"I don't want to bother you much with what happened to me personally," he began, showing in this remark the weakness of many tellers of tales who seem so often unaware of what their audience would best like to hear. "Yet to understand the effect of it on me you ought to know how I got out there, what I saw, how I went... to the place... It was... the culminating point of my experience. It seemed somehow to throw a kind of light on everything about me -- and into my thoughts. It was sombre enough, too -- and pitiful -- not extraordinary in any way -- not very clear. And yet it seemed to throw a kind of light."
-- Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness
"C'EST L'ARRIVEE," someone said. These were the first words the boy heard when the lorry on which he and the others had been travelling at last turned into the parking lodge at Bulungu, their final destination after a two-day journey from Kinshasa. The boy was impatient to find out more about this place, which might soon become his permanent home. With his little brain he had imagined that people everywhere lived like the people at his birthplace.
The idea of clashes or differences between cultures didn't make sense to him. For him, everybody, everywhere, had the same family structures, the same moral values, the same needs -- the vision of different cultures was elusive if not beyond his grasp.
Living in a house with no electricity was inconceivable to him and synonymous with death. A big-town boy, born and raised in the upper class, with little knowledge of the countryside, he had difficulty believing he could survive in this small place so far away from his parents. He thought of it as a small village. No cars, no electricity, no friends or family -- to him it was indeed synonymous with death!
Bulungu was not a small village as the boy had thought, but a small town. He belonged to the elite and privileged of the regime, but now found himself in the real world. He had more knowledge of Western Europe than his own country. This was the first time he had left his home and not gone to the airport to board a plane bound for a major European city -- for Brussels, Paris, Toulouse, Zurich, Geneva or Rome. His privileged background had made him more aware of the European way of life than his own.
It was around midday that the lorry that transported them entered the Bulungu parking lodge, called "Barriere" by the local people. The boy was surprised to see a lot of people had come to welcome them. Barriere was not just a parking lodge. It was also a gathering place for the people of Bulungu -- a place where everyone would come to hear the latest gossip from Kinshasa, especially regarding popular musicians. This is where one would find people who had just arrived with fresh news
The parking was on Bulungu's main high street, nicknamed nzila ya mukili ("road of the world") because of the belief that in this road one could practically meet anyone. It was next to the Police Station, which itself was situated at the right side of Bulungu's main market.
The boy was the star of the day. His guardian, who would soon play the role of his father, was a well-known figure and a respectable man in the town. He was a headmaster at one of the Protestant High Schools.
While the people who had come to welcome the boy were talking to each other, a man stepped out and stood in front of the boy and his guardian and said, "Good morning, Mr. Masa-Ndombe, how was the journey? How is Kinshasa?" And he added: "My people and I are very happy to see the little boy that you were talking about."
"I am also happy to see all of you," said Mr. Masa.
After listening to Mr. Masa's reply, the man looked at the boy and said, "Good morning, son. What is your name?"
"My name is . . . "
"Emanuel!" interrupted his guardian. "His name is Emanuel."
"Oh . . . you have the same Christian name as my sixth son!" exclaimed a woman from the crowd. "I think they will get on very well!"
Then some other men and women started to ask the boy similar questions. As part of the local custom the residents always put many personal questions to the visitor to make him or her feel at home -- to foster a sense of belonging to the community. They believed that visitors and foreigners should always be given a warm reception and be treated well during their stay. Many residents went so far as to have especially nice dinner plates and drinking glasses or cups, not for themselves to use but to be used by any visitor or anyone passing by who may be thirsty and may need water to drink. And when anyone came unexpectedly to see them at dinnertime, they would always have a very impressive dinner set to offer the self-invited guest.
Anyone who was in the Barriere when the boy and his guardian arrived at Bulungu would have seen the local residents who came to welcome him, and seen how they expressed their hospitality to the boy who, somewhat bewildered, could barely take in what was happening to him. Surely he was in dreamland! In his short life he had never imagined he would attract so many people at once. He always thought that to become a star overnight was impossible. Famous people were only those you saw on television! In normal circumstances it would have to be his birthday for him to attract so much attention, or the beginning of July, and only then if he got good results at school. But this day didn't coincide with either of these, for it was the beginning of October.
It all seemed so unreal. The sense of being in dreamland persisted. While trying to come to terms with what was happening, he plunged into a state where he couldn't tell what was happening or hear what the people were saying about him; at the same time he saw himself in many different places at once.
After a short time, while pleasantly immersed in his self-chosen dream, his thoughts were scattered by a woman's voice. It was as though an electric shock had sparked across his tiny heart! He almost jumped out of his body when he realized that an old woman was standing in front of him and saying something to him. He struggled to bring himself back to the real world and focus on what the old woman was saying. He wasn't sure if she had asked him about his views regarding the welcome, or asked him his age, or if she was just making statements.
He didn't want to look stupid by giving a totally inappropriate answer; and by asking the old woman to repeat what she had just said might have seemed like a lack of attention, which in turn might be interpreted as a disrespectful act to the old woman. So, he just kept quiet and said nothing.
