Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Central African Republic - "Passing Through"

Following is a story I wrote based on my experience as Vice Consul in Bangui. Although elements of the piece are true, overall it is fiction.

Passing Through

It had been a good month for vendors, but poor for commerce. The string of salesmen stopping by home or office in the shady African backwater capital had offered poached ivory - usually small tusks indicating taken from females – smelly leopard skins, or carefully produced leather pouches containing a half dozen little brown stones – diamonds they averred. A few businessmen laid out artistic wares, mostly masks from neighboring Zaire. I was intrigued by a few of those, but had only added one to my collection. As for the ivory and leopard skins I explained that international commerce in either was illegal so I could not and would not buy. The seller, of course, saw this riposte as a bargaining ploy and tried to haggle on. I usually listened to the diamond merchants’ stories about how these were from a clandestine dig, had been brought home by a brother, were the family treasure but now needed to be sold for medicine – ergo, they could be had cheaply. I had no ability to tell if the little rocks were uncut diamonds, pieces of glass or whatever, but I did suggest that the purveyor take them to the American-owned, diamond purchasing office downtown for analysis and possible purchase. Once I asked Fred, the U.S. rep for the office, if any walk-ins really had good stuff. He said that often they did have small industrial grade stones, which, he said, reflected nation-wide artisan production. Only once, he told me, had he really bought a very nice gem stone from a street vendor. He cautioned me not to buy raw diamonds from anyone. He added that the broken glass sellers never stopped by his place for an estimate.

Lately, there was a new wrinkle to sales pitches. Emile, the receptionist buzzed me to advise that a “commercant” wanted to see me. This gent was well dressed and spoke good French. He said he had come upon a “strategic material” that he knew the U.S. needed to corral. After prodding, he confided that it was the uranium used in nuclear bombs. It had come from mines in Zaire. Although he said he could not reveal how he had come to possess it, he affirmed it was radioactive. I asked him to describe what he was talking about: was it liquid or solid, how was it packed? How did he know it was radioactive?

In reply he said it was solid. That answer immediately piqued my interest. This was not just another “red lead” approach. Mercury that had been used in various sorts of x-ray machines circulated in little vials throughout Central Africa. If some of this stuff was slightly radioactive, that was nothing compared to its danger as mercury – especially when used by some “guĂ©risseur” as part of a local cure. Given America’s nuclear might, red lead was flogged from time to time by the street vendors that came to see me.

I remembered a cable from Kinshasa several months back that detailed the disappearance some years ago of a very small quantity of material from the nuclear facility at the university there. Apparently the stolen stuff had no possible weapons implications, but it was real, processed, radioactive and possibly dangerous if kept near people. At the time I had visions of a whole family being poisoned from sleeping near a little brown suitcase with the missing uranium in it.

I asked for a moment, dug out the cable – I did do a little proper filing now and then – and warned my interlocutor of what he might have. He was crestfallen when I said the U.S. government did not want to purchase his item. He blustered that he would go to the French, Soviets or Chinese. I said fine, his stuff really had no value except at the research center from which it had been stolen. He left in a huff.

I recounted this encounter to Joe, the Peace Corps director, over our luncheon beer on the terrace of the New Palace Hotel. Joe, in turn, passed on word from a PCV in Mbaiki, a town at the edge of the great Congo basin forest, some seventy miles south of town. Rob reported that he had first heard about then finally met a bedraggled “blanc” in the market. The man in question said his name was Thomas (pronounced Tow-ma in the French fashion) and that he was an American. Rob invited him home for a meal and heard a bit of his story. Essentially Thomas had been living with a pygmy band for over a year roaming through the vast forest.

Except for a missionary zealot who had vanished while testing the upper rapids of the Oubangui River some ten years earlier – and was presumably eaten by crocodiles - I had no current lookouts for missing Americans. Thomas intrigued us. Was his story truthful and if so, why? We mulled it over, but having run into a number of wayward individuals over the years, reckoned that he probably had his motives. I had no mandate to go look for this guy, but asked Joe to tell Rob to tell Thomas that if he needed any assistance to come see me.

