Sunday, July 4, 2010

Chapter 7 - Bangala

If you are the child of a missionary family home is always changing. So far I had moved every single year of my life, several times we moved more than once per year. As you can imagine, this constant transfer from one place to another leave no time for roots. And I had no roots anywhere! The only place I could dig in was internal space, and that is what I did.

While I was away at boarding school my first year in the Belgian Congo, my parents moved to a new mission station. I did not know the place they had moved to, but that is where I went when the school year was over. My parents and other siblings were moved in and settled. I was not. So, after flunking the third grade for the second time, I had to go to an entirely new environment, and there, face the anger of my dad. As usual, he was disappointed in me. Different place, same old punishment. I was berated, pinched and quizzed as to why I was failing. "You come from a smart family. You just don't want to do the work. You are lazy. That's why you are failing." I had no explanation good enough for dad. I could only justify myself internally, and again I proceeded to do so.

The new village my family had moved to was called Bangala. It up the river, inland from Leopoldville, several days drive from the capital. It stood on low rolling hills above the Kwilu river. The Kwilu was a tributary of the Congo River. I was taken to the new place in one of the omnipresent GMC Carryall's widely used in the tropics at the time. With no paved roads, the travel was arduous. The one lane road was little more than a wide swath cut through the jungle. It consisted of two dirt ruts which vehicle wheels made deeper, and then deeper still with the rains washing through them. A patch of green where the wheels did not tread, marked the long center. Only the passing of vehicles kept the incessant encroachment of the jungle from taking over. There was no upkeep to the roads. If a road was impassable, the current vehicle passing through, had to stop while the passengers did whatever was necessary to get moving again. Thus, trees were cut and placed over a creek bed, dirt was shoveled into a rut, or some overhanging limbs were chopped to get the car or truck by.

The road was alternately muddy, sandy, overrun, or washed out. Conditions changed. Shovels and rope and machetes were kept on board to allow for unknown. This was deep jungle. There was no seeing above, or more than a few inches into the jungle on either side. With a turn every other minute, one never knew what was around the curve. Accidents were frequent.

A common practice is to honk at each turn, for any approaching vehicle from the opposite direction was also traveling in the same ruts. A tight bend in the road was often the site of a bloody accident. The warning honks gave the other vehicle that might be coming head on towards you, at least time to brake.

As our Carryall passed through villages the natives would all come running to the road to see who was passing through. They would gesture, wave and cheer as if we were the lead car in an auto race. In the bush, a vehicle might only pass by once every few days. For many of these isolated villages, it was the most exciting event that would occur. Most of them had never ridden on a motorized vehicle, much less, a bike. As a child, I took in the excitement of the villagers as we passed through. Even though I had done nothing, all the waving and gesticulating made me feel like a traveling dignitary. My joy was real at the recognition, and I waved heartily back.

The villages changed as much as the terrain. In this part of the Congo the houses were square. In other parts they were round. Some of the villages that were closer to the city had outhouses. The ones further inland did not. Most of the huts were just one room. Sometimes they would be divided by a bamboo curtain to provide some visual privacy. A very few had two actual rooms. Usually one for the wife and kids, and one for the man of the house. The man's room was just big enough for one bed. The wife would visit the husband's room in the early evening while the kids waited, and then she would retire with the children, however many, in the other part of the hut.

All the huts were dried mud on the outside, with mud packed dirt floors inside. There was no grass in the yards around the homes because they wanted the ground bare. It was the only way they could see and kill the numerous snakes before they entered their homes. The huts were literally made of the earth. Cut palm branches were tied together with vines, mud was through at them till it filled all the cracks. The roof was thatch from tall grasses that grew in the open meadows.  With no indoor water, electricity or gas, all the cooking was done outside with a sigle pot. Very simple living.
There were many varieties of bridges and ferries on the journey to my new home. All the bridges were makeshift, usually an assortment of logs and boards tied together with natural vines. These were traversed very slowly. One slip of a single tire and one could be there for several days. There were ferries used to cross the larger rivers. Each one was unique to the owner and built with whatever could be scavenged and put together. Most often they consisted of two or more dugout canoes with boards placed between them, tied together with vines from the area. These wooden, jerry-rigged, floating platforms served well, and there were no other options.   One never knew if one would make it across or sink.

