by Dicho Disashi Ilunga
(edited by Rowan Bill Williams)
I had just turned seventeen in the year that Uncle Sello came to fetch me. He promised my mother and my grandmother that he and his wife, Jeane, would feed me and house me at their own expense. “We will look after Kalao as we would a son,” he promised.
At the time, Uncle Sello was working in one of the diamond mines near Leonville in the Belgian Congo many kilometers from the forest village where I was born and raised. He had worked there most of his life. The pay was good, but it was hard, dangerous work. Many died in the mines from cave-ins and accidents.
Now, past middle age, my uncle’s dream was to use his savings to purchase a small store where he could live out his life as a shopkeeper. Part of that dream was that I would learn to run his store. He promised to bequeath it to me when he died.
Short, muscular, with a close clipped crop of hair that seemed just on the verge of turning gray, Uncle Sello had earned his strength of character through a lifetime of honest hard work often deep beneath the surface of the earth. I especially remember his soft-spoken voice with its clearly defined authoritative ring. Other men respected him; those beneath him in rank as well as those above him. Even the mine ownership knew him and had come to trust his judgment when inevitable crises occurred far beneath the surface. He never seemed to waste words. He left little room for argument. Yet, he readily accepted honest and intelligent suggestions when time allowed. It was easy for me to see why his bosses had placed him in charge of his unit at work. Men like Uncle Sello, who have lived through many crises in the mines, seem to develop qualities of leadership of unsurpassed value.
One of my first recollections of Uncle Sello occurred years ago when I was very small. The mines were closed for a holiday and he arrived home to Kisangu, our village, for just a short visit with my grandparents and my mother. At first, I could not take my eyes off his feet. My elders chided me and told me to stop staring. But, you see, he was the first person in our forest village that I had ever seen to wear a pair of shoes. They were beautiful black leather things that he claimed to have purchased in Leonville, and they seemed to be tied on with strings of the same color. I recall wanting to ask why he had to wear them. Perhaps a mine accident had crushed his toes, and he needed these strange containers in order to walk like other men. I watched carefully when he took them off at night. His feet looked the same as mine, but of course much bigger.
In spite of the fact that Uncle Sello was in his late forties, he looked much younger than men I knew to be his age. Apparently, the work in the mines agreed with him.
Until Uncle Sello came to fetch me, I had spent nearly every day of my life in the forest in or near Kisangu. There were some weeks when my mother sent me to the neighboring village of Kumato to live with relatives and attend a sort of school. My mother believed that schooling was an important experience that I should have. After all, she often said, “Uncle Sello attended school in Kumato and he has made something important of his life.” My mother felt that Kisangu and Kumato were too isolated—that I should seek more than Kisangu could offer. No roads led to Kisangu from Leonville. In fact, there were no roads from anywhere that led to Kisangu.
In Kisangu, our houses and other buildings were constructed of sticks and thatch and plastered with mud which dried hard like bricks due to a high concentration of clay. Ours had just one room and the walls were blackened inside by the smoke from a thousand cook fires where my mother roasted meat and baked the daily bread. My mother cooked the fish I caught. And when there were too many fish to eat, she smoked them so that they would keep for another meal. Occasionally, when some of the men came back from a hunting trip, we would get to eat antelope or other game. Quite often, our hunters would come upon a fresh elephant kill—shot for the ivory. Depending on the weather, on these occasions, we would be inundated with meat. We youngsters would stuff away as much as our stomachs could hold. Our mothers would build up the cooking fires and smoke vast quantities. The elephant hunters encouraged us to take the meat. They wanted only the ivory.
When fresh game was not available we would slaughter a chicken or goat or sheep. We ate plenty of forest vegetables and fruit including mangoes, oranges, and avocados when in season at different times of the year. Our breads were mostly prepared from maize or cassava flour. The cassava flour was made from the roots of the plant. The leaves provided a favorite green vegetable. Mothers taught their daughters the secret of removing the toxins from the plant before using it for food. In our culture, we did not reserve special times of the day for breakfast, lunch, and dinner as the Europeans do. Instead, we snacked on the same menu all day long.
The village was surrounded by big trees and bushes, and a vast river, the Nkongolo, or one of its tributaries, flowed by within easy walking distance of our home. I remember my early childhood as one of constantly tagging along after my mother to the river for water, or helping to collect firewood for the cook fire. Besides preparing the food, the women of the village were responsible for cleaning the home and raising the children. When the children misbehaved, the husband blamed the wife and punished her rather than the children. A woman was not permitted to eat with her husband, and had to kneel beside the hot cook fire and dish his food as she watched him eat. Our mother taught us to respect our elders. We had to know the names of everyone in the village, and we had to greet them each time we met throughout the day.
