Stephen Embleton

Land of Light

The monorail snaked upriver through the thick teak forest canopy and occasionally out into the daylight. The bursts of sunlight grew more frequent but less harsh as the day faded into the west. Rather than an end to the day, the night was about to bring Paula to the beginning of the real journey.
          For the first time since leaving the plane at Muanda Airport, now 130 kilometres behind her, she was able to take in the view of the vast body of water stretching out 50 metres below. It always took a moment to realise she was not looking at a lake or a separation of continents, but rather the second- largest river in the world. The light warmed her face. She closed her eyes and imagined the Congo River seen from high above: the satellite images of a continent in the Earth’s shadow, a vein of silver beginning at one end and flowing into a crescent moon, nearly slicing it in half. Emerging from a once dark continent, it was not sunlight or moonlight that was visible along those waters. It was the mass of energy generated by the metric tons of water pulsing through that vein, that African heart, lighting and nurturing the towns and cities along its banks, creating the Land of Light.
          Nearly imperceptible, and without the visual distraction, she felt the body of the near-silent monorail begin to vibrate. The force of the Congo’s waters was pushing against her. “You must feel me. You must experience your journey. The Congo is not a quick ride from A to B,” it seemed to say. The force of the rumbling waters pushing through the approaching Grand Inga Dam walls were now being felt even 20 kilometres from the source. 26,000 cubic metres a second. 150 metres high. 50 turbines. It was the force of nature.
          Paula and her father had always felt it necessary to travel the river before the Light Gathering ceremony. A flight direct into the heart of it, in Kinshasa or its polar opposite, Brazzaville, always seemed too easy. Nothing in the Congo was meant to be easy.
          A flicker of emotion now passed over her face. The cabin for two felt empty. The seat opposite her seemed like a vacuum. Not just empty but pulling in the space around her. Removing sound, warmth, air. She sucked in a breath as if coming up from a great depth. Slapping the side of the wall beneath the window, a panel from the roof lowered to waist height. She placed her right palm on the cool dark tabletop. A pale green ripple of light pulsed and the screen came to life.
          “Speak to Tata,” she said to the machine.
          A sound pinged on the screen and a panel appeared. A familiar face smiled back at her.
          “Mbote, mwana,” came his familiar warm voice.
          “Hello, father,” she slouched forward, getting closer to him.
          “You are nearly there?” he asked her.
          “It feels so far away still, Tata.”
          “The Kosanga is important. I am glad you are doing this, mwana mwasi. If not every day, at least this one day our bakóko can speak to us and we will be listening.”
          “It is hard work trying to listen every day, Tata. Once a year is enough for our ancestors.”
          “Do I hear the rumble coming from the great wall?”
          “Tata,” she smiled down at him, “you always think you hear the sound of those rushing waters.”
          “But I do, child,” he smiled back. “I feel them more than I feel my heart sometimes.”
          She balled her hand into a tight fist. “I miss you so much.”
          “But we can talk anytime.”
          “You know what I mean. It’s not the same.” She glanced away from him, not seeing the world outside. “I wish you were here with me this year.”
          For a moment he didn’t say anything.
          “Tell me what you see.”
          “The river,” she shrugged without hiding her sarcasm. “It still flows. The sky is turning the deep blue you love. The jungle below is thick and impenetrable, peaceful.”
          “We’ve learned to leave it alone, Nature. Violent chaos masquerading as tranquil order. How long it took us to live alongside it.” He stopped, sensing something. “You are rising.”
          “Yes,” Paula turned back to the familiar face on the screen. “We are coming upon the wall, father.”
          “Let me hear the sound of the Grand Inga.”
          They remained silent as the sky filled with water vapour, the monorail climbing the long hillside. Behind the permanent explosion of water, the dam wall stretched the length of the ocean-wide river.
          Like many living here, her family was part of this land, this watery place. She couldn’t remember how far back her family went, no one could. As far as they were concerned they had emerged from the land like the waters reverberating through her now. They had learned to use the waters, over time, and to harness its power.
          This heart of Africa had been created, expanded and rebuilt by a united people over centuries. Its power fed into the subcontinent, all the way to the southern-most tip where the two oceans joined. Its energy weaved its way north, through oil fields and deserts to reach the northern territories of the United Northern Africa along the Mediterranean coast.
          After decades – nearly a century of promising and planning – the adjoining countries had brought their diamonds and gold to the central region to aid in the final construction of Grand Inga – the largest hydroelectric dam ever built. The river flowed through nearly 10 countries. Fifteen countries would unite to make it a reality. They united in purpose and they united in name. Africa became two, but more importantly they were their own. Africa no longer relied on the outside for aid, support or imposed guidance. They stood on their own. They survived.
