I had come to the Congo – the country that had attracted me in the beginning -, but it needed awareness to travel and stay alive in the Congo. Awareness that I didnt have. And the Congo proved to be a real test for me.
As I entered into the Congo, the energy changed completely. There was a vitality that was missing in Sudan. Being a lone, travelling male drew a lot of curiosity. Obviously, a female partner was missing, and soon there were offers….As I was staying in a little hut, preparing to go to sleep, there was a knock and soon two young girls entered, offering food and their companion. I politely declined, not knowing anything about local customs or the rules of this society. Later I was to learn that this was a completely accepted behaviour – men were expected to accept these offers, of course in compensation with material goods.
Trying to travel onwards on a undescribably bad road, I soon realized that it wasnt that easy: For 7 days I was waiting for any traffic to appear, but none came. Sometimes there was a holiday like the day of the martyrs of Kinshasa, sometimes no gasoline, and for all these days no truck came along. However, other things did come along: Standing on the side of that road one evening, chatting with some local boys, it became dark and then in that darkness suddenly there were screams and shouts. I had no idea what was happening, but then one of the boys I was friendly with came to me and told me there had been an attack and he had been stabbed with a knife. The attack was meant for me, probably an attempt of robbery, because being the only white person around I was supposed to be rich. However, in the darkness the robbers couldnt see too clearly and stabbed the wrong guy. And I had been comnpletely unaware of what was going on ….
On day 8 a truck appeared, loaded with bananas, and I could hitch a ride on top of the bananas. Those were not the soft bananas I knew, but the very hard variety that needed to be cooked first. So I was riding on a mountain of bananas, feeling very happy and alive. Inside I a song of those days was resonating, reflecting the alive vibrations around me: The green leaves of summer.
The next station was Watsa – here I stayed for a few days and learned another lesson about awareness. One evening, sitting around the fire with a couple of local guys, suddenly someone shouted something and everybody jumped up and away from the fire. I couldnt see any reason why, but just followed them. Soon it became apparent: a black mamba snake had come, completely unafraid of the fire and the people, and was heading straight towards the fireplace. How the guys had noticed the black mamba in the darkness was a mystery to me, but a bite would have meant sure death. Instead, it was the mambas time to die: Someone killed it with a stick and soon it got roasted on the fire. I was offered to try it but couldnt eat: I was still feeling the impact of this danger so close by.
In Watsa, there was only one other white person except me. a belgian merchant, and he was shocked to see me travelling on my own, only with a bagpack. He told me I couldnt do that, I shouldnt trust the people, that it wasnt safe at all and I might be killed. However, I didnt listen to him, even though later it turned out he wasnt all that wrong….but I liked the people. The local boys seemed to be like young people everywhere, they liked music, dancing, jokes and of course alcohol.
However, there were other dangers, as I was to find out soon: On my journey, sitting in some corner and peacefully smoking some of the local herb product, suddenly two military men come close, rifles loosely pointing at me: “Didnt I know that it was forbidden in the Congo to smoke grass”? I was surprised and didnt know what to answer – the pipe was still in my hands. A few uneasy moments passed, then the second guy nudged the first one – an officer – and said: Come on. You also smoke, we all smoke, dont make it a problem. The tension dissolved, the officer smiled and suddenly became friendly, asking me about my plans, where I was headed and if they could help me. And then they offered to take me along. I agreed, not knowing exactly what I was agreeing to. So soon I was becoming part of a gang of 12 soldiers, who also doubled as military police.
Their way of transport was by using force: They erected a blockade on the road, stopping all traffic, and whoever was coming by either had to pay them some money or – if he was heading in the right direction – take all of us as passengers. So the next few days I was travelling in the company of the Congo army, riding on top of trucks, feeling a bit uneasy with all the guns stacked around me. I was wondering if sometimes these guns went off by accident.