I remember that mosquitoes were a constant pest, inflicting their bites day and night both outside and inside the huts. The smoke from the cook fire gave us some respite. Insect pests became even more numerous near the river. There, the more vicious Tsetse flies often replaced the mosquitoes. Of course, both in the village and near the river, there was the constant threat of poisonous snakes of many kinds. Our mothers knew, and kept on hand, the herbal remedies specific for each kind of snake bite. In some seasons, hardly a month passed that someone was not bitten. We were miles from any kind of modern medical help. Death would certainly follow a bite were it not for these powerful herbs.
I never went hungry for the lack of food. There seemed to be always plenty to eat. However, we often suffered for months from an unbalanced diet, especially the lack of bread when the previous year’s supply of flour was exhausted.
With the river so near, it would have been pointless to haul water with which to bathe. We bathed in groups at a special tributary of the river where lava from Mount Sukuma kept the water wonderfully warm. According to tradition, Mount Sukuma erupted a century ago, and although the eruption stopped, lava continued to flow in sufficient quantities to gently heat the water of a small tributary to a delightful temperature. Some say that our village was purposely located to take advantage of this natural hot-tub. By tradition, men bathed first, then women and their infants, then teenager boys and girls.
The river trail was an important route when the men set forth to hunt. The trail became a hunting ground of another sort for some of us older boys who purposely dallied on the way home from bathing for the chance to approach, even if only briefly, a favorite girl.
I knew my uncle from childhood, but I didn’t know him well. Besides the shoe incident, I had seen him one other time when I was about thirteen. At thirteen, he frightened me with his stories of what life was like in Leonville, and my mother begged him to wait to take me until I was older. Then, when I was seventeen, Uncle Sello came again, this time to get his aging and infirm father, my grandfather, whom we called Tata. Grandfather had a disease that Uncle Sello thought could be successfully treated back in Leonville. It was at this visit that Uncle Sello asked again that I be allowed to go with him. My mother finally agreed.
My mother will always remain in my mind just exactly the way she was that morning when Uncle Sello, Grandfather, and I set off from Kisangu. She was very similar in stature to her brother. Like him, she was short but strong. She shared his keen sense of leadership and discipline which she applied readily to the task of motherhood. I think that nobody in our village cooked as constantly as my mother. She made certain we ate whether we wanted to eat or not.
“Here, Kalao, try this,” she would say, and hand me a luscious rib from a roast that she had fully cooked and was now smoking so as to store it for some future day. Smoking was the only means we had of preserving meat for a later time. Some meats she dried in the proper way by smoking without first cooking through and through. But when, towards evening, food remained uneaten, she had to smoke it to near dryness to keep it safe even for the next day.
My mother wanted me to be happy. Had I stayed in Kisangu I might have married in a year or two. I had found a beautiful girl that I thought I loved. My mother knew the girl and also liked her. However, my mother was ahead of her time in her thinking just as Uncle Sello had been. She wanted me to experience the broader potential of a modern town. What a terrible mistake that noble desire turned out to be.
As we left Kisangu, I felt a sudden remorse. I knew I would really miss my mother and grandmother. I would also miss the complex forest sounds both in daylight and at night, especially the singing of the birds whose voices I knew by heart. I knew I would miss the fun of the river walk. And finally, I would miss the singing group in the village where I had become somewhat of a leader. Our little choir sang at all the events in the village: the feasts, funerals, births, marriages and other traditional celebrations.
Uncle Sello’s beautiful wife, Jeane, soon became my special friend and a sort of substitute mother. Her real name was Sakina Kabotoro, but we called her by her Christian name. I have seen many beautiful women over the years, but none were as lovely as Jeane. My uncle must have been lucky to win the love of this wonderful person. I am sure that his qualities as a worker had something to do with attracting her to him. Constantly smiling, slender, her lovely brown skin graced by long, dark brown hair, she seemed the perfect picture of happiness and composure. In the Congo, they say that a woman’s beauty does not become apparent until she marries. Many say it is the qualities of the husband that determine the beauty of the wife. That I can believe. We all believed that in Kisangu. But, whatever the truth of that presumption, one certain truth was that Uncle Sello loved Jeane with all his heart.
