A Congolese Man in Paris
“Watch where you’re going, Little Man,” Sylvere said, speaking in Kikongo and placing his hand on the head of the small boy. Sylvere stood next to the open drawer of his desk inside the room he used as an office at his modest but comfortable two-story house in the old section, built in the ’70s, of Combs-la-Ville not far from the municipal swimming pool. He had been looking for some documents which he never did find. The boy, Charles, who was five years old, had burst through the open door of the room, kicking a small soccer ball with one foot and running head first into the older man’s legs.
“Désolé, Papy,” Charles said, picking up the ball with both hands and running back through the open door into the hallway toward the kitchen. Sylvere watched the boy disappear. The light in the room, which came from the sunlight entering a narrow window in the western wall, was growing weaker as the sun set.
“He spends more time here than in his own house,” Sylvere said to himself, wondering if his grandson, the son of his oldest daughter, Sylvie, and her husband, Richard, was going to spend the night again. It was almost 7:00 on a Sunday evening, the day before Bastille Day, France’s most important holiday. Probably his daughter and son-in-law would be going out somewhere to celebrate, not that they needed a special occasion to dump their son on his grandparents.
“Papy!” the boy yelled from the kitchen. “Grandma says your dinner is ready!” The boy’s French was improving every day.
Sylvere realized he was hungry. He grasped the handle of the drawer and was pushing it back into the wooden desk frame when he thought he saw a flash of red light. He opened the drawer again, pulling it out as far as it would go. This time he was certain. He saw a flash of red light at the back of the drawer. He hadn’t noticed it earlier because the light of the day still predominated. He removed all of the contents from the drawer. There, lying against the bare wood at the back, he saw it. How did it get there?
The sight of a mobile phone in that location perplexed Sylvere. Then he recognized the device. It was the one he used when, upon retiring from IBM where he had worked for almost 40 years as an electrical engineer, he worked on occasion as a consultant, accepting small projects from clients in France and other countries of Europe. After another few moments, Sylvere recalled he had used the phone perhaps two weeks before to make a single short call because the contact information of the former colleague he had wanted to reach was stored inside the device.
Sylvere grasped the phone. Immediately, he noticed the battery was dying. It very well might die at any moment, he realized. But also, he saw that he had missed three calls. Each one was from the same phone number. The number was not one Sylvere recognized, although he did recognize the first part, +243, the country code of Congo.
Then Sylvere noticed three new voice-mail messages waiting for him. Realizing the battery of the phone could die at any moment, he attempted to listen to the messages. He was able to listen to the first one. Next, he was able to move to the second one. Finally, he listened to the third one. The battery died.
Sylvere placed the phone on top of the desk, turned around, walked through the open door of his office, turned to the left, and entered the kitchen. He walked to one side of the kitchen. It was the side opposite the operational part of the room with its stove, oven, sink, and other appliances. It was in this part that his wife, Josephine, and his daughters seemed to cook and clean at all hours of the day and night, but here too he sometimes prepared a special Congolese recipe of white beans just for himself.
Now a plate with a piece of fish and a portion of vegetables from which steam still rose awaited Sylvere at the table. He sat down before the plate.
“Will you want anything else?” Josephine asked, speaking in Lingala, the predominant language among residents of Kinshasa, where she and Sylvere had met each other many years before. “I want to go into the living room and watch the television for a little while.”
“No, merci,” Sylvere replied, smiling at his wife, who left the room. The boy was nowhere to be seen. Probably he already was in the other room watching cartoons. But Sylvere was thinking about his childhood friend, Ronald. Sylvere had been thinking of Ronald since hearing a few minutes before the three voice-mail messages which the doctor in Kabare had left for Sylvere over the course of the previous two weeks.
Now Ronald was dead. Now Claudette, Ronald’s daughter, was in desperate need of Sylvere’s help. Sylvere knew he had to honor the wishes of his friend, who in his final message just a few days before he was killed by militia members had issued an urgent appeal to Sylvere: Please rescue my daughter from Congo and take her to France.
