through the Mayombe
Republic of the Congo 1994 - A True Experience
the Peace Corps
I will never forget the image of hooded men with machetes running through
the aisle. Their heads were covered by what looked like rice sacks with
just the eyes and mouth cut out.
noticed people looked nervous and unsettled. I asked a young woman
sitting in front of me wearing a yellow and green paigne or wrap,
what was going on. She responded by saying, "Cest une
guerre a Bilinga!" A war in Bilinga? At war with whom? How
can a small town in the middle of a rainforest be at war?
I noticed people
looked nervous and unsettled. I asked a young woman sitting in front
of me wearing a yellow and green paigne or wrap, what was going on.
She responded by saying, "Cest une guerre a Bilinga!"
A war in Bilinga? At war with whom? How can a small town in the middle
of a rainforest be at war?
I was in the Mayombe rainforest in the southern Congolese region of
Kouilou. The deep forest covers ancient mountains and hides many secrets
in its rivers and swamps. I remember walking the small forest paths
beaten by decades of men and women carrying the produce from their small
plots deep in the forest. During these walks, the only company I would
have the whole walk would be fluttering yellow, white, blue, and black
butterflies. Sometimes the only sound that would beckon my ears would
be the chatting of monkeys and chimpanzees or the cries of grey and
green dots of parrots overhead.
There is another mysterious cry that snakes through the mist laden hills;
the CFCO (Chemin de Fer Congo-Ocean) railway. This python of the Mayombe
serves as the lifeline that unites the port city of Pointe-Noire with
the capital Brazzaville 395 km east in the Congolese savannah. Brazzaville
is the point where the immense Congo River opens itself up for navigation
into the inundated forests of the north. The railway was built by the
colonizing French in the early half of the last century to link the
ocean to the river city. It is infamous for the huge human toll it took
to build. An incredible number of Congolese lost their lives to the
grand French project.
Today, the journey from Pointe-Noire to the nations third largest
city of Loubomo (formerly Dolisie) can be a breathtaking experience.
The Mayombes dominion is speckled with small towns and villages,
chimpanzees, gorillas and many more inhabitants hidden by the protective
drape of the forest. The Mayombe forms a dark green tunnel on the CFCO
line; shadowed and cool with fleeting scents of honeysuckle pleasantly
surprising the unsuspecting. The towering parasoleil trees always at
the ready to shield one from the marching brigades of rain showers so
common during the long rainy season.
I lived as a Peace Corps volunteer in the town of Bilinga, in the midst
of that cool, dark green tunnel. My house was on top of a hill looking
down to the station and out to the forest smothered hills in the distance.
I used the train to go to Pointe-Noire for errands and to Loubomo to
visit my closest friend, also a Peace Corps volunteer. The "roads"
in the Mayombe were basically nonexistent especially during the rainy
season. I remember taking a trip by Land Rover from Loubomo to my village
taking us eight hours to traverse only 70 or 80 km. The CFCO was the
only realistic form of transportation. This lifeline was at the end
of its own rope, barely alive.
The railway functioned on the most minimum of scale. Trains were rarely
on time and often about five hours late on a good day. Waiting is an
art form in this region of Africa. A few deep frustrated intakes of
air through the teeth and it stops annoying one after a while and becomes
a cultural ritual, something to be admired. For me waiting opened up
more time to think, observe, talk, and just be more aware of my surroundings.
The causes of the artistic delays were numerous. Broken down engines,
the all too common derailments, and fallen trees blocking the tracks
in the forest were the major culprits. There was another increasingly
common incident that just did not fit into the routine of derailments
and fallen trees - the Aubervillois.