Uncle Sello spoke many times with his neighbor, Lindu Bukoba, about his plan to become a shopkeeper. He trusted his neighbor and they held few secrets from each other. However, Bukoba kept one secret from Uncle Sello that he would never share. Bukoba had studied every woman of marrying age in the town of Leonville and had tried to imagine how they might transform after marriage. The uncertainty of such a project haunted him throughout each day and even into the night as he slept. Apparently, eventually, he decided that Sello’s Jeane was the woman with whom he wished to spend the rest of his days on earth. Bukoba was confident that if Sello should die, Sello’s Jeane would agree to become his wife. In his favor was the fact that both he and Jeane were of the same tribe. It matters very much in the Congo this tribal affinity.
Of course neither I nor Jeane nor Uncle Sello was aware of Bukoba’s dream. And if it is true that the husband brings out the beauty of his bride by his kindness and gentleness, then it was obvious that Bukoba would be in for a rude surprise if he worked too hard towards making this dream come true.
Bukoba was a huge, overbearing man who thought of practically nothing but the degree of fullness of his stomach at any given point in time. He constantly chided his sister if food was not available and hot the moment he got home from work. As he ate, he complained if the food lacked sufficient salt, if it was overdone, if it was underdone. He complained incessantly to his sister about his work, the ignorance of his bosses, the stupidity of his work crew in the mine. Conversely, at work, he had only ugly things to say about his sister. Bukoba’s meanness did not stop there. If Uncle Sello talked to him about the store, Bukoba told of a relative who was planning a bigger and better store. If Uncle Sello had an idea for promoting his store, Bukoba gave a reason why it would not work. Worst of all, each time that he visited Uncle Sello, when Jeane entered the room, he pointedly spoke to her in their shared Kimbola dialect, a dialect not spoken in Leonville, a dialect that few could understand. Oddly, Uncle Sello seemed to overlook Bukoba’s rudeness.
Perhaps it was a natural thing that Bukoba should wish death to befall Uncle Sello. Perhaps he had often hoped that Uncle Sello would be caught by a cave-in within the mine, or would suffer a lethal accident as his crew blasted to enlarge one of the chambers where they worked. Perhaps, after many months, when this did not happen, Bukoba’s patience ran out. At some point, he began to speculate on other ways to remove Uncle Sello from his evil equation. Bukoba was indeed in love with Uncle Sello’s wife. Uncle Sello was very much in Bukoba’s way.
Apparently, Uncle Sello must have told Bukoba of his plan to fetch me from my village so that I could help him with the store. No doubt Bukoba realized that time was running out for expecting a mine accident to play a role. As a shopkeeper, Uncle Sello would be safely away from the dangerous work underground.
I watched this crisis forming and wondered how it would end. I despised Bukoba, but I lacked proof of what I guessed would be the outcome of his evil intentions. No doubt Bukoba would seek a way to attack Uncle Sello that could not be traced back to the perpetrator. I could think of only one plan that would meet this requirement and meet it with true perfection.
In Africa, traditionally, and especially in Kisangu, but even also in Leonville at that time, the best way to be certain of achieving an untraceable kill was to hire a witch to apply a fatal curse. No one could escape a properly applied fatal curse. It was the perfect solution because it was difficult or nearly impossible to prove guilt. No skillful witch would ever point a finger at her client. By the act of admission the witch would condemn herself to death at the hands of the villagers, especially in a forest village such as ours.
Of course, witchcraft may be used in many diverse ways. With witchcraft, if you covet your neighbor’s belongings, all you need to do is to project some kind of bad luck on him. When an evil person is jealous and envies you, he may do anything to hurt you. A curse or spell is the safe way to bring harm to someone. Nearly all bad luck in life, nearly all projects that turn sour, and nearly all premature death was viewed in my village as the work of witches or of jealous people who have learned the ways of witches.
In nearly all of Africa, death at old age is a cause for celebration. In the best of circumstances, a human should only die after he has lived a full and productive life, when he has many material things, and when he has many children and perhaps many wives. These are things that villagers can celebrate. However, a premature death is viewed darkly. In nearly all of Africa, a premature death is not a cause for celebration—especially if the victim is childless. To die childless is to die forever, to leave no forthcoming generation. A person who dies childless is viewed as never having existed; as never having been born.
