The True Sources of the Nileby Sarah Stone
After a year, central Africa has finally started to feel like home to Anne, a human-rights activist from California. Deeply committed to helping the strife-torn nation of Burundi during its first democratic elections, Anne has also begun an intoxicating affair with Jean-Pierre, a government official allied with the Tutsi ruling class. But when the election brings the… See more details below
After a year, central Africa has finally started to feel like home to Anne, a human-rights activist from California. Deeply committed to helping the strife-torn nation of Burundi during its first democratic elections, Anne has also begun an intoxicating affair with Jean-Pierre, a government official allied with the Tutsi ruling class. But when the election brings the rival Hutus to power, violence breaks out, leaving thousands of people dead, and laying bare disturbing secrets about Anne’s lover and his family. She reluctantly returns to California, only to discover troubling secrets in her own family.
As she struggles with the moral implications of all she has learned, Anne must reconcile complex conflicting claims of duty and love. The True Sources of the Nile unfolds like a passionately felt love affair that initially obscures the world around it, then comes to brilliantly illuminate it.
- Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
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It began as an ordinary lunchtime. Every business and government office in Burundi had shut down for two or three hours, and Jean-Pierre came to join me. We'd already disappeared into the bedroom while Deo, my housekeeper, finished making lunch. The sound of his disapproving hymns, floating back from the kitchen, had continued all through our love-making. Now we sat on my porch, gorging ourselves on Nile perch lapped in palm oil and surrounded by green bananas baked until they were soft, fat, sticky with oil. Though it wasn't raining just then, it had been earlier, and the clouds were thick and spectacular overhead, massed above the black mountains of Zaire as they rose up across the lake, the light and water harmonizing in dense, luminous grays.
We picked through our rice, casually, sorting for little rocks, and Jean-Pierre said to me, in his rich Kirundi-accented French, "I have such a surprise for you."
"Don't make any arrangements for the weekend. Friday, after work, look for my driver. What would you say to being away from other people for a few days?"
"I'd say, yes, please. Should I bring anything?"
"I will have what you need. Deo and I have an understanding. But don't try to get anything out of him. He doesn't know the whole story." He crossed his arms. I had his smiles memorized: this private, ironic smile, full of secrets; his official smile, judicious, formal--lips narrowed, teeth covered; and a reckless teeth-baring grin, a smile that made me crazy with desire.
The neighbors' dogs, all eight of them, began to bark (how I wanted to poison them! Sometimes, when I slept alone and they kept me awake with their barking and howling, I would imagine how I'd do it, though I'd always been an animal lover before). Outside, on the broken pavement of the road, a tank rumbled by. But it was only one, and Jean-Pierre paid it no attention, so I knew it didn't mean much. My house wasn't that far from the military installation.
We had stopped eating. I wanted to go back to bed, but not to overdo it, to lose the chance of spending the night together. "Shall we take a walk?"
"You have read my mind. Again." He grinned, and I grinned back. An awareness of the way two very different creatures could function as one. He reached out and took my hand.
My house was only ten minutes by foot from Lake Tanganyika, though there was no time of day when I could safely walk there by myself. All the stores and street stands were closed for the midday break. We passed the Musee Vivante, with its re-creation of a traditional housing compound, and an adjoining reptile park, which had an old crocodile in a shallow pond, and glass cages full of mambas and one indifferent kingsnake who'd been flown out from California to live on a branch and a pile of rocks, to be taken out and shown to frightened tourists and children who couldn't tell a poisonous snake from a harmless one.
"I want to see the bats," I said, and Jean-Pierre, courteous and obliging, turned around. We walked toward the Ministry of Education and the fruit bats.
The earth was unbearably red. The banana trees, jacaranda, papayas crowded the mud-streaked, pot-holed roads, luscious and terrible. The saddest place in the world, this piece of central Africa, site of a terrible history--German and Belgian colonialism, the breaking of Ruanda-Urundi into two countries: Rwanda and Burundi. Coup after coup. And, most of all, the struggles between Tutsi and Hutu: power-grabs, betrayals, death, people fleeing to Zaire. But Burundi felt more and more like home to me. The leaves, blossoms, shone jade, emerald, rose and vermilion against silver and ebony trunks. I inhaled the smells of wet earth, of diesel fuel from the truck rumbling past, of Jean-Pierre beside me, sharp and familiar. He was sweating, and the smell of his skin aroused me, uselessly.
As we walked, we told each other stories about our mornings. Jean-Pierre was a government official at the Ministry of the Interior, a kind of internal affairs bureau. He maneuvered fluently in Burundi's local, trade, and colonial languages--Kirundi, Kiswahili, and French--and with difficulty in English. Apart from English, I had only my rapid but awkward French and a little Kiswahili, so we always talked in French, with Kiswahili words thrown in.
