Friday, July 9, 2010

Chapter 10 - Another Summer

That summer Carl and Jimmy came back to Bangala. I was already there because I had been sent home from school. We three played the summer for all it was worth. Summer was the longest break we got from school, you have to understand that this was ultimate heaven for us. The jungle was ours, and we were determined to play it for all it was worth.

In the Belgian Congo the weather was always summer. There was the wet season and the dry season, but as far as the temperature was concerned, it was always summer. We took to the jungle and the swamps chasing every insect, bird and animal we could. And we were constantly getting spooked by ones we could hear, but couldn't see. It was adventure we were after, something to make up for all the boredom and harassment at school. We got into as much mischief as we could, including climbing in Aunt Kath's Frangie Pangie trees. She had planted them herself years ago, and they were her pride and joy. We weren't supposed to climb in them because the branches broke easily. But we climbed the fragile limbs and played among them till she came running out, waving her cane and yelling.

We swam in the river every time we got close to it. Usually several times a day. Their was a cement pier, built by Uncle Totty, and we could dive into the dark swift moving current. We swam, even though occasionally, we heard stories of children being eaten, sometimes even a man, by the large crocodiles that sometimes ventured close. Although I was often more fearful that the other kids, we mostly convinced ourselves that it wouldn't happen to us. Just childish thinking, I suppose, not believing that our lives would ever end.

Now and then when a crocodile was killed, the natives would cut it up to eat, and often the stomach was found to have lots of little red undigested beads. Not a comforting sign, as these were the beads the young native girls often wore around their waists. A common decoration for the little girls who had no other clothes. Not a small gesture, this type of ornament, as they were lovingly put there by their mothers. The beads were evidence that the crocks did eat a child now and then.

We boys were horrified at seeing the beads. We didn't want to think of dying in such an inglorious manner. We wanted to die bravely as warriors defending our domain. We would throw our fears off with brave talk, and myth, for our cook told us that we white boys wouldn't be eaten by a crocodile because our pale skin looked sickly to them. Maybe he was right. So, we still swam, and our parents never said a word to discourage us. I often wondered why they didn't? I believe they had better things to do, like saving the natives. I had read somewhere that "charity begins at home," but the missionaries did not seem to believe this.

The current of the Kwilu river could keep a grown man from making even an inch of headway, if he were trying to swim upstream. Perhaps our parents prayed a lot and had great faith that their prayers would protect us. However, even as a child, I could vouch  that their prayers never kept us from psychological harm, for the pain of the missionary children was real, and it carried on into their lives.

Our cook and the other natives were always telling us children stories that were outrageous and hard to believe. They told us stories and myths from their culture, things that they never told the adult missionaries. They scared us with their stories, the ones they never could tell to the missionary fathers. Maybe this was a way of getting some of their power back? Who knows? The anecdotes they told were sometimes very hard to believe. So we told stores in return, that were just as preposterous and the natives didn't know if they were true or not.

We learned from the native children and they learned from us. They showed us how to make toys from sticks and fruit and left over bicycle parts. It was amazing what kind of toys they could create with just a small knife and machete. One was a real noisemaker on wheels. It was made from a palm branch, with a grapefruit sliced into wheels. A handle was made of a palm branch, split at one end. A shaft was placed between the split ends, and the center of two slices of grapefruit would be placed on the shaft. Spokes made of little sticks, stuck between the grapefruit slices,created a toy that could be pushed. A tin can would be tied to the branch, and a stick tied to the tin can. When the toy was pushed, the stick slapped the spokes between the grapefruit wheels, it resonated in the tin can and made a load motor sound. The native kids would push this type of little toy around our neighborhood by the hour. Very creative I thought. I learned to make them too.

One of the most impressive things I learned from the native boys was how to make a slingshot. There were  old bicycle inner tubes to be found abandoned  around the village. We would take one of them and cut it into long strips. Since the rubber from the tube was very thin, yet strong, it stretched very well. We would cut a forked twig from a limb, and then wrap the rubber strands around it, leaving two long lengths dangling from the ends of the forked stick. A piece of leather from an old shoe would be tied between the ends of the two rubber strips. This made a very handy, absolutely free weapon. We killed a lot of birds, toads and lizards with them.

We made a lot of palm nut rings too. They took a while to make, but were rather pretty when done. We would take a palm nut, eat the fruit off the outside. Then we would start rubbing the hard inner nut shell on any cement surface. Soon we would have worn through part of the outside and the white meat would be exposed. This was done the same to both sides. When the meat showed on both sides we would dig it out. Now you had hollow a ring. We would then find old pieces of broken china and rub them on the cement, making a fine white powder. Rubbing the shinny black palm nut shell in the fine polish gave  these rings a smooth finish. A natural oil in the shell kept the rings shiny. Their natural black color was like onyx. Sometimes, if we were feeling gregarious, we would give one to one of the girls. We just weren't real into girlfriends though. Not yet.

The native boys were left to roam and play all day  anywhere they wanted. It was the little girls they kept track of because they were more valuable to the family. At marriageable age the young women were sold to their husbands. A pretty daughter could bring a family a lot of money, or goods. Often the young girls were sold while still very young, to a gentleman that wanted to be sure he was getting a virgin.

So it was the women and girls that were watched, and guarded, and kept in line. It was also the women that did most of the work. It was always that way and I never knew why. But it always was a big contrast between the white missionaries and the native culture. In the states it seemed to me, the men did most of the work. The Africans in this area had a very matriarchal society. So I never got to play much with the little native girls.

The women at Bangala nursed their babies till they were five or six years old. This seemed to make the children very sociable and community oriented. They were not very differentiated from the tribe. When children misbehaved, they were punished by having red hot pepper juice, called "peli peli," squeezed into their eyes. This was so painful that it didn't take but once to get most children in line. After one experience of this punishment, just the threat of having it done again, was enough to command obedience. Spanking was unheard of, it just wasn't the native style.

So we played and the native boys played. Sometimes we played together. But the little girls were kept at home and taught to work. The native boys were left to themselves and learned to be free, to roam, and take care of themselves. This ability to wander would come in handy now and then when tribal warfare erupted. The boys would know where to flee, and lead the whole village into the jungle. Someone had to know how to survive hidden in the jungle, and the boys learned how. The abc's for a native boy, were: where the paths were, what tree or what vine was useful for what. How to climb and hide in the trees.

It was decided that I would continue to stay in the bush with my parents. When Carl and Jimmy had gone back to school, I no longer had any white boys to play with. I had the natives. This was a little disconcerting but I managed. The natives were very concerned about their status as a Belgian colony. They wanted their independence and that is all they talked about. The native boys became difficult to play with because they didn't want to play. All they wanted to do was talk about what things would be like when they got independence. They thought independence would bring immediate material wealth, and that they would then have all the things we white folk had. There was no sense that these changes would take time. They thought they would be living in my house, and I would be living in one of their mud huts.

Eventually, as tensions rose, the native kids began to beat me, saying that I should give them independence. I considered myself to be quite different from the Belgians, but all they saw was that I was white. That's all the identification they needed. I was fair game. I never really fought back. It would have been useless. There were a lot more of them than me. I was a foreigner, just as the Belgians were. I knew I could not escape, and I became a target.

Soon there were riots in the cities, people were being killed, and life became very miserable for many, white and black. Fear became rampant among all the foreigners. If you were white, you didn't belong. I would lie awake at night wondering if we would be attacked, if we would be killed. 

end chapter 10   

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