(Approximate reading time: 14 minutes)
by N i k k i L e e
Return to Innocence
EXT. KINSHASA AIRPORT – DAY
Heat boils the noonday tarmac of the airport. A small DC-10 twin-engine airplane prepares for take off. Just beneath the plane, to one side a man and a clutter of luggage.
“Adjoaa! Adjoaa!” Jacob shouted over the windy whirr of the small plane as a tall blonde woman came striding quickly towards him, hesitating just out of harms reach of the plane’s wing with its’ sharp turning rotors.
“Cut a man’s head off!” Jacob shouted, ducking just in time beneath the swing of the turning planes leveled wing, falling onto his hastily discarded luggage, that lay dumped on the hot tarmac. He had little choice but to push himself on-to the hapless mass and wait for the plane to move its’ ass, and start its’ noisy race away – leaving him still clutching his head for safe keeping.
“Are you all right?” The clipped quasi-South African accent inquired more amused than concerned over the still loud whirring of the plane, “I said are you all right Jacob?”
“Damn cabbie nearly took my head off!” Jacob grumbled, gathering himself up while glaring at the departing plane; then he looked to Adjoaa just in time to catch the broad grin of hers shy beneath her upheld hand. But he could still see it in her eyes just the way he remembered, bright, beautiful.
“Yea, yea I’m alright.” Lowering his voice, “All better now, seeing you. No worries really.” And gathering himself off his luggage, he flashed a grin of his own.
“Good, then let’s get your gear in the car, and we’ll be off.” And already she was in motion.“Car? Wait.” But before he could inquire further Adjoaa spoke over her shoulder as she hustled over to an errant bag, “We’ve got to hurry!” And then she turned to face a rather small black car approaching fast.
“Ah, here comes Miznarhi now.”
Jacob looked in disbelief at the oncoming car, a small, black town car with a yellow roof.
Jacob muttered to himself. “I thought I left Buenos Aires.”
“What?” asked Adjoaa.
“You know, looks more like a taxi from Buenos Aires, I guess I was expecting something more formidable for a safari. The sort of vehicle you could challenge a rhino in – if you were stupid enough.”
Adjoaa gave a small laugh.
Jacob stared hard at the car as it stopped just to the side of him with a grumbling engine still running. Just looking at it confirmed his suspicion that it was insufficient for the journey that lay ahead. The lone exception to his doubt was the print of some official looking yellow lettering brandished on the door, which read. “PEACE FOREST PROJECT” but sans the lettering, this tiny car was entirely unsuitable.
But then Jacob saw that what was remarkable, was not the car itself, but the man inside the car. There behind the wheel, with the window, rolled down was a man of pure midnight, even for an African- this man is black. Jacob searched the face of the man and saw himself gently watched by such bright eyes, which seemed to glow with a vivid, amusement… so this was Miznarhi!
Jacob stared as the dark man stepped tall from the small car and extended a long arm with a big hand to greet him. Jacob saw that Miznarhi was a tall, dark river of a man, with a hot boil of sweat beading thick upon his skin soaking his T-shirt. Again his eyes returned to the mans face, and Jacob saw Miznarhi was quick with his smile and flashed a bright toothy moon at Jacob which at once opened his face quite fantastically.
“Welcome to Africa! I am Miznarhi.”
“Africa! Africa! You call this Africa? Looks more like Buenos Aires to me.”
“Not for long.” Adjoaa chided, “Not where we’re going.”
“Promises, promises.” Jacob remarked turning his head to her.
But already Adjoaa was stuffing the errant bag she had grabbed into the back of the tiny car.“Miznarhi, let’s get Jacob’s gear loaded into the car quick and we’ll pick up the jeep at the edge of the city.” She said. “With a little luck, it will have been packed and refueled by the time we get there.”
“Oh good, so there is a jeep! For a moment, I thought you brought me half across the globe just to go to the local zoo to see those little pygmy chimps you keep telling me about.”
“What! Me and a baby snatcher?” Adjoaa said incredulously. Just then another sharp little transport plane buzzed low overhead a bit too low for Jacobs liking and Jacob ducked. “Well come on let’s get the car loaded before one of those little bastards cuts our heads off!”
Loaded into the cramped little car, they quickly made their way thru the dry, sweltering heat of the day amidst the denizens of the bloated city. The airport was soon lost behind them as Jacob stared out from the back seat watching the lapse of the sprawl that was Kinshasa smear by. He stared at the city in disbelief, eyeing the sharp contrasts, the weaving of blatant “western” prosperity within sprawling “3rd world” slums. Making for a daring feat of living which some 8.9 million people endured every day, clamoring amidst the often volatile extremes of dirty shacks and glistening blue glass high-rises altogether in a single surreal parade of human possibility. All this and only on one side of the Congo river under the authority of the DRC, Democratic Republic of Congo.
Meanwhile, Brazzaville, capital of the ROC, Republic of the Congo spanned just opposite on the other side of the river, the right side; completely its’ own swollen parade of humanity. Jacob thought it more than a little bizarre the coincidence that he had just come from Buenos Aires which sat on the Argentine side of the Rio De La Plata while on its other bank the capital city of Uruguay, Montevideo stood. This was probably the only other place in the world where two national capital cities stood on opposite banks of a solitary river, directly staring each other in the face.
