Since I was a small child, I yearned to make it to the “dark continent” to see for myself the magic and mystery of such far reaches of the globe. How lucky I was that my brother-in-law got a job many years ago in Zaire, now the Democratic Republic of the Congo (a rather cruelly ironic name, considering how very un-democratic the country is).
My husband and I were newly married. I was working as a photographer in DC. The chance to visit his brother in Zaire was a dream opportunity to combine work and fun: three amazing weeks traipsing about Central and East Africa photographing one of the most gorgeous, heart-stopping areas of the world.
Our first hint at how very different things would be came as we flew over neighboring Cameroon at night. Crossing an entire country, we could see no light, save for sporadic campfires burning in the jungles below. It was shocking to realize how polluted with light our own country actually is when all we saw below was black, broken by the occasional splotch of orange.
Zaire was like something out of a third-world version of a Dickens novel. Destitute citizens cooking over open fires on street corners in the middle of the busy capitol of Kinshasa. Contemporary high rises next to shacks. Paved roads gave way to dirt on a block-by-block basis. The opulence of the chosen few—often adorned in garish jewels and animal fur garments a la the then-leader Mobutu Sese Seko (known to sport leopard skin frequently) while surrounded by incalculable poverty. Public transportation consisted of hangers-on, jumping on and off of any moving vehicle headed in their direction. Often we would see trucks laden with 40 people, holding on for dear life as the vehicle lurched dangerously fast down rutted roadways.
My brother-in-law had a “domestique”—a “houseboy,” if you will. Actually a much older man, father of 10 children. He earned more in a week as a domestique than he could in a year doing much else. Nevertheless it struck me as painfully colonial and inequitable to see this older gentleman hunched over scrubbing the bird cage, or ironing all of our clothes (including our underwear!). I chastised my brother-in-law for this. But then I learned that the man ironed even our socks for good reason: when hung out to dry, certain insects leave behind larvae which, if given the chance, will embed in one’s skin and hatch subcutaneously, a la the movie Aliens. Blech. I immediately stopped complaining that the poor man had to do all that busy-work, and happily let him iron (and melt!) my undies.
All development, along with any hint of modernity, halted within miles of the city limits. From there out, Zaire was left to revert to its wild inclination. The roads bore deep, thigh-high gashes (like in this linked picture, minus the water!) from water run-off during the rainy season. Our four-wheel drive jostled to and fro as if we were in a blender, and made even the heartiest of us nauseous.
Occasionally we would happen upon a village. Our first encounter was memorable, as we pulled out our camcorder and videotaped the villagers, then played it back in the eyepiece for them to see. They were stunned to see such a remarkable thing. We shared our food with them, passing out Oreos to the greedy crowd, the men—till then busy getting drunk on banana beer beneath a palm tree—forcing children out of the way in a selfish food grab. It was so sweet to see the small children unscrewing the cookie to eat the white icing middle first! It was equally heartbreaking to witness so many small children with distended bellies, flies swarming their famine-bloated heads, a baby draped across their back, knowing we carried food enough in our truck to feed them for a month.
We came upon a massive waterfall, Zongo Falls (thanks to whomever shot these pictures; mine are buried in photo albums). Unlike the controlled tourism in the “civilized” world, there were no rules, no signs, nothing to prevent us from exploring wherever we wanted. To my chagrin the guys wanted to walk out on the rocks to the crest of the waterfall. We sat on the edge of the waterfall, the mist so heavy in the air we were drenched, the water raging on all sides of us, and even in the middle of the water-worn rock upon which we were sitting. We drank our litre-sized bottles of beer (in the same bottles we saw constantly used to transport motor oil, gasoline, and all sorts of other untoward substances during our trip) right on the edge of this. Terrifying, yes. Exhilarating? You bet. Would I do it now? Not in a million years!
We had to catch a flight to the far eastern part of the country. Only problem? One flight per week. With a dictator who tends to divert the plane for his personal whims. So while you can book a flight and pay for a seat, neither is guaranteed. We gushed sweat in an airless, sweltering airport terminal for hours awaiting the ostensibly scheduled flight. When wise-eyed watchers saw it arrive, the crowd broke out into a mass exodus to the tarmac: first on board gets to go, regardless of who paid. The flight was—I kid you not—standing room only. Far more airless and far more sweltering, the plane was a mishmash of discarded spare parts from the many gutted airplanes whose cadavers littered the sides of the runway. If ever there was a moment in which prayer seemed the obvious answer, that was it. Nevertheless, the flight attendants handed out a bottle of warm orange Fanta, a straw and a stale role to all passengers, standing or sitting. By the way, those standing? In the suffocating heat? In a country in which deodorant is not even in the vocabulary? And me, with the olfactory system that can detect leaking gas? Needless to say it was a long flight.
