You envy the river its sense of place. The slow current of years. The Bantu expansion in 500 BC, the rise of the Kongo Kingdom on its left banks, the inevitable European intrusion. The innumerable crossings and the economy of bodies. In the wet early morning light, smoke rises over its waters.
It recalls the dawn of things.
Your family leaves the Congo in 1993, just as Mobutu Seko’s stranglehold on the country is loosening – one pried finger at a time. You have just celebrated your third birthday and your little brother is little more than 2 weeks old when you make your way to Cape Town/ Abidjan / Durban/ Johannesburg. You don’t remember much from that time, though you know our days are stored in the bones. As you grow up, you develop a kind of agnosia about your early beginnings. Memories return in unrecognised shapes. A spinning top of faces that feel at once familiar and unknown. When family visits from Lubumbashi and rush to kiss you, you feel blind panic. The sort that comes over you when you suspect you’re being followed by a stranger in the dark.
Over the years, your parents remain reticent about the details. There are rare exceptions, as when your father picks up the phone in the middle of dinner, speaks briefly, then sits down and announces calmly that that was his brother, some 40 years gone, who had been a child soldier. You don’t pry further. If agnosia is your affliction, aphasia is the primary diagnoses – a disassociation so acute that history becomes unspeakable.
At 19 you are formally diagnosed with Complex-Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (C-PTSD), a more enduring form of injury. While Post Traumatic Stress Disorder can develop in response to short-term exposure to a single traumatic event, C-PTSD occurs when someone has experienced severe, repetitive trauma over a long period. For those with C-PTSD there are two worlds. The one in which others live and the one occupied exclusively by those of us who are irrevocably injured. In the first there are friends and family, lovers and neighbours. The latter is a world in the singular. It’s you and your haunting, your blackouts and delirium. Living with trauma is an exercise in holding both.
The doctor is a middle-aged woman who reminds you of a pre-school art teacher. Her office is plastered with bright motivational Tumblr quotes that assure you: ‘it always seems impossible until it’s done’. She is the first of many medical professionals who can’t offer a definitive diagnosis. C-PTSD’s frequent comorbidity makes characterisation and causative factors difficult to determine. Your disorders are an endless series of Russian nesting dolls. Each doctor’s visit reveals a new affliction, which separates to reveal another related condition, which in turn comprises another disorder of the same sort inside of it. Over time, that initial prognosis is joined by Major Depressive Disorder, Generalised Anxiety Disorder and Panic Disorder. This tangled mess of diseases fuel and undercut each other in endless loops. Trauma is a disease of time and your temporality has been maimed.
After just four days in the capital, you have successfully avoided any implication of your nativeness. You have declined to learn Lingala – to your mother’s frustration – you refuse to eat fofo, complain of the smell when the domestic helper boils cassava leaves and express open revulsion at the offering of smoked caterpillars, a delicacy of the Katanga province. Late in the afternoon, your cousin persuades you to picnic by the river. It’s a smothering 32 degrees when you step out of the car. The humidity clings to you like a shadow. You peer out at the white plastic chairs and tables strewn along the river banks. A group of women sit under an umbrella, fanning themselves with their pagne in the bright yellow heat. From here, the river doesn’t look like much. You amble forward, your cousin leading you to a small alcove of palm trees and rocks. It’s cooler here as wind rises off the water. Now you are confronted with the fullness of it. The river is immense, wider than any river you’ve ever seen. The breadth of it stuns you. You walk to its edge, sit as close as you can to the water as your cousin warns you of the dangers of falling in. Something in the water reaches you, unlatches and you cry quietly. Revelations fall like fine rain – there is a street of brightly coloured doors, pink hibiscus and the paper language of bougainvilleas. There is your childhood best friend, your girl-limbs clutching plastic baby dolls in cotton dresses. There is your great grandmother, blind in one blue marble eye, gangrene in her leg, sobbing.
In Brussels stands Thomas Vinçotte’s crumbling “Monument aux pionniers belges au Congo” (“Monument to the Fallen of the Belgian Colonial Effort”.) At its inauguration in 1921, the Congo monument was celebrated as testament to Belgium’s endeavours in Central Africa. An information plaque beside the monument details this important site of remembrance:
“The monument to the Congo (1911-1921) is typical of the colonial spirit of the age, which has since been called into question by history. In the lower section, a young black man represents the River Congo. He is surrounded by two groups: on the right, a Belgian soldier sacrifices himself for his fatally wounded captain; on the left, a Belgian soldier overcomes the slave-dealer. In the central strip, the African continent, now open to civilisation, advances towards the group of soldiers around Léopold II. Above, Belgium receiving the black race is depicted as a proud young lady.”
