*Featured Artwork by Ciro FloresI remember when my sister Leslie was dying. It was 1959, and my family and I were living in Bukavu, in the Belgian Congo.
In Africa, you take a lot of things in stride, like health problems, for instance.
It wasn’t unusual to see someone with elephantiasis, a disease that blocks the lymphatic system, leaving the victim with grossly enlarged limbs, mostly the legs, that could swell to the size of a tree trunk. A lot of the Congolese children had distended bellies from Bilharzia, or snail fever. If they had distended bellies and their hair was a rusty orange, they were probably malnourished, too.
Often, the only available medical care was at missionary posts, which were far from civilization. Some of the missionaries were medical doctors, but they had no schedules. You could drive all day only to find they were out in the field.
We were lucky to have a traveling dentist who sometimes swung by Bukavu. His name was Dr. Hulbert and he was a Methodist missionary. He had no schedule, so when he came to town, we dropped any plans we’d made and trooped into Paul and Dorothy Hulbert’s living room.
Paul was Dr. Hulbert’s son, and he’d gone into the family business – he and his wife Dorothy were also Methodist missionaries. As the only Protestant minister in town, every Sunday my family and I sat in folding chairs Dorothy had set up in their living room and listened to Paul’s sermon. I’m pretty sure we were the only ones there.
The living room was also where the Dr. Hulbert set up his vintage dental apparatus. There was a treadmill attached, which Dr. Hulbert pumped with his foot to power the drill. There was no dental assistant to wipe the drool from your mouth. There was no small sink with a constant flow of water for you to spit in.
There was no Novocain.
If you missed Dr. Hulbert when he came to town, you were out of luck. And if you didn’t miss Dr. Hulbert when he came to town, you were still out of luck.
So, when Leslie complained of a stomach ache on our way to the Reserve Nationale d’Itombwe to see eastern lowland gorilla, my parents thought nothing of it. But, when she couldn’t sit up in the backseat of the car anymore and could only curl up with her knees tucked to her chin because of the pain, they began to worry. Then she stopped eating and began to vomit green bile.
We were on a dirt road and had no idea where we were, where the next village would be, or if there would be a next village. We did, however, come to a few shabby shops where my dad pulled the VW over and stopped.
He jerked up on the safety brake so hard it squeaked. He yanked the keys out of the ignition, he kicked the car door open, which bounced on its hinges, and he got out. I remember he looked calm, but I knew he wasn’t. He walked quickly, almost running, from one person to another.
“Y a-t-il un docteur … is there a doctor?” he asked.
The villagers looked at each other and shook their heads. “Non.”
“Missionnaires … missionaries?”
“Non,” they said.
My dad never rushed, he always moved deliberately. I’d never seen him panic or be afraid. But I knew he was afraid in that village.
What I remember most are the Congolese women huddled around my mother, who was sitting with her legs out of the car holding my sister Leslie, who was a chalky gray and her eyes were closed. She hardly breathed. My mother pressed her cheek to Leslie’s cold face and cried. She rocked back and forth, holding my sister’s limp body close to hers.
And those Congolese women rocked and cried with her. They stroked Leslie’s face and body. They touched my mother, laying their hands on her in a mothers’ blessing. They bent their long necks, like black swans, and touched their heads to hers.
Even at eight, I knew the beauty of this and that I’d write about it someday.
Leslie didn’t die.
There was a clinic, after all, in Kamituga, a mining camp that was almost a day’s drive away. We all squeezed back into the car, my mother still cradling Leslie. My dad almost stripped the gears shifting into first.
The hospital wasn’t near any village; it wasn’t even on a main road. It was at the end of a path, which was barely wide enough to accommodate our VW Bug. The small white-stucco building sat on top of a hill.
It was run by Dr. Nikolai Denisov, a Russian/Finnish doctor. He was a large, muscular man who wore a white short-sleeved shirt, white safari shorts, and oversized black Wellington boots, which, he told us, grounded him in the operating room to reduce static electricity. The wellies were a novelty, but what fascinated me was his black handlebar mustache. Aside from the ones in pictures of barbershop quartets, I’d never actually seen one. And Dr. Denisov’s was magnificent. It framed his smile, which spread ear to ear.
Everything about Dr. Denisov was big, even his voice; he had no volume control. He towered over my dad, who had to look up at him when they shook hands, my dad’s disappearing in Dr. Denisov’s. How could he operate with hands that big, I thought.
But Dr. Denisov was known as a brilliant surgeon; the Congolese called him Muganga iko Munguia mbili or, the doctor is a second god. He was also a passionate idealist: he didn’t share the same prejudice the whites had against the Congolese, and he didn’t hesitate to criticize Belgium’s heavy-handed colonial rule, either. This made him popular with the Africans and ostracized by the Europeans. But it didn’t bother him; he was more at home with the locals, anyway.
His father had been a Cossack in the Tsar’s army, and after the Bolshevik revolution the family fled to Finland and became Finnish citizens.
Denisov took advantage of a Belgian program that gave young Russian refugees a free education in a Belgian university, and an opportunity to work in the Belgian Congo. He got a degree in medicine and was hired in Katana, in the Belgian Congo.
“Hello, good to meet you. I am Dr. Denisov,” he said. “I was told you were coming, so I am waiting. Your little girl is sick?”
He poked Leslie’s stomach with a finger the size of a bratwurst, and she screamed.
“Kumtayarisha kwa upasuaji … prepare her for surgery,” he said to the Congolese staff that had gathered around us. Leslie screamed again when one of the them picked her up and put her on the gurney that had been wheeled in. They rushed down the corridor, rammed the gurney through a set of swinging doors, and disappeared. The doors swung back after them.
