming: bold red and yellow flowers on a field of blue. She had also cut her hair. A head cloth tied about it in the manner of Congolese women matched the blue of her dress and accented the color of her eyes. Her face had begun to tan. It appeared to have filled out as well.
“Keppy, it’s really you!” said Charles Willson.
“Yes,” she replied, leaning back comfortably, “really me. I’m sorry I’m so late.”
The Willsons examined her so intently that she seemed a little uneasy. From their description I had expected someone’s maiden aunt. But clearly that was not the person before us. She was not conventionally attractive. But as she talked, I saw that she had wonderful eyes and a ready smile. She seemed a woman likely to attract the notice of men.
Feeling more comfortable, she smiled. “I was walking around Bagira and lost track of time.”
“Around Bagira?” asked Dr. Poulos. “Isn’t that where we drove the other day?”
“Yes,” said the consul.
“You weren’t there alone, I hope!”
“Of course I was!” she laughed. “It’s not a bandits’ hideout, you know, Tati. People live there.”
“You’re joking, Keppy!”
“Not at all. It’s rather like where I live in Léo.”
The Willsons stared.
“I loved it up there!” she said. “It vibrates with vitality: kids playing, trucks honking, women carrying pots on their heads and babies on their backs.”
“Charlotte!” cried Dr. Poulos. “Really?”
“Yes, really. I love to watch people gossiping in the market. And to hear their laughter. And all the while they’re picking out red peppers and oranges, green plaintains, and those stubby, sweet, yellow bananas, inspecting strawberries in woven baskets and live fish in bright blue enamel pans. I love the way their eyes shine when they laugh and the chocolatey lustre of their skin.”
Charles Willson stared at her.
“I hiked down and started back along the lake. It was so beautiful! But it had gotten too late. I had to hitch a ride.”
“You hitched a ride?”
“With a passing truck.” She smiled. “The driver took me right to the hotel. The desk clerk brought me out here.”
“I thought the housing in Bagira rather poor,” commented Willson, rather formally.
“Yes, quite,” Miss Keppel agreed. “It’s even worse in Kadutu. The government is trying to improve it, though. Did you go past Bagira, up toward Kabare?”
“No, we found it too−−”
“Oh, what you missed!” Miss Keppel exclaimed. “One of the best views in Africa! Really, this is a paradise here!”
At that moment the cook announced dinner. Miss Keppel rose and looked behind her out the window. “See what I mean!” She pointed to the lake. The last light was fading from it. “Look at that!”
But as we went to dinner the Willsons could only look at Dr. Keppel.
Afterward we sat out on the screened porch. The night was balmy. Below us lay the lake and the Bukavu peninsulas curling out into it. House lamps and cook fires showed through the darkness. Occasionally pairs of headlights shone from the Bagira road. Miss Keppel gave a sigh of pure contentment.
“I think the Congo becomes you, Keppy,” said Willson in a lightly teasing tone. “You’ve gained a bit of weight.”
“You’re positively curvaceous,” commented his wife with a laugh. I felt certain the Willsons were wondering if their colleague had enjoyed any romances in Léopoldville. Before they saw her that had seemed beyond the realm of possibility; now it seemed likely.
“Nothing like palm oil to round a girl out,” Dr. Keppel said gaily in the darkness. “I’ve gotten new clothes, too. I threw all those gray suits away.”
“Really?” said Charles Willson. “You plan to wear mammy cloth in New York?”
“Why not? It might be good for New York.”
There followed a spate of shoptalk: about the distant city, their university and its sociology department, about new research, colleagues, and mutual friends. Tatiana Poulos mentioned several of Miss Keppel’s students who wanted to be remembered. “You know,” she said with a chuckle, “I think they’ll hardly recognize you when you get back.”
Dr. Keppel smiled in the darkness.
“When are you returning anyway?”
“I’m not returning,” she said.
“What!” The Willsons spoke together. Their mouths fell open.
“The study is more involved than I thought,” she explained.
“You aren’t returning till the end of your sabbatical then?”
“I’m not returning at all.”
“Keppy!” blurted Dr. Poulos.
“Your career is there!” exclaimed Willson.
They both stared at her.
“Keppy, dear, you’ve lost your perspective. New York is the center of things.”
“Don’t you miss it?”
“I do hunger for a concert now and then.”
“Don’t you miss us?”
“Of course,” she said with real warmth in her voice. “I think of you often”−−teasing them gently−−”slogging about in snow under gray skies or tramping sidewalks in wan sunlight with newspapers blowing about your feet.”
After a moment she said more seriously, “And I’ve thought of myself: thin, alone, walking for winter exercise down endless streets, wearing old maid’s shoes and gray tweeds. Hungering for color without knowing it.”
“I believe you really want to stay here, Keppy.”
“Yes, I do, Tati,” she said. “I’m happy here. I’m rounded and tan. I wear mammy cloth. I work with people, not statistics. Now and then I’m conscious of men watching me. I’ve found color. I live in it and it’s lovely.” She smiled like a late-blooming flower that had found its time.
Later, saying goodbye, the Willsons stood apart, their thin, white arms folded across their chests. Once again they waited for Dr. Keppel. She was in the kitchen, thanking the cook.
“I can’t believe it,” whispered Willson to his wife.
“Extraordinary, isn’t it!”
“Keppy’s going to be downright beautiful if she doesn’t watch out!”
As I drove them back to the hotel in the film truck, Willson asked, “What in the world were you doing so long in the kitchen, Keppy? You weren’t getting the recipe, were you?”
“I was thanking the cook for the dinner. I tried my kitchen Lingala on him. He grinned at me. So I switched to my three or four words of Swahili. Can you say, Asante sana?”
“Indeed we can,” said Dr. Poulos. “Do you think we did nothing but look at elephants and lions in East Africa?”