It does not take an especially keen ear to distinguish the celebrated death of an elder from the premature death of one too young to die. Death of the elderly brings forth days of celebration. My singing group, the choir that I belonged to in Kisangu, loved to sing the joyful songs that celebrate the death of an elder. Such a funeral becomes a vast gathering of children, grandchildren, friends, and relatives where happy memories are shared.
However, when a young man dies, the entire community is in mourning and pain. Death of a youngster or young adult who has not completed his trip on earth, calls for several days of very different songs. Women cry endlessly, while men seek out the true cause of the death. It may be punishment from ancestors for things the youth or young man did wrong. Yet nearly always, in the rural villages, the blame is attributed to the actions of a witch. The witch must be slain or may be burned in the center of the village for all to see. If a person sees a witch in the process of placing a curse, the right thing to do is to kill the witch and thereby destroy the curse in progress. The kill must be quick so that the witch dies before finalizing the curse. To kill a witch is a wonderful thing, and witch killers are praised and thanked. When a witch is exposed by the village elders, the whole village may attend the burning. I never liked to sing the sad melodies that were required of our choir on these unhappy occasions. Those songs were hard for all of us to endure.
Probably, when Uncle Sello told Bukoba of his plan to fetch me from Kisangu to help him run the store, Bukoba became secretly filled with rage and jealousy. No doubt, Bukoba felt the need to work fast to bring about his evil plan before Uncle Sello quit his job at the mine. Probably, after many sleepiness nights, Bukoba decided to employ a witch to place a curse on Uncle Sello that would cause a mine shaft to collapse. It would be a perfect killing that could never be traced back to Bukoba.
Apparently, Bukoba searched for many miles around to find the perfect witch for the evil work he had in mind. Far away from Uncle Sello’s home, he found a woman named Amina who claimed that she had done work several times near where Uncle Sello lived. No doubt, her fee was extraordinarily high, but she probably cited many successes. Best of all, she preferred to work under the cover of darkness.
When I moved to Leonville, Uncle Sello, who knew of my love for singing, found a choir group I could join. They were a friendly group, overall much younger than my companions back in Kisangu. On an August night we were the entertainment at a wedding near the center of the town. After the celebration, a man offered to shuttle some of us home in his car. It was midnight when he dropped me off at the corner near Uncle Sello’s house. There was just the smallest sliver of a moon to light my way.
As I entered Uncle Sello’s yard, I caught site of a flash of light reflected off some sort of metallic container. As I drew closer, I saw that the container was held by a woman who was moving about under Uncle Sello’s bedroom window. She was totally naked. She seemed to be scattering something into the air close to the window. There was no doubt in my mind that the woman was a witch. I watched for a moment or two until I was absolutely certain. The familiar body motions, and the casting of handfuls of herbs from a container that she held, both implied a very serious kind of curse. I had to work quickly.
I slipped silently into the house and took the biggest and sharpest kitchen knife I could find. There was no time to lose. I had to stop her before she completed the curse—before her evil spell became an accomplished deed. My heart pounded so hard within my chest I thought it would burst. I crept out the door and inched my way around the corner of the house. As I approached, I saw that the witch’s face was smeared with red and white paint. Her eyes seemed to shine like a cat’s eyes at night. She danced an evil pattern while mumbling and striking her small pot with precise ritualistic moves each ten seconds. With each strike of her hand, she also clutched a pinch of herbs and tossed them towards Uncle Sello’s window. An evil smell was about her—probably emanating from the herbs. I was sure that her spell was one that summoned an accidental death, and that Uncle Sello was the target of her evil work.
I crept up and grabbed the evil witch from behind and drove the knife between her ribs deep into her chest. She screamed, and I panicked. I had to stab her again. I don’t know how many times I had to do it before she finally slid silently from my grasp to the ground. Witches are supposed to be very hard to kill, but this one died more easily than I had expected.
Lights turned on in the houses nearby and many people came to see what I had done. Jeane appeared from around the side of the house. When she saw the naked woman on the ground with me standing above her, she cried out my name so loudly that everyone living for street blocks around must have heard. My shirt was soaked with the woman’s blood. Blood ran from the blade of the knife
Of course everybody congratulated me for killing a witch. The proof was there for them to see—a naked woman in the midnight hour, the evil container with its foul contents.
Even Bukoba came from his house across the street. He congratulated me for killing a witch. “That took great bravery,” he said
The police soon arrived and sketched pictures of the scene, and they sent the body to the mortuary to be examined. Two policemen praised me for my accomplishment. Some of the other police that came spoke quietly among themselves. In less than an hour everyone had left. The event seemed over. Jeane produced some strong coffee for Uncle Sello and me and we talked most of the rest of the night before turning in to get some sleep. I could see that Uncle Sello was upset.
