Sharing in Africa
- Africa, Democratic Republic of Congo
- Personal Essay
(Excerpted from Chapter Four in The Ponds of Kalambayi)
People in villages across Kalambayi were trying to kill me. They were feeding me too much. With little in the way of possessions, but driven by a congenital desire to share what they could, villagers gave me fufu—teeming, steaming metric tons of it.
Fufu was the doughy white substance served at every meal. Women made it by pouring corn and manioc flour into boiling water, stirring the mixture with wooden spoons, then lumping the gummy results into calabash bowls where it assumed a size, shape, and weight not unlike small bowling balls. It had little taste but filled you up and that was its purpose: to compensate for the dishearteningly small servings of manioc leaves or dried fish that came with it. Kayemba Lenga told me a funny fable about how Kalambayan ancestors stole the recipe for fufu from mosquitoes long ago. Now, in protest, the bothersome insects buzz one's ears every night. Not being overly fond of fufu, nor the recurring malaria protesting mosquitoes had already given me, I asked Kayemba half-jokingly if it wasn't possible to give the recipe back.
But it wasn't possible. Fufu was as much a part of the landscape as the grass and rivers. In every village, around every corner, it was there, waiting for me, widening my waistline. Without exception, the villagers I visited each day insisted I have some before moving on. As in most traditional societies, the giving was ungrudging and automatic—born of kindness—and saying "no" simply was out of the question.
Here is how a fairly typical day goes for me:
I arrive at Bukasa's house at 8 a.m. and a bowl of fufu awaits me, releasing hot wisps into the morning air. "Come," he says. "Sit down. You need to eat before we go to the ponds." We eat and leave for work. At the ponds I meet Kayemba and Mulundu Ilunga, who cheerfully drag me back to their houses for large, back-to-back servings. I thank them afterward and leave for the next village, Bena Ngoyi. By the time I pull up to the huts it's 1 p.m.—lunchtime. Two more bowls of fufu. Sluggishly, my shirt buttons threatening to launch, I move on to Milamba for a quick look at a fish pond and a torturous sixth bowl. At the end of the day I'm transporting my bulk home under depressed tires when a man in Kalula flags me down. He wants to discuss digging a pond. We sit and talk, and when I rise to leave he tells me to wait. I panic. "No, seriously," I protest. "I'm not hungry. Really, no, please. Please don't." But he knows I'm just being polite. He has two wives and they both bring out fufu. I wash my hands. Bon appétit, he says.
This was something I hadn't counted on. I had expected a lot of challenges living in rural Africa, but being incapacitated by too much generosity, too much fufu, just wasn't one of them. And fufu wasn't the only thing weighing me down. Relentlessly, Kalambayans shared all their food, unloading on me whatever happened to be around when I rolled into view. They put oranges in my hands, peanuts in my pockets, stuffed sugarcane in my knapsack.
"It won't fit," I told Kayemba one day as he tried to tie an entire regime of bananas across my motorcycle handlebars. "I'll crash. Just give me five. That's enough."
"No, it's all right," he said. "I've got another regime in the house."
"I'll crash, Kayemba. Don't do it." I wasn't just being polite this time.
He yielded and sulked for a moment until the absurdity of his attempt caught up with him and we both laughed so hard tears welled in our eyes.
It was truly overwhelming, all this giving. The Kalambayans were some of the poorest people anywhere in the world, and yet they were by far the most generous I had ever met. Indeed, each time I thought I had been offered everything they had to share, something new was laid at my feet.
Barely three months after I moved into the Lulenga cotton warehouse, the village chief, Mbaya Tshiongo, appeared at my door dressed in his threadbare trench coat and ripped tennis shoes. He was a meek, doddering septuagenarian with whom my previous contact had been limited to conversations in the market where I told him repeatedly that, yes, everything was fine and, no, I didn't need anything. Now he had come to my house with something more dramatic on his mind. Standing at his side were his four eligible daughters, shy and fresh as daisies.
"Michel," he began, leathery half moons sagging under his eyes, "you live in my village and I am responsible for you. Take one of my daughters. You're alone. A wife will make your life better. Choose one and she will stay with you."
Half the people in the village were standing behind the chief waiting to see whom I would choose. Flattered and panicked in equal measure, my chest thumping, I fumbled for a way out of this with minimal loss of face. I walked up to the chief, put my arm around his shoulders and quietly guided him inside, where I explained things: "I can't accept, Chief. Really. They're beautiful women. But I'm fine by myself. I don't need a wife right now."
A cloud of perplexity crossed his face. He tried to reason with me. "But you do need a wife, Michel. Every man does. Look, I'll waive the dowry. You won't even have to pay me anything. Just take one." But I wouldn't budge. Standing to leave, the chief asked me to at least promise to let him know if I ever changed my mind. I said I would.