Charles jerked his hand free of Josephine’s hand and ran toward the other boy, who held a half-full bottle of orange soda in one hand and with the other was waving a toy robot in the face of a small girl. Josephine and Sylvere, moving more slowly, followed their grandson through the open front door of the house into a large, high-ceilinged room, where in addition to children a group of adults sat in chairs or stood around a long table covered in a white embroidered cloth and laden with dishes displaying a variety of foods. Music came from a speaker placed on one end of a bar which divided the front room from the kitchen and a backyard beyond.
The music wasn’t too loud. It mixed easily with voices, laughter, and sounds of children playing in the hot, still air of the room. Sylvere recognized the song. It was a famous ballad, called Wapi Yo, by the singer and song writer Lokua Kanza, who came from the town of Bukavu in eastern Congo just west of the border with Rwanda.
“We won’t stay long,” Josephine said to her husband. “I know you don’t like these parties.” She was speaking in Lingala. “Anyway, we can’t stay long,” she continued. “Sylvie and Richard will be at our house at 5:30 to pick up Charles. Sylvie has the early shift at the airport tomorrow.” Josephine waved at a woman across the room. “But I want a chance to talk with my friend, Berenice,” Josephine added, starting to walk away. “I haven’t seen her for over a month.”
“She’s right,” Sylvere said to himself, watching his wife as she greeted people in the room. “I don’t like these parties, either to celebrate Bastille Day or any other day.”
Sylvere wanted a chance to talk with his friend too. He had an urgent matter to discuss with him in fact. Sylvere glanced at his watch. It was almost 3:00. The afternoon was passing quickly. He knew it wouldn’t be easy to have a moment in private with his friend, Pinto, though. Even if Sylvere didn’t want to celebrate the holiday, Pinto had no choice. As the owner of the house and the host of the party, he had duties to fulfill.
“I hope you didn’t walk over here,” said a voice. Sylvere looked to his right at a man who had stood up from a sofa under the front window of the house with its view of a garden of red and white roses, a gate made of black wrought iron, and the street itself which led down the hill to the center of Combs-la-Ville. The man, who was a few years younger than Sylvere, had spoken his words in French as he approached. “It’s hot outside,” the man added in Lingala, laughing.
“It’s hot inside,” Sylvere replied quietly in French, looking back toward the middle of the room and trying to spot Pinto. He had never really liked the man now standing next to him. The man, Serge, who had grown up in Kinshasa but who like Sylvere had lived for many years in France, always seemed to try too hard to impress others, particularly other members of the Congolese community, with ostentatious shows of wealth. He and his wife, Penelope, had a reputation for showing up to a party flashing expensive pieces of jewelry they had purchased for the occasion only to put the necklaces, rings, and earrings up for sale on one Web site or another after the event.
“Maybe they think nobody knows,” Bernadette, Pinto’s wife, had once said to Josephine. “But it’s more likely they just can’t control themselves.”
Sylvere typically didn’t concern himself with such matters but at that moment he found himself looking at Serge, moving his gaze across the younger man’s hands, arms, and neck. It appeared that Serge was not wearing, in fact, any jewelry at all. Sylvere was about to scan the room for Penelope when he stopped himself. Suddenly, he felt the need to know something else entirely, even if he had to ask the opinion of a man known for his materialism, not his wisdom.
“Do you think we’ll ever have a stable political system in Congo?” Sylvere asked in Lingala.
“Stable?” Serge replied. He took a sip from a glass of lemonade he held in one hand and studied Sylvere’s face. “Stable how?”
“Stable like the institutions here in France,” Sylvere said, looking across the large room into the kitchen. He saw Bernadette standing in front of a wide stove. She was using a wooden spoon to stir the contents of a pot.
“Oh,” Serge said. He took another sip of lemonade from his glass. “I see,” he continued, looking at Sylvere with a glint in his eye. “You’re asking because of the French holiday we have today,” Serge added. Then he smiled, tilting his head slightly to one side, as if he had caught Sylvere in a trick. Sylvere, though, was silent, scanning the people in the room. He still didn’t see his friend, Pinto. “Well,” Serge said finally, “no, honestly, I don’t. But don’t forget the French rebelled against Louis XVI in 1789 and then fell into the grip of Napoleon in 1799. He was a warlord who led the French into disaster. France wasn’t stable then; Frenchmen weren’t free.”
