by Rebecca Jung
It was the 1950s, and our father wouldn’t buy anything made in Russia. He was very strict about this, to the point of refusing to eat Russian caviar, even if it was offered at dinner parties. That’s why, when he came home from one of his business trips while we lived in the Congo, with a spider monkey on his shoulder, we named the monkey Krushchev.
My sisters and I were thrilled. Our mother was not.
“You’re never around, and I’m here holding down the fort,” she said. “And you bring home a monkey? You know, of course, who’s going to get stuck taking care of him.”
“Aw, c’mon hon,” my father said, smiling sheepishly. “I almost got a baby chimp. He had a runny nose and looked so pathetic.”
Even I knew that was pushing it.
My mother said, “Don’t you dare.”
But my dad was a sucker for cute animals. He spent most of his time driving on dirt roads carved out of the bush, and he could go miles before coming across a small village of thatched huts. It must have been lonely, so I can understand why he might be tempted to buy the monkeys, apes, and birds a lot of the Congolese children captured to sell. He was disciplined, I have to hand it to him; but there was something about the little spider monkey that broke his resolve.
So, he bought him.
I’m sure our Belgian neighbor, Madame Obusier, chalked it up as just another idiotic venture of the stupid Americans who lived next door. She hated us. But to be fair, she hated all Americans, as did most of the other Belgians in the Congo. They had a lot of complaints, but what topped the list was that Americans spoiled the help. She also hated the Congolese and, like most colonials, treated them as if they were sub-human. They called the them singes … monkeys, to their faces,
We called them by their first names. At my mother’s request, Sebastien and Raphael, our servants, brought their wives, Imani and Adimu, and their children to our house. While Sebastien and Raphael worked, my mother sat with the women on the flagstone stoop outside the kitchen and talked about being mothers. Motherhood, regardless the cultural differences, is a universal language.
Sebastien and Raphael were friends. They were Hutus from the same tribe, but they couldn’t have been more different. Sebastien was serious, dignified, the consummate professional. His job as head houseboy was his vocation. He oversaw everything.
Raphael, on the other hand, sang, joked, and played with my sisters and me. He also teased Sebastien unmercifully.
“He’s always so serious, isn’t he?” Raphael said, mimicking Sebastien’s unsmiling, serious face.
He picked us up to tweak Sebastien’s goatee. “Let’s see if we can make him laugh.”
Sebastien was not amused. He gave Raphael withering looks but endured the good-natured ribbing.
The last time I talked with my sister Jamee, I reminded her how much fun Raphael was.
“Sebastien was good at keeping the house together, but he was a real stick in the mud. He could’ve loosened up a little. He could’ve taken a few lessons from Raphael,” I said.
Jamee looked at me. “Sebastien taught me how to carry a baby on my back like the African women,” she said.
“Yeah. He wrapped my doll in a kanga on my back, and I carried her around like that all day.”
I said, “He did that?”
“Yeah,” she said. “He did that.”
Krushchev wasn’t a very good pet. He didn’t fetch, he didn’t play with my sisters and me, and he wasn’t affectionate. All he did was groom; so, he and I spent hours grooming each other, picking off imaginary fleas and ticks, which can become boring for a kid. And, being a kid, I’m ashamed to say I eventually lost interest in him. So, poor Krushchev was left to his own devices on the second-floor balcony of our house. And, being a monkey taken from the jungle, his goal was to escape. Which he eventually did, while my father was on another business trip.
We were amazed how fast a monkey could move, especially a monkey bent on escaping. My mother, sisters, and I watched in awe as Krushchev practically flew from the balcony to a tree, then another tree, then onto the kitchen roof, and finally onto Madame Obusier’s clothesline where her starched white sheets were hung out to dry. Unfortunately for Madame Obusier, and us, Krushchev had snagged his long tail on something during his great escape, and it was bleeding all over the pristine white sheets.
The screams of rage from next door broke our trancelike state. We didn’t have to know French to get the gist of what Madame Obusier was saying. Fury, as it turns out, is another universal language.
We ran to get Sebastien who, as the most level-headed and unflappable of all of us, immediately took charge of the situation. He grabbed a banana, climbed the wall between Madame Obusier’s house and ours, and held it up to Krushchev.
As soon as Krushchev took the bait, Sebastien grabbed and scruffed him and my mom fired up her old, moldy, mushroom-infested VW Bug. My sisters and I quickly squeezed into the backseat and Sebastien, still gripping Krushchev, jumped in the front. My mom stripped the gears shifting into first, and we made a beeline for the nearest jungle opening, where we came to a screeching halt. Sebastien jumped out and flung Krushchev into the bush where he did what any sane, healthy spider monkey would—swinging from vines to branches, he got as far away from human civilization as he could.
As it turned out, he was the smart one. Two weeks later, Madame Obusier was found dead. She’d been macheted to death.
She’d been arrogant and abusive to the Congolese, and we figured if anybody had it coming, she did. But dying by machete is not a good way to go, whether you have it coming or not. Being chopped to death is a slow, agonizing, messy death.
The Congolese had finally had enough. They wanted their independence, which the Belgians refused to even consider, and Leopoldville, the capital of the Congo, exploded in three days of riots. Four-hundred people, African and European, were killed or wounded.
The African political parties that were forming gave the Congolese a way to channel and organize the rage that had been building. They stood up to their oppressors: they began talking back, they refused to obey the laws the Belgians had imposed on them, and they abandoned their jobs as servants.
Now Sebastien, ever the most level-headed, unflappable—and wisest—of all of us, told my father it was time for us to go. And, of course, he was right. It didn’t matter that we weren’t Belgian, we were white and that’s all that mattered.
My dad gave Sebastien and Raphael each six months’ pay and asked them to watch over the house and our belongings, which we’d stashed upstairs. Then we packed some clothes, a few essentials, including a gun, and we headed for Uganda, and eventually Kenya. Before we piled into the car, my father shook Sebastien’s hand and thanked him for everything.
“Be safe Bwana,” Sebastien said. “Madame and the children must stay safe, too.”
As we pulled away, I turned around looked out the small back window of the car. Sebastien stood there and watched us as we drove off.
Four months later, my father risked going back to check on the house. There was no electricity, and he got there at night. He unlocked the front door and turned on his flashlight. He heard something in the living room, followed by footsteps. Someone was running towards him. He held up the flashlight, the beam of light broke the blackness in front of him and the footsteps stopped.
It was Sebastien. For four months, he’d slept on the couch in the house with a machete at his side.
I don’t know if the two men embraced each other, maybe even wept a little.
But I like to think so.
About the Author
Rebecca Jung is a writer and poet who lives in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Her work has been published in literary magazines, including: Sky Island Journal, Memoir, The Impetus, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Pennsylvania Review, Evening Street Review, Postcards Poetry and Prose, Not Very Quiet, The Write Launch, Sad Girls Club Lit, Flumes, and Purple Clover. Her work has also appeared in two books: Along These Rivers: Poetry and Photography from Pittsburgh, and Burningword Ninety-Nine, A Selected Anthology of Poetry, 2001-2011. She earned her B.A. in English writing from the University of Pittsburgh, and a B.A. in art history from Kent State University.