          Paula turned away from the fading plumes of water evaporating into the warm skies. “Tata, what do you see when you die?”
          “I don’t know. I think it’s different for everyone. I think how they see the world and what they expect to happen overshadows how they perceive it. Like a child and an adult seeing a tube ride down a river. One sees potential fun, the other sees potential injury. You cloud your own dying.”
          “Sometimes I can’t wait for death. Other times it terrifies me.”
          “My child. Don’t hold on to anything.” He paused. “Look at our river. Our people learned a long time ago that it was futile to try and keep the river to ourselves. We learned that it crosses borders no matter who thinks they own it. You cannot grab it with your hands and say ‘this is mine’. It flows through your hands. It flows through the biggest dam wall ever created. If we didn’t allow it through that wall, if someone was stupid enough to plug that gate, it would find a way. And it would find a way to destroy that arrogance. So we harness, use and share what it allows us. We cannot take that which sustains us in this life to the next.”
          A tear fell from her eye. Surprised, she quickly dabbed at her face with her sleeve.
          “When I was preparing for this journey, Tata, I thought about having to do this alone. I thought about how we yearn for our family. I thought that if people lost their family, loved ones, close friends, that they would then be truly liberated. And then, they would be able to be, do, and act without any concern for themselves. I’m not talking about a selfish journey. I’m talking a selfless journey. One where, should you choose, you could go into a country ravished by a disease, just to serve and help. You could drop everything and help the world. There are no excuses. There are none anyway. We just think that these people in our lives stop us and give us a reason not to do good in the world. Because most of the world is sitting behind a desk not contributing. Being a cog isn’t contributing. It’s just making the machine bigger.
          “I’m not saying wish that your loved ones die. I’m saying live like they aren’t stopping you from being a better person. Look at someone who has lost everything. Give them time: either they’ll blow their brains out, fade into a shadow of their former selves, or they will take the world on, head on because what’s the worst that can happen? It’s already happened to them. And dying is no longer something they worry about because that will be a relief when it comes. And me? I don’t know. There is still this longing for our ancestors in this gathering every year.”
          “Can we ever feel truly alone?”
          “Yes, Tata,” she said impatiently. “If we didn’t believe. That would be alone.”
          “Those in the West have built the foundation of their world on not believing. How are they?”
          “They are what they are and I think that has its own benefits. Nobody looking over your shoulder, no ancestors to answer to. But feeling what it feels like to be alone.”
          “And the Light Gathering is for that connection. It is the opportunity to ask, feel and believe. Mwana, this is your gathering. It is not about the others. What you think is for you and you alone. For generations our people have grounded themselves in who they are, where they have come from, and their relationship with their land. The Light Gathering has been the one unifying ideal they have all shared, and continued to share across the generations, without influence or ridicule. There are some that believe but do not wish to speak to their ancestors.”
          “Ignoring them?”
          “Avoiding them. Avoiding the ceremony. It does not mean they don’t believe. Did I tell you about when my father died? My real father.”
          “No. I thought you were too young to remember.”
          “It’s amazing how much I am able to recall lately. I mean everything. All my memories are there. Sometimes I have to remember something to remember it,” he laughed. “I like watermelon? Yes, because I was standing by the river’s edge when your grandmother passed a slice to me for the first time. I was nearly two years old. It was cool and sweet. That flavour has stayed with me. I ask myself these questions to remember.”
          “My grandfather,” she reminded him.
          “Memories, Paula. Allow me that much.” His face turned serious. “My mother had sat me on one of the chairs closest to the window of my father’s hospital room. I think she knew I was able to hear, and really wanted me to hear what she said to him as he lay taking his last breaths. He was a fighter, I’ll give him that.”
          He smiled at his daughter. “Our family is strong willed.”
          “You’ve never spoken about him much.”
          “I know. Mama Koko was physically and verbally abused by her husband, my father. That was something I was aware of even if she never told me anything directly. My mother never let his words crush her or shrink her. She gathered his abuses and stored them. She let them ferment and grow like a festering poison. They say poison is a women’s weapon while men use brute force. I think words are a woman’s weapon. She had waited until he was on his deathbed to inflict her fatal brew.