Inside, there was also some fear. Was this just friendliness, or would I end up being robbed? Because as it turned out, these soldiers didnt receive any money from their government, so they had to steal and rob. They passed a farmer on the field, carrying a sack full of some food, and then they beat him and forced him to give it to them. As I watched this, I felt afraid: What was there to stop them doing the same to me? The commanding officer told me: You probably feel shocked, but this is the Congo. Human life has no value here, and we just take by force what we need.
So understandably I was a bit relieved when our roads separated and I was on my own again. The next stopover for me was Beni. I was alone again, hiking some part of the road, and the locals here warned me that some gangs were around. Bodies had been found in the area, and it was not safe. But again, I was stupid enough not to listen and went on my own. Soon enough, just as I was crossing a river on a wooden log, some young boys of my age appeared in front of me.
They wanted money. And they not just wanted it: they demanded it. They said I was part of the colonial imperialists and responsible and now I should pay for that. Were they part of the gangs people warned me about? I decided not to pay anything. I told them that first I was not belgian, had nothing to do with the colonisation of the Congo, and secondly I was just a student, having no money. That was why I was walking. Some arguments were exchanged, but slowly the tension got less and in the end they let me go on. Again, a potentially dangerous situation was solved peacefully. Probably, they had never met a white foreigner before who was travelling alone and hiking, so they let me continue. Looking back, it still seems extremely lucky that nothing more happened, and I guess being white gave me some advantage too, because a white body being found in the area for sure would have created trouble.
As my journey through the Congo continued, I was now moving in direction towards Goma, I was also moving towards a very significant experience of what awareness means – of course, without knowing anything about it. I was staying in some christian mission place and decided to hike up the Nyiragongo volcano. As the volcano had exploded just a few months ago in January 1977, there was lots of barren magma at the buttom. Because of the recent eruption local guides were afraid and not available, so I decided to just go on my own. Definitely not a good idea…. I just took a machete, my water bottle and of course my camera.
Going uphill took time, I needed to go slow, watch out for snakes, and by afternoon I realized that I wouldnt make it to the top. Sun would be setting soon and walking in darkness in the jungle seemed like a bad idea. So I turned back, expecting to reach the small path I had come on. However, as I went down the volcano slope I didnt find that path any more. Sun was setting and I felt desperate: which way to go now? Then an idea came up: I would climb up on a tree, and from the top I should be able to see where to go. I put the camera on the ground beside the tree, managed to climb up and was standing on a branch high up, and just as I thought I had found the way in the distance the branch fractured and I slided down roughly 10 meters through lots of other branches. Nothing broken, but my whole body was bruised, scratched and bloody. Immediately I went into the direction I had seen before, but after 5 minutes I realized I had forgotten my camera, tried to go back but could not find that tree again. And now of course I had also again lost my way.
Darkness had come, strange sounds in the jungle, my body was bloody all over and I had lost my way. What to do? I had to stay here for the night, and I needed something to cover my body, otherwise all that smell of blood would attract unwanted animals. I collected a huge heap of leaves from the bushes around, lay underneath them and had my whole body covered with the leaves, hoping it would cover up most of my smell. And then I was laying there – machete in my hands, listening if anything came near me, waiting for the dawn. Its difficult to say how the time passed, but it felt like 10 hours passed in a few minutes. I was simply watching, hearing the sounds, waiting if some dangerous animals would come close. Time did not really exist, just awareness was. Of course, that time I didnt know the meaning of that word, but this night left a deep impression on me. Later I would remember this moment when Osho spoke about awareness: that there is no time in it.
The next morning, with the sunrise, I decided to just walk in the direction of where lake Kivu should be – at the most it could be 30 km away and I should manage that. However, after few miles I came across the right path, returned home to the mission I was staying at, feeling very relieved. The nuns in the mission were much less relieved to see me: My clothes torn, body bloody and scratched: definitely not a good sight. They told me I had to leave – for people like me there was no place in a mission. And so the same day I crossed the border to Ruanda, celebrating my new life by eating a strawberry cake in the most expensive hotel in Kigali. Back to life, and also happy now to still be alive.
I was still alive, not because of my awareness, but obviously something bigger than me wanted me still here. This also was already an answer to my question if I should live or not. The answer obviously was Yes.