Friday, March 29, 2013

Cosmo's Journey Down the Lomami River

Excerpt from Gorillaland (Cutting Edge Press, London 2012) by Greg Cummings

Cosmo had spent the night following a surreptitious path westward across the jungle, down the gradual incline that separates the tributaries of the Lomami from those of the Congo, past innumerable trees bearing baleful warnings, carved into their trunks or hanging from their branches, and through death’s other kingdom. He’d walked for the whole of the night without rest and, as the sun rose above the trees, he was sweating through his beret, and his eyes were like molten lava rocks behind his glasses. Despite the discomfort, he wore his thick camouflage jacket bearing the blood-red mark of Mani Kongo. 
When the bazungu first passed this way a hundred years ago, they believed they were discoving somewhere no civilised person had ever seen before. And yet beneath their boots were the ruins of two great African kingdoms. Over hundreds of years the kingdoms of Kongo and Lunda had flourished, controlling the mineral trade in and out of the Congo, and even sending ambassadors to the Vatican. In time they succumbed to mercenaries, slavers and foreign plundering, and had now all but disappeared. That was centuries before Livingstone and Stanley ever set foot here, yet they called themselves ‘explorers’. Africa was littered with the tombstones of bazungu who never bothered to take the time to learn about the place. Cosmo stopped to behold a watercourse beyond the trees and smiled. At last he had reached the banks of the Lomami River.
The longitudinal Lomami was a very different kind of river than those that usually flowed through the Congo Basin. On first inspection it bore no sign of sentient life whatsoever, yet it had once been a main navigation route, connecting the south of the country to the Congo River. Over the centuries, and right up to the present day, the Lomami had witnessed some of the most horrific acts of inhumanity anywhere. More than any other watercourse, it harboured the tormented souls from Congo’s bloody history, and it had always been the last line of Cosmo’s defence.
His prize possession was exactly where he’d left it six months previously, fully armed and ready to go: a fifty-foot, aluminium-hulled Swift Boat. If there was one good thing about the Left Bank, it was that you could always leave your hardware unattended and no one would dare touch it. He climbed aboard, pulled the fallen branches and vines from the deck, as well as the handful of evil totems he’d scattered across the bow to ward off any brave intruders, and untied the boat from its berth. It was the same iroko tree to which the boat had had always been tied. When Cosmo bought it off General Kiko five years earlier, he found it moored to this tree on the riverbank. A decade before that when Kiko first stumbled across it, he too found the Swift Boat tied up in the same place in the jungle. No one knew its origin, but one thing was for certain, the boat was unfailingly river-ready, and provided the fastest possible way out of the jungle.
A few years back he’d replaced the old engines with twin 580-horsepower Detroit Diesels, and the eighty-one-millimetre gun at the rear with a cupola-mounted MK19 machine gun. What else did he have to spend his money on? He now checked that the grenade ammunition was still in the hold. It was there, along the ammo for the rear machine guns. After turning over the engine a couple of times without ignition, he checked the battery connection, then tried again, and it coughed and sputtered, but eventually started. Cosmo eased the boat away from the bank and headed north down the brown Lomami River in the direction of Opala, which at a speed of twenty knots, with a five-knot current, it would take him the rest of the day to reach. 

As the Swift Boat arced around a bend, the river appeared tranquil and barren. Cosmo knew otherwise and almost instinctively observed every symbol and sign that had been scratched in the trees, or arranged with stones on the riverbanks, left there by those who had preceded him along the deadly Lomami. Some warned of rebels and mercenaries, others of evil spirits, and places to be avoided at all costs. Cosmo did not fear the supernatural, though he respected it. The power of muti was strong and he sought to make use of its forces for his own practical purposes. He rarely consulted witch doctors, believing he already possessed all their talents and more and, though he had marshalled the power of muti often, black magic was just another arrow in Cosmo’s quiver. He had learned how best to administer fear as a means to an end and didn’t let the muti haunt him like it did so many other warriors lurking in the shadows of the Left Bank.

Nudging down against the tree line, the sun was yet stoking the afternoon heat, while the air hung still and sticky on the river. Cosmo slowed the engines right down, as his Swift Boat approached Opala, gradually and silently drifting up to the village dock: a few sticks in the mud on the riverbank, strewn with tattered fishing nets. Except for a single, piercing, monotonous cicada song, there was no sign of life. The village appeared to have been abandoned in haste, with utensils, tools and root vegetables still out on empty stalls. Cosmo was on his guard, knowing he was probably being watched by unseen eyes in the forest. People in this part of the jungle were known to leave their valuables lying around by the riverside, unattended, to lure people ashore, while they lurked in the dark. When a visitor laid a hand on any of it, they were caught, flayed alive, and added to the local food chain.