After the crowd dispersed and Chief Mbaya led his daughters, now wilted by rejection, back home, I was left alone in my house convinced there really were no limits to what these people would have me have. The intense desire to give moved me to admiration, especially because I knew villagers shared with each other with almost the same zeal they did with me, the visitor. It was a social habit lacking in my own culture and I was curious to know what it was, exactly, that produced it in Kalambayi.
Kazadi Manda, a lean, square-jawed fish farmer in Ntita Konyukua who had a mile-wide smile, provided part of the answer early one morning about a week later. We were sitting at his pond, tossing stones at toads and watching his tilapia eat a batch of papaya leaves spread across the liquid light of the pond's surface. His fish, like those of Chief Ilunga and the other new farmers, were coming along nicely, getting fat for the upcoming first harvests. After talking shop for a while, Kazadi and I turned our attention to other matters. I told him about Chief Mbaya coming to my house with his daughters.
"You're joking," he said. "He just walked up and said pick one and you refused?"
"But why? Why didn't you take one? It is a little strange that you live alone in that warehouse the way you do, don't you think? Nobody can understand it. Don't you want a wife?"
"Of course," I said. "Someday. If I can find the right person. But I barely know these women."
"I can't marry a woman just like that. I have to be in love first and she has to be in love with me. It takes time."
Kazadi didn't get it. The look of blank incomprehension on his face told me the relationship I was talking about didn't exist in his universe. He had no conception of the self, of the individual. Nor, by extension, did he fully understand the Western notion of romantic love between an individual man and woman.
"You don't get married for love," he told me. "You get married because you need a woman to cook your food and bear your children. Love is what you feel for your whole family. The happiness of your children and brothers and parents and grandparents—of all of them together—is what brings your own happiness. You can't get that by yourself or from a woman."
"So until I have a lot of children and a big group of relatives all around me I can never hope to be happy?" I said.
Sitting at the pond, listening to Kazadi pass on this truth with the conviction of an inspired cleric, I began to better understand the fabric of life in Kalambayi. The family was indeed paramount. Kazadi was wed to his relatives. And because each village was nothing but a collection of several extended families, and because it was often difficult, due to their size, to tell where one family began and another left off, this concern for the group was extended in large measure to include all members of the village and, ultimately, all people. Everyone treated everyone else more or less like a relative, whether he was or not. Everyone was taken care of, even Kalambayi's strange, white, American visitor—me.
Kazadi and I talked a while longer before spreading a final bundle of papaya leaves across the pond. When we finished he told me he wanted to harvest some peanuts from his field a short distance away. I didn't have to be in the next village for another hour, so I offered to help. He led the way up the valley.
Kazadi and I moved through a stand of banana trees, then a cotton field, then a stretch of grass that left our pants wet with dew by the time we reached his small plot of peanuts. We walked to the distant-most corner of the field and went to work, pulling the plants from the ground with our hands. The soil was poor here, sandy as in most of Kalambayi, and the stems lifted easily. Working 15 feet apart, we placed the plants in separate piles, first shaking dirt from the dangling shells. When each pile had roughly 20 plants, I figured we had about as many as Kazadi could carry comfortably back to his family. But he kept going. I did the same.
A moment later he finally stopped and tied the piles together in a large bundle. I went down to the spring to wash my hands. When I walked back up the hill to my motorcycle, the entire bundle of peanuts was tied, to my surprise, above the rear fender. Kazadi was hoeing in a field a little farther up. He stopped to wave goodbye. "They're raw," he said, pointing to the peanuts, "so boil them first and add a little salt before you eat them."
Curiously, this habit of giving in Kalambayi didn't rub off on me. Even as I watched, and was moved by, the sacrifices villagers like Kazadi made to keep me stocked with produce and filled with fufu, I didn't do the same. I didn't reciprocate. I accepted the food and other gifts when I could, but the idea of spreading around my own wealth in the same free and automatic manner didn't take hold. I hadn't been sent to Kalambayi to become like the people exactly. I taught fish culture. I shared an expertise. That was enough.
So on the off chance that I was hungry at the end of the day, I didn't eat in my yard like most people, inviting passersby to join me. I took my tin of sardines and plate of fried rice and stayed inside behind a curtain pulled across the front door. I was glad to be alone and eating something other than fufu, glad to be listening to the BBC's "Globe Theatre" blessedly broadcast in English over my short-wave radio. If someone came while I was eating, a friend or fish farmer, I stood at the door and told him that, well, I was having dinner and could he please come back later. Lifelong experience at suburban dinner tables had taught me that mealtime visitors meant embarrassment. You made apologies and they went away or waited until you finished.