“Are you sure this isn’t Buenos Aires?” Jacob softly mused. The brilliant eyes of Miznarhi flashed up bright catching sight of Jacob in the rearview mirror as he continued to drive. Adjoaa turned around to face Jacob.
“It’s good to see you.” Her lite green eyes smiled, confiding more truth then the simple, honest words she spoke.He loved her eyes.
“It’s good to see you, Jo.”
“Thanks for coming.I wasn’t sure you’d really come all this way.” she said.
“Well hell, I wasn’t sure I’d come either to tell you the truth but ah, you know me world travel and all that.Besides you know I can’t tango very well; it was time I left Argentina anyways.”
Later, on the edge of Kinshasa in a large tin roof hangar, they at last traded in the small car for a large, rugged olive colored jeep, that like the tiny car bore the official yellow lettering “PEACE FOREST PROJECT”. The sight of the jeep was most welcoming to Jacobs’s tired eyes as it immediately satisfied his expectation for a safari adventure.
“Now this is more like it..”
Adjoaa laughed, “Feel more like a safari now do you?”
They moved quick to transition the tangle of Jacobs’ gear from the undersized car to the more formidable jeep, loaded full of supplies and gas just as Adjoaa had hoped and with himself again seated in the back, Adjoaa once more rode up front as Miznarhi took position as driver.
Driving free of the Hangar door Adjoaa waved goodbye to the remaining members in the hangar and once more they were traveling through the city of Kinshasa.
Jacob was now exhausted from all the travel and ached for sleep…but Adjoaa once more returned her attention to Jacob. Her eyes examined him easily. He rested beneath her calm and searching stare and resisted his desire for sleep. At last, she spoke again, “You look tired.”
“Heh, don’t remind me, 18 hours in transit hopscotching from Argentina to Africa will do that to a man,” he said, but he knew she meant more than the words she had spoken. He would let it slide for now. He was too tired to talk about what had all been happening in Argentina the last 18 months. So he just continued, “Not to mention that fiasco in Johannesburg, and then taking that little bastard cabbie’s plane to get here; I’m in desperate need of some shuteye.”
“Well, try to get some sleep now, it will be a few hours still.”And her eyes left him as she returned to stare at the road ahead…
But he couldn’t sleep or, at least, didn’t want to, not really, not yet. Not now, not when he had just gotten to Africa…not when he finally could see her again, and look into her eyes again. He didn’t want to start now by closing his own.
But somewhere between the farthest edge of the sprawling city, and heading east into the lapse of an equally sprawling expanse of the most distant slum, just after the pavement gave way to dusty dirt roads, Jacob slid into a fitful blur of sleep. Sleep filled with strange occurrences and imaginings, where dark brown eyes watched him knowingly from desperate forests, while the whirring blades of machetes cut thru the jungle in a melee of motion like the whirling cuts of the sharp blades of the plane and Jacob felt dangerously close.
When he awoke, he stared through the dull ache of his half-lidded eyes, feeling the humidity pressing heavy upon him, and he realized they had driven free at last of the dry, hot urban jungles’ polluted heat and were moving on towards the raw, wet, sweltering equatorial forest of the Congo. He slowly sat up and leaned forward between the two front seats to find; Adjoaa was now driving while Miznarhi slept in the passenger seat. Jacob stared out past the windshield towards the verdant press of a green world; that was serrated by the seemingly endless length of the thin dirt road they drove upon.
“Devil it’s hot here.” Jacob said absently, rubbing the hot, sticky sweat from his forehead. Without even a glance off the road, Adjoaa untied the red twist of a bandanna from her neck and handed it to him. “Here,” she said. Jacob accepted the bandanna but looking at the wet blistering skin of Miznarhi, sweating in his sleep, he doubted that it would help. But he didn’t hesitate to wipe his forehead with it and tie it around his neck.
As they continued to drive on the worn dirt road, a tangled growth of rural villages flashed by – shanty towns really, built rough by the desperately poor. People who had the look of the displaced…Refugees maybe, Jacob thought.
As they drove on through the poor, little villages one after the other each one repeated the same scene that the one before it had. So much so that at first Jacob thought he might still be dreaming, as once more a small happy riot of children came emerging out of the rough little places, chasing barefoot alongside the road running after the jeep, waving, giggling and tripping, fast with their long dark skinny legs. All the while handsome dark women watched on, most with coiled woven baskets balanced on their heads, held steady with one arm up while skinny babies clothed only in their mother’s touch remained perched upon the women’s bright-colored, floral hips.
Women and children. Always the same just women and children Jacob thought. Quietly, he asked Adjoaa, “Where are all the men? Why is it just women and children I see here?”
“They’re mostly refugees,” Adjoaa began, “their men have either gone off to fight in a militia or are already moved on ahead, but most have probably been killed. A man’s life is short here.”