Now Jean-Pierre told me about a colleague who hadn't been available when urgent papers needed to be signed (all signatures in Burundi have to be gathered in the proper order), and then it had been discovered that someone had seen him in the Bally store in the morning, and someone else in the afternoon--this sub-minister had spent an entire day picking out shoes. I was laughing helplessly, my hands over my eyes. The bracelet Jean-Pierre had given me for my birthday, heavy, hammered-gold links, fell forward against my face. He looked at me, and then he stopped talking. I often didn't know how to interpret his silences.
"What are you thinking?" I hadn't meant to ask. We'd been lovers for six months; he was the first man who had ever made me think, for more than two weeks, marriage, children.
He shook his head with a half-smile of refusal. I had a brief moment of missing the self I had been before I knew him, my brisk energy, my effectiveness and decision. I looked at him again, trying to see him as I might after twenty years of marriage, and then as I might if I were a stranger passing him in the street.
After a moment he said, slowly, "What you were asking earlier. About my family." He had introduced me to a couple of his sisters, reluctantly, as a friend. I went along with the fiction, which they may or may not have believed, but it didn't seem very loyal or noble of him. After struggling with myself for weeks, I had said something today, when we were getting dressed again. I'd brought out what was on my mind, that he was ashamed of me, and his evident surprise had reassured me, but he hadn't really replied.
Now, though, he said, "You have so much life in you. So much bravery. You do not think, If I move my rook, in four moves, the bishop will check my king." He frowned and touched my arm, as close as he would come to caressing me in public. "Before you, I was half-alive. But when your leg is asleep, and it comes back to life, there is also pain, isn't there?"
"Not for long, not if you move around and get the circulation going again."
"For my family also, there will be some pain. They think already that I should not have spent so much time at the Sorbonne." I started to object, but he said, suddenly deciding, "Soon, then, I will tell them. Do not worry." He touched my cheek, briefly, smiling. "You have your Mary-at-the-foot-of-the-Cross look. But it is unnecessary." He had said to me, more than once, that my long oval face and round eyes made me look like a 15th century Italian madonna. I actually thought I looked a little stupid, a little surprised, most of the time. Two years earlier, on my thirty-fifth birthday, I had chopped off all my hair in an attempt to look worldly. It hadn't worked, and I was growing it out again.
Jean-Pierre said, "The bats," and we walked across the gravel of the parking lot, stopping halfway, standing back from the two great trees, fifty feet tall and so thick with bats that the trees themselves seemed to be shimmering, moving. The ground was limed with guano, and the trees' foliage had disappeared under the weight of bats clinging to bats, a dozen deep. In the evening, clumps of bats would fall away, detaching themselves, skimming out into the sky, uttering squeaking cries as they flew. Even in the daytime, an endless chittering hum of high-pitched squeaks came from the restless sleepers where they clung.
I felt myself being looked at, and turned to see Jean-Pierre, watching me, smiling. He lifted up an arm and pointed at one fascinating set of shapes; I had the sense, again, of seeing in tandem, of being part of a two-part unit of perception and analysis.
I turned my head as we walked away, watching the bats until the last possible minute, both charmed and unnerved. Around us stood small groups of tourists or visitors, fascinated by that great huddling mass which could break loose at any time, the bats beautiful, but also creatures out of a nightmare.
On the way home, Jean-Pierre said, "I can drive you back to your work if you like. Perhaps we'll have dinner at Chez Laurent."
Knowing I'd see him again that day filled me with happiness which lifted me up, like helium, almost onto my tiptoes so that my feet bounced along under me.
The houses around us, great square fortresses of buildings, bars on the windows, crouched behind guarded fences or hedges. I smiled at the guards, many of whom knew me by sight, and they smiled back, some nervously. A teenage boy on a bicycle labored past us, so loaded down with green bananas that his bike wobbled.
Then we reached my house. Deo stood on the front steps, waving frantically. "A woman speaking English. Crying." And, no, he had no idea who she was.
I ran inside, but the connection had been cut. The call had to have been from the U.S.--anyone in Burundi would have had enough Swahili or French to at least leave a message. I dialed my younger sister, Lizzie, but she wasn't home, and neither was Mom. Then I tried my older sister, Margaret, thinking that it was useless, but she answered at once. "Good. I thought he hadn't understood me."
"Was that you then?"
