The Life Righting Collective runs courses to encourage self-exploration through life writing, raises funds for course fees and brings people together to share their stories and grow community.
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SOLILOQUY

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.

A NIGHT AMONG THE DEAD

The sky is angry, the wind is mad, the blanket of dust spreads in the air, heavens are crashing down breaking loose the cords which maintain them in their foundation.  Confusion in the sky, the clouds are spitting fire, fuming, smoke from earth echoes the thunders and lighting from above.  The war has intensified.  Storms of dust follow the trajectory of the jet fighters pounding and launching bombs on the towns and surrounding villages.  Flames blaze, rising from the rumbles, the magnitude of the destruction is so immense.

The ruins have replaced the old beautiful town and surrounding villages, turning them into ghost towns, a land of the dead, a paradise of wild animals and insects.  Bodies are left to rot on the ruins, in open air; the lucky ones are dumped in shallow mass graves.  The decay of the corpses has left a haunting odour no amount of fine perfume can eradicate.

Dogs, vultures, wild dogs and hyenas are all over the place feasting.  The meat for ants, maggots, and insects is free and so abundant.  The flies have found a breeding ground like never before.

Two months have passed since the war began and no ceasefire has been declared.  What next? Next is tomorrow, tomorrow is a mystery, tomorrow is where God resides.  Two weeks ago, we left the town of Musumba, our residential sanctuary.  We are on the run, on a journey into the unknown destination, an unknown but hopefully safe place.

We move every day from one location to another.  We cross hundreds of streams, pass villages and go through the wild forest.  The group is shrinking day by day. Some comrades have given up and turned back to join the army of liberation of Katanga, some are lost in the jungle, some are dead; the mines, the shells and stray bullets are killing many more.  We don’t stop to mourn.  Let the dead bury the dead.

Hunger, lack of clean drinking water, malaria, meningitis outbreak, insects, scorpions, snake bites and poisonous thorns are ending the lives of many more.  Death has many stings in its arsenal.  A navy blue lady bag with a long strap, a gift from my cousin Genevieve on my confirmation day, is my treasure.  A Bible, a note book, a pen, my family photo and my rebel card or pass are my only belongings.  Same dress, a pair of shorts, a jersey, and a wrapper are the clothes on my body for months.  The black sneakers on my feet are torn, but they keep me going.  Limping from the injury I sustained on my left foot, I find myself tracking always at the end of the queue.

I wish for a quick death, rather than a long perilous journey into the unknown.  The lice are not invited, but they become my hosts.  There are ticks on my toes, and tropical bugs find a nest in my clothing, hair and body.  My entire body is covered with scabies, my nails are sharp, hard, long and dirty, but I need them for many chores and for my survival.

For three days the rain pours, and the downfall turns pathways into streams and rivers.  In one place the current is so strong it sweeps away a group of children.  We find refuge in the rubble and ruins of an old school.  Soaking wet, weak, cold, shivering, hungry, bruised and thirsty we manage to make a shelter with wood and pieces of iron sheets left from the aerial destructions.

‘People of God you must quit this place now. Run as fast as your legs can carry you.’ In his white garment, with beads around his neck and wrists, charms over his body, a hat of leopard skin on his head, we see that it is a traditional healer who warns us.  ‘I overheard an informant telling the soldiers that the mutineers of the army of liberation, a group of thirty to forty people, have found refuge in the school. They are traitors, friends of the government,’ he says.  ‘Don’t follow the stream, they will catch you, turn left and go straight wherever your ancestors lead you.’

Before the old man ends his sentence, we continue on the run, moving so quickly. The sun had set down. We keep moving in the dark until we are told by the leaders and the elders to stop and find a shelter nearby in the cassava farm. We are welcome to rest, to be quiet and to spend the night in the field.

We camp in the cassava fields. A fire is lit, and we warm our bodies and dry our clothes. The cassava trees are uprooted to keep the fire burning until dawn. Smoke engulfs us, we smell it, breath it and inhale it like never.

‘Abominations, sacrilege, taboo, unthinkable, confusion, curse − this is a cemetery,’ someone cries out. ‘Where is the cassava field?’

‘God of spirit have mercy! What have we done?’

No word can be uttered, no amount of ‘sorry’ and ‘forgive us’ can appease the act of such abomination. We have defiled the resting place of the spirits, the dead and the land of our ancestors.

We run like mad people. But before leaving the cemetery, the elders stop us.

‘No one steps out from this place. Come down, we have wronged the dead, disturbed the spirit and committed abominations.’

The elders and the leaders plead with the spirits on behalf of everyone who spent the night in the cemetery and made a fire with crosses.

Money and valuable items are deposited on the places where the fires were lit. The traditional healer and high priest are called to come and appease the spirits and cleanse us from evil and curses. They perform rituals and ceremonies. Then they tell us to leave the place, not to look back, to head towards the east and to bathe in the stream nearby.

*

On that fateful night, I spent time among the dead, in the land of spirits, the sanctuary of ghosts, I was running from death, but that night I sat side by side with the dead. I shared their tombs, resting place, but death showed mercy on me. The gates of death were closed and telling me in a language of the dead: It is not your time.

Your time will come. It is a mystery, said death to me. What is next in this journey into the unknown? Next is tomorrow, tomorrow is a mystery, tomorrow is where God dwells.

Charlotte, it is not your time. Go and sprout like a sweet potato.

