Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Chapter 16 Canoeing on the River

I finished the seventh grade and we were all sent home for the summer. Bangala was a nice place to spend the summer. It was wonderful to be out of school. Uncle Totty had a large dugout canoe that had been made to his personal specifications. It was large enough to hold more than a dozen people. It had a squared off rear end so that it could accommodate an outboard motor and it was painted bright green. With the motor engaged, it would cut through the water like a speedboat. When the dry season came and the river revealed its sand bars Uncle Totty would invite us out to picnic on them.

On this particular day Uncle Totty invited my family along. Picnic lunches were packed. Uncle Totty's family, ours and one other family went on this escapade. We piled in at the dock below our house and off we went. As usual some of the natives in their little canoes tried to paddle along and keep up with us. The crowd on the shore waved goodbye. We quickly outran the smaller canoes and were in the open river.

Picnics were very strange to the natives. They thought they were some kind of a rite, a ritual with a significance that they did not understand and we could not explain. We had quit trying to discuss this with the natives since they never believed us when we told them a picnic was simply that, nothing else.

There was an island in the river a mile or so down stream, and it seemed to help form a number of large sand bars. We stopped on one of them. Most everyone went in swimming but I didn't. I don't know for sure if I was just being anti social or if I was truly afraid of getting eaten by a crocodile. Anyhow, I didn't go in the water. I had heard many stories about people being eaten and this island was uninhabited. I thought that no one really knew for sure if this was a safe area to swim or not. I sat on the edge of the canoe and watched the others swim.

Suddenly there was a rustle in the bushes at the edge of the river and a bevy young girls emerged from the river bank. They were carrying fishing baskets. Apparently they had come to the shallows between the river bank and the sand bar to fish. Seeing us there was a real surprise. They chatted amongst themselves for a minute and then they scampered across the water towards me. The water only came up to their knees. They were naked except for a few beads and G-strings. I watched wide eyed as they came bouncing towards me. They were all young teens and their firm breasts bounced on their chests as they came approached.

I stared with my blue eyes wide! I could see that their eyes were bright with discovery too. The canoes that had tried to follow us had been left behind our furrowed wake, but these girls had been blessed with stumbling across us. They weren't from the local village, so white people were especially interesting to them. They came within ten feet of me and then stopped. I was the only one out of the water, so they stood in front of me, and pointed and laughed and smiled. They discussed me as if they were looking at a prize animal at a farm show, or maybe more like an animal in a zoo. They could not figure out what we were doing here. Their smiles showed rows of ivory white teeth.

They were quite entranced with this unforeseen circumstance. And with me sitting here all by myself, they were not afraid. Soon they began to tease me by purposely jiggling their little tits at me, and moving their hips in suggestive motions. They were completely uninhibited. One of the older ones came forward with a big grin on her face, walked up to the canoe and sat down beside me. She moved her naked buttocks against my thigh. It was more excitement than I was used to. I looked out at the water and could see my father looking intently at these goings on. I could feel the pressure of his stare. I dared not move. I didn't know who I was more afraid of, her or my father.

I sat transfixed on the spot. She spoke to me but it was in one of the dialects that I did not understand, so I just smiled back. I wanted to run off with her and her friends. They seemed so free, so easy, so poised. Not stiff, not fanatical, like the missionaries I was with. But my reverie was short lived because Uncle Totty came barreling out of the water and chased them off. They ran like a bunch of rabbits, toppled into the water, and waded back to the river bank. Then they stood and watched us till we left.

Later that afternoon one of Uncle Totty's friends almost drowned, but Carl and Jimmy saved him. Two weeks later I heard from some of the natives that a large crocodile had been killed just off that very same sand bar. I was convinced that it I had gone swimming I surely would have been eaten. I never swam anywhere except right off the dock in front of our house. I knew it was safe there.

That summer my father commissioned a little dugout built for my brother and I. It was made from a firm white wood and just big enough for two. We quickly mastered the little craft and soon were able to cross the river and land where we wanted to. This was not an easy task as the current in the Kwilu was very swift. You could not paddle directly across the river. It was just too fast. To do it we had to first paddle upstream along the shore where we could push with our paddles on the bottom of the river. Then, when we were far enough upstream, we would nose out into the river, still pointing the canoe upstream.

One had to cross at a diagonal going upstream to cross, as the current was too strong to just head directly across. We would paddle as hard as we could. By the time we would get to the other side of the river we would have been pushed back downstream to about where we had started on the opposite bank. But we could do it, and soon did it very well.

