Without even feigning to make eye contact, he just came right out with it. “I love you,” he said. “I love you.” Quite frankly, I could have done without the sarcasm.
Normally there was no getting round General’s aloofness, or his brazenness. He had come to regard this corner of the property as his own turf, where he could do what he pleased, in his own good time, without being disturbed by the other lodgers, who if they encroached would be received by a short, sharp snap of the jaws.
Perhaps the indifference in his swagger, from one corner of the balcony to the other, could be explained by his being, admittedly, different to the rest of us. But a more likely hypothesis was that from that perch he could survey the magnificence of everything until the river with the sense that it was his own personal kingdom – a treasure he wanted to keep all to himself.
Who could blame him? Before him was a scene in which various tectonic plates – of history, geography, zoology, meteorology, physiography, ethnicity – seemed to converge around a perpetually shifting fault line that would infuse in any observer an equal measure of awe and fear. In the centre of it was the sleeping giant itself, the Congo River.
Through a thick blanket of heat and just below the horizon, he watched it arc around the city, this mighty thing, alone among all the great rivers of the world to flow without tidal fluctuation. There is always a rainy season somewhere along the Congo’s 3,000-mile stretch, thanks to it curving above the equator in the middle sections and dipping below it again before its tumble towards the ocean. The cascading water is then tossed through a series of rapids between Kinshasa and Muanda, at its mouth 250 metres below, where more water is dished into the sea than anywhere in the world apart from the mouth of the Amazon. It is a surge so great that an underwater valley stretches for miles out the sea, discolouring the saltless water above. Only the Amazon carries more water than the Congo, and only in the Amazon can one find a rainforest larger than the Congo rainforest.
This was the river, the deepest in the world, that would carry the most audacious of explorers into some of the last uncharted corners of the planet – if they dared. Few could muster the courage or stamina to withstand the topographical and logistical challenges – to say nothing of the oppressive heat and tropical diseases – that the Congo river presented. But in the 1870s the journalist turned explorer, Henry Morton Stanley, penetrated from the east and tracked the river all the way to the Atlantic.
Stanley didn’t realise it at the time, but he was laying the foundation stones for the Belgian conquest of the Congo, and King Leopold II’s brutal pillage of the land. Today it is diamonds, tin, copper, cobalt and gold, back then it was ivory and rubber. After years of slave labour that cost thousands of lives, the Belgians had put in place a railway that skirted the rapids up to elevated station post of Leopoldville, where trains would collect the bounty carried downriver from the heart of Africa, the natives forced at gunpoint to strip their forests of anything that could be sold back in Europe.
Next to the burgeoning village of Leopoldville, its steamboats moored by the river side, the smaller village of Kinshasa also began to sprout. The amalgamation of the two was what General was now seeing, except today we know it just as Kinshasa, and rather than 800 people, now it is home to eight million. He watched the deadpan river again, soothing and heavy, dragging itself slowly towards Livingston Falls. Could more be said about any other single spot on the horizon, anywhere? For one thing, this was the only place on earth where two capital cities came face to face – Kinshasa on one side, and Brazzaville 2km away on the far bank of the Congo. And for another, and for this he had to reach back into history once more, this was the spot – known as Stanley Pool back then – from which many an aspiring steamboat captain ventured upriver against the advancing Congo flow. One such enthusiast was Joseph Conrad, who set off from Stanley Pool 120 years ago, for a voyage that would ultimately turn his heart to darkness.
I wondered if any of this was really sinking in with General. Was it simply the monopoly he had on the view that made him so smug? Was it the breeze shuffling up through the palm trees from the river, the silence at dawn, and the clouds rolling in ahead of the evening’s fireworks, all of which he could lord over?
I doubted he could really be so oblivious to history. Whatever about that, I knew the day’s breaking news in Britain wouldn’t have gone unnoticed, and perhaps that explained General’s curious expressions of love.
In the UK his peers had just been officially reclassified as ‘pests’, making their murder legal.
It was such a treacherous existence they would have to endure now, beneath the piercing northern winds sweeping over the First World. What those poor creatures wouldn’t give to swap death row for Africa .
. . was there any place else on earth you’d rather be a parrot?
Presently working for MONUC, the UN mission in the Democratic Republic of Congo
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