Desolated Place, Desolated Man
By Chris McCarus
Shegey is the Lingala word for street kid. The six-and seven-year old ones approach, hold out their hands, tilt their heads and say “Papa, give me one franc. I haven’t eaten since yesterday. Help the children, papa.”
Their thin bodies, covered by soiled rags, gave them the look of mechanic apprentices, indentured servants in Africa, rolling around on the ground beneath car engines, sopping up oil. They tugged at my heartstrings.
But the one standing near my motorcycle, parked in front of an outdoor cafÃ©, looked different.
His eyes were redder. His homeless uniform was a darker charcoal. He didn’t gesture. He scowled. And though he was not tall, he could have been as old as 30.
“Scram! Beat it! I didn’t ask for a motorcycle watchman,” I said. “You will get no money from me.” I turned back toward my table and took out my tape recorder, microphone and “Speak Lingala in Three Months,” book. Night had come. I could relax.
The Perroqueet Bar is on the ground floor of a white, two-story building. From the street, customers walk across an open-air patio. Five or six plastic table and chair sets can be shifted or stacked when the music blares enough at midnight to draw a crowd to the dance-floor. A large tree has sprung up through the center of the terrace. It provides shade from the tropical sun. If you chose to escape the heat by going inside the bar, you pay an extra dime on each drink to help pay for air-conditioning. I like to sit at the edge of the patio, near the permeable fence that separates it from the street.
A rut in the street assures that passing cars slow down. They eye you. You eye them. Men cruising for young women sometimes pull over, park, and come in. Street vendors step in. Some have entire loads on their heads: women with slimy, whiskered, suckerfish draped over porcelain bowls, men with cardboard boxes taped into shelves containing Kleenex, screwdrivers, nail-clippers, candy and gum. Still others have limited inventory; they carry a pack of cigarettes and hawk one cigarette at a time.
I could see how much fun Kinshasa was before everyone spent all the money. I had just recorded a man on tape who explained how locals change the meanings of foreign words, which I could use for a BBC radio feature. In Japan, a ‘ninja’ is a martial arts fighter, but here they are scantily clad girls who stand in the streets after dark. They may speak little of the French colonial language, but they can say “fuck” in French, English, Italian, and Russian when they grab for men’s members.
In Europe, Iveco manufactures heavy-duty trucks. But here an ‘Iveco’ is a woman who performs non-stop in bed. ‘Prostate’ is a cancer that strikes older men. Here it is a new Zaire bank note, worth about twenty cents. The bills were issued by the last dictator, Mobutu Sese Seko, soon after he was diagnosed. The connection wasn’t lost on black-market currency traders. Dying man, dying money.
The linguistic laboratory allows me to forget my troubles. It flows into the guitar music, which is the real reason why I came to this town.
“Hey Chris. There is a guy out here who is about to steal your bike, man!” said Vic, a Congolese-American airplane pilot. I dashed the 40 feet to the street, where I saw an adult shegey hovering over the vehicle. “He is gonna take something off it,” said Vic, over my shoulder.
“Don’t worry,” I said. “It weighs 500 pounds and he would need a wrench to remove any parts.”
“How do you know he doesn’t have one?” said Vic.
“He looks desperate,” I said. “Since he can’t eat it, he would have already sold it.Right?” But I looked again into his wide red eyes. He stared at me. He didn’t move. “Scram!” I said. “Beat it. Get away from this moto!”
Vic and I walked back across the patio to our table. We shared disgust of current dictator Laurent Kabila. Then we boasted of how much better life is in his newly native Texas and my native Michigan. We lacked the guts to admit that we both had gambled and lost by coming here. Neither of us felt generous enough to buy the other a beer. Money is hard to come by, but I could offer him a ride home on my Honda 900.
The same eyes met mine as we walked again to the vehicle in the street. The overgrown shegey stood just five feet away. “Scram!” I said. “Beat it.” I was powerless so I tried to sound tough.
I put my tape recorder and microphone into the vinyl pouch attached to the rear fender of my motorcycle. I asked Vic the way to his house while he lifted his leg over the seat and put his feet on the pegs. Then I key-started the engine and released the clutch. Could this all have taken more than 30 seconds? It was long enough.
The ride to Vic’s across the Boulevard du 30 Juin is about a half-mile, and takes several minutes. I was driving a machine prepared to cruise at a hundred. But the road wouldn’t let me go beyond about twenty. Slabs of concrete poured during the prosperous 1960’s are now cracked, pushing up and down like ocean waves. Other roads, repaved since then, have more potholes than covered asphalt. Vic was heavy. The road was bumpy. We moved slowly.
We got there in one piece and parked the bike. But not everything had made the trip. The back pouch was wide open. The recorder was there, but not the microphone. The pouch is too deep for it to have fallen out.
I said good-bye to it quickly, for I have become used to parting with many of my belongings. Zaireans have taken every bungee cord I have left attached to the Honda. They have taken cassettes from my house, a necklace, condoms, a stopwatch and a camera flash. In other places I have lost a short-wave radio, a combination lock and shoes. “Friends” have swindled me out of hundreds of dollars that I had given to rent a house, and get motorcycle plates and insurance. The friendly secretary to the information minister told her boss that I tried to bribe her several times, even though she snapped up the small bills she had asked me for.
I have learned that what is mine is not really mine. What I say is not really what I said.
But this time I know who stole what.
I ride back to the Perrokeet Bar, from which I had just come. If the mic fell out, it could then have fallen into any of the cracks or holes on the way; then my target became the red-eyed shegey standing next to my moto. The voleur.
The barman Patou and I promptly dispatched several shegeys, regulars out front who sleep in the adjacent abandoned office building. They are trusted because they are smaller, under 10, who beg more than steal. “Find the voleur, but don’t talk to him,” we said in Lingala. “Then come back here and tell us where he is.”