I didn't really care or really wasn't conscious of the fact that the villagers around me thought this habit was a little strange, a bit obscene, even for a visitor. Mbaya, my worker, didn't tell me. Nor did any of my neighbors. And no one said anything about the fact that I smoked whole cigarettes by myself, not passing a portion of each one to other men in my company as was the local habit. I just did these things. Just like I socked away my money, saving as much of my living allowance as I could for the beer and french fries it would buy on my next trip to Mbuji Mayi.
To be sure, I had made a lot of changes since arriving—adapting to strange foods, learning to bathe in cold rivers, surrendering my native tongue for two years. But my attachment to the word "mine" was strong and stubborn. Whatever the villagers did, I had my things, I needed my things, and I didn't give them away. So much was this attitude a measure of who I was and the Western culture that produced me that during my early months it simply never occurred to me to try to change.
I suppose it's no wonder then that I treated Mutoba Muenyi the way I did. She was a beggar—a haggard, unkempt, insane beggar who roamed pretty much aimlessly through the villages of Kalambayi, sleeping in other people's huts or in the cotton storage house. Mbaya told me she was the daughter of a nearby village chief and had been made crazy years ago by the curse of a disgruntled husband.
I did my utmost to avoid Mutoba on those occasions when she came to Lulenga and stood under the cluster of palm trees in the center of the village, babbling nonsense in her high-pitched voice while gesturing for food and money. I avoided her because I've never handled beggars well. They intimidate me. I had moved through the streets of enough American cities to know that the usual response when confronted by a bedraggled panhandler is to hang on to your money and keep walking.
So when I turned to answer a tap on my shoulder one afternoon in the Lulenga market and saw Mutoba—clothes unwashed, teeth rotten, arms motioning toward the avocados I was buying—I ignored her. When she followed me through the market, creating a scene, I told her to stop and quickly made my way home, embarrassed by her presence. A few weeks later she appeared again, this time planting herself at my door, asking for money. Again I shooed her away. It wasn't until our third encounter that things began to change. Mutoba involved me in a small nightmare. She made me pay, in a sense, for all my previous behavior.
It happened in Lulenga, early one morning in June. The village was silent and still in the predawn darkness, everyone asleep, when Mutoba crept to my house, pressed her face inches from my door and started singing loudly. Her harsh voice woke me as if cymbals crashed above my bed. The song she sang was improvised, with lyrics telling how she was hungry and how I should give her something to eat.
Sleepy and annoyed, I lay in bed listening, cringing at the thought that half the village was doing the same thing. My clock said 5:45. "Sssshhhh," I hissed from my room, "be quiet. Go away. I don't have any food."
But the singing didn't stop. Not after five minutes. Not after 10. It went on and on, bludgeoning the morning quiet. Then something terrible happened. With mounting urgency, pushed on by the impurity of the local water, my body began signaling that it had something to contribute to the backyard outhouse—now. Cursing, I got up, grabbed my flashlight and began looking for the padlock to my door. Because the outhouse was around back, I would have to lock the front door on my way out, preventing Mutoba from entering while I was away. But suddenly there was a problem. I couldn't find my padlock. With my bowels approaching critical mass and Mutoba's hideous singing continuing outside, I searched everywhere, finding nothing. I had misplaced the lock.
There was nothing left to do but go outside. I opened the door. There she was. My flashlight revealed Mutoba's bare feet, her startled eyes. She didn't move. She just kept singing as I shut the door behind me. I dared not go to the outhouse now, leaving this crazy woman unwatched by an unlocked door. I sprinted past her one hundred feet to the far end of the cotton warehouse. There, off to the side in a patch of knee-high grass next to a palm tree, I turned facing her and lowered myself to my haunches. All the while I kept my flashlight fixed warily on her at the doorstep. I squatted and Mutoba sang, each of us staring with equal shock at the spectacle before us.
And that's how most of the village found us. To my yard they came—mamas and papas and their children rubbing sleep from their eyes. They filed out of their houses to see what all the commotion was about. A minute or so after the performance started, just as the rising sun was providing rosy light by which to see, there were several dozen thunderstruck people gathered along the edges of my yard, watching the mad showdown between the crapping foreigner and the crowing bag lady.
I was beside myself with humiliation and anger by the time I finished and stood. I walked straight to Mutoba. With the crowd looking on, I yelled at her to leave immediately. She, in turn, yelled back, calling me a muena tshitua over and over again. It was a name I had never heard before. After a moment, she finally left. The crowd, guffawing and embarrassed by all the ugliness, walked away.
About 30 minutes later, while I was sitting inside my house still trying to figure out what had just happened, Mbaya came by. He already had heard about the affair with Mutoba, but insisted I recount the story in full." You look a little ill," he said when I had finished.
"I feel ill."