The name sounds very sophisticated when first uttered, but it conjures
up sinister acts of terror in the Congolese who depended on the CFCO
for their mobility. The name, Aubervillois, was just a sound to me before
Christmas 1994. To this day I still cannot be certain who the Aubervillois
were or still are. As far as I could tell, it was a gang of discontented
Congolese men who were furious with the government and terrorized the
frayed railway. Their thinking was that if you stop the lifeline you
stop the capital and thus the country. The Aubervillois equaled terror
up and down the railway. I recently read that the name Aubervillois
was the appellation of the presidential militia something very
different than what I witnessed. The truth has a funny way of splitting
itself when you are not really part of the place and space, as I was
My collision with the Aubervillois was when I was on my way back from
spending Christmas Day in Loubomo with my friend. We were just stationed
at our respective posts and I snuck up to surprise him for the holiday.
We were not supposed to visit each other so soon after posting, but
I eagerly disobeyed. My friend was very relieved and we enjoyed an equatorial
Christmas comforting each other after a very stressful first two weeks
alone at our posts. I dont remember the details of our Christmas
because the events that followed took over my memory of that hot holiday
I was stealing my way back to Bilinga undetected by my surpervisors
in Brazzaville when the Pointe-Noire bound train stopped in the Mayombe
town of Mpounga. I was not surprised to be temporarily stranded here.
This town was near the entrance to the Mayombe and often the trains
were delayed for one or two hours on account of fallen trees deeper
in the forest. When this sort of thing happened, we just usually practice
the art of waiting without much complaining until the train starts again.
After three hours, I knew something else caused the stop. Even on the
CFO a three-hour delay at one station was a little much. I wondered
what was really going on further down the line. I started asking.
This was when I heard the now internally famous words, "Cest
la guerre a Bilinga!" More information materialized as the hours
passed. Bilinga was being attacked by the Aubervillois. The train was
held up in Mpounga to wait it out. Even waiting for wars is part of
the art. The station in Bilinga was in chaos it as the center of battle.
We learned there have been at least fifteen people killed from reports
passed from station to station. The Aubervillois were punishing the
town for a past resistance to their offensive. Apparently my town is
volatile and fights back. Needless to say I was terrified at the prospect
of eventually returning to Bilinga.
After learning the basic news of what was transpiring down the line,
everyone on the sweltering train melted out and waited outside along
the tracks. A kaleidoscope of womens paignes brightened the clay
embankments of the town. Once outside I noticed I was the only white
person (mundele) on the overcrowded train. While sitting along those
tracks, battling an eternal war of their own with the encroaching forest,
there came over me an almost existential "Cest la vie en
Afrique" feeling. Mpounga is hilly with houses and small banana
orchards on many levels. It looked like the town was hanging; like dim
chandeliers from the forest canopy. I was certain every shade of green
called Mpounga home. It was the closest to the European fetish of the
idyllic that I have witnessed. As I was looking at the absolute beauty
of this poor train town in the rainforest, I noticed that most of the
passengers looked worried but they had the air of just going along with
whatever was happening. No matter what was happening, flies needed to
be batted away and babies had to be comforted. I kept imagining every
one of them looking at me and saying, "This happens, so just deal
with it we all do." I respected that and it actually helped
me in this particular situation and many more after this. But once my
thoughts were away from the Gaugin-esque painting of the town, the realization
that there were gangsters with machetes and guns killing people just
three stops away in another idyllic scene refocused my attention
The time came to board the train and head toward Bilinga. I did not
know what to do. Should I stay here in Mpounga until the next train
from Pointe-Noire comes? Should I just chance it and go home? Should
I continue on past to the next town of Bilala where my Congolese counterpart
lived? I decided to ask the same young woman what would be the best
thing to do. Since the passengers seemed to know how to "deal with"
unimaginable problems and circumstances, I thought asking her would
make more sense than going on my very foreign and confused instincts.
She advised me to continue on to Bilinga, assuring nothing would happen
to me. She explained that because I am a mundele and American no one
would harm me. America is seen as something heavenly a paradise
just as a tropical rainforest world is paradise to many Americans; a
type of mutual imbrication born of the colonial project. Both views
are very romanticized but I believe it made things a lot easier for
me as someone who caused notice in this particular situation. I believed
her and decided to head home to the war zone. The caravan then started
on the nerve-racking journey to the center of the Mayombe. I felt like
a refugee going in the dangerously wrong direction.