Sometimes, I would take the canoe across by myself. If I arrived on the other side, upstream from my intended landing point, I would turn the canoe around and go with the current, still paddling. Boy could I get up some speed! I could then come swooping into the dock like a real master. Sometimes I would bring natives across that needed a lift. Once I brought a woman across that was in labor and she left blood on the bottom of my canoe. I considered it the mark of a hero.

These canoes are highly maneuverable and quite suitable to water, but nonetheless, require a certain acquired skill. Standing up in one of these dugouts is a real balancing act. They are narrow with a round bottom, and barely stay upright when empty. Anyone not familiar with these canoes, finds it almost impossible to stand  in one. Carl and I could stand up well in them because we had had practice in the swamps. We knew how to keep our balance.

Each person riding in one of these canoes needs to have the skill. Even if there are two experienced people in one of these canoes, a third person with no balancing skill, will topple the canoe every time. All three persons end up in the water, often with the craft left upside down. This was brought home to me very clearly when my dad decided that he was going to learn to use our little dugout.

My father came down to the river in a pair of army green shorts. Typical attire for him in the tropics. The natives, perceiving that something different was about to take place, followed him down to the river. A small crowd gathered while my father instructed Carl and I to unhitch the canoe from the tree root where it was securely chained and padlocked. We were frightened, as we did not want to anger him. We were sure he would end up in the river, soaking wet.

We spent about five minutes explaining to him how hard it was to keep one's balance in the dugout. He found it very difficult to believe. We wanted him to sit in the middle between us and take a couple trips across the river first, then try some paddling. But he insisted that he was going to stand up and paddle. There was nothing we could do to avoid a spanking, so we obliged.

Needless to say he couldn't do it. He couldn't stand up and keep his balance for even a few seconds. Over and over again he turned the boat over, dumping the three of us into the river. The natives on the bank were howling with laughter. Some of them were laughing so hard they couldn't even stand up. Several fell off the riverbank into the water. They had never seen anything like it before. I felt like one of the three stooges.

My father grew angrier and angrier. He couldn't believe that it was this hard to stand up in the canoe. Since Carl and I could stand and paddle, he thought that he should be able to. He thought Carl and I were doing something on purpose, because we couldn't keep the canoe from tipping over, every time he stood up. He yelled and screamed at us. The natives howled even more. Here was the white missionary father trying such a simple thing and failing. Over and over and over he tumbled into the water. Over and over again we tried.

We knew if dad could just relax and take a few trips sitting down, that he would get the feel of it, and be able to do it. But he wanted to do it now. It didn't appear such a hard task. But he just couldn't do it now! When he finally gave up, after more than an hour,  he made us put up the canoe and come with him. He scolded us all the way up the hill to the house. He was sure we had done in on purpose so as to discourage him. And he was furious with the natives who had had such a great afternoon's entertainment.

In the days that followed, my father did not ask for any more practice in canoe maneuvers. My brother and I were free to paddle wherever we liked without him. What a blessing! I had an ulterior motive for liking to cross the river. While paddling up the shore I would always pass women bathing. That, for a pubescent boy was a real treat. The women didn't care if I looked. Since I was paddling by, ostensibly to cross the river, I seemed innocent enough. Some of them found me amusing. So I crossed the river a lot. My stares never hurt them. I would head out across the river, paddling with my back to them, so they wouldn't see my erection, poking out my little shorts. Once though, one of them did notice, and they all laughed when she pointed it out.

Once a fish as big as my canoe turned in the water, just beside my boat. The sun caught the scales on its side, and I could see him clearly in the water. In the flash of the reflected light, I was scared to death to see how big it was. I stood frozen. And I did not return my paddle to the water until I had drifted much further downstream. I didn't do any more canoe crossings for a number of days. It took a while for the fear to subside. The murky dark water was always frightening to the imagination, but to see such a big fish swimming next to me, seemed a real threat.

Since most of the natives did not have canoes, I was often asked to give rides. I never refused. It made me feel important. Another time, I took a woman and her newborn baby across to the hospital. Actually this was stupid,for many of the natives did not swim. They would bath, but swimming was not typical. If I had dumped the canoe over, and the rider drowned, I would have been killed.

The natives still believed in old testament justice, "An eye for an eye." Even in the big cities it was like that. If you had a car accident and someone was killed, often, the driver would be pulled from his car and beaten to death. A cultural reaction. The police in Leopoldville had instructed the missionaries to not stick around if involved in an accident. They told us, "Head straight for the nearest police station and report it, but don't stop." When I got tired of my canoe, I played. Sometimes I took walks with a native girl I liked.

end chapter 16

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