That moment Bonte had sneaked into a cargo truck that transported farm animals, mainly goats and sheep en route to Morocco, with the help of a kind Algerian man whom he had diligently voluntarily worked for in his big plantation for four and a half years, he had successfully convinced his heart that he had left his past behind him. He was a new person and he couldn’t allow his past self to drag all the pain and sadness into this new journey he had embarked on. He had move on, forgiven and forgotten his past.
Forgiven; forgotten, Yes Forgotten! In the truest sense of the word. He wouldn’t confess the atrocities he had committed in his forgotten past to a new true friend or a safely kept diary or try to commercialize his story on a famous podcast channel or a highly committed writer on the topic who would be availed to him with astounding immediacy and who would promise to get his story out and hopefully get the right ears to hear it and consequently effectively act upon it and save hundreds of thousands of innocent lives which have gone and still continue to go through what he had gone through. And who would have promised, not by words, at least not directly, but through the carefully chosen vocabulary and grammar about the eventual stardom that would arise from sharing with the world a real, rare and very touching story and the byproduct of a good fortune that would come accompanied as a result of this courageous act. No he wouldn’t try to do any of that. Because that wasn’t anywhere in the lowest degree of Bonte’s mental activity.
Few people had found the kind of peace Bonte found in solitary refuge. He had learned as a child and perfected the art of keeping the heart and its activities inside his chest. More strictly speaking, he did not develop this ability by himself but this ability imperceptibly developed itself within him. And Bonte was a truthful man in his relations with himself and always lived in close accordance to his strict manner of life. He remembered all this so vividly, as he sat on a stool in a local pub in Kinshasa across his younger brother to whom he had been the most hated person in the whole world three hours and forty seven minutes ago.
He remembered also, firstly, the memories of war that had suddenly resurrected in full swing like a vicious tsunami on a usually calm and peaceful coastal town wrecking havoc on the quiet living inhabitants; uprooting trees, bringing down buildings, tearing apart roads and washing away valuables and many years of hard work in an unjustly shortest period of time. These memories of a dark period of time for him particularly arose in full force during his habitual two rakat prayers after Isha, the final prayer of the day. He could see the flashing sparks seen at night from the firing of an Ak47 rifle or a Machine gun. He could smell the sweet scent of red volcanic soil when it came into contact with the initial drops of rain that was immediately interrupted with that of soldiers’ boots marching through bush thickets chanting traditional anthems about courage, cowardice, fear and bravery, masculinity and femininity in alternating sentences. He could see as the skin of his victims dissected into two halves and hear the bones crush as he devoured their torso or slit their throats with surgical precision.
Bonte, who was born Ibrahim Chembe to his two loving parents in a small town in the eastern part of the Congo, but later on was given the nickname Bonte by his colleagues in the army due to his ferociousness in the battlefield and his remarkable skill with the knife, had fought alongside his small brother Kamissoko as child soldiers in the Congo war after being abducted at the age of 15 while coming from a nearby swamp which they frequently visited to swing on the tree branches and imitate the croaking of frogs in a futile attempt to get the frogs to join in on the musical. This was their favorite playing area and safe haven between himself, his younger brother who was 6 at the time and Lefe, a mutual female friend.
As the eldest and favorite child of his father, he had spent most of his time with him at his local slaughter house and that’s where he had acquired the skill to handle a blade and the ability to read the mindset of a soon to be killed animal. Although ammunition was in abundance and in steady supply, Bonte was fond of his blade and always preferred the sweet spot between the idea of remorse, scientific calculations of distance, motion and positioning and the psychological assessment of your victim necessary for the agreeable conduct of business.
