Friday, October 31, 2008

The Big Cheese

It took him seven hours to get here on the wet season roads, and yet it only took him 20 minutes to upset the order of the house.

Our owner of the house, here presumably working for the same cause and yet with completely different methods.

I’ve been reading this book, African Silences, and, while some of its wildlife descriptions are lacking, it zeroes in on the real social problems of Congo with ease. Amazingly too, it was written in 1978, and I don’t see that a whole lot has changed here since then.

It’s easy to see here how to have nots dominate the “haves” here. I’ve witnessed it during the past few nights, attempting to keep my distance at the same time to stay uninvolved.

I’d laughed at first, watching the staff here prepare for FS’s arrival. His room was unlocked by the only man in Aketi who has keys to it - it is a trove that is apparently full of electronics and candles and jam (a rarity here) and packs of spaghetti and fancy coffee from Kinshasa. And onions. Don’t ask me why.

Out of the room FS’s ManFriend pulls all of his clothes, clean-looking, from inside drawers and he brings them out into the hot day and washes them all, hanging them each delicately on the line.

Dido then irons them all while Bea is getting her hair done in the yard. I chuckle to myself -- and text Cleve who is still in Buta. He laughs too, giving me the Lingala equivalent of “The Big Cheese.”

It isn’t until FS’s incredibly late arrival and I am woken from a sound sleep by chimp screaming that I realize the dark side to that Congolese power and charisma -- a cruelty; demanding and petty and impatient. If FS believes I’d ever let a man like that care for chimpanzees, he has another thing coming.

He has woken up Polycarpe, our house pappa here, who takes as good care of us as he takes of baby Mangé (who clings to his side daily and nightly) and demanded that he relinquish his bedroom, and his bed, and wake up the chimpanzee and have him do the same.

Mangé is, of course, screaming at the outrage of being woken at nearly midnight. FS is requesting that Polycarpe make him stop screaming. While he and his equally rotund friend gorge on food from fancy flowered pots that I have yet to have seen in this house nor be offered food from, he commands Polycarpe to sleep, with the chimpanzee, out in the dining room.

FS and his friend have already consumed three Primuses (a local beer), a luxury for us at $3 a bottle, and they are merrily eating while poor Dido runs around trying to meet their needs and Polycarpe tries to calm baby Mangé.

FS does not introduce me to his spherical friend. And feeling helpless to assist Polycarpe in his troubles in the dining room, I head back to the bedroom to check on Adam.

The next morning is no different. While Adam and I must wait until we give money to someone to go to the market to get our tea and bread, there are already cups and coffee out on the front veranda for FS and his friends, who have multiplied during the night. There are now a constant stream of men on the veranda, buttoned down, grim faced, yet I am introduced to none of them. I fear that if I intervene and insert myself into their politics, that I will be hopelessly swallowed in them.

RoundMan emerges from Polycarpe’s room, towels in hand -- there is a direct door into the bathroom from that room and he has been in the bathroom for an hour, bathing, despite the other 4 people in the house that might need to use the bathroom.

He calls for Dido brusquely, and shoves the towels in his face, saying “Wash these,” using informal French, with the obvious tone meaning as much as his choice of conjugation. He then shoves his leather loafers at Dido and says, “Polish these.”

There are no pleases, no thank yous. This is Congo.

Of course, RoundMan has left the bathroom without unlocking the main door - the one that does *not* go through his/Polycarpe’s bedroom. Ergo, despite being empty, the bathroom is thoroughly locked. He does this several more times during the course of only 2 days.

We are consciously not involved in the affairs over the next two days -- every once in a while we will emerge to see a new collection of gents on the veranda, smoking and sitting wide-legged, somewhat humorous considering that they are sitting in flimsy white plastic chairs.

There is ubiquitous Primus too, drunk from clean, clear actually-glass glasses. Also a rarity here, but how can a dignified man drink a beer without a mysteriously clean fancy glass here?

Thankfully, Adam’s malaria gave me a good excuse to retreat into our bedroom.

But as I excused myself to head off to bed late last night and passed a new collection of gentlemen, FS and RoundMan among them, pouring Johnny Walker Red Label into the same clear glasses over FS’s fancy coffee table - embedded with real ivory and with legs carved to look like elephants - I wondered how two people, FS and myself, could ever work towards the same goal?

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