“She could have family,” he said. “Soon they could come looking for their mother.”
“How would they know to come here?” Jeane scoffed.
“We can only hope they do not come here.” Uncle Sello’s voice grew louder as he spoke. Then he looked directly at me. “Kalao,” he said, “most would agree with you that she was a witch. I do not forget or ask you to forget all of our traditions as we learned them in Kisangu. But here in Leonville the law looks at these things differently. We need to modify our ways here in Leonville, and you will also have to change how you think on some things.”
I looked at him cautiously. He did not seem willing to congratulate me as so many others had done. His words were not meant to forgive me. Yet, he seemed fair. Certainly, he intended to warn me.
Two days went by. Then a young man in his mid-twenties, who claimed to be the son of Amina, came looking for her on our street.
In Leonville, most of the houses at the time were made with four rooms and built close together. Conversations outside could be heard clearly inside. However, Uncle Sello’s house had seven bedrooms so that family and friends could come and stay with him. I was in my room when I heard the young man talking to a neighbor. He was dressed in well ironed blue trousers and a light blue shirt with tie. He looked like a medical student or law student. He was very tall, and he wore glasses that seemed to me at the time to be painted with a kind of metallic blue paint. I had never seen “dark glasses” before and I watched from my window to see if he would take them off. With them on, I could not see his eyes. Hence, it was difficult to judge his intentions from his eyes. I did not go outside so that I could hear every word that the man was saying. Bukoba’s sister was outside, and the man often directed his attention to her. She seemed uncertain—almost in shock. No doubt the son suspected that some sort of foul play had befallen his mother.
“I never see a woman that look like you say,” Bukoba’s sister said.
He answered. He spoke of an address that his mother had left before she went away. She left home, he said, just after the dinner meal as it was beginning to grow dark. Then he took a small square of paper from his right pocket and showed it to Bukoba’s sister.
“Maybe there is other street with same name,” the sister said.
The young man, the son, now seemed to grow angry and he spoke so loudly that I could easily hear his words. “Where is your husband?” he almost shouted.
“I am not married. I live with my brother and other young sister.”
“So where is your brother? Is he at home?”
“He go far away yesterday and not return for many days. You waste your time if you wait.”
“A man visited my mother the day before she left. I want to see if your brother is that man.”
“I am sure he not! Better you go now and come another day.”
“I am sure that you lie!” the son shouted.
Jeane must also have heard the conversation from her garden by the side of the house because she suddenly appeared on the street. “Calm down!” she said. “Nothing can be settled with all this shouting. Calm down and we can talk about this sensibly.”
“I am upset because we have not seen our mother for over two days.”
“Brother, I am sorry to have to break into your dispute. Why do you think your mother might be somewhere around here?”
“Well, Sister,” the son said, “maybe you can help to answer my questions. I ask in this location because my mother left the address of the house across the street. A big, angry man came to our house. I saw him. I would recognize him again. He might be the brother of this woman.”
Then the son described his mother. The description coincided exactly with the witch that I had killed.
Jeane said, “I cannot believe it, but we just killed a witch at my house two days ago and she matched the description of your mother.” Jeane’s voice shook. I could tell that she was frightened.
As she spoke the man’s shoulders slumped, and he seemed about to burst into tears. Jeane suggested that he go to the mortuary to confirm his mother’s death. The man stared straight at her for a moment as though he had something more to say. Then he looked down and began to back away.
“The mortuary is straight down the street to your left,” Jeane said.
When Uncle Sello returned home from work, Jeane had his dinner ready. As was her custom, when Uncle Sello ate, Jeane took the occasion to sit with him and talk about her day. She began to report to Uncle Sello about the visitor who came to confront Bukoba’s sister. I wanted very much to hear what Jeane would tell Uncle Sello, so I found something that I could be attending to in the kitchen while they where chatting. Frankly, I had seen no resemblance between my naked witch and this strikingly tall, well-dressed youth… This was a responsible, decent, educated man. As they talked, I opened the broken kitchen cupboard door, took two screws and a screw driver from my pocket, and pretended to be fixing a hinge that had come apart. She told Uncle Sello of her suspicion that Amino was the man’s mother.
“We are in trouble now,” Uncle Sello said.
