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The squawks of parrots filtered down into the black well of sleep and slowly called me up into the lighter realms of wakefulness. There was a whir, as of an air conditioner, and the muffled, hollow echo of voices in the corridor. I opened my eyes and looked around me at the white room and its shutters, where the timid light of dawn was creeping in between the slats. Still exhausted from the flight and the hectic preparations of the previous week, I shut my eyes again and drifted back into memories of the past twenty-four hours.
There had been only a few people on the plane. Sometime during the night we crossed the equator into the Southern Hemisphere, and the captain announced our descent toward Brazzaville. Through my window I could discern no city, only stars in an indigo sky above the sweeping, pitch-black expanse of the earth. A minute before landing, dimples of yellow appeared below: lamps in house windows diffusing pale light onto nearby palms. The capital of the Republic of the Congo looked like a tiny settlement from the air.
Maya Maya Airport was dark and dank, with mosquitoes whining in warm mists and gaunt-cheeked soldiers loitering in unlit corridors. A woman in a banana-colored scarf sitting in an illuminated booth peered at my yellow fever vaccination certificate; a red-eyed official yawned and stamped my visa. Next, a man in sandals and a tan uniform stopped me abruptly, gave my passport a supercilious look, and asked me if I was a resident. No. "Ah. Attendez." But he occupied himself with other passengers, so I walked on down the corridor.
Customs was a dimly lit green-and-blue chamber streaked with dirt and filled with the rustling shadows of greeters, taxi drivers, policemen, porters. White spots danced toward me out of the gloom: a lanky youth in a blue-white calico print jumpsuit sauntered up and pulled me toward the baggage conveyor belt. "How much will you give me?" he asked in French.
"For what? I don't have my bag. The conveyor belt isn't working yet."
He grabbed the belt and, throwing his weight into it, started pushing it along by hand, his sandals scuffing and sliding on the dusty floor. Other porters joined in, heaving and hoing, and the thing creaked to life. But an attendant in khaki shouted in Lingala and came running over to the calico fellow; grabbing my bag, he shoved him aside. He was an official porter, he said; the man I had hired was a hustler. Using my bag as a ram he forced a passage through the crowd, and I followed him to the customs desk, where officers sat slumped with their berets slanted low over half-closed eyes and waved us on toward the doors. The hustler skulked along behind us, pleading, "Monsieur! Monsieur!" I gave him a few francs. He nodded, and he and his white spots danced back into the dark of the terminal.
We walked out into the moonless night. There were no lights on the street, and the inky, close air rang with crickets and smelled of fruit and sweat. Moist palms landed on my forearms and pulled me in this direction and that; an incantation arose from figures bobbing faceless in the black: "Taxi . . . taxi . . . vous cherchez un bon hotel . . . eh, monsieur . . . taxi . . ." My porter pushed on. I followed the white address label on my bag, stumbling over an unseen curb, stomping flat-footed into a pothole, not knowing whether I was about to trip on a fender or step on a body. Then he halted and a driver was quoting me a fare to a hotel. D'accord. They hustled me into the car. The porter asked for five dollars. I pulled out a dollar, slapped it in his hand, and we were off.
In Brazzaville a couple of years before there had been contested elections followed by riots and looting, and a serious problem with crime remained. As my taxi trundled through the city's outskirts pitch-black warrens overgrown with bush I remembered this and found I could not help but be afraid. When the driver hit the brakes at bumps I worried he was stopping for robbers; when we crashed through branches hanging out into the road I thought he might be taking a detour and I was about to get my throat slit. Once we slowed to creep around a crater and people came running up to the car: there were white T-shirts in the dark, there were shouts, there were fists pounding on the hood. But we rolled on, unharmed, down more mud lanes, careened around a circle, bounced onto a boulevard, and turned off onto a side street.
Ahead of us a bare lightbulb dangled on a wire over a hand-painted sign: Hotel Les Bougainvilles. As we drove up, a gray-haired man with a goatee and a bow tie popped his head out of the receptionist's window and swatted at a mosquito on his neck. I got out.
