Tiles in the Mosaic of My Life


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.

Paul Wemboyendja, projectionist, film truck operator, was tallish, stocky, charming. A suave wheeler-dealer, he had served as a Lomani District delegate at the Congo's first constituent assembly. My USIS colleagues considered him a real find for the center.

My first morning in Bukavu, Paul entered my office with distressing news. His wife's mother had just passed on. Could he have time off to attend her funeral in Usumbura, the nearby capital of Burundi?

Of course, I was being tested. But I did not even know yet what I was supposed to accomplish as center director. So why play martinet? I let Paul go. If he liked to travel, that was fine with me. If I had any goal in Bukavu, it was to see some country.

I never figured out exactly how many wives Paul had - serially or simultaneously - or how many mothers-in-law he could claim. But Paul and I did see country.

On one trip we traveled into northern Kivu Province, showing USIS films, and returned via Kagera National Park in Rwanda. I waxed poetic about the sleekness and grace of gazelles. He said: "Beaucoup steaks, Monsieur." I thought: "How aesthetically deprived this African." And he thought, I'm sure: "How foolish this American."

Another trip found us in the Congo's Parc Albert, once one of the world's great game reserves, but then devoid of visitors. At sunset far out along the shores of Lake Edward, we were watching enormously pink-mouthed hippos soaking, yawning, bathing in mud-wallows on either side of the film truck.

Heading back, we came to a patch of slick muck. At the urging of the park guide, we crept forward - and got mired in mud. The more we worked to dislodge the truck, the deeper it sank. We were miles from Ruindi Camp. The sun was setting.

(So was my USIS career. How, I wondered, would I explain the loss of a film truck? Would I tell my superiors I was showing films to wildlife?)

Paul Wemboyendja was a debrouillard; he could get himself out of a fog, out of brouillard. In fact, in the violent days following independence, he had ferried Europeans, fleeing for their lives, across Lake Kivu to safety. We decided to hike out of the park. We could just see a commercial fishing village on the darkening horizon. We walked as quickly as we could - without alarming the hippos. I kept imagining myself being sucked into a huge set of pink jaws.

We arrived at the village after dark. When we entered the bossman's house, the Belgian there looked at Paul strangely.

Then Paul grinned. "Ah," said Paul, "c'est toi," addressing this Belgian in the familiar form.

"Comment vas?" greeted the Belgian.

After independence, it turned out, Paul had helped this man escape across Lake Kivu under cover of darkness. The man lent us his truck. With it we pulled ourselves from the mud.

Paul Wemboyendja. Jean Ruisenyagugu. Deogratias Mpunyu. I loved those guys.

They are three pieces of tile in the mosaic of my life.

Am I a tile in theirs? I do not know.

I can only wonder what almost 30 years ago they thought of me. Did "Frederic Hunter" seem a strange music in their ears? (I can hardly think otherwise.) Did I seem over diligent, time-worshipping, gauche, and a fool? I must have, for what white bossman in black Africa does not seem these?

I doubt that they think of me. Except perhaps on nights when the conversation will turn to the strangeness of white people: how ill-odored they are, how vulnerable to the sun. And one of these men - Paul or Jean or Deo - will say: "I knew an American once, worked for him." And he will laugh. "Too much book!" he will say, thinking of the library at USIS Bukavu. "Hundreds of books and no woman!"

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