          “‘I’m glad you are dying,’ she had whispered to him. She had sat, stiffly poised, on his bed. ‘It couldn’t have come sooner. I’ve bided my time and I can now enjoy my life without you sucking the joy out of it, Vincent. For 10 years you’ve treated me like your maid, your slave – lesser than, lesser than everything. I’m glad it’s been a drawn out and agonising death. I have nursed you with all the disgust and loathing I could muster. With every glass of water, handful of pills and supportive arm, I have nursed my hatred into your body, into your skin like a sticky balm of bitterness. I have consciously imparted that bitterness on to you. I have made every moment a moment of transferal. I now no longer hold any of that resentment. It is in you now, fully, killing you, choking. My only hope is that you’ve had time to reflect on the man you’ve been. Our son has not had time to learn how to be a man from you. He has the chance to be his own man. A good man. If you have not, then you’ve got a few more hours or days left to be with yourself.’
          “I had noticed how the machine sounds had become more erratic at this stage. ‘There’s no reason for me to be here and watch you die. Although it would bring some satisfaction it’s actually a waste of time dwelling on something worthless. Life goes on and my life begins today. Go on a cruise and find some youngster wanting a woman with money to pay his way across Europe. Fine by me. Flirt, flutter, grab some bum.’ My mother leaned in closer to the body on the bed. ‘The end is coming. I can see it now. I’ve hoped for this for a long time and do you know the anticipation and feeling I’ve had building in me over the past few months? It’s like goddamn Christmas, Vincent.’
          “Apart from what I now can remember, at that young age I remember how happy my mother was after that.”
          “And you want me to connect with these ancestors, my grandfather?”
          “Who they are when they are alive is not who they really are. Their soul is who they are. The real world is who they think they need to be. I realised this at our last Light Gathering. It was hard, but I saw my father for who he really is.”
          Paula shook her head. She opened another panel on the table surface, pulling up a map of the monorail’s route. Two winding paths dominated – one fat and blue, the other thin and green with a pulsating circle flowing over the pale path ahead.
          “Where are you now?”
          “Nearing Kinshasa, father.”
          “My city.”
          She pressed on the moving circle. Information – speed, arrival time – appeared in a pop-out circle. She hesitated then flicked it away and looked out the window.
          “What do you feel when you die?” she asked him.
          “Peace. No matter the circumstance, I would imagine passing over is peaceful.”
          She put her face against the cool glass, looking up the side of the carriage at the unending track ahead.
          “Describe what you see outside.”
          “The sun has faded now. The golden light is turning deep purple. A pale light shimmers just above the canopy. There are no clouds but the moisture in the air is creating a dome of light, a halo, above the two cities I know are in the distance.”
          “From the city you take the walkway across the grave waters of Lake Nkunda to the island,” her father whispered.
          “Both cities, north and south, meet on M’Bamou Island for the Light Gathering,” she added.
          “Yes. Brazzaville and Kinshasa become one people. One city. The energy.” He stopped himself. “You are lucky to be able to experience it again and again.”
          “But not forever, father.” She was back to the screen again. “And it’s not the same without you here.”
          She moved the map around, swiping up past her destination, and then quickly zooming out further and further until all the continents were visible. She took it all in for a moment, as if seeing it for the first time.
          The face on the screen alongside patiently looked at her.
          “What is it?”
          “The Earth,” she said with a sigh. “Everything.”
          “Our continent is the original Earth. We are Earth 1.0. Everything is a derivative of this land. Everything came from here. We never left our roots. We may have strayed, but we remained with our roots. We were the lacerated continent. We were the amputated continent. But we healed. We healed ourselves.”
          “What is it like to die, Tata?”
          “I don’t know, mwana mwasi.”
          “At night, in the pitch darkness of my bedroom, I sometimes close my eyes halfway or not at all. I let my eyes defocus as I fail to discern the difference between the blackness behind my eyes and the blackened ceiling I know is above me. My eyelids feel neither heavy nor awake, just resting in a blackened stare. I wonder if this is how it feels to be dead.”
          “Or is it the opposite?”
          “White light?”
          “Light. Feeling awake. Alive. More alive than you have ever felt. Sensing and knowing. Feeling everything.”
          “I need to feel, father. I need to feel you but I can’t through this device. I can hear you. I can see you. But it’s your soul, your essence I long for. Not your words – but sometimes I need those too,” she quickly added as she choked back a sob. “Father, I will be seeing you tonight.”
          “Stay and talk,” he tried. “A few more minutes.”
          “I can’t. The gathering is how I get to feel you now. I want to feel that warmth embracing me. That is who you really are now, Tata. Not this uploaded consciousness in a database somewhere.”
          “What if my soul is in here.”
          “No. I would feel it.” She looked out over the river below. “My father is out there now and that is why I need to go to the gathering. I need to feel him again. In the light.

© Stephen Embleton, first published in Imagine Africa 500, ed. Billy Kahora (Lilongwe, Malawi: Pan African Publications, 2015).

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