To use one of this ferries was a hit and miss affair. I did see several of these ferries sink during my stay in Africa. We would have to drive our vehicle onto the ferry from the shore at whatever angle seemed best that day, depending on status of the river bank that day, the speed of the river, or the depth of the water. Often, we would have to drive on and off several times before we achieved the crucial balance. At several of the docks we had to wait for the ferry to deliver a load and return to our side of the river. The ferrymen were usually old men. They took their time. Sometimes it seemed that their primary function was to recount stories of previous crossings, ones in which the ferry fell apart and the vehicle lost. These periodic sinkings were the greatest drama in town, and revisiting the scene with laughter was great joy to them. The old men would gesticulate with their arms and hands as they described how each event happened, and how such and such a vehicle had gone under. Even details of who had drowned, and how, were not left out.

So, at each crossing, we were always wary, for you didn't usually get going until the stories were told. Time was not a factor on these roads. Certainly not to the villagers who only knew now, and here. The ferrymen were usually very slow and unhurried, and so each crossing was a long drawn out process. It was with a deliberate slowness that we were loaded, then hauled, pushed, or  paddled to the other side. Each crossing was an event for the locals who would sit on the riverbank and discuss the particulars of each crossing.

When I arrived in Bangala I was stared at, pinched, prodded, poked, and laughed at. This of course, was the typical reception for any new white person arriving at the village. Out in the bush, few white people came. Bangala was far enough away from the major cites that the natives didn't see many white people. We were like circus animals to them. And how we behaved, a circus act to them. With little sense of our need to privacy, starring, touching, and feeling our straight hair was just done. The same way we would pet a dog. And touch they did! It was very annoying at first, before one became used to it.

I was taken to my new home, a large crowd of natives, following. My parents had just settled in a few weeks before. As they were also new to the bush, they too were still having problems with crowds  of natives starring at them constantly. No privacy at all! Large numbers of natives, fifty to a hundred at a time surrounded our house and peered in the windows. Large flat noses pressed even flatter as they pushed against the screened windows. Eager brown eyes peered into our home. Every available inch of window space had a face on it. A live face, watching us. Making us feel very uncomfortable. We were the animals in the zoo. Not an experience I that allows one to be comfortable.
Our house at Bangala was very large compared to the one we had had in Sona Lala. The structure was of hand made cement blocks dried in the tropical sun. It had never been painted and so was still the soft gray color of dry cement. We were perched atop a ridge with a view of the Kwilu river. A wrap around porch covered two sides of the house, from which the river could be seen below, vast and swift moving. It was dark, beautiful, and mysterious. In the mornings, the sun rose over the river, first showing its rays above the green horizon, and then shimmering on the water as it rose into the sky. At night, as the sun went down, the sky would be multicolored and resplendent, beautiful beyond belief.
From morning to nightfall one could see natives in their canoes crossing the water. It was a quiet peaceful scene. The natives blended so simply with their surroundings that they were inseparate of the landscape itself. The canoes were all hand made. Dug out from the trunks of trees. Their poise and balance as they paddled in their canoes was as artful as it was athletic.

The river was the main means of travel throughout the interior. Large numbers of people made their way in and out of the bush on various old riverboats, which we watched as they plied by. Their were Lever Brother's boats hauling palm oil out, and other boats carrying mercenariness in. Flat barges were hauled behind in front of the boats, carrying big loads of rare lumber, taken from the jungle. No roads could carry the material in or out. It all went by boat on the rivers.

Because the rivers were there and didn't have to be maintained, they were the natural way to move material. Towns formed and grew on the river banks, and Bangala was one of them. My favorite boats to watch were the paddle-wheel boats. The faster propeller driven boats just didn't have the same appeal to a little boy. The Hoboken was a big passenger boat that docked beneath our hose every couple weeks. Most of what we saw go by never stopped. I spent many hours watching boats go by,just sitting on the front porch.

The sound of the paddle-wheel boats was distinct. The huge wooden planks hit the water with a hypnotic drumming sound. Very pleasurable. I would stand on the riverbank and sway to the rhythm - my own private little dance. There was a small very fast boat that was propeller driven. It always left a rolling wake behind as it pressed up the river. It said "SHELL" on the side of it, so we called it the "Shell boat." When we heard the sound of the "Shell boat" coming, we and the native children would all run as fast as we could to the river and jump in. We loved swimming in its wake.

                 end chapter 7

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