Jacob sat stunned, the finality of what Adjoaa said lingered in his ears. A man’s life is short here. Jacobs’ eyes looked at the still sleeping Miznarhi, who seemed to sleep unperturbed through it all. Miznarhi with his incredibly dark features waxing beneath the fatigue of sleep looked like, a dead man.
The hot day wore on and finally there in the distance along the evening stretched a vast dark emerald of a forest – the Wamba Forest of the Congo, gorgeously primeval, and a full splendor of green Jacob had never imagined possible. He stared in silent awe at the enormous magnitude of the marvelous world confronting him head on. His eyes tried to trespass ahead of the jeep, farther into the thick bloom of forest that paraded just beyond the roadway. A lush forest that looked new to human eyes, and completely untouched by human hands and seemingly even resisted the stare of human eyes, but Jacob could not help but continue to stare, held captive to the forests’ prolific visual grandeur. “Magnificent! Truly, magnificent! Pictures just don’t do it justice. It’s, like looking back in time!”
Adjoaa smiled at the innocence of Jacobs remark.
Indeed to look with naked eyes at a forest like this was like looking back in time to a place humans had never been but that really wasn’t the case. People had been in the Congo for a long, long time. The Congo was an ancient home for humankind’s ancestors…
With this lingering thought, Jacob continued to stare into the elder landscape, where at last he felt the forward revelation of the deep green marvel begin to realize his expectation of what it really meant to come to the Congo.Just then, an unseen monkey screeched somewhere off in the forest, its’ cry reminded Jacob of his reason for coming.
“Now about those kissing monkeys you’ve been telling me about bona-bos”
“Bo-no-bo,” Adjoaa said emphasizing the repeated O sound. “And they’re not monkeys they’re great apes.” But already Jacob was mouthing the word.
“Bo-no-bo” Jacob repeated trying it out. “Yes, yes I rather like the sound of it. Bo-no- bo. The way your lips make three kisses just to pronounce it, it’s fitting, it’s a funny little name, Bonobos. Just who named them that anyways? What does it mean?”
It was Miznarhi who answered quietly, slowly, with his eyes still closed appearing to be a man talking in his sleep. “It is from the speech of the Bantu; it means An-ces-tor.”
“Really? “Jacob marveled. “Ancestor. Huh, now that’s interesting. Just how much of an ancestor are we talking about here?”
“Well,” Adjoaa began, “Research suggests that 99.4 percent of our DNA and genes are identical to theirs; that’s more then even chimpanzees.”
“Why, they’re practically homo sapien eh? No wonder they like to kiss so much.” Jacob said amused.
“Actually,” Adjoaa began, “we’re more like them, then they are like us; ancestor remember? So you might say we’re actually pan-sapien, not homo-sapien.”
“Tomato, tomato.” Jacob said offhandedly, but really, what Adjoaa had said was no small thing to consider, but then,“Tomato is a fruit.” Miznarhi said his eyes awake and bright with humor.
Where the road ends… S a l o n g a
“So how long before we get to Salonga?” asked Jacob.
“There’s been a change of plans…we’re not going directly to the reserve; we’re going to head south of the Congo River and move up north near the Kasai River. We’ve got a small camp set up near the Cuvette Centrale, which is still in the Bonobo’s range.”
“Why the move?”
Adjoaa seemed to hesitate – as if maybe she didn’t want to say, but she knew she had to. “There’s been a heavy insurrection of militia in the area; it’s no longer safe. The village people have left and with them the protection of the reserve is gone and the Bonobos.”
“That bad huh?”
“Very bad.” Miznarhi answered. “Bush-meat.”
The way he said the last word emphasizing the lingering shhh sound, made the hush forbidding the telling of a desperate secret, but a secret everyone knew.
“Bush-meat” Jacob repeated the word. “Wait, do you mean? Do you mean, what I think you’re say’n?”
“They’re eating them, Jacob.” Adjoaa said. “They’re eating them. Ever since these damn wars broke out. There’s always been some poaching, but it’s different now with the fighting going on. The militias move in, the locals abandon their villages and run off into the forests for refuge, necessitating survival acts of deforestation, poaching, and bushmeat. We don’t know how many Bo’s are left… Before, maybe 10,000 in the whole of the Congo; but now, now we just don’t know. But we do know, five out of six Bonobo research groups have completely disappeared from the region; it’s a devastating realization, that’s over ninety-percent, just gone. It’s just, just terrible!”
“But, eating them?” Jacob muttered quietly, “I mean, I mean it’s like, like eating…” He didn’t finish speaking, he didn’t have to, but the word “Ancestor” flashed in his mind.
“There are worse things than THAT happening here.” Miznarhi declared. “Much worse.” Of course, he was right. The whole country was in severe crisis fraught with brutal civil wars and illegal exploitation on all fronts. People, land, resources, deforestation, blood diamonds – not to mention the AIDS epidemic and a plethora of other rampant diseases. The malestrom of violence, country-wide genocide, rapes and still more violence. People did gruesome things to survive, committing the most outrageous of acts against other people. To kill and eat a monkey, an ape – BUSHMEAT- even a kissing Bonobo. Ancestor. Again that word – was really nothing shocking…