“How do you mean we are in trouble? It looks to me as though Bukoba hired the witch. She left his address with her son,” Jeane insisted. “How can we be in trouble? The man who hired the witch is the person who is in trouble. He is as evil as the witch.”
“Maybe, she was a witch. Maybe Bukoba is involved,” Uncle Sello said. “But Kalao has killed another man’s mother. Kalao can be charged in court with the murder of an unarmed woman. No judge in Leonville will admit to believing in witchcraft. The case will be decided before it begins.”
Uncle Sello stopped eating and was silent for quite a while. Then he said, “There is something fishy about what we have learned. Why would my friend Bukoba want to hire a witch to place a curse on me?”
“I don’t know,” Jeane said.
I did not want to say anything. However, an old saying of our village passed through my mind. Our elders used to say “Your biggest enemy is often your best friend.” This is because he knows your weakness and your strength. It is your best friend that will know how best to kill you. Yet, he may be the one person whom you would trust with your life.
Apparently, Uncle Sello was thinking along that same line. “The woman’s son comes directly to the door of my best friend. Yet, the witch was conducting her magic outside my bedroom window. Bukoba is my very best friend from all time. He knows my every thought and he knows my likes and dislikes. He also knows all of my dreams and plans.
“Uncle Sello,” I said, “in Kisangu, the curse that witch was making was meant to cause your death. That is why I killed her.”
“I understand, my boy. I do not blame you. You did what you were taught to do.”
More days passed. For a few days I though the matter might be over. Then bad luck struck with all its might. The police came to tell us that the family of the witch did decide to sue Bukoba. Unfortunately, Bukoba had fled and was nowhere to be found. The police also had an order with them that said I was to appear in court the next day. When the neighbors heard this, many of them came to offer me their best wishes, and all of those who came praised me again for killing the witch.
If Bukoba ever came back I do not know. Certainly, he knew he was a wanted man because it could be proven that he knew the witch and had given her his address. Certainly, Bukoba would be ashamed to face Uncle Sello ever again.
I had no chance to run away to the forest or to avoid appearing in court. Many people offered to hide me in their house until I could escape back to Kisangu where the police of Leonville could never find me. However, I really expected the hearing to be decided in my favor. I guess that foolishly I was not afraid to appear in court. Perhaps I even expected to receive a reward for my very proper deed.
On the day of the hearing many people of the community came to my support. Uncle Sello and Jeane cried so much when they realized my predicament that officers of the court repeatedly warned them to stop or to be thrown out of the hearing. Uncle Sello did not have enough money on hand to hire an expensive and distinguished lawyer. He had needed to spend much of his savings for the doctors who were treating Tata, my grandfather. He had to hire a young and poorly educated lawyer who seemed to say the wrong thing every time he spoke. This man seemed inept in every way. He could hardly have been a month out of law school. He was so uncertain of himself that his hands shook enough to rattle the papers that he held as he spoke. Often he lost his place in the pile of papers at our table and could not find the document he needed at the moment. When he stood before the judge to cross-examine a witness, he invariably became so nervous that the crease of his trousers would vibrate like a harp string, and he coughed incessantly as he grasped helplessly for the right words.
To my surprise, the prosecutor was a woman. While I was in the witness box, she looked at me and said, “I am so amazed and saddened to see a young man who is supposed to be at school in our courtroom here in Leonville. This is strange. Parents must try to send children to school so they may not have time to commit such crimes. If you keep children out of school—especially teenagers—curiosity will soon lead them to try improper things. That is how criminals are made from otherwise law-abiding, disciplined youngsters. We have witnesses and the police sketches. We hope this trial for cold-blooded murder will be short since all the proofs are here. This young man has ruthlessly and mercilessly stabbed to death an innocent woman.”
I’ll admit that I was angered at first by this authoritative woman prosecutor. Yet, I knew that I was in trouble the moment I began to watch her argue the case against me. She had compared me with children. I wanted to think of myself as an adult. Then she turned that around and made me out to be a cold-blooded adult killer.
She was impressive in the courtroom—straight and tall, thin, with jet black hair and a long, black, masculine uniform. I was not used to seeing women play such a masculine role. My mind wandered off at one point to wonder if she was submissive in the presence of her husband or if her husband submitted to her. I had grown up to view womanhood in a very traditional way. Women were supposed to spend their time over a hot fire in the center of a sod hut smoking the tenderloin of a springbuck or wildebeest. They were not supposed to behave like an army sergeant, taking me down with insult after insult.