He hated his nickname with all his gut but he could not deny that that name was the closest fit to the persona he wished to be recognized by in the army and he thoroughly enjoyed the way the name took all the attention enabling him to conceal his true identity and sensibility as a mortal. He was not so much annoyed at the name itself as at the disgust he felt being around his colleagues by whom he was given the name. In training they were taught that a soldier is to obey orders and that a soldier is judged by God differently. He and his peers, and subsequently anyone that followed behind, grew up on this type of mindset. Every morning or night before an ambush, their commander would gather them around together and after an intense preparation talk, he would conclude with his signature statement, “Go and do something foolish today.” This combination of many different levels of absurdity and utter disregard of any purposefully God given sense, when carefully planted and cultivated in a fertile empty head, was what, like he always thought, a far much inferior status than that of the first founder of the human family, the monkey. Yes he killed people but his killing was different. He killed for love. Although he hated the idea of war in and of itself, he loved his land. He loved the trees and the birds and the frogs they played with at the swamp. And so for his country he fought; to protect his land and its beauty from invaders. He fought for his little brother for whom he had secured a place in administrative at headquarters away from the horrors that he had to face in the field. He was granted this request out of acknowledgement of his unmatched skill in the field. He loved his brother. Kamissoko was different. He was not like him. Although he had always accused him of lacking the ability to distinguish between dream and reality and needs and wants, and although he had never clearly thought out the fundamental concept of family, the status of being the big brother and the responsibility that comes along with it had somehow strangely since very earlier on been synthesized in a high place inside his heart despite the absence of both parents, who died as soon as they were just old enough to bath in the river, and a functioning society.
Kamissoko read books and talked about imaginary characters such as Chinua Achebe and an artist in Nairobi named Ndaka who curved his feelings into wood and ended up crafting deep expressions in the form of sculptures –not imaginary in the sense that they didn’t exist but imaginary to Bonte because he was born and saw around him fruits on trees for him to eat, and a field for him to run on, and while in the army, boots for him to wear and missions to be accomplished –to him this was his truth and he chose to live in the here and now.
Despite this contrast in believes, the fact that Kamissoko had a great interest in “dreams” and the great importance he attached to “wants”, he saw, beneath that veil of lack of focus and a plight of childishness -to him, he saw the existence of greatness and he felt honored to have a brother in such a noble person. For this Kamissoko here, out of this immense love he felt for him, he killed. To protect him -specifically to secure his place at headquarters that entirely depended on him and to teach him, in the event of his death, about bravery and more importantly, to show him, in clear and practical terms, how not to live a life.
Of all the reasons and love he felt and fought for, nothing compared to the love he felt for Lefe; her only girl. And in this particular love, beyond inspiring him through the long and harsh army days and keeping him warm during the cold nights in the bush, and for the hope of seeing her beautiful dark face with dark eyebrows once again, was what had led to his being in Kinshasa today, sharing a beer with his brother on this warm Sunday evening after a proper 28 years of zero contact and a successful forcefully self instigated artificial amnesia for a large portion of that time until 6 months ago. Exactly 6 months ago, when the first memory of sensations from home had been received by him as though he had miraculously instantly developed a special sensory organ for the transmission of those feelings, he recalls thinking that that was some kind of bad joke his mind was playing on him. That night in the second raka’a of his Isha prayer in which he experienced the first seismic reading of what was to be, in the months that followed, a resurgence of memories and flashbacks in an earthquake fashion, he quickly immediately dismissed it as a fly floating in air that was warning the elephant about its mighty landing on his back, and he swiftly carried on reciting the last ayat of Suratul Maidah. That night when he went to sleep, his bed felt like a time travel machine that took him back to the heart of Zaire land and then it malfunctioned leaving him to wonder about eternally in every familiar territory. The following morning he woke up early and unusually quickly offered his Al Fajr prayer and left for work. At work, he plunged into the duties of the day and tried to drown the memories and feelings in them but in vain. This cycle went on the next day, the next week, and the next month, and the next. Most of these feelings were torturous in nature, for instance his last memory of his crying brother. On the night they escaped, they had been caught in a carefully thought through ambush of a joint forces between the government army and two local rebel groups earlier on that day which had killed at least a few dozen men and left scores injured. Bonte and Kamissoko had both passed out and, mistakenly thought dead, were immediately buried in a shallow mass grave as was the culture in such instances after the intense cross fire had come to a halt. Upon regaining consciousness and crawling out of the piles of dead bodies, Bonte further crawled over to where his brother lay down, his head facing the sky. As he approached him, amidst all the pain he felt on every inch of his body and the strong concentrated smell of blood mixed with soil that filled the air, he felt, for the first time, the need to free his brother; to free him from himself, to set him free from the ill luck that seemed to have permanent residence in the very essence of his existence. But first he had to save him one more time, one last time.
