Saturday, June 26, 2010

Chapter four - Arfrica

The air was thick as bread dough as we disembarked mid morning in Leopoldville. It was an immersion into a thick humid blanket warm on the skin. Black men in khaki uniforms bustled about looking very official. This wasn't one of the busier airports in the world but it had one of the longest runways. The biggest and fastest jets could land here. This was a city with lots of room to expand. 
We managed to get through customs rather easily. Actually coming into the Belgian Congo wasn't too difficult. Customs never gave arriving passengers much trouble. But if you were leaving, they gave you a thorough going over. Besides South Africa, they had more diamonds here than anywhere else in the world. They were always being smuggled out. Almost any plane leaving had people with smuggled diamonds on or in their bodies somewhere. Sometimes they were caught, but diamonds were easily hidden. 
Soon we were in a GMC carryall on our way to the local mission compound. The scenery was very different. Lush, and dark green everywhere. The smell of flowers, plants, and strange foods filled the air. I was still very aware of the heavy atmosphere. The air had weight. 
We stayed in the capital a couple of days, resting up and getting used to the heat and humidity. We were given many informal lectures and directions about how to live in Africa. We were given the run down on how to treat the natives and what to expect from them. But our stay with the amenities of civilization was very short. Before a week was up we were off to the bush, to a place called Sona Lala. Here we were to learn more of the African ways, more French, which was the official language of the Belgian Congo. We also came into contact with one of the local dialects, Kikongo. 
The house we moved into was red baked brick with a corrugated tin roof. It stood on a red clay hill surrounded by palm trees. The red clay earth and the green of the grass and trees created a warm earthy feeling. The white missionaries had the brick houses with the tin roofs. The natives did with less. Their huts were also red, but not made of brick. They were made with the red clay pressed into a simple frame of palm branches tied together. Sort of like a mud bird's nest. The thatched roofs of the native huts would be a layer or two of long grasses. These huts were simple, but they were cool, and often lasted twenty years. They were easily repaired and a new one only took a week or so to build. 
The rains came hard and long in the wet season. There was nothing I loved more than listening to those hard rains pound on the tin roof. It was like earth music. The tin roof was just a natural amplifier that made the rain seem like a loud drum swell. Even if the rain started in the middle of the night I would wake up just to listen. Listening to the rain in the night gave me a mystical, spiritual feeling, a calm sense of awesomeness. In the morning the red clay roads would be turned to mud and were very difficult to use. 
Like all the mission stations, the dominant structure was the church. It's steeple pierced the sky from atop the hill. Most of the towns had started as mission stations of one denomination or another, so the church was always in the center of town, and usually the biggest building. Commerce would then develop around the mission station. Religion was usually the dominant cohesive force. One could never escape that power. Religion turned out to be the quickest and surest way to convert the Africans to Western culture. Since the missionaries had such power over the money and structure of the towns, most of the natives converted quickly. With the white man's religion came the white man's goods and education for the children. The only schools in the bush were mission schools. The natives valued education. For them it was magical. They were easy to teach, and they learned quickly.

The church in Sona Lala was painted white on the outside. It was still close enough to civilization to be able to get paint. The roof was tin like our house and all the other official buildings. The ceiling was high to keep the heat off the floor. The windows were large and unpaned so the breezes could flow through on Sunday mornings. The breeze was really needed because the air was heavy and usually very hot. 
Sunday mornings I would be packed in shoulder to shoulder with hundreds of unwashed bodies. Mothers with their babies and the strong smell of urine. If it was a still day without a breeze I would almost pass out from the smell. On more than one occasion I watched as a baby peed on the floor, and I watched the urine run towards the altar. It was especially crowded and smelly on Communion Sundays. That's when natives from the surrounding villages would come in to join the main congregation. Luckily the unbaptized got to leave. Since I was unbaptized, I got to leave too. I loved that!  But that is not why I was never baptized. It was more to do with my rebellion - my drive for independence. 
Except for all the church activities, Africa was a boy's paradise. Mystery and secrecy were everywhere. The contrast of the white and native cultures was exhilarating. The natives knew all sorts of dark scary things that they would share with us children. Sometimes scaring the crap out of us. The jungle was thick and full of life and lots of places to hide. Every kind of insect was there, and every kind of lizard, toad and snake. Every turn on a path through the jungle yielded new things to look at and play with. My brother and I would follow any path we saw till we were too scared to go any farther. We crossed swamps, and dallied in clear water springs. Enough never entered our minds - paradise unending. 
On our little journeys we encountered man, woman and child. We watched the natives at their swimming and bathing holes, stepped in quicksand, fell in swamps, and generally had a great time. The women especially were more private than the men. While the men would bath in the river, the women would go into the jungle and bath in the swamps. 

We boys soon knew where they would bathe, and we would climb into the trees and wait. If we were quiet, we could watch them in their nakedness, taking in the mystery of something we did not understand. Sometimes, the women would spot a pair of sneakers on the ground and look up and spot us. Oh, the fun of their laughter, their joy at being exposed. We never came to harm from being spotted. 

We would come home, after hours in the jungle, and tell our mom all the things we had done. Well, most of the things we had done. We did keep a few secrets. Especially if we thought she would tell Dad. We got bit by insects and once or twice had to pull leaches off our scabby knees. Leaches loved to find fresh wounds, and we boys had them in abundance. 
One day when we were in the swamp catching tadpoles I saw this black and yellow stripped thing hanging from my knee. Scared to death that I was being bitten by a snake, I ran all the way home with this thing hanging from my knee. Just as I arrived home, it fell off along the path. My Dad took me to the old missionary Doc who had lived in the bush for many years. He didn't get excited, or scared, he just looked up something in his dictionary and asked me if it "looked like this?" When I said yes he told me that it was only a leach and that I wasn't permanently damaged. My brother got whipped when he got home because he had stayed behind to bring in the tadpoles. 
A day seemed like an eternity to me. A child's experience of time. So the joy was prolonged and life seemed eternal. I was much more interested in the native culture than the white culture of my parents. My parent's picture of life was rigid, and they had all the answers. The natives were different. They didn't know everything. At least they didn't pretend to. I liked the openness of the natives' natural way of seeing things. My parents and the other missionaries were mostly preoccupied with saving the natives - bringing them to Jesus, so I really had time to play and do my own thing. Jesus, Hell and damnation, were things that just didn't seem to be important to me. They scared me, but I took a child's view, that my work was to play. 
So Karl and I played, and when we were hurt we would come running home and mom would patch us up. A small scratch in the fetid atmosphere of the tropics would erupt overnight into a foul smelling, oozing green mess. She became real familiar with the sulfa drugs and alcohol that would stave off the infections. She bandaged our cuts, cored our boils with a knife, and patched our holes with salve and gauze. I still have many scars that started out as just little scratches or cuts. The jungle left its marks on me. And the clash of cultures certainly left its mark on my psyche.

               end chapter four


Sheila Anderson said...

WOW!! You made me feel as if I was in the jungle! I started to sweat!

Mary said...

My goodness - I left chapter 3, and now it's up to 15 ! I have some catching up to do.. :-))