DANCING WITH CANNIBALS
co-authored with South African scholar, Dicho Ilunga Disashi
NEW EDIT - this is the final one
KDP, Amazon Publishing
December 2015, 310 pages
“Dancing with Cannibals is a gritty, emotional, powerful story of a young man trying to change his destiny while a native African tribe tries to hold on to their traditions as colonist move in on their land. Religion, family, and honor are all on the line as these people from different backgrounds try to co-exist in the ever changing world around them.”
“Jean's story on the other hand allows one to see the conditions in the Congo and how life for the natives deteriorated in order to satisfy Belgium's greed. It's an intriguing look into a different time.”
Jean Turken and Simon LaCouirce were criminals in Belgian prisons but were offered an early release to become colonists in Africa. Jean had been imprisoned for stealing, because he admitted the theft to his mother. He had started young taking things, first stealing pencils from his teachers and some reading books and did not get caught. But when he admitted to the theft of the jewel, his friend’s parents wanted him sentenced. The jewel had been sold and could no longer be returned.
His mother pleaded with him to finish his prison term, and not go to Africa. He had only another year.
“Ah, Mama, I don’t think I can live another year! The horrors I might face in Africa are nothing compared to what I do face in here. You know I hate rats and feces in my food. You know how other boys scare me, with their tight anger and their hands always grabbing, grabbing.”
“Oh my son, at least here I can visit you.”
Jean couldn’t tell her to stop thinking only of herself. “I will write you often. I will send you money. We have a chance to do great things in Africa. I will be safe. I will have the army and priests to protect me.”
He couldn’t tell her his dream, the one that kept haunting him in his prison cell. But the dream was his destiny, and his destiny was Africa.
Simon had a different kind of problem. He loved to drink alcohol, starting when he was a boy. He hung out with his brother’s friends and they’d all laugh when he got drunk. They started spending more time at the taverns, and soon Simon gave up on his lessons. One night the tavern keeper threw Simon out because he learned Simon was only 15. But by this time Simon was very drunk, and got mad at being thrown out. He found a big heavy stick, and the next person who came out—wham! Simon hit the man in the head, thinking him the tavern keeper, and just kept hitting him until he fell over and passed out. He woke up to find himself in jail for murder.
His father begged him to serve out his prison sentence. He had only another five years, since he committed the crime while drunk, and as a minor.
“Father, there is nothing as horrible as being confined. People telling you where to go, what to do with your life. I have been laughed at all my life, but no more. I will become a great man in Africa, with the freedom to do whatever I want.”
“But what kind of life will that be for someone like you? You are a sensitive and conflicted soul. There’s nothing but more trouble there.”
“I promise to make you proud, Father, and send money back for you to put my younger brothers through school. I would rather die out there than lose myself to insanity in here.”
He didn’t tell his father that he enjoyed the power of life over death, and felt Africa was his destiny.
These two young men, age twenty, were released among many others, to work for the great Leopold Deux, the king of Belgium, sent to fortune or death in the African Congo.
King Leopold, with the approval of the Belgian government, on occasion met with these freed criminals to encourage their enterprise. They would still be in a prison of sorts, locked away from all they knew and loved. But they were given the chance, by cunning and verve, to earn a living and their freedom, while providing a source of labor to the early and dangerous stages of colonization.
King Leopold walked into the room crowded with newly release convicts, surrounded by soldiers of the Belgian army. To those who were expecting a great presence, they saw a man who appeared stooped and tired, though he wore the traditional uniform as though general of a great army, sword at his side but without the great necklace. The noise of the many died to whispers at his appearance, as though dissolving in the hot, stilted air when he walked on the stage. He stared out over the crowd and ran a hand that trembled slightly down his long beard that he wore to diminish the size of his nose. He appeared to debate the wisdom of this appearance, not as sovereign of his own Congo, but now representing Belgium.
Jean wondered if his dream referred to meeting this man who managed to grab private land eighty times bigger than his kingdom, still said to be the most respected man after God, even after having to turn rule of the Congo to Belgium. He felt humbled to see the king in the midst of all these new colonists, and knew he had to follow his dream of giving his man his respect and undivided attention.
“I am your King and leader of a crusade to bring civilization to Africa. You are entering a world of great opportunity and challenge.” As he took his seat, he held up the Bible. “This is will be your steady companion. Use it to get the indigenous to trust you. Teach them the Ten Commandments, so they will know that killing, robbing, stealing and cheating you are sins.” Leopold nodded at what Jean could see were quizzical expressions. “You did not know you risk your lives? But why else would we send prisoners? Some have not yet seen white skin, so be prepared to face many reactions. Show them our tools and they will be in awe. After you gain their trust, you will get their resources. If you don’t get their trust, you kill them before they kill you. It’s that simple.”