"You want a room?" he asked.
"Well, pas de chambre! We're full!"
I reluctantly started to turn back to the taxi, sinking inside at the thought of more cruising in the dark.
He swatted his neck again. "Okay, okay. We have a room."
I set down my bag and filled out a registration form.
The light outside my window was getting stronger, the parrots were bickering more and more raucously. I did not want to get up. I was still nervous, so I stayed in bed for a long time more. But eventually music with a salsa beat-drums and tinny electric pianos and guitars-percolated in and set me at ease. I arose, dressed, and headed out, my destination the Peace Corps office.
How silly and irrational my fears seemed now! Palms shot up like geysers of emerald green into drifting layers of cottony mist; winding tar roads were flanked by shoulders of cream-colored sand; old French colonial homes sat placidly behind whitewashed walls, the foliage of the broad trees above them forming a dark canopy splashed here and there with the flitting red and gray plumage of parrots. My hotel was in the high part of town; the rest of Brazzaville sloped downward in lazy tiers laced with lanes that ended in a sea of fog. Now and then a battered taxi would putt by. Crowds ambled along the shoulders: crowds of young people dressed in navy slacks and gray skirts, laughing, relaxed kids carrying the floppy checkered cahiers of students in France; they mixed French and Lingala and headed on down the road. The fear of the night having dissipated, I fell in with them and strolled along as though seeing the world for the first time. Gradually I found myself lower and lower on the hillside, nearing the more modern buildings of the center. I was fresh, ready for anything.
There was a promontory. I left the crowd and walked out onto it, feeling compelled, for some reason, to keep my eyes on the sea of fog below. I stared into the fog: two dark stick figures in the white resolved themselves into men, then a pirogue sifted into view beneath them. Fishermen on water. One man was hurling a net while the other rowed against the current, putting his back into his strokes. The Congo River. Here at Malebo Pool the Congo's waters, glistening expanses of pearl only a shade darker than the fog, were wide, but they poured with a powerful hiss out of a hazy realm of islands and trees to the northeast, carrying toward the Atlantic sheets of water hyacinth, chunks of chartreuse plant matter that looked like it had been vomited up by a great jungle, a jungle sickly fertile and spilling out of itself. Across the water there was no trace of Kinshasa only a mat of fog and water speckled in its lower reaches with the green of the water hyacinth. My gaze returned to the pirogue. The current was strong; the paddler was leaning into his strokes, struggling to keep his craft from being swept downriver.
I remembered where I was going. I returned to the street and rejoined the crowds.
Tom Crubaugh, the director of the Peace Corps mission in Brazzaville, sat behind his desk listening to me explain my plan to study Lingala and travel the river. He had a frank face and his hair was long and pulled back in a ponytail. He wore a tie, it seemed, as a concession to convention. He had spent years in Lower Zaire as a Peace Corps volunteer and had left only with the evacuation during the revolt of 1991.
After I finished telling him my plans, he drummed a pencil on his desk and leaned back, smiling. "Going to Kisangani, eh? The heart of darkness!"
"Isn't that a bit of an exaggeration?"
"Well, Zaire's always been the Wild West. People have to work hard there to make ends meet. They haven't been softened by socialism like the Congolese here."
"What do you think my chances are of making it?"
"Don't know, really. Bad idea to go alone, though. You'll need a guide if only to keep from getting lost in all the islands. And the people upriver they could be another problem. We didn't put volunteers up there. Alone, you'll be quite a target. Life's tough in Zaire, a lot tougher than in Brazzaville, where people have retained their humanity. You'll see this at the Beach."
"The Kinshasa port. Ngobila Beach. It's hell. All police and soldiers demanding bribes. You'll see. But let me introduce you to Simon. He's one of our Lingala instructors. You can talk to him about your lessons."
