Monday, July 19, 2010

Chapter 14 Back to the Congo

The best year that I could remember was now over. I was on my way back to Africa, the humid, green, hot, unpredictable Congo. Not the Belgian Congo any longer, just the Congo. The name would soon be changed to Zaire, and the capital city would be called, Kinshasa, not Leopoldville. I had had a year's vacation from the pain of always being a foreigner. Now I was off to be one again. I hoped it would be better this time.

We took a Pan Am plane back to the Congo, and again, the first leg was to Belgium. It was still the major airline hub to the Congo. We returned to a free country, no longer a colony, and we hoped more peaceful. We returned to Bangala the place we had left just a year before. For some reason, our house, singled out from all the other missionary houses, had been lived in during our absence. My father had always been friendly with the Congolese, inviting them into our home and often for supper. It seemed that this may have been the reason that the natives felt free to live in our house while we were gone, but not in any of the other homes.

I stood in the middle of my room and cried. I felt violated. Rape must feel something like this. Although most of what I could remember was still around, it had all been used. My clothes had all been worn. Some were now yellowed and had holes worn in them. I went through all my things and felt the old familiar pain, the mental anguish of my childhood. Nothing was really mine, everything that was mine had been desecrated, handled by someone else, without my consent. It didn't cheer me to hear the other missionaries telling how their houses were exactly as they had left them - even to the point of twenty francs of change still on a dresser where it had been left. All I could think, was, "Why my house, my room, my things!" I knew life wasn't fair, but this violation was too constant.

We spent the summer in Bangala, a vacation of sorts. I got used to the new situation, and then it was time to go back to school again, in the big city, Leopoldville. We occupied the same yellow tow story hostel we had had before. This time however, we were on the second floor and we had new hostel parents. Uncle Ron and Aunt Daisy. On our arrival we were told that this year, a new hostel would be built. The new one would be built as a hostel, designed just for that purpose. That too was good news. It made us feel important. Being shuttled around all the time had never made me feel important, a theme that was pervasive for me.

There was a very fortunate occurrence regarding school. This year, a Mennonite sect from Kansas had set up an English speaking school. It was an international school that took in missionary kids as well as other foreigners, mostly the sons and daughters of the foreign service and large companies with staff in the Congo. I was elated to be going to school, taught in English, for the second year in a row. I had been luck, and was now in class at my grade level. I had caught up.

The year started out okay. Then uncle Don came down with hepatitis, some called it yellow jaundice. It was type A, the kind that was spread through bathrooms. Every male in the hostel got it. Uncle Ron was partially better when all us boys came down with it. Uncle Ron almost died from it. We kids thought for sure we would die from it. Oh, were we sick! Yellow to the bone, pissing blood and vomiting till our guts seemed inside out. One by one we boys got sick. First a yellowing of the skin became noticeable, then the whites of our eyes turned yellow, then the weakness and nausea. Then our urine would turn blood red with bile and then the vomiting would begin. I was the last to get it. I was so weak I could barely lift my head when the others were feeling better. I only had the energy to vomit. So while I was so weak I couldn't move the other kids were well enough to take advantage of me. They couldn't get out of bed so they entertained themselves by making soggy paper wads and shooting them at me with rubber bands.
Splat, splat, one after another the wet wads hit my head. I complained to Aunt Daisy, but every time she came in they hid them. Since she couldn't catch them she didn't think it was as bad as I made it out to be. So much for a another start at school.

We were all thin and very weak when it was all over. We were told by the doctor not to play any sports for a year, and not to do physical labor either. But that advice lasted about as long as it took us to get outside. We didn't hesitate to play. We just quit when we were so tired we couldn't stand. There was also work to be done. There was a new hostel to be built. We kids were invited to help. Since so many projects in the mission field are team efforts, and much of the labor voluntary, kids were allowed to help. We actually did do quite a lot of work. It was one of the few things that made us feel important.

Uncle Ron was in charge of construction, although he had never built a house before, nor had he any education in building construction. He just got advice from Uncle Totty, another missionary, but with extensive building experience. Uncle Ron showed us kids where the field was to be cleared and we set about doing it. We had a lot of fun. For instance, is there anything children like more than being destructive? I certainly enjoyed being destructive as a child. Anyhow, the first order of the day was to knock down the old servants' quarters and cook house. We weren't given any specific instructions, just permission to level it. We proceeded to do just that, with whatever tool we found. We made a game if it, and carried out the scheme. The servant's quarters was long narrow series of rooms - baked mud bricks held together with mud. It had served as decent lodging for many years, but with a gang of boys cut loose on it, it was rubble in no time. We played war games, threw bricks and rocks, pushed walls, and kicked and screamed. It never seemed like work. Soon the place was leveled. All that was left was a pile of sand which we smoothed out level with the the ground.

The next order was to cut down all the trees, mostly palm trees that were in the way. That too became fun and games. Uncle Ron, to speed things up, offered us 50 francs for every palm tree we cut down. If you have ever tried to cut down a palm tree, you know it is not an easy task. The reason is simple. The palm tree rises from the ground on its roots. The older it is, the higher it sits on its roots. Sometime the tree may be sitting four feet off the ground. These roots are one mass of solid spongy tough fiber. Cutting into this bulbous mass of root is like trying to cut steel with a rubber spatula. The spongy roots give when struck with an ax or machete, and the tool bounces back at you. No damage to the root. But dangerous to you. Very frustrating.

I started out with a lot of enthusiasm on one particular tree. My enthusiasm didn't last long. I took a break and began to think how I could get the job done the easiest. I had two ideas. One was to get someone else to work for less than I would get paid, and secondly, I would see if I could cut one palm tree down in such as way as it would fall and hit another tree. It would surely knock that one over too. At least that is what I thought. I bragged about my idea, but Uncle Ron told me it couldn't be done.

The next day I recruited an older African student to help me. I told him I would give him a stick of gum if he would cut the tree down for me. He agreed, I don't know if he did it for the gum, or just for something to do. Perhaps he thought if he got involved, he would get a regular job out of it. I don't know. But he did proceed and I instructed him as to how I wanted the tree to fall so it would hit another one just thirty feet away. We did it. He cut while I watched. By that afternoon, the first tree fell. Just as it reached its full thrust of the fall, it hit the other palm tree which it uprooted and tore from the ground. They both lay fallen and I was ecstatic. I had been brilliant. A real capitalist. A creative artist!

I ran to Uncle Ron for my 100 francs, 50 for each tree. He didn't believe me at first, when I told him what I had done. He had to come see for himself. He was sort of pissed off that I had done what he said couldn't be done - and by a child as well! When he saw that I had in fact done it, he had to give me the 100 francs. He knew that the second tree that was uprooted was no accident either, because I had told him ahead of time what I had proposed to do. But being the adult, and the hostel parent, he made me give 50 francs, half of what I had earned, to the student who had helped me. I really resented that since I had already given him his stick of gum. What is fair? All in the eyes of the perceiver.

end chapter 14

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