Monday, July 5, 2010

Chapter 8 - Ringing the Bell

The bell was imported from London, England, I knew because I had the job of ringing the bell. I was able to read the writing on the bell because it was in English, and I had the job of ringing it several times a day. I would climb the stairs to the top of the tower and ring it by hand, putting both of my little hands on the large pulley connected to it. Many times I read the date and the place of manufacture. I poured over the several pictures and text inscribed on the bell, describing the history by the factory where it was made. The captions told of a commission from the Queen of England. So, here in the heart of Africa, in the Belgian Congo, was I, ringing a large British bell.

It seemed rather strange to me while ringing this bell that it had come all the way from England. Yet I felt special to have the job of doing it, several times a day. I wasn't big enough to ring the bell as intended, by pulling the large ropes that ran all the way from the bell's pulley to the base of the tower. But I could ring it by turning the large pulley, bigger than myself, back and forth, like rocking a baby. The bell was at the top of the tower on the large church at the center of Bangala. The top of the tower was open, with arched windows without panes. I used to lean out of them while holding on to one of the corner pillars. Perhaps I was lucky to have never fallen off. It was a long, long, way down. No panes, no bars, just open space. I wondered if my parents knew  how I rang the bell?


Usually the job of ringing the bell went to an older student at the missionary school. It was usually provided a small stipend that helped provide a scholarship for a good student. I got the job when one of the students died. Dad thought it would be a responsibility that would develop my character. I was given a windup alarm, and had to carry it around with me. I had to watch the clock and run to the church to ring the bell every half hour. It was how the whole village set it's schedule. But my ringing the bell didn't last too long. I got tired of having to be there to ring it every half hour from six A.M. till nine P.M.

In the morning, soon after the ringing of the bell, the natives could be seen coming down the hill from their huts to the mission station proper. They came to work in the missionaries houses. They kept the yards, keeping the grass cut with a cycle. They carried the water, brought wood for the fire, cooked and cleaned. Their labor was cheap and every missionary family had at least four servants doing various tasks. Our family was no exception.

There was a large woodworking shop on the compound. We had some very good carpenters who made windows and doors. They cut and planned the planks we used to build the missionary homes, churches and schools. Trees were felled by hand with axes. The logs were cut by hand into planks with large saws, one man at each end. Sometimes it would take a day to cut a single log, as the wood was whatever was close by, and some of it was mahogany. Back at the shop, Uncle Totty had a V8 engine from an old truck that we used to run a large table saw. My brother Karl and I used to hand around the carpenters and watch them work, and play in the large piles of sawdust. Next to the carpentry shop was a small garage. We were able to get gasoline, so a few vehicles were kept on the station.

In the missionary homes there were four major divisions of labor, water carrying, clothes washing, cooking and yard work. We had a man for each job. Our cook, like the carpenters, made everything from scratch. This was no easy task for him, as much of what we ate was not indigenous to the region. Things such as wheat flour, bread, and things that seemed staples to us, were unheard of in the bush, except in the missionary homes. It was very difficult to keep food fresh in the tropical heat. We had no refrigeration.

If food was in a can it stayed fresh, but lots of our food, even our flour, was often full of bugs, or just spoiled. Things that were shipped to us in "ready-to-make" packages were usually inedible by the time we received them. The original flavor was lost and the contents had adopted the flavor of the packaging. This fact was not known to the good people who sent us these packages. But, due to the intense head and humidity, we had cakes that when baked tasted just like soap, because it had been shipped in a box that also contained soap. Talk about disappointment.

Our clothes were taken down to the river by the wash boy and pounded clean on large flat rocks, placed in the shallow water of the river's edge. Was it any wonder that a shirt didn't seem to last through more than six or seven washings? This primitive method was just too hard on them. I don't understand why they had to be pounded so much, but they did get very clean. 

Our yard boy cut our grass daily, all day long, as he had to do it by hand. There were no mechanized lawn mowers. The yard boy used what they called a "coup coup," a French term that literally means "cut cut." It was a long flat metal bar bent on one end with both edges sharpened. He would stand in one spot and swing this long piece of metal back and forth, cutting one small patch of grass at a time, and then moving on. It was a full time job. He took lots of breaks, but it sure kept him in shape.

