The Night The Party Ended. Congo, 1998.
It was at this party, this sultry party on a sultry night with wet-blanket air thick with the tang of lemons, this party with steadily depleting and magically refilling trays of almost-cool Primus weaving in and out of the crowd, this party with its golden rings of pretty girls and flashy boys sitting in chairs under the trees in the garden, it was at this party when his life stood still, slid sideways, tilted around, stopped and sped up, all at once.
But then, there, he was Mzee. An approximation of Moses, because even twenty-six years ago, as a fat, unwrinkled, chub-chub of a baby, he was old for his age. Sage. Wise as Moses. Mzee.
Maybe ‘old’ is not the right word. Surely it isn’t. Because he is lively, alive, mischievous, quick with a trick or a joke, so fashionable – au-courant – and skinny-juicy-sexy. He has cheekbones that could slice cheese and rich lips which God surely intended for others to bite. No one can be this fat with life and juice and joie-de-vivre and be bony-hipped at the same time unless young. Old is not the right word.
And with the naming of Mzee, again and again and again each day, his family and friends are confirming his responsibility. His maturity. His ability to see beyond the end of his nose, to take the long view, and see himself – no, really know himself – in the midst of his family. A result of his family. The future of his family. Unlike his friends, his brother, even his father and his polygamous uncles, and legions of young men-boys across the hip-hop, pop, rock-listening world, he is not a man concocted in the imaginings of a mirror, all smooth-skinned post-shave pride and prejudice (he doesn’t shave often enough for that, it’s true). An exultant Me! who springs whole from the head of himself, beholden only to himself – no. He is not that young man, this Mzee.
The call. Came just after midnight. Just the time for the not-coming home, on my way home, will you be home, you better get home, where are you and why aren’t you home calls.
You need to come home. They are leaving. Kabila has sent them home. There will be trouble. This is a different call, altogether.
Still, he wears his easy charming smile of square almost-white teeth and a gap between the front ones that in other places – in Canada, The West, the US, maybe Europe too but not Britain – looks unfixed, unfinished. There, here, such teeth beg to be enmeshed in a web of steel, wire, elastics, and time; beg to be taken firmly in hand by an expert in these matters. There, then, the gap is sexy. Maybe because it does indeed signal that the wearer, the flasher of quick-slow smiles, needs to be taken firmly in hand but by another kind of expert. The pretty girl kind. The hopeful. The kind who believe they can fill in the blanks, bridge the gaps.
Surreal. Shadows tilting this way and that, falling over the eyes of his acquaintances, friends, neighbours, as though they are shielding their eyes from what is coming. Now.
Only one country away, four years ago, Tutsis – his family members, friends – were being murdered by their neighbours, friends and even family who fell on the other side of the ethnic tree.
And now Mzee is not Mzee. Now, he’s a Tutsi. He’s possibly not even Congolese anymore. He’s always heard that (“there are no Congolese Tutsi”) or suspected he heard that or deliberately ignored that he heard that, knowing that this is, of course, not true. At least at this particular minute, or in the minute before the call.
Before life as he knew it – easy, regular, familial, set up for smiling at pretty girls who like his very good job and even better car – ended.