His brother, not sure whether the blood stained on him was that from his bleeding or someone else’s, was laying flat on his back, his eyes staring into the sky almost not blinking, whispering what Bonte immediately recognized as a line from one of his many ‘favorite book’ which he completely had never understood “..The highest friend… the highest friend…oh the highest friend…” From his placidness, Bonte knew that he had been laying there for a while, and perhaps had tried to get up and look for his brother or a way home –whether home meant the army or the swamp they played at as children with Lefe, but his emotions had rendered him immobile.
He saw a feeling on his face which he recognized very well; that of a man who was willing to leave this earth and was giving his soul to the angel of death, but just before this session had gone any further and degenerated into something more practical, he quickly interrupted the idea by jacking him off the ground, and without a say of a word, his shoulder supporting him from beneath his armpits, they ran across into the forest. He doesn’t remember for how long they had been running for but Bonte recalls -and if Bonte remembers, Kamissoko sees it every second of his living, when their tired legs couldn’t carry them anymore and they fell to the ground passed out.
Early the next morning, Bonte woke Kamissoko up and after showing him the border and his path to freedom, gave him the worst beating of his life and he passed out again. When he woke up again after a few hours in pain, Bonte had gone. That was the last time he was to see him and that was the last time he wanted to see him.
He hated him. But his hate for him didn’t come from a place of resentment though, as he later on in his ‘adult’ form came to realize, rather it stemmed from a place of love. Hadn’t Bonte left him and left him in the cruelest of ways a brother could leave, he wouldn’t have hated him well enough to become the most respected writer in Nairobi and the continent at large whose work was described as “songs of the heart”, and so for his leaving he would always be grateful. But he still hated him because he wasn’t there to see how he had made someone out of himself and to see the long dreadlocks he passionately wore on his head which were a kind of a crown, a symbol of his triumph over his fears and dependence on his brother.
Of all reasons he didn’t want to meet his brother, and despite his successful career as a writer and his remarkable growth as a person, he was not sure if, upon meeting him, he would gather the sufficient breathe of mind to explain how he was now married to Lefe, yes Lefe, Bonte’s only girl. In fact, all those memories of home that had reemerged on Bonte’s mind hadn’t had the effect and weight as that singular memory of Lefe; and for those specific memories and feelings, and for Lefe, Bonte had returned home. As kids, at the swamp, although he had never clearly thought out the idea, Bonte had long suspected of a more than friendly love between Kamissoko and Lefe, and even though all childhood family games had always put him and Lefe as the father and mother, he always felt that this was only out of the habit of regarding him as the eldest in the group and therefore he was the most suitable person for the post.
Lefe, on the other hand, who was a beautiful girl in many ways, always felt immense respect for him. And perhaps that was about the closest to a romantic place she could get. Even though she was the one with whom she had planned this meeting with and for, and although she was the one whose memory and feelings had led him to abruptly cut short his peaceful suddenly turned turbulent 28 years stay in Morocco; when she had set a venue for them to meet at Kinshasa, after Bonte had reached out to her through a contact, although the contact and Lefe had neither mentioned about her relationship with Kamissoko nor even gestured anything about the presence of his brother, Bonte had somehow, with that special sensory organ, felt the essence of everything. So as they sat here at this bar in Kinshasa, they all from time to time glanced at each other, that type of glance that sort of asked “…so are we okay?” and they all, in response, smiled; with teeth but more deeply with their eyes and they all clearly knew what that meant.
A collaborative work by DRESS and PEKAT.
~Words by Hajji Mutonye , Dress Creative Agency
~Photography By PEKAT.