Cosmo had seen things at the back of Opala’s upright mud and thatch huts to make his steely blood curdle: ghastly instruments of muti that should have been buried long ago. Hidden in wooden boxes in that unholy ground behind the lattice bamboo fencing, amid the grim fetishes and rotting peculiarities, dwelled the horror many had written about but few ever saw. It was back there, locked away, if anyone dared look: a mirror for the dark recesses of the soul. 

An old palm tree bent over the river provided a mooring for the boat, and Cosmo advanced cautiously through the village, trying not to disturb anything. He had his Glock in one hand and, held high in the other, a live grenade with its arm taped down, to let whoever was watching know he meant business. As he approached the shadows behind the village, away from the riverbank, the air became rife with the smell of death and decay, and he began to see evidence of their grotesque carnivorous appetites. Bleached white human skulls ornamented the streets, while a multitude of thighbones and ribs lay piled in a rubbish pit behind the cluster of huts. Scraps of palm nuts, bananas, sugar cane and cassava at least testified to a varied diet. Then from somewhere nearby he heard the sound of a log drum, tapped in slow succession: tuc dun, tuc dun, tuc dun. Cosmo understood it to mean ‘welcome’, so he worked the pin back into his grenade and holstered his pistol, then continued into the forest, guided by the sound of the two-tone drum.

As the gloom of the jungle encircled him, he was compelled to remove his shades to find his way through the thick entanglement of thorns and stinging nettles. Every few metres, planted atop a stake in the ground, was a grinning skull, some human, some ape, with many more in the mud bearing only their remains. Then he came to a passageway some twenty metres long, which he had no choice but to stoop and enter, or else turn back. It was an indestructible edifice, constructed from timbers and twine, and tightly woven into a tunnel, with overhead loopholes through which an unwelcome intruder could be speared. Inside the walls glistened with blood, and his way through was impeded by the stench as much as the confined space. When at last he emerged gagging at the other end he found a group of men in a smoky clearing, around a cache of weapons, and wearing caps of colobus monkey and antelope skin. Their greeting was unspoken, as they preferred to engage in a wordless standoff of cocksure postures and cold stares, enhanced by their weird surroundings as much as their attire.

Behind them stood a lavish shrine, made of a multitude of polished elephant tusks encircling a crude wooden statue, about two metres high, depicting a man with wide brown eyes and long lashes, who had a small, thin-lipped mouth and a straight, narrow nose, and was wearing a pith helmet and khakis. The effigy was similar to the witty carvings he’d often seen in the Congo, typifying the colon, only this one was much larger, with brown rather than pink skin. Despite having the lithe features of a muzungu, Cosmo knew it to be a likeness of the great Congolese soldier, Ngongo Lutete. General Kiko and his Mai Mai rebels believed they could fully resurrect him, and that once restored to life, the legendary cannibal warrior would lead them to victory against any enemy. The ritual required the eating of a muzungu, along with copious quantities of iboga (a highly psychoactive African shaman’s root found only in the jungle) within the confines of the ivory shrine. Although iboga was plentiful in this part of the jungle, bazungu were scarce. 

The drumming ceased as General Kiko stood up from the centre of the clearing. He was a light-skinned, clean-shaven man, in his late thirties (though he looked to be in his twenties), with the letter ‘K’ carved across each cheek, and missing an eye, but he kept a pink, glow-in-the-dark golf ball in its socket. On his lumpy head, he wore a lime green wool cap pierced with countless little shards of human bone, battle souvenirs so dense it looked like chain-mail armour. His outfit was less idiosyncratic: olive gumboots, a pair of baggy, navy Adidas track bottoms, and a brown, long-sleeve T-shirt, boasting a picture of an AK-47 and the slogan, ‘When every motherfucking person in the room has to die’ in yellow. He stepped forward and glowered at Cosmo, who was much taller than him. With all that had passed between them, who knew what this short, capricious warlord might do next. ‘Chipu!’ he rasped, finally throwing a brotherly hug around his old adversary.Welcome back to the Theft Bank, motherfucker.’ 

‘Kiko, you old Crane,’ said Cosmo. ‘Kuma mayo! Vipi?’ 