Then I asked him a question: "What's a muena tshitua?" The words had stuck in my mind since Mutoba spoke them. "She called me a muena tshitua. What's that?"
Mbaya grew noticeably uncomfortable at this and heaved a forced laugh. "Oh it's nothing," he said. "You didn't know."
"Know what? What does it mean? What did she call me?"
Reluctantly, he told me. Mutoba had delivered one of the most serious charges one can make in Kalambayi. "A muena tshitua," he said, "is someone who doesn't share. She said you were stingy."
There was a brief pause after this, a few seconds when Mbaya avoided my eyes and I folded my arms. Hanging in the silence and permeating Mbaya's awkward manner seemed to be the suggestion that the muena tshitua label wasn't such a bad fit, that perhaps Mutoba was right.
"But how could I give her anything?" I asked him, breaking the silence. She had come at an outrageous hour, singing like a wild soul and wresting me from sleep, I said. Running her off was the only thing I could have done.
But even to myself my argument sounded a bit feeble. There were no mitigating circumstances to explain my other encounters with her, nor my conspicuously selfish behavior in general.
When I finished, Mbaya responded cautiously. Like most Kalambayans, he was often hesitant to openly criticize or correct. He softened what he was about to tell me by stressing that he thought I was basically a great guy and I shouldn't worry too much about what a deranged old woman told me. Then, delicately, he explained that I hadn't done the right thing that morning. It was all right to shoo Mutoba away, but the proper response was to give her a little food or whatever she needed first. That's what most people did.
He was right, of course. The same villagers who vigorously plied me with fufu and peanuts everywhere I went also took care of Mutoba. It wouldn't occur to them to do otherwise. She couldn't farm or provide for herself, so when her clothes became too torn, someone, somewhere, gave her new ones. When her filth became excessive, someone placed a piece of soap in her hand. The sense of familial generosity flowing through every village protected her.
But wrapped up in my own notions of privacy and propriety, trying to live in this culture without really being a part of it, I gave nothing to Mutoba. My problem, in a big sense, was greed. Not just greed toward the things I wanted to keep for myself, but toward this whole two-year trip abroad. I wanted to take as much from this African world as I could, to learn and experience, without surrendering any large part of myself, without making significant changes like replacing the faulty moral compass I had come out with with one that made more sense in this poor setting. Clearly, this resistance was bound to fail me. I had no desire to "go native," to become like a typical villager in every way. But to have any meaningful experience here, to leave with true friends and true insights, I had to let go of some strong habits. I had to rip something out in order to add something new.
This wasn't the message Mbaya had in mind, really, when he tried to educate me on that strange morning Mutoba Muenyi came to my house, but it's the one that started to sink in. His message, though not in as many words, was more simple: "You've been here long enough, Michel. It's time you stopped being such an appalling tightwad."
So, like learning to navigate bad roads and speak the local language, I had to learn to share in Kalambayi. I had to learn to put aside my excessive concern for my own interests and to open up my house and cupboards to people who did the same for me. Needled with shame after my talk with Mbaya, I began with Mutoba. The next time she came to my house—this time knocking on a moonlit evening—I shuffled into the kitchen and brought back a papaya and some dried fish. On following visits, I gave whatever else I had on hand. Weeks went by and there were other changes. I stopped the awkward practice of blocking my door when friends and neighbors came at dinnertime. When they arrived, they entered and ate with me. There was always more rice or fufu in the kitchen I could eat later. Similarly, I stopped smoking whole cigarettes. I started passing half of each one I lit up to whatever men happened to be around me at the time.
And, eventually, I took the big step. A good part of my 70-dollar monthly salary started sneaking away from me. It found its way to my closest friends, people who began to represent something of my own extended family: five dollars to Kazadi Manda to buy malaria medicine for his daughter; three dollars to Mbaya's brother to pay school fees; 50 cents of dried fish to poorer farmers whose children I knew had eaten nothing but manioc leaves for weeks. Saving money for a row of cold beers in Mbuji Mayi gradually lost its importance.
As time passed, it grew easier and easier to let go of what I had. The reason was simple: I had a lot. Like most people who go overseas to do development work, I did so expecting to find out what it's like to be poor. But awakening to my surroundings after a few months, I discovered that that's not what happens. Instead you learn what it's like to be rich, to be fabulously, incomprehensibly, bloated with wealth. Into this jumble of backwater villages, where every man had a mud house, a hoe, and 10 kids, I came stomping and rattling with a motorcycle and cassette tapes and books to read and boots to wear and a bed to sleep on. I had two kerosene lamps and kerosene to put inside them. I had tools to fix my motorcycle and a 200-liter barrel of gasoline to make it run. I had a tin roof over my head. No one in Kalambayi could afford to share more than I.
*now the Democratic Republic of the Congo