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Tiles in the Mosaic of My Life

By Frederic Hunter / May 22, 1992



JEAN RUSENYAGUGU.

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What a set of sounds to roll your tongue around!

Deogratias Mpunyu.

Paul Wemboyendja.

The sounds ring in my head, uncalled. But it is not surprising that the sounds come back. Once you have learned such names, they do not easily desert you.

Images float out of memory, too.

Jean Rusenyagugu spoke to me in smiles, in chuckles and laughter. That was because French was our common language, and neither of us spoke it well.

Jean was janitor-factotum at the United States Information Service (USIS) Cultural Center in Bukavu in the eastern Congo (now Zaire) when I was the inexperienced, twentysomething bossman there. Soon after I arrived, he studied me with his broom. "Vous etes marie, Monsieur?" he asked at last. No, I said, I was not married.

Jean was stunned - and scrutinized me. How could I not be married? Was I not an adult? Was not marriage a symbol of adulthood? How could foreigners be so strange?

Many months later, about to leave Bukavu, I bought a souvenir: a large cowhide drum, three feet tall and almost as wide. When I lugged it into the office, Jean smiled with delight. "A wedding drum!" he exulted. "You are going home to get married!" I'm sure he thought that my parents had finally found me a bride.

When I asked to take a photo of Jean, he cast his dustcloth aside and ran off. He reappeared with a book in his hand. He posed for me out back in the sunny parking lot: stiff of stance, but grinning, nonetheless. He held the book before him, tenderly and proudly, and I took his picture.

The wedding drum stands now in our living room. (I did get married.)

When I look at it, my mind's eye sees Jean Rusenyagugu, Bukavu janitor, fluent communicator with smiles, proud holder of a book he could not read. And my memory smiles back at him.

Deogratias Mpunyu, librarian-driver, was a long sliver of a man, easily 6 feet, 8 inches. He was a Tutsi, a refugee from Rwanda, the neighboring country just across Lake Kivu where Tutsi rule, stretching back into unremembered time, had recently been overthrown.

Literate, educated, adept in French and even attempting English, "Deo" seemed an ideal librarian. But the passion of his life was to drive. He longed to escape the library, fold his long frame behind the steering wheel of the center's truck, and drive it around town, honking and waving and shouting at friends. Young ladies with bundles on their heads would stop and turn their bodies to watch him pass.

Reports came that Deo brought little more than jubilation to his driving. He had no license - not too surprising in the strife-torn, newly independent Congo - and he was vague about how he had learned to drive. I grew concerned that claims of damages might be brought against the center - for why were Americans in the Congo if they were not rich? It became clear that I myself must become the licensing authority.

I proposed a test drive. Deo seemed delighted, laughing gaily. Anything to get behind the wheel! But I detected some uncertainty, too. And I remember, as we started out, hoping very much that Deo really knew how to drive.

Perhaps his legs and arms were too long. Perhaps his head sat so high on his long neck that his eyes had no proper field of vision. Perhaps I unnerved him. Whatever the cause, at the end of the first block, Deo drove into a traffic sign. It was wood; it splintered in half.

The African experience of that era had been a painful chain of expectations blasted by events. Deo was a child of his time. He graciously accepted the consequences of his accident and contented himself in the library.