This summer my father worked almost all the time, as usual, day and night. We didn't see much of him. My mother was busy with the servants and so we didn't see much of her either. We kids got to roam as we willed, most of the time. We would take off in the morning and only come home for lunch. Even though we came for lunch, we spent much of our time finding native fruits to supplement our lousy canned food, Spam and such, at home. It was an ongoing challenge, getting enough to eat. A lot of the fruits were either high up in a tree or deep in the jungle, so just getting them was an adventure.

In our wanderings we would always come across the natives doing their chores, preparing and eating their foods. It was often very interesting. They ate a lot of insects and rodents that we didn’t. It was fun to watch them and to taste what they had. Some of it was actually pretty good. Many of the insects they caught were considered delicacies. Sometimes caterpillars would be real plentiful. They would be gathered up by the basketfuls, then be squeezed to get the green guts out, and the husk dried in the sun. When dried, they were like tiny pretzels. A hard, crunchy, high protean snack. The natives certainly liked them that way.

We also caught flying ants by the dozens. Rather easy, as any time people gathered at night and had a lantern lit, the flying ants would come swarming to it. To eat them, all we had to do was catch them, hold them by their wings, and toast them next to the lantern. When dry and crispy toasted they tasted a lot like crunchy peanut butter. Other insects, we learned to eat raw, boiled, or baked in a fire.

Much of the native food was just gathered from the forest, from fields and trees. Small rats and even mice and snakes were eaten by the natives. They would make big catches of these small animals by setting fire to a field. Then, as the mice, rats, and other small animals came scurrying out to run across the road they would be grabbed. They were strangled and wrapped in green leaves and placed in the hot coals of a fire. Soon they would be nicely cooked and not burned and they would be eaten on the spot.

The staple food though, was made from the root of the manioc tree. Americans know of this primarily as tapioca, as in the pudding. But that is not how the natives in Africa eat it. They use it in several other ways. It was their major starch food for basic energy. This meant that the manioc, which starts out as a poisonous root, is the major part of their each meal. Similar to potatoes in the West, or rice in the Orient.

The common meal in Bangala would consist of a main portion of prepared manioc which they called "fufu," a vegetable, and when possible, some meat. The manioc is rendered a harmless white powder by a weeks long process that also causes it to loose a lot of its vitamins. The root is dug up, peeled, and then split. It pearly white. The pieces are then soaked in spring water or fresh ponds to leach the poison out. After this was done, it is dried by being placed on raised palm frond platforms, exposed to the sun.

Every village had lots of these platforms with the bleached white chunks basking in the sun, and the sweet acrid smell wafting over the village. When the manioc is good and dry, chunks of the tubers were placed into a hollowed wooden log and pounded into a flour. Women could be seen, every day, pounding the pieces with their large wooden sticks.

The flour is added to boiling water and stirred till it is a clear gray paste. It is sticky and rather pungent tasting. It is usually eaten with the fingers. Each person, in turn, pulls off a piece, rolls it into a ball, and then dips it in whatever sauce or flavoring was available. Much like putting gravy on potatoes. The favorite vegetable of the natives, they called "saka saka." It was a blend of small leafy greens picked wild and boiled with fresh mashed peanuts as a flavor enhancer. It was really very good!

Meat with a meal was not an every day thing. Often meat was used more as a flavoring for sauces than as a main part of the meal. Meat was scarce, except for fish, because it could be dried, salted and shipped. It retained its strong flavor and could be stored for months without the need of refrigeration. Dried fish would come up the river in huge bundles, piled on the boats, or hanging in the heavy air on ropes at the front of the boat. It didn't rot in the warm sun.

When the natives saw the boat arriving with food on the deck, they would all rush down to the water's edge to be the first to barter for it. Everything was matter of bartering in this world. There were no set standards for anything. Truly a free market economy. The dried fish was popular because of how easily it could be stored.  Stored outside and open to the air, it kept for months, but when needed could be thrown into boiling water and be ready to eat in minutes with manioc.

To prepare a meal, all that was needed was a pot of water on the fire to bring to a boil. While it was getting hot a few chips of manioc would be quickly pounded into flour. When it was boiling some of it would be poured out into another pot and the fish put in it. Then the manioc flour would be stirred into the boiling water and soon ready was their version of meat and potatoes.

The semi-domestic animals that roamed the village provided added protean. These were goats, sheep, chickens, ducks, and guinea pigs. They were not sheltered or fed but foraged for themselves among the huts. They were often found loitering around the cooking areas where they would scavenge food dropped by the women. They would also get into stored food if not well hidden. There were many goats and sheep all of which had tuberculosis and could be seen coughing in the cool early morning air. It was a sorry sight. The missionaries didn't like eating the local goat meat because of their tubercular coughing. But did eat it when offered so as not to offend the natives.

