Africa as a child

My earliest memories are of Africa, of the Bongondza station, in what was then the Belgian Congo.  When I returned to Africa as an adult I found that the scent of guava, frangipani, and a particular spidery white lily all had the effect of making me feel five years old again.  It’s mostly snapshot memories- joyously playing in the rain on my parents’ front porch which leaked like a sieve, and watching my father set up large plastic sheets between the clotheslines to catch rainwater for his intravenous drips.  He said he never had an infection.  I remember the pet rabbits, whose cage was set up with the legs set in tins of kerosene to keep out insect invaders.  It didn’t work.  One morning we awoke to find them two black balls of driver ants.  I remember wild honey, set in a bowl on the table in the back porch.  There was a hole in the screen and the bees stole most of it back. And I remember the feeding frenzy of the chickens when Dad brought in a section of termite mound and cut it open for them.  I had kittens and a collection of pet snails that made a habit of escaping -leaving silvery trails around my bedroom. I also had a dollhouse, and a life-size doll with real hair that had come from a church bazaar.

It all ended rather abruptly with the coming of Independence in 1960.  The Belgians had not made themselves popular and the ill-feeling extended to them spilled over to all with white skin.  One memorable evening my parents were told that they would be evacuating the next morning with the rest of the westerners on the station.  I remember that it was very hard to get a kerosene lantern for my room that evening.  I  freed the snails, including the huge one my father had found on his way back from the hospital that evening.   My father remembered mostly that he had performed several surgeries that day and that he spent the night writing post-op orders for the nurses to follow.  We were allowed a small suitcase each.  A few clothes, one or two toys, my father’s surgical instruments that he said he wouldn’t leave to rust in the forest, and local paintings cut out of their frames and rolled up that still hang in our home today.

Other than having to give the kittens away, what I remember most was that after having breakfast we just walked out, leaving everything on the table, everything as was, in the house.  I learned early that things are things, you can walk away from them.

I don’t remember much of the trip.  Dad slipped my brother and me sedatives so that we wouldn’t irritate any soldiers at road-blocks on the drive out.  In Stanleyville, we left on the last American troop plane out of Congo- a big cavernous monster with webbed seating.

We never did go back.  My father went on to work in a hospital just opened in the Trucial States.  The doctor, who replaced him, and his young family,were one day  hacked apart with machetes and thrown into a river by rebel troops.

My parents though, always spoke of the Congolese they had known with affection, remembering their kindness and ability to endure difficult situations. They remembered their propensity for laughter.  If you don’t laugh sometimes, you will always be crying.


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