My first experience of life was death. Mind you, it is not as if I remember, but I know the story told often enough of how my mother, my baby brother and I crossed a street and were hit by a truck. My mother is Nkelani Deceased. Her features do not exist in my mind, but her body is the shape of all the models I drew when I wanted to become a fashion designer in my teenage years – a dream long forgotten. I imagine that Nkelani had a head wrap and a wax print cloth as a skirt tied at her waist with two cords perhaps, if she kept some weight after her pregnancy. Her top is from the same six yard piece of fabric she must have received as a gift for bearing a second son. She looked beautiful on the day she died, carrying the blessed one on her back, with his hands and legs clutching her sides, yet resting in the same cloth. I was holding her hand, not yet looking left and right, but enjoying the fast moving buses and cars, the hooting and shouting. It was before dusk. There were traders packing and people walking home. There was a truck and there was us.
I wake up. I am inside. Metal clanging. Something old. A jeep perhaps. There are men dressed in khaki green. I cannot hear what they are saying. There is a body laid down. I have tears in my eyes. I have pain all over. My insides are burning.
It is dark. There are lights. Some strange faces come close to me. Lips move. There is the sound of a beat nearby, and a voice singing.
I am in a car.
I am in a house.
My mother speaks to me in a language that I later learn is French. She tells me: If you don’t speak French, you cannot speak. My mother is harsh that way, but she carries me a lot. I am not on her back like the little boy was on Nkelani Deceased, but I am on her hip. I am light with a round tummy. Sometimes her body is cold but it is always warmer than that of the other mother. I do not know how I got here, but it is the house next to the plot where the shack is.
I now live at La Villa Ingrid. The house is named Ingrid for my sister. She is 8. I am 4. We met when I was crying and she gave me biscuits. It is before we were sisters, before her mother became my mother and her father became my father. I have an aunt with red hair and blue eyes who caresses my back and my arms and puts me on her lap. She is the warmest. I managed to walk up the stairs to reach her and I put my hand on her knee to bring myself closer to her body. She started to shout: ‘Food, food. Somebody bring food. This child is hungry!’ My tummy is still full from lunch and it is still round because it has always been like that. I put my head on Tata Danielle’s leg. I am happy when I can touch her.
My aunt’s husband died. I know because my father is crying.
‘Papy, why are you crying?’
‘Because Frans is dead chérie’.
‘He is dead?’
‘Yes, he won’t come back. We won’t see him again. Never.’
I cry. And I say ‘but you, you must not die. If you die, I want to die too.’
Frans Van den Broek’s passing brought another awareness of death to me, the one that would make me choose death rather than life and I was not yet five.
My eyes are moist now and so are my father’s. He is entertaining two couples. He tells the best stories over meals. Lunch today is a delicious canard à l’orange that his wife Tanya has cooked. The table and chairs have ivory inlaid, the tablecloth is cream and the cutlery is perfect. There are two people from our past and they know the story. The other two are new which is why my father tells it. They seem to be charmed. This is the way it always is with our visitors and even among ourselves. Our houses could be in glossy magazines, and we say beautiful things in a polite manner. We keep the dirty emotions hidden. Dad and I both have eyes shining with tears and I wipe mine then look away. He tells this story to prove how much I have loved him, always, ever since I was little. He is not wrong. But this is the story he chooses to tell. The one I speak of often is about the soldiers who picked up Nkelani’s body and took us to an army base. She had no face but she was my mother and then I had another mother and a father and a sister with white faces and that is why I need to explain who I am.
I am Philomène Luyindula. Until I was twelve, I thought I was Philomène Lasoen, but I am called out of class one day and when I return I am Philomène Luyindula and I feel ashamed of it. I follow the school principal to his grey office where he tells me to sit on a big chair that twists to the left as I put my bum on it. His hair is neither blond nor brown, it is short. He walks with his upper body bent forward as if he needs to get to his office before his legs get there. His white hands show me a page which I understand is not blank, but I cannot read it because his voice cuts as sharp as the scissors that must have given him that hair style. His words tell me that I am not a Lasoen and that I am not Belgian. From now on I am going to be called Luyindula and my father is going to pay the school fees at a higher rate, the one for the Congolese. I am at le Lycée Prince de Liège, the Belgian school in Kinshasa, the capital of Zaïre. Like me, my country has changed names twice already, but it will only revert back to Congo in 1998. As an adult I resent people who ask me if I come from the Belgian Congo. I wish people could find non colonial references for the second biggest country of Africa which happens to be right in the centre of the continent.
The principal is from Belgium like the previous principal of course. That one who used to smile at me and his grey hair had light and dark that waved gently around his ears. He always said ‘Philomène, Philomène’ in a singsong voice whenever our paths crossed. He once told me that his grand-mother was named Philomène. I like that name. I like Philomène Lasoen but now with this new principal I am called Philomène Luyindula. I do not know where one puts the emphasis, on the ‘du’ or on the ‘la’. I cannot speak Lingala anymore. I cannot speak Kikongo either, which is the language of ‘my people’. I know that I am from Bas-Congo, from the region of Cataractes and that my tribe makes me a Mukongo. It means nothing to me but that information is written on a green piece of smooth paper folded in three and it contains my other identity. I know that Luyindula Ndevolo means Think Before You Act. This is the name that Ndevolo Bibenga gave me. This is my other father. The one who comes to visit me and speaks the language that left my memory shortly after Nkelani’s last breath. Nkelani has totally disappeared except for the writing on a birth certificate with a stamp of the late seventies, that states that I was born in ‘74. After her name follows the word Deceased. No surname. For the date of my birth there is also the number 24 with the month April. My birthday has always been celebrated on the 12th and no one can tell me why.