Simon had humorous eyes, a soft demeanor, and an even softer handshake. He was self-assured in a calm, egoless way. He agreed to give me an eight-hour-a-day, weeklong intensive course in Lingala through French. We sat under a twirling fan in a second-floor classroom of the Peace Corps office. When I got something right he would exclaim, "Ah-haa!" and lean back, his eyes smiling. But he lowered his eyes when I raised mine to his-a courtesy in this part of Africa.
Lingala is the Bantu langue de passage, the lingua franca of both Congo and Zaire. Besides Lingala there are 220 languages in use in Zaire by 250 different ethnic groups; only Lingala and, to a lesser extent, French unite them. With so little time, we concentrated on basic grammar and vocabulary I would need to know on the river. Although its nouns had no gender or case and its sounds were open and easy to imitate, the grammar was formidable. My head ached at the end of each of our sessions. As with any language, the vocabulary of Lingala told a lot about the life of those who spoke it: for example, animals were referred to as banyama, the plural of nyama, or "meat," for almost all wildlife in the forest could be turned into a meal. Interestingly, Simon did not fully understand me when I asked him for the Lingala for soir; in Lingala there is no word for "evening," only words for "day" (moi, which is synonymous with "sun") and "night" (butu), because there is no evening in Central Africa-a characteristic of the equatorial latitude I was only later to appreciate.
Although Simon said that only "les imprudents" get eaten by crocodiles, he was reticent about Zaire and grew concerned when I told him of my plans to pirogue the Congo alone from Kisangani to Kinshasa. I would need a local with me to smooth the way, he thought, or people along the remote reaches of the river might greet me, a mondele ("white person"), with suspicion or even hostility. At least this was what he thought. He, like all the other Congolese I was to speak to during my stay in Brazzaville, had never been on the river except to travel, in better times, across Malebo Pool to Kinshasa.
Our lessons proceeded apace. Under Simon's tutelage, I found myself beginning to adapt to the unfamiliar language, although the concept of my expedition, especially after seeing the river surging out of the jungle beyond the town, became no less intimidating than it had been before my arrival.
I studied and studied; one day flowed into the next. At night, however, I found myself lurching awake in a cold sweat, unable to remember my dreams.
"Halt! Eh, monsieur! Halt!"
On my way back to the hotel one afternoon a man called out to me from a café. He got up, his sandals scraping the dirt, his mud-splattered blue trousers baggy around his ankles, and started toward me, teetering, correcting his steps, and teetering again. His eyes were red. When he made it to me he stopped and paused. His pause suggested some sort of authority: he was too important to be concerned with my time. Then I noticed he wore the top half of a tan uniform.
Slitting his eyes, he raised his chin. "You remember me, monsieur?"
"No, I don't."
He smirked and swayed; his cheeks puffed out slightly with a restrained belch. "Well, monsieur, my name is Jean Claude. I settled the matter of your papers."
"I examined your passport, monsieur, at the airport. I stamped your visa, monsieur. I verified your accommodation certificate" here he burped again "monsieur." He bared his teeth and leaned toward me. "I helped you, monsieur."
I vaguely recognized him from Maya Maya.
He leaned into me and steadied himself, then stood erect. "I'm hungry, monsieur. I have no money to eat."
He had money to get drunk though, but I could think of nothing to say to his words about hunger, which caught me off guard. Reflexively, I handed him a few francs. He examined them, said "Merci, monsieur," turned, and teetered back to his café.
As I watched him walk away it dawned on me who he was. At Maya Maya he had done nothing except ask me if I was a resident, and he had not collected a bribe for letting me pass, as I now surmised must have been his custom. I had overreacted to his declaration of hunger: he showed me I was vulnerable to a ruse based on pity. I felt I should not have given him anything.
I started across the street. An explosion of honking and shouting startled me, and I jumped back. Four or five open-back trucks shot by, filled with scowling, helmeted soldiers in navy-blue uniforms, holding their guns high in the air.