Also in Zaire, we hiked a volcano that had erupted only 3 months earlier. the volcanic ash and rock were so hot that it melted the soles of our REI hiking boots. Nevertheless, our tour guide hiked it barefoot, over volcanic rock as sharp and jagged as broken glass. We climbed through the fine volcanic sand, slipping backwards twenty steps for every ten steps forward, all the way to the caldera of the volcano. It was amazing. Although the sulfurous gases were enough to practically make our lungs bleed.
One of the high points of this trip was our gorilla trek. We were not guaranteed sighting lowland gorillas on our trek. We were warned it could be 6 hours of hiking mountainous jungle terrain for naught. But we had savvy guides who tracked gorilla scat, machete’ing our way through jungle terrain for a mere 45 minutes before spotting baby gorillas defying all laws of gravity on precariously weak-looking limbs high atop the tree canopy. We soon found the silverback and followed him for about 45 minutes as he meandered through the jungle munching greens. Eventually he grew weary of his company, however, and with a powerful series of tattoo thumps across his chest, he bared his vicious teeth, roared, charged us, and we all fell into submissive pose so that we didn’t become victims of a tetchy gorilla. And got it all on tape. Including the nervous laughter after our silence deadened the air around us when he charged our group.
The area in which we trekked the gorillas is some of the country’s richest, as far as mineral wealth, volcanic soil rich in nutrients for crops, and such. The people were kind, gentle, poor but generous. A horribly oppressed population then, they were not at all fearsome. We flew a 6-seater prop plane across Lake Kivu, landing in a field filled with men wielding machetes. We did not feel threatened. A few short years later, those very same men were using those machetes against one another, and continue to do so today. The gorilla population has been nearly decimated. The horrific Rwandan civil war spilled over the boundaries into Zaire, already in turmoil due to a civil war following the deposition of Mobutu. And still today, this country is wracked by violence and ongoing war, a beautiful country peopled with wonderful, resilient people, unable to extricate themselves from the hatred that binds them to the way of life there.
We had to hitch rides from Zaire to the Rwandan capital of Kigali. We were so amazed to see the modernization of Rwanda, credited to massive infusions of Chinese cash, back in the 80’s. Of course much of this was subsequently destroyed in their civil war. But at the time, Rwanda was downright first world. Schoolchildren with shorn heads in plaid uniforms, prisoners in pink pajamas working road crew detail. An airport that—from outward appearances—could have filled in for any airport in the States. Until we realized that the x-ray machine may well have x-rayed the contents of people’s bags, but the security attendants didn’t actually have screens with which to view things. We were somewhat sobered to see our pilot who flew us in that treacherous lake-crossing in the 6-seater, working as a baggage checker at this airport. Evidently he was moonlighting in one of those jobs!
Africa had much more in store for us. The very hairy spider the size of my spread hand on my cot as I unpacked my suitcase in the rustic tent in which we were to spend one night in Tanzania. The sporadic supplies of water, electricity. The foul-tasting zebra meat, the meal du jour at the Tanzanian government lodge atop the exquisite Ngorogoro Crater. Baby rhinos, frolicking young elephants, playfully tugging on trunks, sneaky leopards, graceful cheetahs, lions happily devouring a zebra.
There was the luxury tented safari in the Masai Mara in Kenya. Guarded fireside at night by a rifle-toting Kikuyu guide, I naively thought he was there was to keep wayward four-legged aggressors at bay. My husband kindly waited until we were on the flight home to tell me the rifle-toting guard was there to keep the two-legged marauding bandits from holding guests hostage, leaving them abandoned in the savannah, as had evidently become commonplace.
The good thing for a worrier like me is I spent much of that trip cloaked in blissful ignorance. What I didn’t know didn’t exactly hurt me.
Africa gets in your blood. It’s like no place else in the world. It’s a continent vastly different now, alas, than it was when we went there. The devastation of AIDs has changed the face of the many diverse countries. As has continued strife and warfare, both tribal and country to country. It’s a land of contradictions: extreme beauty living alongside unimaginable squalor. Primitive yet contemporary. And everywhere that seems as if it’s catching up to the modern world, you’re also left with the sense that it’s a hairsbreadth away from decimation.
I would love to return to Africa. To show our kids the wonders of this great continent. So that they can see how much is out there that they cannot really imagine. And to enhance their appreciation for the many riches in their own lives.
I’d love to offer up a few recommendations of books that will take you to Africa, even if you don’t have the luxury of making the trip yourself. My all-time favorite is Elspeth Huxley’s THE FLAME TREES OF THIKA. It’s a beautifully-written memoir of a girl growing up in pre- and post-colonial Kenya. Alexandra Fuller’s DON’T LET’S GO TO THE DOGS TONIGHT is a heartbreaking yet compelling tale of a highly dysfunctional ex-patriot British family trying to make their way in Rhodesia as civil war unfolds. Barbara Kingsolver masterfully captured Zaire on the cusp of independence in THE POISONWOOD BIBLE.