My lawyer began to try to defend me. “My client,” he said, “just arrived from the forest village of Kisangu three months ago. There are no schools in Kisangu. I doubt that many of you have ever heard of this place. There are no roads to Kisangu. Yet, his mother arranged for him to attend school for a few weeks in a village called Kumato.” My lawyer produced a map and told the judge, “You may check the map for yourself to see how remote these two forest villages are.”
The judge did not show the slightest interested in the map. And I did not see how it was relevant that I had attended school in Kumato. My lawyer’s argument hinged on the fact that I knew nothing of the modern ways of a town such as Leonville. Yet, even to suggest a school away from home was to weaken if not to negate his own line of defense.
My lawyer went on to describe the customs of places such as Kisangu and Kumato. “These forest dwellings are far from any town and civilization. The rules of Leonville are slow to penetrate into the forest villages so far away. I remind you again that my client has only had three months in Leonville and does not know our rules. Your Honor, he is in a learning process.”
The judge did not seem interested in my lawyer’s argument. “Ignorance is not an excuse,” he said. “Killing is a crime in Europe, Asia, Australia, even in America and other parts of the World. The law of the Congo applies to every town and village of the Congo. This young man has stabbed to death a poor woman who did not have any weapon. He stabbed her thirteen times. This young man must be kept out of the community for many years. He is a danger to the community.”
My inexperienced lawyer seemed to have run completely out of words. His weak voice had a whine to it that diminished its effectiveness. “It was not intentional, Your Honor,” he said.
“Not intentional!” the judge roared. “Stabbing thirteen times? Not once, not twice, not five times! Thirteen times! The young man is a danger to us all.”
I looked at the judge seated confidently in his comfortable chair. I remember having the impression that as my lawyer stood before him, the judge’s eyes resembled those of a furious lion. Repeatedly, he banged on his desk with his tiny hammer. “I have heard nearly all that I can bear from you,” he growled. “Please, if you will, suffer yourself to hear me for a moment. If law did not exist, humans would continue to live their lives like predators and prey. Law is to teach and to correct—to correct not only the evil deed of this young man but to teach discipline to the whole community.”
“But, Your Honor, can you not see the necessity of having pity for this young boy? He thought he was doing the right thing according to the society that raised him.
The judge had more to say. “All children are born with the attributes of angels,” he said. “When first-born, they do not know how to steal or kill. It is the culture they are born into that teaches them these things. While some become doctors, engineers, and presidents, others become robbers, serial killers, and prostitutes. I will speak now as an African. In our culture we say that it is easy to guide the direction that a sapling grows. But when it is no longer young, and when it has grown for a long time in the wrong direction, then, sadly, all we can do is to cut it down.
My lawyer tried again to defended me: “Your Honor, always it is easier to see what is in the eye of your neighbor than what is in your own eye. My client cannot properly grasp these academic concepts as quickly as you and I. He is a newcomer as I have stated. He has never before seen the inside of a modern court room. He needs to be excused one time for his ignorance. If you were born in the community where they speak nothing but Swahili, would you try to converse in English or in French? This youngster was born into a community where they speak only the language of survival. When attacked, or when a member of his family is attacked, he knows no other route but to strike out in defense. This witch was clearly attacking a member of his family. My client acted in self-defense. Killing the witch was simply an incident of self-defense.”
The judge scoffed.
“It was in self defense, Your Honor. He was surprised and shocked, at exactly midnight, while everybody slept, to see a naked woman attacking his Uncle. It was a normal reaction. My client was so astonished and surprised. . . .”
“No so!” the prosecutor interrupted. She walked briskly past my lawyer and up to the judge. “We have a report here that the woman was mentally disturbed. We attest that she lost her way and found herself beside Sello’s house.”
“That is what is not so!” my lawyer called out. “She was a witch and she was casting a spell.”
The judge pounded with his little hammer and berated both of them for talking out of turn. However, he took the report from the prosecutor.
The prosecutor talked on. “Your Honor, we all know that in a civilized world, witchcraft must not be the legal basis of a defense. In a civilized world, witchcraft is not considered to exist. The woman was mentally disturbed, got away from her family, and found herself naked in a strange place. The medical file shows that the woman has suffered for some time from the common cerebral consequences of untreated malaria. There is no doubt that her mind was severely damaged.”
Those remarks caused many spectators in the courtroom to become very angry. Some called out in protest. Others were sufficiently outraged to throw balled-up papers towards the prosecutor and the judge. I could hear people shouting things like “how can you call a witch mad or mentally disturbed?” and “how can you not believe in witchcraft?” One man intimidated the judge by shouting that he knew where the judge lived. Deputies took the man away. Surely, these outbursts did not help my case.