You are fascinated by the language of statuary, the syntax of history. So much is bound up in stone, the soul of things indelibly carved in a desperate stand. Statues, like all art, capture something essential about those who create them – the very process of imagination. The loss of time, the enrapturement, the heady course of doing the work. There is a question at the heart of it: what do you see? And more importantly, what don’t you see?
What is forgotten is not forgotten
Your farther tries to kill your mother. It’s your brother’s 7th birthday and you’re up early to surprise him with breakfast. The world erupts into screams and jerks. Your mother is tumbling down the stairs, he rushes after her, kicks her on the landing. You can’t scream. Your lungs are wrong. Your breathing heaves inside out. How many people have witnessed someone they love pull someone else they love across a room by their hair? He’s trying to drag her out the door. You remember you have a body and leap onto his back, trying to pull him off her. He throws you across the room, and your body erases itself. You’re lighter than any desire. You materialise when the wall refuses to meet you.
Kalk Bay, 2018
You learn that the Congo River was once named the River Zaire, a truncation of the Kikongo words, “nzadi o nzere” which means “river swallowing rivers”. You think of the river’s hunger. In Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, the river is conjured as an immense snake slowly uncoiling as it prepares to strike and devour. When an article in Algezeera details the death of 45 people lost to floods in Kinshasa, you try to imagine it. Water weeps along dirt roads, eats at the wall of wooden shacks, swallows whole lives. You count the dead, picture their watery graves. That night, a friend points to a car guard, tells you “they’re all Congolese”. You are a country wrung out. You are every person consumed out of their place.
You’re in your first year at university and sleeping no more than three hours a night. One morning, after another string of wakeful nights, you stumble into a GP’s office, hysterical. You can’t remember how you got there. For weeks you’ve existed in a fevered dream. You’ve started to forget things. Small at first – your room keys, where you’ve left your glasses, where you’ve put your phone, but gradually the gaps in your memory expand. You lose whole hours to your fugue’s maw. You come to in the middle of a lecture, confused and terrified.
Disremembering as occlusion. Disremembering as forgetting oneself. Disremembering as disregard, as wilful neglect. Disremembering as a fracturing of the self. Dis(re)membering as disjoining. As scattering, dispersal, dividing into parts so as to destroy the integrity of the thing. Disremembering as a mode of displacement to dismember communities. Disremembering as revision, as editing a country’s story about itself. Disremembering as distancing oneself. Disremembering as absolving oneself. Disremembering as eluding the ghosts. Disremembering as survival.
It’s the rainy season and everything is soaked. Piles of garbage are buoyed up by murky rivulets. You’re sitting on the couch, your feet resting in your mother’s lap as she gently massages the soles. You’re watching a reality TV programme she likes about dramatic weight loss and personal transformation. It’s mindless and soothing. You can’t remember the last time you felt so whole. Water rushes through the drainage pipes and the walls speak a slow rattle. It’s the season of smooth rhythms and clean grace. You are a girl of water. Taking bucket baths in the dark, rushing to wring the clothes off the washing line, pressing the morning’s breakfast mangos sticky sweet. The world’s deepest river is in your blood.
Dona Beatriz Kimpa Vita was a Kongolese woman of high birth in the age of the Kongo Kingdom. She fell ill in 1704 and claimed to be possessed by the spirit of Saint Anthony, who addressed the kingdom’s problems through her. She was trained as a nganga marinda, an individual who consults the supernatural world to solve problems within the community. Through this communication with the divine she was given a vision of Kongo’s history and geography as inextricably linked to Catholicism and biblical teachings. According to this vision, Jesus was born in Mbanza Kongo and baptised not at Nazareth but in the northern province of Nsundi, in the Inkisi River – the last of the larger tributaries of the Congo River.
This revelation gives new meaning to the river’s sacramental past. The liturgy of baptism for Catholics calls us into the symbology of death, burial and resurrection. Whoever is brought into communion with Christ, as depicted and confirmed by baptism, is not only buried in Christ but rises with Christ also. The significance of the river is its capacity to re-member, to bring back from the dead.
In Hughes’ poem , “The Negro Speaks of Rivers”, the muddy Mississippi is his race, the primal and primordial source out of which he is born anew. The river participates in immortality. You don’t flow in one clear direction. You move forward, then twist and then wrap back around yourself. No life can be easily mapped or known.
Featured Image Credit: Anna Boyiazis, Finding Freedom in the Water (2019)