An old hotel – the venue for our clandestine meeting. Owned by one of Mobutu’s generals; villas with two rooms, a small bedroom licked with candles beside a sitting and dining room lit by a fireplace. Old furniture, too imposing for the deprived city – meant for guests from farther abroad. Thick tables – solid and defiant against time. Chairs covered with time-worn fabrics. Oil paintings on the walls – dusty, displaying villages and grass huts beside deep quiet lakes. Outside the night advanced. While the marram roads of Butembo muted the sounds; the bats spiraled overhead and the smell of burning firewood – for those of us who know, the smell of Africa – wafted above the hilltop encampment.
I sat on the porch – the altitude of Butembo accentuated by our hilltop perch. The city below us stretched out – so many displaced seeking refuge in numbers. Lights of fire and candles – the thick fumes of a diesel generator accompanied the melancholy hum from down below. In one hand I fingered my room key – an old, rusted instrument attached to a solid slice of ivory, a tusk from a jungle elephant from the times when nobody cared. In the other a cigarette – to ease the soul. Together our small tribe of warriors – unpretentious, because nobody was looking – planned our assault on the evil lurking in the jungles beyond. Not with guns or bombs – but with our idea of ending a war. One by one the waiters, dressed up in black and white tuxedoes with bowties and jackets bringing barbequed tilapia, greens called linga-linga – fries dripping with palm oil and a big brown ball of fufu. Smells drifting above the dampness of the jungle beyond. Beer – warm, there was no fridge here. But refreshing and good. Primus, from the days of the Belgians.
This is Africa. Only those who’ve been here, who’ve lived it are allowed to say that. Africa isn’t the game parks of the Serengeti, or the crystal blue waters lapping gently upon the white sandy beaches of Zanzibar. Africa isn’t the skyscrapers of Johannesburg or the resorts glistening like pearls against the greatness of Queen Elizabeth National Park.
Oh sure, of course those places are in Africa – technically. But those who know Africa know what I’m saying – for those who have always had a part of her running through their veins, these ideas require no explanation.
And I have known Africa.
Fifteen years ago found me in the eastern, rebel held part of the Democratic Republic of Congo. Zaire it was called during the ill-fated rule of Mobutu Sese Seko – “the all-powerful warrior who, because of his endurance and inflexible will to win, will go from conquest to conquest, leaving fire in his wake” as he preferred to be known. But this was after he was dead – when fat Kabila had taken over the country. A Tutsi wife – roots in Tanzania, playing along the tropical shores of the great Tanganyika Lake, with the crocodiles. An obese new despot had ridden himself of the old, cancerous dictator without even firing a shot – but liberation had not meant freedom. Not for the people of the Congo at least.
But that was a world away. A country the size of Western Europe, with roads reaching only as far as the great hippo would run before returning in defeat to the waters. And I was in the east. Butembo – a small town for Congo. A million people – with no roads. No electricity. Some lights, for those with the money to buy a small generator and some gas. Administered by a rebellion – so not administered at all. Halfway between Beni and Goma; no-mans-land for the hardened ruffians of the worst war in my lifetime – yes even including the mess in the Middle East.
I had driven in from Beni – having picked up my shiny land-cruiser from my office up there. The thin, white skin of the vehicle, sticker plastered defiantly on the door the only protection I could afford – or need. The antennae of the radio announcing to the rebels who we were – back then the old ways still held. Child soldiers on the clay roads – bloodshot eyes. Hair triggers. The stench of death. I had come to Butembo for a rendezvous. UNICEF, UNHCR, MONUC; Action Against Hunger and Doctors Without Borders. We’d discovered a pocket of resistance – well the blue helmets had actually. Just south in a place called Lubero. An old Belgian outpost nestled against the jungle. Trees stories high – imposing, ominous, dark – out of which came eerie sounds and haunting chatter. In there somewhere: Interhamwe; genocidaire. Rwandan Hutu militias. We all remember the pictures of the genocide on CNN, on BBC. The carnage, the machetes and the hacking and the evil. The torrents of people flooding over borders and over roadways – some moving east, some west. Others north – still others south. So many had fled to Congo, warm blood of their victims still pink on their hands. But that was then – this was, well five years later. Surely they would come out – surely they would end their massacre of the Congolese people and take what was offered.
We were inevitably unsuccessful – my little gaggle of militants and I. But who would blame us? This is Africa. For so long, ancient and old and continuing on – this is Africa. Someday it will be different – she is already changing, this oldest of places. But, for now, unashamed and proud – for those of us who have the right to say – this is still Africa.