The train approached Bilinga station. The violent horde was still writhing
as we pierced its combative core. It was not over! I do not know why
the train started again toward Bilinga if the assault was still alive.
Everywhere around me passengers were becoming more frantic. The normally
relaxed and rolling Kikongo language became staccato and tense. The
young woman repeatedly stood up and sat down not knowing what to do.
She had every reason to be terrified. The Aubervillois have been known
to murder and rape on the CFCO.
I saw wide, frightened eyes all around. Outside I could discern only
raised machetes and guns through the many arms and heads grasping for
a view. The Aubervillois and the citizens of Bilinga were doing battle
just outside my window. Again I thought of not getting off and continuing
to Bilala. The young woman yet again assured me that I would not be
harmed if I descended. She used the same disorientating yet comforting
reasoning as before; I am an American mundele. Trusting my young female
seatmate, I decided to leave my refuge from the past five hours
Before I could get off, the Aubervillois invaded the train. I will never
forget the image of hooded men with machetes running through the aisle.
Their heads were covered by what looked like rice sacks with just the
eyes and mouth cut out. They were dressed like any normal Congolese
with t-shirts, old heavily worn slacks, and flip-flops on their feet.
The young woman proved right. The villains trooped by without even a
glance at the mundele American. No brutality was witnessed, but I do
not know what happened after they went past our car. Who are they? What
do they want? Those questions have never been answered.
The next few minutes were quite surreal. I do not remember hearing anything
- just visions. I got off and had machetes and guns waving everywhere
around me with bagged Aubervillois and uncovered townspeople in battle
all around me. Somehow I just meandered through the crowd of combatants
and peacefully, like a sleepwalker, glided up the hill to the sanctuary
of my house literally above it all.
I arrived shaken by the whole experience and in a sort of stupor. I
did not feel safe in Bilinga and made arrangements to retreat to Loubomo
as soon as possible. New Years was nearing and I feared for a
repeat of the mayhem below.
The next train did not come until that night flooded with travelers
stranded in Pointe-Noire from the mornings stoppage. I boarded,
but almost suffocated from only a few minutes aboard. It was not only
the lack of air but also the density of bodies; a suffocation of darkness.
Suffocation was a common death on the CFO. I had to get off. I exited
through angry yells telling me a rich mundele should be in first class
(first class was virtually the same). I was soaking wet with my sweat
and others. I conceded to stay another night at my hilltop home
with my neighbors, the Mpouki family. I slept very lightly fearing an
Aubervillois would break into my house and kill me in the night. I survived
to the next eerily quiet morning.
That morning I awoke in a misty nether world. The mist covered the surrounding
hills and nothing could be heard except for occasional automatic rifle
shots. I walked out of my house and saw figures silhouetted by the forest
veil. These figures were not the Aubervillois but the government military
sent from Pointe-Noire (Bilinga and many other small towns and villages
had no police force). The soldiers were dressed in the universal fashion
of military green, berets, and automatic rifles forever attached to
their bodies. I heard occasional automatic gunfire throughout the morning
from the surrounding forest. I assumed the military was hunting Aubervillois
stragglers. Everything was quiet and calm in a paranoid sort of way.
The heavily armed security force did not make me feel any safer than
the events from the day before. Another fact I learned living in the
Congo was the real military is as much to be feared as any other gang.
I finally boarded that days more spacious train back to Loubomo.
I told my friend what happened and called the Peace Corps office in
Brazzaville telling them what had happened and that I was staying in
Loubomo for the New Years holiday. After a few days, I went back
to Bilinga where everything seemed back to normal. In fact, most of
my days in Bilinga were rather routine and peaceful except for the occasional
Brian Wood" email@example.com
Brian is now teaching
in Japan and will be writing about that country in the near future.
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