The generals stood back and regarded each other with mutual admiration. ‘Eh!’ sneered Kiko, strutting and gesticulating like a gangster. ‘But we are just here, somehow waiting, listening to the radio, hearing all about Zomba wa Zomba’s greedy escapades, and wondering when we were going to get our share.’

‘It was not possible to contact you before now.’

‘I see you’ve come empty-handed, Zomba. Where’s your precious livestock?’
‘A day’s walk from here, under guard in the forest.’
‘Mmm-mm!’ slavered Kiko, slapping a hand on Cosmo’s shoulder. ‘OK. I’ll pay you a hundred dollars a kilo for them, my friend.’
‘Why don’t we put aside talk of nyama bazungu for a moment?’
Eh!’ laughed Kiko, sitting back down, and looking incredulously at the soldiers in their animal skins flanking him, who all nodded in accord with their fearsome commander. ‘What else is there?’
Cosmo grabbed a seat, dragging over the bleached skull of a forest elephant and placing it opposite Kiko, then, leaning forward to make sure they all saw the eye-catching crest on his jacket, said, ‘I want to raise a fighting force, powerful enough to take on the UN.’ 
‘You can’t take on all those muhindi,’ laughed General Kiko, and his soldiers agreed.
‘Not alone … That’s why I need you to join forces with me. With your Mai Mai rebels, and my heavy hardware, together with the Balanga warriors Duke’s training, and any other capable soldier who wants to join, we’ll at least have the numbers and firepower to attack the UN base in Kisangani.’
The idea intrigued Kiko, who thought about it for a moment, before shaking his head and folding his arms. ‘Hapana! I prefer to work alone.’
‘Look, this isn’t about raiding villages for food and pleasure, rafiki. I’m talking about a mighty rebel army, the like of which has not been seen since the Simba Rebellion, capable of driving the UN out of the Democratic Republic of Congo.’ He leaned further forward conspiratorially, glaring with eyes the hue of a burning sunset, and whispered, ‘We’ll even raise the great Ngongo Lutete, to lead us into battle.’
General Kiko smiled, looked back at his ivory shrine to the statue of Ngongo Lutete, then began stroking his chin and nodding slowly. ‘A mighty rebel army, you say.’
‘The Kongo Liberation Front,’ said Cosmo, rising from his elephant stool, ‘inspired by the ancient Kingdom of Kongo! I know you can marshal the numbers from the Mai Mai spread around this forest. Can’t you imagine it? A new, terrifying rebel army, storming Kisangani and taking control of the UN base. You could play your fucking bagpipes, Kiko!That always scares the hell out of them ...’
‘My one-of-a-kind bagpipes, yes … But there are many peacekeepers in Congo, my friend.’
‘Who are almost all in the jungle dealing with the Kivu crisis. We need to strike now! We’ll train for a couple of days, then storm the base and take hostages,Ith only one demand: the UN get out of Congo ...’
‘You haven’t you had your fill of hostages by now?’ said Kiko, signalling for one of his men to fetch him his bagpipes.
‘It’s been hell. I made the mistake of taking them through the jungle. We should have held the hostages in the Walikale Hilton, executing them one by one, for every day that passed without a ransom.’ 
‘The UN base is still heavily guarded,’ warned Kiko.
‘I am also heavily armed. Is the howitzer where I left it?’ Kiko nodded and grinned. ‘Good. Tonight I’ll make a brief reconnaissance trip with the Swift Boat. When I get back, we’ll discuss the battle plan.’ 

The soldier returned with what looked like ordinary Scottish pipes, decorated in a green-and-red tartan, and Kiko arranged them under his arm and began to blow into his singular instrument, filling the leather bag with air, then squeezing the wind through the pipes, while fingering the different notes, and the forest resonated with a stirring lament. He was good at it, having spent hours on end practising in the jungle, after learning the basics from a Scotsman he once knew in Kindu. He had fashioned them from the belly of the very same Scot.
‘So do we have a deal?’ asked Cosmo, extending his hand.
‘We do,’ replied Kiko, cutting short his tune to shake it. ‘But I also want my nyama!’
‘No problem. I’ll let Duke know,’ said Cosmo, taking his phone from his jacket pocket.
Hakuna raisaux,’ said a Mai Mai soldier wearing the mane of a bush pig on his head, ‘we have no network here, but you can drum him a message, and it will reach that side now-now. I speak Balanga drums. Tell me what you want to say.’ 

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