The last time Central Africa went through the kind of convulsions it's now experiencing was 1964. The country was called the Congo then, not Zaire, and I was living in a town that then had the old colonial name of Coquilhatville. (Coquilhat had been a Belgian explorer.) It was a tiny place, now known as Mbandaka, a river port squatting at the confluence of the mighty, tawny Congo, so wide there that some days you could not see the opposite bank, and a tributary called the Ruki.
Coq existed outside of time; its only realities were the sky, the river, and the jungle. After having lived there, it was hard later to comprehend reports of rebel advances somewhere out in that vast, swampy, and river-laced jungle. It was hard to believe that Coq was a place those rebels would want to capture on their path to Leopoldville, the capital.
But it was.
Although it was then a shrinking island of civilization, Coq had served as the capital of one of the six colonial provinces. So it was deemed important enough by the United States government to merit an "American presence." Not a diplomatic mission, mind you, just a USIS post, an American cultural center.
I was the guy who opened the post.
I arrived in the Congo from a training assignment in Brussels just at the time the married officer assigned to open the Coquilhatville center refused to accept the assignment. He would not take his wife to that remote, lonely, and pestiferous place.
So I was sent instead. I was wretchedly lonely for days. During the first weeks, every evening when I walked from the rundown hotel to the town's one restaurant, I wrote an angry mental letter to my USIS boss in Leopoldville, announcing my resignation.
But I didn't resign. And eventually I managed to convert an empty house, already leased by the embassy, into a lending library, a reading room, and a film collection. Once the post was established and Coq seemed habitable, I was instructed to welcome an officer more senior than myself. He would direct the cultural center's work.
About the time he and his wife arrived, news began to come of strange happenings in Kwilu Province, east of Leopoldville, rumblings of insurrection. The disturbances quickly spread to the Kivu, on the eastern border, and Bukavu, a jewel of a town that I had visited, fell to rebels. The rebels moved swiftly through the forests, picking up adherents - many were said to be teenagers seeking adventure - and towns whose names I had trouble finding on the map began to fall to them. US military personnel arrived to install a single-sideband radio in the center; our code name was "River Rat."
Then Stanleyville fell. (The famous Stanleyville is known to readers of Conrad's "Heart of Darkness" as Kurtz's Inner Station and to present-day newspaper readers as Kisangani.) An American missionary was killed. We heard rumors of consular and CIA officers trapped in the town.
The rebels started their trek toward Leopoldville - and toward us in Coq. Would they come by river? Or overland? There was only one road into and out of the town. If they came along that road and crossed the Ruki at the Ingende ferry, only six hours' drive from town, what would happen? Would the Armee Nationale Congolaise protect us? Or would the soldiers flee, as they were doing elsewhere, fearing that the rebels were invincible, protected by magic that would turn bullets into droplets of water? If they crossed the Ruki, would we be trapped?
Our days grew increasingly tense. We cut back on my twice-monthly film trips into the bush. It became difficult to accomplish any real work. US military flights landed every two or three days at the Coq airport. Everyone was edgy. People we knew in the town, ex-colonials, found reasons to go to Leopoldville - "I haven't seen a dentist in donkeys' years" - and did not return.
Panic began to grip the town. My boss and his wife talked frequently about leaving. "If we aren't accomplishing things," he'd say, "is there any reason to stay?"
Then one morning I was told that we were evacuating. It was about 10 o'clock. By 2 we were gone.
The next day at the embassy, one of the American secretaries remarked to me: "You guys certainly turned tail the minute things got rough."
So I went back.
It struck me even then as a curious thing to do. Despite the secretary's taunt, it was dangerous there. But the ambassador was agreeable to my returning. Perhaps he wanted a "presence" in the town, some American eyes and ears. But I like to think that he realized that I stood at a personal crossroads. Unlike my superior, I had spent a year building something in the town and I wasn't yet prepared to turn my back on it. Returning or walking away: one act or the other would define for me my own sense of manhood.
I HAVE thought of that experience hundreds of times. I've even written about it more than once in these pages.
I think about it again now, not only because Congo/Zaire is once again disintegrating - with rebels moving swiftly through the forests, gathering teenage adherents, and causing Congolese soldiers to flee in their underwear.
I thought about it this afternoon because I overheard a message on my wife's answering machine. Donanne and a friend are starting their own special-interest tour business, Learning Journeys Unlimited. Starting a business is quite an undertaking: more similar than I would have thought to being sent off to remote, lonely and pestiferous Coquilhatville to open that cultural center.
Their first trip is a great-opera- lovers weekend in Santa Fe in mid-July: two operas, a Renaissance chorale concert, visits to artists' studios, restaurants, museums, and pueblos.
And, of course, there are a few glides that have turned into glitches. The latest one occasioned the message I overheard this afternoon. Donanne's partner was moaning about a development that made her ask, "Should we cancel this thing?"
That query disturbed me. I had to take a walk. On it, I kept thinking about Coquilhatville, about walking across town to dinner writing resignation letters to my boss, and about how I had to get back there - and went - when it made no sense at all to do that.
And it really did make no sense. We'd been gone about a week when I returned. The rebels were a lot closer to the town; panic was more palpably in the air - like humidity on your skin. I checked in at the center. I had dinner with my best friend in town, a Belgian electrician whose family I had helped evacuate. He was very depressed, talking of firing his house before the rebels came. He wondered if his life's work would be lost.
That night the rebels crossed the Ruki at the Ingende ferry. By the time I awoke in the morning, looting had begun in the town center. The single-sideband radio had gone to Leo, but I managed to secure an open phone line to the embassy - no easy feat - and telexed a plea for a plane. A C-130 arrived in the early afternoon. It had a cargo bay large enough to accommodate a house. We loaded refugees onto the cargo floor and took off.
Why did I go back? It was pointless. Although my presence and my call for a plane helped a few refugees escape, as it turned out, the rebels never did enter the town. When I got back to Leopoldville, I was escorted briefly into the presence of the ambassador and made my report. He said: "Well, we're outa that place."
I see now that I went back to claim my identity in the face of a challenge to it. It was my learning journey. We all have them - as Donanne and her partner are having theirs. Glitches challenge their identity as businesswomen and, as I walked in the Santa Barbara, Calif., foothills, I wanted very much to tell them not to cancel the trip.
Happily, the business crisis had been overcome by the time I returned. The walk had given me a chance to remember my own experience about not panicking - my own learning journey - and I did not need to offer advice.