A man stood up and shouted, “You are all corrupt. The entire government is corrupt.”
With that, the judge retreated to his chambers. All procedures were interrupted while policemen restored order and took some of the onlookers away.
Finally, the judge returned and said, “A normal human does not walk about the city streets without clothes.” I could see that he was leaning towards the arguments of the prosecution. I was frightened.
My lawyer tried one final time. “Your Honor, I know that modern law does not believe in witchcraft. I am not asking you to change your law. I only ask that you balance the factors involved here. My client is from a rural area and knows nothing of urban law. In his villages they burn witches for all to see. My client has just arrived in this town and is still in the process of learning a new culture and new laws. I think you have been lucky to be born in town and in the new civilization. Myself, I am from the rural small town of Sula were there are many Muslims. I am a Muslim. When I arrived here, I faced many problems in my effort to adapt to your ways. Please, Your Honor, try to look at these factors before making a decision.
“The prosecution is suggesting that the woman is mentally disturbed and was lost. How could she be lost when she was exactly where she said she was going? She left a note saying where she was going and even her own son came to the spot where she died by following the directions that she left him.
“I will tell you that woman knew where she was going and what she was going to do there. She brought her herbs and metal pan. Obviously, Sello’s neighbor, Lindu Bukoba went to her house and employed her to put a curse on Sello. Before we judge this boy, let us find Lindu Bukoba and determine the truth of this evidence. The children of Amina can recognize Lindu Bukoba on sight. The woman was not lost or mad or mentally disturbed. She was there to do harm to my client’s uncle. Nephew Kalao should be awarded a medal for his brave act which protected his uncle.”
The judge shuffled his papers. “Law is law,” he said. “We have to teach everybody that these illusions called witchcraft do not exist. Not one is above the law. We have to punish severely in these instances so that eventually the concept of witchcraft will itself die.
“If Kalao had not assumed the woman to be a witch she could be alive today. Lindu Bukoba will be caught one day and he will be severely punished. I believe that the medical reports that we have here outweigh all other facts available for consideration. The woman was simply a mentally disturbed person. Her family and the medical reports have confirmed that she has suffered for many years from malaria, a disease that can injure the mind.”
The judge went on. He raised the file of medical reports and said, “These are all the facts I need to read. The woman named Amina is the mother of a big family of eight children. Her husband passed away many years ago. Tell me all you want to about the illusions of Kalao. He has killed an innocent woman for no justifiable reason. Who will look after those children and teach them standards and ethics so that they will grow into useful and productive citizens?
“Because of the act of a young and irresponsible man, eight children will forever be without a mother. The Court has considered the fact that the defendant has just arrived from a far away village. However, the proper thing to do is to punish him for his crime so that others will not think that they, too, can get away with breaking the law.
“We therefore sentence this young man to twenty years in prison. He may seek parole after serving half of his sentence. For now the case is closed. Under our legal system he has many ways to proceed from here with appeals. Perhaps others will see his situation differently and be more lenient.” He rapped his gavel on the desk. “Case closed.”
Shock stood on the faces of the onlookers. Twenty years! I glanced back to catch my uncle’s eye as officers led me away.
I spent three years in prison. Uncle Sello used his entire savings to hire lawyers to arrange an appeal. Actually, my retrial took but a few days, and this time it was the prosecution that seemed inept. It was a better time for getting out of prison than for getting in—a fact that seems, in itself, to challenge the functional honesty of our legal system.
Much changed in the Congo during those three years as revolution displaced many of the Belgians, and with them their concepts of right and wrong. For a time in the sixties and again in the nineties, tribal warfare killed thousands and whole villages were wiped off the map.
How I long, someday, to go back to the only home I ever knew—to see if Kisangu and Kumato are still there, and if they, too, have changed. In my heart I hope they have not. In my mind I know they must.
I’d have to say that those three years were perhaps well spent. I had time to reflect, and I was safe from the shooting and killing that raged about my prison walls as one power-hungry leader sought to oust another.
I have never ever really thought of myself as a criminal. I did what tradition had taught me to do, and what I thought was right.
Yet, neither did I resent my punishment. In a world where change gives no quarter to tradition, during our endless striving to distinguish ultimate right from ultimate wrong, I sometimes seemed unable to judge my own guilt at all.