"Annie," she said, her voice dramatic. "I think you had better sit down for this," which frightened me, of course, and gave me a sense of forboding, but also a flicker of annoyance. I thought it was just like Margaret to use this clumsy and melodramatic phrasing, to insist on the drama of something that would need no insistence, that would be bad enough on its own. "It's about Mom," she said. "She goes in for surgery tomorrow."
"A malignancy in her larynx. We don't know how bad it is. But it could be. They operate tomorrow. How soon can you get here?"
I had a shocked feeling of recognition, of the expected. So many of my friends had had to do this already. But I didn't believe it yet. I covered the receiver and said to Jean-Pierre, "My mother is very ill." He ran his hand up my back, squeezing my shoulder. If I hadn't known him so well, I wouldn't even have seen the quick glance at his other wrist, the little shifting of his shirt sleeve that uncovered his Rolex. I was furious with him, but also with myself because I too was thinking about my own schedule, my work, Jean-Pierre, my life in Burundi. His sister Christine was getting married the weekend after the coming one, and he had finally invited me to come, although as part of a group that included several other Americans, not singled out in any way. And then there was his mysterious surprise for Friday.
I said to Margaret, "Meg, I am so sorry. I'll call her. But I can't come home. We have the first elections in Burundi's history, the first elections with more than one candidate, coming up next week. Anything could happen. Democracy. Civil war. I have work I have to do."
"Annie, you haven't taken it in yet. And you're not the clearest thinker at the best of times. I'll be at the hospital today, home tonight. You can call me with your flight information." I could picture her in her glossy kitchen, too full of energy to sit down, even when talking on the phone. At forty-two, only four years older than me, six years older than Lizzie, she had settled into a matronly middle-age, her face age-spotted and wrinkled from time out in the family orchards, her manner a hard shell of bossiness, brisk purpose. When I didn't answer, she said fiercely, "You'll have to stop being the international expert now, jet-setting around with your friends and telling the Third World what to do about itself. I'm afraid we still don't have any servants here. And your mother needs you."
"I'll call you later," I said, and hung up, tipping my head back to try to take in more air, pulling my shirt front away with sweating fingers.
I said to Jean-Pierre. "Elections. And Janvier Barantandikiye and Jacques Nahimana at least being considered for release from prison." It had taken eight months of hard work to get even to this point: months of research, pursuing officials, attending polite dinners, negotiating for the gentle pressures and assistance of World Watch/Africa and Amnesty, pleading for the inevitably low-key help of the State Department. Hours in the waiting areas of dusty government buildings, day after day after day. I thought FreeAfrica! finally might be about to effect Barantandikiye and Nahimana's releases. Men who could be very important Hutu leaders. The religious prisoners, the Jehovah's Witnesses and Seventh Day Adventists, had largely been released, but not the political prisoners. Since FreeAfrica! had only three employees, my American boss, Jack, his African assistant, Charles, and me, we couldn't spare anyone. And what about my investigations into certain disappearances, into the stories of bodies in the Ruzizi up in Cibitoke province? "I can't leave Jack to ruin this."
I shouldn't have said even this much. Barantandikiye and Nahimana were imprisoned for belonging to FRODEBU, the illegal, mostly Hutu opposition party. UPRONA, the government party, was Jean-Pierre's, of course. He came from the ruling class, his family a part of one of Burundi's royal dynasties, so his sympathies, of course, lay with the Tutsi. We talked about the details of my job sometimes, but the purposes behind it as little as possible, even though Jean-Pierre had indicated to me sympathy with the idea of a more open government, of a real democracy.
"What is your mother ill with?"
"Cancer," I said, and burst into tears without warning. My mother's sharp little remarks, the smile when she had made them. The world without her, inconceivable. "I can't go. I can't not go. She might be dying." I heard in my voice a stagy theatricality, like Margaret's.
Jean-Pierre put his arms around me, and I burrowed into him, my head under his chin. What if I left and he came to believe while I was gone that we had been caught in a kind of erotic madness, that he should be breaking it off with this alien American woman? I didn't know if I had had time yet to prove to him that I could fit permanently into his life. And what if my feelings about him changed, what if I saw him differently, away from his actual presence? I also felt what I could hardly acknowledge, a cowardly desire to get out of Burundi, to escape the suffocating atmosphere of fear and suspicion.
From the Hardcover edition.
Meet the Author
SARAH STONE lived in Bujumbura, Burundi, from 1991 to 1993, where she volunteered at the Jane Goodall Institute, taught English as a second language, and reported on human rights. She is on the faculty of the College Writing Programs at the University of California, Berkeley. She lives with her husband, writer Ron Nyren, in the San Francisco Bay Area.
From the Hardcover edition.
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