Mr. Masa, realizing what was happening, came to the boy's rescue. "His name is Emanuel," he said.
"Ah . . . . I see," the old woman nodded.
"The boy is shy," explained his guardian.
"Shy! Why?" replied the old woman, still looking at the boy.
"Well, I wish I knew," smiled Mr. Masa.
"He shouldn't be," added the old woman. "From now on, this is his family."
Mr. Masa continued: "His real name is Dada Tshienda. Emanuel is his Christian name, but he doesn't know about it. You could see by his face how surprised he was when I said that name for the first time."
"Euh!" said someone in the crowd. "Is he from Kasai Province?"
"Yes, he is," confirmed Mr. Masa.
"It doesn't matter for now," said the same old woman who had spoken to the boy before. "He is just a boy. He is not one of those Baluba that you would, by mistake, allow into your lorry en-route from Tshikapa to Kinshasa or from Kinshasa to Tshikapa. They will definitely do you harm or even kill you just because you are not Muluba, and especially if you are Mukongo. They think of us as sub-humans. But this is just an innocent boy. He should not be confused with those murderers. Anyway, he looks like someone who was born in Kinshasa, so he wouldn't know anything about those practices."
She looked again at the boy, then raised her right hand and placed it on his head. "You are welcome in our big family, and from now on you are considered as one of our sons and grandsons. Let the spirits of our ancestors protect you from the evil work."
"Thanks, mum," said Mr. Masa.
For various reasons everybody was not able to accompany Mr. Masa and the boy to his house. It's a custom for most Bantus to welcome a total stranger with some rituals or traditional practices, especially in this case. But in Dada's circumstance, the people who were available to welcome him were from different tribes, and they came from totally different villages before settling in Bulungu. Some rituals of one may not be acceptable to others. In this small town human relationships were always taken seriously.
One of the good things about this town was that the inhabitants were willing to compromise for the sake of harmony. It was crucial that everyone was ready to compromise, which helped to preserve mutual respect and conserve harmony in their society, especially among the elders. Most of the young people, who were born there, were, in certain ways developing their own culture, based on respect for old people; but this also has its own dark side. That was something many of the elder visitors failed to notice. Older people do not believe that it exists. You need to be a young person to see it first hand. In this town older people had the habit of not taking the children's remarks seriously. Sometimes they might just pretend it does not exist, as long as it does not compromise the status of privilege they enjoy or question their authority.
On anyone's first day in Bulungu, the first thing one noticed was that the people who live there come from different cultural backgrounds and that they live in peace. But no one could easily detect the rivalry among young people. The disputes between Catholic and Protestant pupils were officially non-existent, and adults did not talk openly about the frictions between kids from different quarters. In this town, when anyone talked about the inhabitants, they actually meant the old people. So, as long the old people got along, Bulungu was a safe place to live. That was the official line. The inhabitants of Bulungu always made sure that they agreed upon the basics of people's needs.
Age was a very important factor in this town. Old people were treated with extreme respect. Anyone's parents were everybody's parents. Any parent had the right, under the sun, to discipline anyone's child. The education of any child was any parent's duty, especially when the respect of an elderly person was at stake or the well-being of someone else was in jeopardy.
Children were considered special creatures. You would always hear someone saying, "Just for the children's sake." They were left to enjoy their childhood. At first sight it was very difficult to spot a rude child, since most of the time the child's bad behavior would be absorbed by the group, the children keeping it among themselves. Children were left to play unsupervised amongst one another and do most of their naughty acts out of sight of any parent. A parent playing with his or her child was an alien practice. In short, it didn't exist. Any parent would just tell his or her child to go and play with their friends. They didn't tell them where to go because they knew that nothing would happen to them, even if they disappeared all day. They knew they would be in good hands or in someone's care where food was not an issue.
The majority of people, who came to welcome Dada and his guardian, lived in the quarter called Kabangu. The quarter was named after the river Kabangu, which is on the western side and goes on to meet the river Kwilu, which is on the northern side; this meets the river Kassai that in turn flows into the river Zaire that ends at the Atlantic Ocean. Kabangu is a river that flows fast compared to Kwilu. But Kwilu is twice the size of Kabangu. Kabangu looks dark, but when you collect its water in your hands, it's surprisingly clear, almost like the notorious river Mayi-Ndombe (black water) en-route between Kenge and Kinshasa. Kabangu is not as dangerous as Mayi-Ndombe which has claimed many lives.
It's not a surprise to hear of an accident on the bridge of Mayi--Ndombe, which mysteriously sends cars into the river. Once a car or a lorry is drowning in Mayi-Ndombe, nothing gets found. They just disappear.
For the boy, the origin of the quarter's name was not important at that moment. What was troubling him was the fact that among the people who came to welcome him at "Barriere" there were no girls of his age, just boys. He was asking himself if there were no young girls in this town.
The atmosphere at Barriere was very pleasant.
After a while Mr. Masa said to the crowd, "Good people, it is now time to go home. I think the boy is tired and in need of some rest."
Everybody agreed and made their way home.