“You wait here,” Dr. Denisov said, pointing to the rusted metal chairs with cracked plastic seats that were shoved against the peeling wall. All of us sat down, like obedient children.
He turned and walked down the corridor, his wellies slapping his calves. He pushed the swinging doors open and went in. We didn’t see him for the next two hours, during which time none of us moved or talked.
Leslie’s appendix had burst, and she had peritonitis. By the time Dr. Denisov operated on her, she was close to going septic, a fatal condition where there’s an infection throughout the body that can cause shock and organ failure.
Dr. Denisov was a great surgeon. After almost a month in his hospital, under his personal care, Leslie recovered.
I found out, years later, that after having lived in the Congo for 25 years, he moved back to Russia, which had become the Soviet Union by then. He loved Africa, but as a dedicated idealist, he wanted to help his people build a new country.
When he got there, however, he was treated like a “repentant emigrant.” He was sent to backwater towns where he wasn’t allowed to make any decisions about patients’ treatments. They drowned him in paperwork. They allowed him to write papers about his work in Africa, but they changed them before they were published in “Voice of the People.”
And they didn’t allow him to operate.
In 1965, he was diagnosed with cancer and finally, after getting permission to move to Finland to be with his family, he died on the operating table the next year. He was 54 years old.
When we finally left Dr. Denisov’s hospital in Kamituga, we all stuck our arms outside the car windows and waved goodbye. But there was so much dust, I don’t know if he saw it.
Shortly after the Congo’s 1960 declaration of independence from Belgium, when the riots began, my family left our home in Bukavu.
We were part of a mass evacuation of around 3,600 Europeans to bordering countries and provinces, like Angola, Rhodesia, and Uganda. Most of the Europeans kept going, back to their homes in Europe. On July 8, Sabena, the Belgian airline, announced that an airlift to Belgium would begin. The first refugees landed in Brussels the next day.
We, on the other hand, drove east through Ruwanda and Uganda, on our way to Nairobi, Kenya, where the Managing Director of the Nairobi Goodyear branch and his family would take care of us.
We lost so much time doing our best to dodge roadblocks. There was no system to their placement. They seemed to be set up arbitrarily, which made them even more difficult to circumvent.
An American diplomat recommended that everyone drive carefully and try to look around corners, because there could be logs blocking the road, and sometimes the roadblocks were manned.
“One time, I came across a manned roadblock,” he said. “Some Congolese jumped out from the roadside and began beating on the car with clubs and big iron rods. I only just got out of there – the windows were broken, and they jammed the rods through the windows.
“It reminded me of the front lines in World War II,” he said.
I remember one roadblock in particular: Congolese soldiers in khaki uniforms with guns slung over their shoulders stood in the middle of the road. My father stopped the car and rolled down his window. The soldiers surrounded the car. One of the them walked over and demanded to see our papers.
My dad leaned over and opened the glove compartment. He rummaged through papers, careful not to expose the gun he’d stashed there.
We had no papers. We’d left Bukavu so quickly, there’d been no time to get any legal documentation, as if there was any to get. The Belgian District Commissioners had been the first to leave, but not before removing all files and papers at their administrative centers, leaving the Congolese officials who took over with nothing but empty offices. The Belgians also had no contingency plan for the safety of the Belgian population, who panicked and fled.
“It doesn’t matter where you’re from,” the American diplomat said. “The only thing that matters is that you’re white.”
My dad pulled out a paper with typed copy and a signature and handed it to the soldier, who snatched it from him. The soldier studied it and frowned. He shoved it back to my dad.
“Passez … pass,” he said and waved us on.
My dad folded the paper and handed it my mom. He rolled up his window, put the car into first, and drove away.
None of us moved or said a thing. Finally, my mom asked, “Why did he let us go? We don’t have any papers. What did you give him?”
“I don’t know,” my dad said. “But he was holding it upside down.”
We all stared at the road in front of us, and no one said anything for a long time.
I remember Patrick Walker, the British District Administrator at the district headquarters in Mbarara, Uganda. Most refugees from the Congo on their way to Kampala, Uganda, stopped in Mbarara, and were taken in by the British.
It was dark by the time we arrived at the headquarters. We’d been in the car all day.
Before my dad could knock on the door, Patrick opened it. He reached out and shook my dad’s hand. Patrick was tall and thin, and his arms looked like they were too long for his body. He looked like an English schoolboy at that awkward age, whereas, Susan, his wife, was slender with curly shoulder-length blond hair. She was pretty.
“Welcome,” Patrick said. “You’ve come from the Congo? Leopoldville? Bukavu?”
“Bukavu,” my dad said.
“Bukavu? Difficult situation there. But you’re here now. Well done,” he said. “But listen to me, going on when I’m sure you’re all tuckered out. Please do come in.”
Susan linked her arm through my mother’s and led her into a well-lit room. “Come in, my dear,” she said. “You and the girls must be exhausted.”
They’d been waiting for us. I don’t know how they knew we were coming; there were no phones. And even if there had been, we couldn’t have told them when we’d get there.
The room was filled with people – men and women dressed in shirts and ties, full-skirted dresses and heels. It was like a surprise party and we were the guests of honor. The women, especially, made a fuss over my sisters and me. I wish I’d said something to let them know how grateful I was, how kind they were to put us up in their homes, how generous they were to take in strangers. But I hadn’t expected a reception like this – none of us had. And I was a child, exhausted.
I wondered if they waited like this every evening for other refugees.