“Congo is rich and has great promise,” Sylvere replied, even though he didn’t think the prospect for peace back home would improve any time soon. Serge waited. He expected an elaboration of some sort from Sylvere. But Sylvere was silent again, watching the people in the room. Serge turned to look at the other party goers too. He drank the final few drops of lemonade from his glass. Then he turned back to Sylvere.
“So you didn’t walk over here?” Serge pressed Sylvere, laughing again. Serge knew Sylvere lived close by. He also knew Sylvere recently had started walking two miles every day and swimming 50 laps in the municipal pool three times per week in an effort to lose weight and improve his overall fitness. But Sylvere, who had just driven Josephine and Charles the four blocks from his house on Rue Gustave Hervé to Pinto’s house on Rue René Descartes in his old beige Renault 360C sedan, had no desire to humor the man.
“Pinto needs to have two or three fans going at the same time in this room,” Sylvere said, again speaking quietly in French before noticing one small fan turning rapidly on its axis at the end of the bar near the mouth of the kitchen. “He needs to put a big one right here next to the front door,” Sylvere added, turning to look at the ground behind him.
“He did,” Serge said. “But a few minutes before you arrived it stopped working.” Serge paused. “Pinto said he could fix it,” Serge continued, glancing in the direction of the backyard. “Then he disappeared outside with it.” Sylvere didn’t react. A silence ensued. Sylvere was thinking about going outside too. But he decided to prepare a plate of food for himself before going into the backyard to find Pinto. Serge shifted his weight from one foot to another. “Sylvere, I’m sorry about Ronald,” he added. Sylvere looked at Serge.
“Yes, me too,” Sylvere said finally, moving toward the table with its dishes of food. Bernadette, who was approaching the table from the kitchen, stopped in front of Sylvere. She was carrying a large earthenware pot covered by a glass lid in both hands.
“Try some of my white beans,” Bernadette said in Kikongo to Sylvere, placing the large pot next to a dish of vegetables on the table and removing the glass lid. Like Sylvere, Bernadette and her husband, Pinto, were members of the Kongo ethnic group originating in southwestern Congo. “I think my recipe is better than yours,” she added. Then she placed the lid back on the pot and looked at Sylvere. “But you can eat later,” she said. “Pinto is waiting for you in the shed.”
Sylvere, relieved no one else attempted to talk with him as he made his way into the backyard, found Pinto in the aluminum shed he had transformed into a small workshop. The two men had known each other for more than 40 years. They had met not back in Africa, however, but rather in Europe, where both of them had gone to work at the French headquarters of IBM in Paris at about the same time. Both of them had been able to emigrate from Congo to France because of their educational background and their technical expertise as electrical engineers.
In front of Pinto on a high bench in the middle of the workshop was a large fan which he had disassembled and now was in the act of re-assembling.
“I had to replace a relay,” Pinto said in Kikongo, glancing at Sylvere. “It should work now.” He plugged the power cord into an outlet and flipped a switch on the fan. Nothing happened.
“You better hurry up and fix it,” Sylvere replied. “If your guests haven’t left already, all of them are going to die of heat stroke.” Then he told Pinto about the calls and accompanying voicemail messages from Ronald. Pinto, who had not had a personal relationship with Ronald but who had heard about the doctor’s death like everyone else, didn’t speak. Sitting silently on his stool, Pinto placed both hands palms down on the work bench for a few moments. Then he removed the power cord from the outlet and stared at the fan.
“What are you going to do?” Pinto asked finally.
“I’m going to honor Ronald’s wishes,” Sylvere replied. “I’m going to bring Claudette to France.”
“Yes, I understand,” Pinto said. “But how are you going to do it?” Both Sylvere and Pinto knew how difficult it was to bring an African either legally or illegally to Europe. Both knew that in the end it could prove impossible.
“I don’t know yet,” Sylvere said, leaning over the bench and switching the positions of two tiny electronic components near the base of the fan’s blades. He re-inserted the power cord and flipped the switch. The blades started turning slowly then very rapidly. “But now you’re going to help me.”