Over the next couple of days, I thought more about Thomas. I grew curiouser and curiouser. Why would some one purposely seek out a stone age existence? Not just for a week or two as an adventure, but for a year or more. I decided to touch base with the local pygmy watchers. Ian, a Quebecois, was part of a university medical team studying pygmies. I had visited their field clinic in the forest. They measured, took blood, obtained family histories, etc. all part of a greater quest to find Eve, the mother of us all. Ian confirmed that his team had picked up rumors from pygmy contacts to the effect that a white shadow was lurking deep in the forest. He thought that was a relatively new phenomenon, but added that the pygmies were full of apocryphal stories. It was impossible to separate fiction from fact. My other pygmy expert was a missionary whose group was translating the Bible into African tongues, including Yaka, the language of the Bayaka, the pygmies of the region. Jim said they started with a few Bible stories like Joseph’s coat of many colors and David and Goliath, both of which had worked well elsewhere in country. He candidly confessed, however, that neither story registered with the pygmies. They did not wear clothes, so coveting a coat made no sense. Additionally, they were not at all violent, so a war based story was equally irrelevant. But in response to my question about a white guy with a pygmy band, Jim hadn’t heard it.

Then in one of those serendipitous moments, Emile buzzed to say that a Monsieur Thomas was there to see me. Yep, he was as described – a gaunt, pale-faced young man sporting a scraggly beard. He wore an old tee shirt, shorts and flip flops. He held an Australian bush hat in hand. Introducing himself as Thomas Breaux, he said he heard from Rob that I might help him. I noted that as the American Vice Consul I was charged with seeing to the welfare of Americans in the country. There were things I could do and things I couldn’t. But first, I asked that he tell me about himself. I was curious as to why he was living with pygmies.

He stumbled at first, advised that he had not spoken much English lately. He also seemed reluctant to tell much, so I just got a bare outline. He had been with an overland London to Nairobi group called Siafu. Thomas said group dynamics were poor; people were selfish, bickering and snarling at each other after several weeks in the truck. He’d had enough, so when they camped near Boda to photo the pygmies, Thomas said he packed his stuff, told the driver to screw himself and walked away. After the overlanders left, he gradually became friendly with Adamo, one of the young Bayaka men. He later learned that his friend was just a visitor to the fringes of civilization. His family group lived far off in the forest. To make things short, he accompanied Adamo on his return trip home. They walked for several weeks. By then Thomas said he was so lost in the forest that he had no way out, even if he wanted to leave.

Instead Thomas said he adjusted, took each day as it came – just like the pygmies did. He gradually learned their language. As his cigarettes and lighter expired, he lost what utility he had to them, although certainly he retained his entertainment value. The pygmies laughed a lot – at him, at each other, at themselves. They always saw the bright side of circumstances. Life was uncomplicated. Search for food, link up nets for hunting, pause for a while in this or that camp, then move on. Although puzzled over him, the small band included Thomas without rancor. Thomas said he learned an enormous amount of forest lore, some Bayaka songs, but more especially the value of human relationships, of gentleness, tolerance and inclusion. He admitted that he needed that healing. When the time came several weeks ago, when Adamo told him they were approaching a town, Thomas said he too knew that his sojourn with the people of the forest was over.

He guessed he needed to reconnect and to tell his father where he was. Their last contact came before Thomas left New York. I offered to stake him to a phone call, but he demurred. His telex essentially said, “Alive and well in Bangui, send money.”

Two days later, Thomas passed by to say thanks. He had just gotten money from the bank. He’d decided to continue on to Kenya. He said goodbye and walked towards the Zaire ferry.

Such people come and go through our lives. I did not really know Thomas at all, yet his small saga taught me something about simplifying complexities and the value of trusting relationships. Yet, it seemed that within his own family, Thomas could not practice his own new gospel.

Of course, I never knew what happened to him.

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