King Leopold stood again, pointing at them. “You prisoners, you lowlife vagabonds, have been given a second chance. Those who fail but survive will be sent back to prison—for life.” He paused. “It won’t be easy living there. Malaria, typhoid, smallpox and cholera are your other enemies. You will have medicines, including some snake vaccines, but use them wisely. You will meet dangerous animals but you will be given plenty of weapons and ammunition. You will meet tribes who are not friendly so you can call on the soldiers. Our army is based in the main port of Boma and I will send more into the interior to follow up on your successes. It is a short winter in Africa, making travel easier. At the main port you’ll meet with your compatriots and our administration. They will be monitoring you. Respect and fear them as you do your jail guards.”
After the king swept out of the room, a low rumble of voices started up, excited and fearful. A few were led back to Belgian prison by choice, and the rest, including Jean, followed their guards out to the ships, ready for the journey.
The Mediterranean waters didn’t roll as much as bowed and parted for the ship that tore its way from Belgium to the Congo. Each ship had been filled with equipment for buildings and houses, along with food and medicine, clothes, communication equipment, guns and bibles. The men were divided into groups, like squads, and given an army sergeant to control them. Each sergeant carried a map of the territory and each map showed five areas for dispersal of five squads of twenty men each. The sergeants led their squads to their quarters in separate areas of the ship. The trip was supposed to take them about a month, and the prisoners were to be kept separate from non-prison passengers.
Simon stood next to Jean, and watched the lands roll away behind them. Simon was taller but only by the crest of a brow, darker complexion and steely eyes. Jean felt pale by comparison with light gray eyes, but both were young, lean and hungry. They would learn their assignments in the town of Boma, on the coast of Africa, where Christians and natives lived peacefully together.
Simon didn’t seem like a prisoner. He hadn’t the slumped shoulders or lost expression Jean saw in so many faces. He seemed wild and restless. Jean held his tongue, expecting Simon to just move on, as prisoners tended to keep to themselves.
“Are you sad, Mon Ami?” Simon lit a cigarette, his body rocking gently in the waves as the ship cut through them.
Jean shrugged, while keeping his hands tight on the rail. He hadn’t had anyone care about his feelings in a long time. “Not sad. Well, maybe. A little.” He watched the ocean splash up against the side of the ship. “Fish live in deep water but when we cook one, we have to wash it first.”
Simon leaned on the railing to study Jean, the bold broad blue horizon caressing his back. “Ah, you are a thinker. Simon LaCouirce.” He held out his hand.
Jean stared at the hand—smaller than he expected and smoother. He shook it. “Jean Turken. What kind of opportunity do you think we’ll find out there?”
“The kind that fate brings. You must be ready to respond to opportunity.”
“Perhaps.” Jean looked back out at the disappearing land again, wondering if he’d ever see his mother again. Already he feared this was a mistake, and a dream was just a dream.
“So what makes you sad? Not fish.”
“You and me are both released prisoners, no? Do they care about us? Will we have any support at all or are we both fish being tossed onto land to flop and drown from too much oxygen?”
Simon grinned. “What did you do to land in jail? Bore people to death?”
Jean laughed. He saw a young woman come up to stand near them at the railing. He nudged Simon, and went over to her. “Hello. Do you need company? Three is always good for company.”
Startled she looked up at him with fearful green eyes. “Maybe. I am tired of feeling alone.” They made their introductions, and Jean asked her why she was in prison.
Simon shook his head. “Not prison. This one’s French sounds like she’s an American.”
Agatha smiled, and at first she appeared she would run off, or leap into the waters. “I was moved to Belgium some years ago. So yes, my French is not as smooth as yours. I was …” She wrapped her arms around herself, shivering. Jean longed to comfort her. She was so fetching, with that long auburn hair and even features. “I was a prostitute.”
“We have to do things we do not like, sometimes.”
Simon laughed. “Oh, I’ll bet she liked it!”
Agatha ignored them both as she watched the lands pulling away behind them.
Jean cleared his throat. “I was a thief. I had only a year left, but feared I would not survive. I was about to tell Simon my dream. Would you like to hear, too?”
She turned to him, grateful, and nodded.
Jean took a breath, worried about the response, and closed his eyes. “I dreamed that many people, of whom I was the shortest one, were in a pyramid with strange people. I think they were Egyptians. I was in the front seat with a king. There was a beautiful woman who served delicious food. While eating I look at the pyramid entrance door and saw a dog guarding the pyramid. The dog was eating too. When I look at the dog's food, I saw the dog was eating another dog. I wanted to kick the dog, but I couldn’t, because this was not my home. The king held a crystal shining stone on his table. I asked if I could have the stone, and he said no, and then laughed."
Simon grunted, waiting. “Is that it?”
“I awoke afraid.”
“Mon Ami, men like you and me will always dream about beautiful women. And the dog? You know you could be going to face cannibals, no?”
“Cannibals? You think they still exist?”