FROM LARGO TO LARMENIER, CHAPTER 1

“O sole mio sta ‘nfronte a te…” Mario’ s light tenor voice rings out with desperate longing while singing the old Neapolitan song.  We are sitting on the front steps of our house in the gathering dusk, looking for the first stars to make their appearance in the sky above the row of poplars closer to the road. There is a smell of freshly mowed grass, and when the gentle breeze stirs the leaves a little, one can even smell a faint whiff of cow dung coming from the cow sheds.  Guiseppe sits one step above us.  Like Mario he wears a snow-white short-sleeved vest and long khaki trousers with brown army boots, and he softly sings along.  I know the words of most of their songs and when I sing along they smile, look at each other and say “Che bella voce, you be opera singer one day.”

I am curious. “Opera singer? What does an opera singer do?”

“Ah, seeng, of course, and make a lotsa money!”

Mario can scarcely comprehend that anyone in the world does not know what an opera singer is, even if it is an inquisitive seven-year-old girl with long brown plaits on the southern tip of Africa, many miles away from his beloved Bologna. In his quaint English he tells me of the marvels of opera and I listen, enraptured. Could it be that there is a place, far from here, in the wonderful country called Italy where they come from, where you can enthral people with your singing and also make a living from it? My father often reads to us aloud from the Bible about earning your bread by the sweat of your brow, and here Mario tells this incongruous tale of earning a living just by dressing in beautiful clothes and singing on stage. Mario is a great story teller and perhaps this is just one of the stories he tells to amuse me.

By the time Mario sings “La donna é mobile” from Rigoletto, Guiseppe gets up to help my mother prepare supper in the kitchen. He ducks under the strings of laboriously handmade pasta on lines stretching the length of our big kitchen, before he carefully gathers some of it for the big pot of boiling water on the stove. Our Italians do not think much of our local pasta and rather make their own, no matter how much time it takes.

My mother, wearing one of her embroidered aprons, stands in front of the Ellis de Luxe coal stove from where she supervises the kitchen activities. Guiseppe also regularly kneads the dough for the three loaves of brown bread that we need every day, while my mother stands next to him with a white cloth in her hand with which she occasionally dabs the perspiration from his forehead and face. We are all longing for soft white bread, but there is a war raging somewhere, far away, and it is prohibited to use white flour and to eat white bread, so we have to be content with brown bread.

Soon the entire family – my parents, three big brothers, my elder sister, Mario, Guiseppe and I – sit around the big oak table with the golden glow of the oil lamp overhead. From where I sit between my parents I smell the divine aroma rising from the freshly baked bread, the herby pasta sauce and the salad, glistening with the oily dressing that the Italians prefer, even though they bemoan the fact that real olive oil is not available. I can hardly wait for my father to say grace. We all close our eyes, father thanks God for what we are about to receive, the Italians cross themselves and, as one big family, we start our evening meal.

***

“Our Italians” were prisoners of war. They were captured in Somalia and Abyssinia during the Second World War and sent to a prisoner-of-war camp at Zonderwater near Pretoria. My father owned a small dairy at Largo on the edge of the East Rand, and needed to expand the cow sheds and cooling rooms, so he applied for permission to employ some of the prisoners of war from Zonderwater. And that is how Mario and Guiseppe and, after them, Rafaello, Antonio and Peppino became part of our lives and an important part of my youthful thinking and future development.

Gentle Mario was my favourite among the Italians. I liked the way he always sang while working. Singing came to him as naturally as breathing. He had a gentleness about him that matched his soft-grained voice. His brown eyes were rather sad, even though he often smiled showing even white teeth in a healthy sun-tanned face.

Guiseppe was taller, more cynical and sported an Errol Flynn moustache below his elegant Roman nose. Homesick for his hometown of Mantua, he was disgusted by the never-ending war and in broken English told us how San Pietro is waiting for all the world leaders to condemn them to inferno. Teasingly, my father asked him but what about his own leader, Mussolini? Whereupon he became agitated: “Especially Mussolini! Inferno! Inferno! And he will have to walk with no shoes over very sharp nails to get there. Me, Guiseppe Corti, will stand there next to San Pietro to see that it happens.” With an expression of extreme pain on his face he demonstrated on tiptoe how he hoped this mighty leader of his nation would one day suffer.

My father tried to calm him by asking what would happen when he reached the Pearly Gates. Guiseppe’s expression softened: “Ah, mister Deysel, avanti in Paradiso” and with a sweeping gesture of his long arms he swept away all imaginary obstacles on the road to Paradise. My father was thrilled to hear that according to Oracle Guiseppe he would go straight to Paradise. We all laughed and tried to forget that there was a war raging thousands of miles away.

In the mornings Mario would take me, on the frame of our bicycle, to school some distance away and collect me again in the afternoons. Along the way he would tell me opera stories and talk longingly about his wife and baby. At home he showed us photographs of his moglie e bambino, his beautiful young wife and fat baby boy. When the time came for Mario and Guiseppe to return to camp after their allotted time with us, I was in tears. The stables and cooling rooms that they built were like monuments that reminded me of the magical time that they stayed with us.

The other men, Rafaello, Antonio and Peppino, who followed in their footsteps, did not make the same impression on me. After the war we received a few letters and postcards from Italy, but it stopped after a while. Little did Mario know that, with his stories of opera and through listening to their beautiful language and songs, a seed had been planted in my mind that would bear fruit in a wonderful way later in my life.

You can buy Magriet’s book FROM LARGO TO LARMENIER by emailing her here.

The Life Righting Collective runs courses to encourage self-exploration through life writing, raises funds for course fees and brings people together to share their stories and grow community.
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