Many years ago, when I was young and harbored the dream of becoming the next George Orwell, I lived for a year in a shanty town in eastern Congo--then Zaire. The idea was that I would gather the life stories and daily experiences of some of the town's residents, throw in a few of my own impressions and feelings, add a sociological note or three, and--voila, the next Road to Wigan Pier. So, for example, I spent a few weeks with a cart pusher, one of those fellows who work with three or four others pushing out-size wheelbarrows loaded with 50 kilo sacks of manioc or twenty-foot iron rods up and down the town's hilly roads. Those roads are steep. The landscape of the region is all rounded peaks and valleys, like the inside of a corrugated egg container, and colored an emerald green streaked with dusty roads that after the rains turn into grinding rivers of rust-colored mud.
My cart pusher was an uncomplicated person, somewhat baffled by my interest in the minutia of his daily life, and like many physically imposing men he gave off a feeling of great gentleness. I remember thinking one evening as we labored to account for the $5.75 or so he had earned that day--this much to the cart owner, that much to his laborers, a small amount for the cart-pushers association, and then his family expenses, the food, rent, school fees for his younger siblings, and some 10 to 15 cents left over most days for a smoke--that as long as he had his health and those tendons and muscles of iron he would be OK. I also remember thinking that it was a shame he had to spend 50 cents a day renting the cart when he could have bought it outright for 50 dollars; today, of course, we know all about micro-credit, but it wasn't on my radar screen then.
My own plans didn't work out, of course, and within a few years Bukavu itself would go from being a palmy, Graham Greene-ish backwater to the epicenter of Africa's world war, without ever losing its seedy, backwater feel. Sometime before then, around the time of the Sovereign National Conference, when it was briefly possible to be hopeful for the Congo, I wrote the following. The story's details are true, or mostly so, but the way I tell the story bears evidence of how young I was; here and there you can hear the squeaks of my voice changing. From time to time I've thought about re-writing the piece; I would be harder on myself; play it more for comedy; but then it wouldn't be a true bill of the experience. I wrote it over a month of stops and hesitations, like an inchworm flailing forward, looking for the next bit of leaf or ground to secure itself to, never quite sure what I could ask the reader to accept. It is my ur-story, such as it is.
This was published in a magazine called DoubleTake in the Winter of 1997, five years or so after being consigned to a drawer in my desk. Doubletake was an immensely ambitious, coffee-table fine art magazine, published by the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University under Robert Coles and Alex Harris. The magazine folded after a decade's work; the sincerity it exuded was not part of the zeitgeist, and if the age hadn't killed it the Internet almost surely would have. I remain grateful to them for publishing one of my earliest attempts.
Game of Hearts