A remarkable thing happened to me

I’m not sure I’ve ever gone into my own origin mythology in this venue, but it goes like this. I was born and raised in the middle of nowhere. Well, actually several middles of several nowheres. But I was born in a small village called Tshikaji, in the Kasai Province of what was then the Zaire and what is now the People’s Democratic Republic of the Congo. It was the bush of a rural province in a shockingly underdeveloped country in the very middle of Africa. For context, it took my grandparents six weeks after the fact to learn I had been born… in 1978.

Tshikaji - a long way from Boston in every sense
Tshikaji – a long way from Boston in every sense

There is very little emigration from DRC Congo to the US. It got hit hard and early by the AIDS epidemic (that’s where it started, folks). I have met Kenyans, Ghaneans aplenty, Ivorians, South Africans, Algerians… but in my entire adult life, I do not believe I have ever “run into” someone from Congo – even the bustling capital city Kinshasa – never mind the remote corner that nurtured me.

Stoneham Family Fun Day 2011
Stoneham Family Fun Day 2011

With that complete not-foreshadowing, let me look back to last weekend. Saturday was the day of the Stoneham Family Fun day! (Yes, that’s what it is really called.) Last year we had fun on the rides, so when a neighbor texted that they were headed down, I rallied the troops and we went down ourselves. To my disappointment, there were hardly any rides but way more booths. Fortifying my children against disappointment with various sugary snacks, we wandered around, talked to our friends, and desultorily walked through the booths. Grey tugged at my arm and said he wanted to show me a mask. I followed him.

The booth he lead me to was full of African art. I stopped, stilled with the stunning familiarity of it. There was absolutely no doubt in my mind, at one glance, this was Congolese art. I went up to the proprietor and asked, “Where is this from?” “Africa,” he replied. My heart ached that this would be the level of detail he finds appropriate. “Where in Africa?” “The Congo.” “DR Congo or Republic of Congo?”* “DR Congo”.

I knew it.

“I was born in DR Congo” I told him. “In Tshikaji, in Kasai”. Congo is a Biiiiiiig country. Odds were very good he was from the capital and had never been that far South.

His face lit up! Ahhh! He cried! My home!

He explained to his lady-companion in Tshiluba – a language I have not heard spoken by a native speaker in 31 years – that I was from his home. Oh, the reunion we had! I trotted out my 15 words: counting to 10, the word for buttermilk, the name that had been given to me as an infant. With every discovery of shared experience there were exclamations of astonishment by both of us. He was from Kasai. He had been to Tshikaji. I believe I caught that he was born in the same hospital I was born in. I named the pastor who had baptized me, and the tears streamed down the face of his lady. They knew that pastor well. I made my son sing the one song I carried over with me, Grey parroting phrases that I myself parroted. The recognition of it washed over them.

I cannot tell you what it meant to me, to meet these people. I cannot tell you how strange it was – to see new versions of art very like the ones my parents have had on their walls at every home I lived in – that are up right now in the living room of their house. I cannot explain the flush of recognition at this language I spoke once, as a child.

I can say that I was tempted to buy one of everything. I bought some things – particularly lovely, or that really reminded me of my childhood. We said farewell. Still dazed by recognition, I called my mom. “You’ll never guess what just happened, mom.” I returned, brought my cell phone to him and he and my mom had a conversation in Tshiluba. (He told me her Tshiluba is very good. She told me she understood maybe one word in four.)

And that is the story of how, under the tolling bells of the carillon in a sleepy New England town, I met Jean Pierre Tshitenge and was transported to another time and place, as far from the Town Square as it is possible to go.

Jean Pierre Tshitenge
Jean Pierre Tshitenge

*Note: there are conveniently two Congos in Africa. I come from DR Congo or Congo Kinshasha. If you’re older than, say, 50, you probably know it as the Belgian Congo. The name changed from Zaire to “Democratic Republic of Congo” in 1997 as Mobutu Sese Sako’s kleptocracy was toppled. When I applied for a passport in 1999, I entered my place of birth as Zaire because, well, that’s what it was then. The State Department actually noted my birth location as Congo-Brazzaville. The wrong one. I did eventually get it fixed, but I thought it was funny that it was so obscure and rare that the State Department got it wrong.