“Depends on where you’re sent. Maybe this dream means this is your fate.”
Jean looked at Agatha. “Do you think so, too?”
“There are all kinds of ways to look at dreams. They are often symbolic, rather than real. Like beauty. It could signify someone on the inside. And you didn’t kick the dog. I think that means you are ready to accept the people you meet there.”
Simon laughed. “Accept, hell. We got one mission, lady. Resources.”
“And conversion,” Agatha added quietly. “That’s two.”
Simon leaned on the railing and flicked his cigarette overboard. “Many of those who went to Africa came back and bought great houses in Europe. They say you can get diamonds, gold, cotton, rubber and coffee for free in Africa, because the natives don’t know the value. That’s opportunity ripe for taking. So you go ahead and kick all the dogs you want, my friend. Me, I would rather die than lose out on opportunity like this.”
Jean had heard tales of cannibals, from the rituals in America with the Aztecs, in the jungles of Cambodia in Asia, the aborigine in Australia and from other prisoners about the rituals of human pots in Africa. They would still be alive as they were being eaten and would feel their brains being scooped from their skulls. Jean felt being eaten alive was the ultimate punishment any human being could suffer. Being eaten was like dying twice, with the soul trapped in the stomach of another human.
He felt no real fear—just the nervousness of the unknown, and the lingering unknown of the dream that has haunted him for the past year. But Agatha was right. There’s often no way to know what it’s supposed to mean. “I want to make a lot of money and show my mother that I made the right choice.”
“Did you?” Agatha’s voice sounded like music to Jean.
Simon turned to Agatha. “You are starting to bother me, miss. If you do not want to be here, why are you here? What are you hiding?”
Agatha moved away, to stand by herself. Jean felt himself reach out to her, but only with desire in his mind. He didn’t want to lose Simon’s friendship. It was little enough to own out here.
Simon nudged Jean to get his attention again. “We must be patient. For me, this is more than a dream. It’s freedom from the sheer torture of prison.”
“Why were you in jail?”
“I was just a boy, but made a mistake. Same as you, I suspect. We are both about 20, no?”
“I will be 20 soon.” Jean shook his head. “Our good king saw us off. That was special.
“He is only a name now. The land belongs to Belgium.” Simon grabbed his arm. “Let’s go see if there’s any food being served.”
“I haven’t had a friend in a long time. No brother, either. No one to share these feelings with.”
“I have brothers. Man, there is nothing better.”
Jean followed Simon, but as he did, held Agatha’s eyes a moment. She needed something, and he hoped he’d get the chance to find out what. A prostitute? She didn’t look it. But Simon knew, too, that she wasn’t being honest. After giving her a slight nod, he walked on to catch up to Simon. The moist air, waves and smell of salt made him nauseous but he found if he kept his eyes on the horizon he didn’t feel quite so bad.
Sailors and army personnel pushed their way around them but Jean and Simon knew their place and said nothing to them. “It’s like being on a different planet,” Jean whispered.
“Like floating in space.”
Jean wondered if Africa only existed in men’s minds. “I hope we get sent to the same place. Did you leave a big family?”
“Family? Oh, the usual noises and carryings-on when I left, but not worth dwelling over.”
“I left some cousins but the only immediate family is my mother. She didn’t want me to come. She worries too much since my father died.”
“I care about my two younger brothers, but not my older ones. I will sleep in the bushes with mosquitoes so they can go to universities.” Simon looked off over the water, his expression immeasurably sad.
Jean wondered what Simon did to end up in prison. He wanted to ask, but felt a man would offer when the time was right. When they get to Africa, they will go their separate ways and Jean will never see him again. This made him feel sad, for he was starting to think of Simon as a brother.
Perhaps they could find a way to stay in touch, even in the Congo.
END OF CHAPTER ONE
AUTHORS NOTE: At a site called Authors Den, a South African fellow put out a request for and English speaker, preferably a historian, to help with his six novels. I was intrigued and offered my existence on one about cannibalism because I felt that there was too much negativity in the world toward a practice that was most often culturally oriented. I felt cannibalism served their time and purpose. Well, I don't think I've ever worked so hard on a co-authorship in my life, and in fact, I wouldn't do it again. I agreed, not for pay upfront, which he did not have, but for 20% of his profits. When I saw the material, I balked. I couldn't tell if this was meant to be a fiction or a nonfiction. There were scenes, a lot of historical fact, and nothing real in the way of a plot. So I told him I couldn't do that much work unless I got co-authorship, and would have to take control of both submissions and the monies paid out. After seven years of work we found a publisher, but they were new and not real dedicated (I think it was a college project). Anyway, I could see what they were going to put out could ruin us as authors and pulled hard line until they finally canceled the contract. He got so mad at me that he went and had it self-published without telling me. Even with all that, I feel we've created something special and unique here, and I will never call this a waste of time.
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