I slipped tiny torn bills in their hands, each enough for a piece of bread. One limped along. Another hobbled. One walked in circles. But they all soon marched to our orders.
I sat and waited. And waited. The only thing I could do was smoke. “They will find him,” said the barman. “They all sleep in the same places; under the bridge, behind the post office or in the abandoned buildings on the boulevard. But looking back on it, don’t ever leave anything unattended. This is Kinshasa. Thieves are everywhere.”
I sat and waited, and smoked and waited. At 1 a.m., I drove home.
That night, I began furious e-mails home, that the theft of my microphone was the final nail in the coffin. The people here could take every belonging I have, but when they take my mic or recorder, then I have no livelihood. I can’t report for radio, I can’t earn money. I can’t earn money, I can’t eat, and I can’t stay in this country. I would ride my motorcycle quietly over the border, for good. I would abandon all hopes of reporting consistently for newspapers, television and radio. I would halt my lessons taught to me by undiscovered masters of the guitar. My fantasy country is a hellhole.
For the first time in a year, I returned to prayer, kneeling on my bed just before and after sleep.
I awake after four hours. My body – already fighting giardia and dysenteric amoebas, stomach woes which I haven’t had in years – is further paralyzed by the theft. I am not angry anymore. Just empty. Resigned.
The morning may well have been the night because my existence here is dark. I rode my motorcycle around town aimlessly in this state, finally driving over to the Peroqueet bar to watch the shaking heads and hear the word rien. Nothing.
I park the bike. A medium-sized shegey just outside the fence greets me. I didn’t recognize this one, but he has certainly had the chance to know me.
“They found the voleur and the microphone,” he said, smiling, his hands on the railing.
“Yeah, sure,” I grumbled, on my way inside to the dining room. Patou the barman was off for the day, but the cook, the other barmen and the waitresses had been briefed. “The police were here waiting for you this morming” said the cook as he swiveled on a bar stool.
“They found the voleur and recovered the microphone,” said the barman on duty. “They will be back,” said Tina, face down, with her 5-foot, 10-inch, 160-pound frame packed into her white pants and top.
The world was waiting for me. And the police. Another hole in my head.
I am already wanted by the dreaded National Information Agency. I have already been hauled into two makeshift interrogation centers, four police stations and one army base. I can see this coming. I am the bad guy again. I have to pay.
“Here they come,” says the cook, with his elbow on the bar and his palm supporting his chin.
In walk two young men, not in rags but in street clothes. One is young, and the other very young. Separate from them comes a 15-year-old shegey/cigarette vendor, the medium-sized shegey who greeted me at the door, who, I am told, let the search party.
I look up at the two employees at the bar. “Is this them?”
“They are dressed like civilians,” says the cook. “But they are military, all right.”
They are called Kadogos, which in Swahili means “young boy.” They dominate Kabila’s Presidential guard, and then are scattered throughout different military organizations. Kinshasa is in the west of Congo, Lingalaland. Lubumbashi is 1,200 miles to the east, Swahililand.
Kabila waged his bush war in 1997 from there, by providing food and uniforms to children as young as eight, and from savanna and jungles without schools, roads and hospitals. Mobutu’s legacy.
A “friend of a friend,” who helped form the National Information Agency back then, praises the Kadogos. “Seizing Kinshasa was a wonderful moment in the history of the nation. Thanks to the Kadogos. When mothers and fathers decide to give their sons to a movement which will liberate the country… that is a mandate greater than any which you can get through the ballot box.”
My Kadogos sat quietly upright and thigh-to-thigh on the couch from which Tina was forced to sit up. The shegey/vendor stood against the wall. “Are you guys really military?” I asked in Lingala.
Perplexed expressions appeared on their faces. Tina piped in. They spoke, and then the little one pulled up a pant leg. Black soldier’s boots and camouflage pants were underneath, proof of his status. No civilian in Africa ever dares “impersonating” a solder, for fear of arrest.
Both pulled out ID cards. Christian was 13, and Jean-Marie was 21.
“Did you walk across the country with the president in those boots?” I asked Christian in Lingala, then French, neither of which were comprehensible to them.
The cook piped in. I would have to rely on translation from there on. The staff knew enough Swahili, and the Kadogos enough Lingala, for them to communicate.
Christian’s tender, shiny face, large eyes and bright smile beamed at me. He looked proud at my silly question. Of course he did.
“So where is the microphone?” I asked.
Jean-Marie pulled it from his pants pocket. Sure enough. My $100, Sure SM-58 microphone, which can’t be replaced here.
I pry and gasp and laugh, and finally get them to tell the story. “We stayed out until four in the morning looking for it. We found the voleur and quickly sent him away with some soldiers to be dealt with at Camp Tchatchi. But he claimed he didn’t steal the microphone, only that he found it on the ground. We finally found it way over at the market, near the train tracks on the Avenue of the 24th of November. The voleur was hungry, so he sold it to a vendor for 10 francs [$2].”
“And I was with them too,” the shegey reminded me, prompting an inner reflex that I had developed after living in sub-Saharan Africa for more than three years, which said, “Hold on, don’t lose your temper, ‘cuz they’re going to hit you up, somehow, in some way, anyway.”
“Go on. Give them something,” Tina elbowed me. Through the cook, the Kadogos asked for a ridiculous amount of money from me as payment to the government of Kabila.
I pulled the last few remaining crumpled notes out of my pocket, and ignoring the Kadagos, pressed a few of them into the eager hands of the medium-sized shegey, who thanked me and ran to the door. I gave the rest to Tina and asked her to buy the Kadogos a beer.
Leaving them sitting on the couch, and without a sideways glance, I walked out the door, straddled my moto, started it, and drove down the sandy street without looking back.