Ducks really thrived in the African villages. Nine months of wet season did them royal. They could be seen waddling from puddle to puddle, hut to hut, eating every rotting piece of food found, and scavenging drowned insects. I noticed that ducks really did like anything, no matter how nasty, stinky, or rotten. But they did keep the village clean, eating up the rotten old food that would have just gotten smellier. The duck eggs were larger and richer tasting than the chicken eggs.

The chickens that ran loose around the village were small, scrawny birds. Not like the big American chickens that can't even fly. These chickens had to be swift on their feet so as not to be eaten by us and other predators. They stayed away from the puddles and stuck mostly to the roads and sandy areas where they clawed the dirt for seeds and bugs. Guinea pigs were kept in the huts with the natives because they were so small. The large pigs were also allowed to roam. They were watched carefully though, because they were a prized meat. The villagers all knew what animals belonged to whom. As we watched them grow, mate, and have babies, everyone knew which offspring belonged to which pig, and therefore who had the right to eat it. There was very little trouble over ownership.

Any animal desired for meat was chased by young boys, caught and killed. The killings were often very unsavory. Disgusting actually. The natives had very little feeling for the animals. Their life was so hard already, animals didn't seem to matter at all. Killing an animal was done with no regard whatsoever to quickness or painfulness. They would string a goat up by its hind legs, kicking and bleating, and cut its throat with a small knife. Often the knife was dull and it took a long time to cut through the neck. You could hear the goat bleating quite a ways away, struggling against the knife at their throat. And then the bleating would start coming out the hole in the throat, bubbling through the blood. The goat would hang, kicking and bleating till it bled to death.

The first time I watched this I vomited. After that, whenever I heard that sound, I ran in the opposite direction with my ears covered. A couple of times I saw my dad rush over to one of these events and knock the animal out with a rock. He could not abide the callous suffering. Though he was disgusted, the natives didn't seem to care and didn't change their habits.

Besides my brother and I, there was one other white boy on the mission station. His name was Jimmy. We were called, "mwana moondele" by the natives, which means "pale child." We three spent most of our time together exploring in the swamps and jungle around the station. We played, made primitive toys, and fought. We didn't play much with the native children because it always lead to problems. Their friendship often became oppressive. They demanded too much time and exclusivity. Then the other native kids got jealous and soon no one was happy. Also, we lost a lot of toys. It was just too hard for the native boys, who had not toys, to resist stealing ours. They had nothing like our toys. So we white kids played mostly with ourselves.

Just after breakfast, we would run off down the path to the swamps, scrambling and scurrying over the roots and rocks in our way. We loved the downhill run to the swamp. The natives didn't seem to use the paths as much as we kids did. For them they were a utility, for us the paths were adventure trails. Sometimes we would find one of the native canoes, where it had been hidden in the brush, and we would borrow it. We loved taking little canoe trips out into the swamps. These dangerous excursions, but we never knew it.

When we could find a canoe we would go to Uncle Totty's garden and steal one of his half barrels, a 55 gallon drum cut in half. He used them to plant vegetables in, to keep them raised off the ground away from insects. We would turn one over, leaving a pile of vegetables and dirt, and walk off with it. They really did work well as a little boat. We were still small enough that the half barrel boat would still float with two of us in it. We would cut a palm frond, peel off the leaves, and use the wide flat end for a paddle.

Sometimes we traveled so far into the swamp that we had to mark the trees. Once you got lost in that jungle, all the trees and bends in the swamp looked the same. Somehow, we always managed to find our way out. We would stop at interesting places and walk around on the untrammeled vegetation making our own mark. We saw many rare birds and lots of snakes. Sometimes there would only be roots to walk on, above the dark, dank, water. There really wasn't a firm bottom beneath the water. It was soft slimy mud and leaf. mixture that one really could walk in or swim in. Sort of like quicksand. We would also get covered with spiders cobwebs. They would stretch between trees and roots. When excited the spiders would vibrate and make the whole web seems like a live trap. The cobwebs felt really unpleasant when you got a bunch stuck on your arm or leg.

These unpleasant occurrences however, did not dampen our spirits or daunt our explorations. We spent long days in the jungle and loved every minute of it. But our summer days were numbered and soon it was time to go back to the capital and to school. And we did.

end chapter 8

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