Mobutu Kabamba sat in the Prime Minister’s office drinking a cup of coffee that tasted like armadillo skin. Across him, surrounding the Prime Minister’s balding head like a rustic halo, was a framed landscape that was covered in so much dust it could be said the artwork had returned to its roots. The porcelain mug Mobutu Kabamba drank from felt cold, even with the steaming hot coffee inside, and he wondered if it was his own anxiety that left his black-and-pink hands so remarkably frigid.
He had every reason to be anxious, after so many years of hurdle-jumping, back-scratching, back-stabbing and hours of confined hunger, only to lead to this interview. An interview with the young Prime Minister of Malta, during which, Mobutu Kabamba would give him a message that would change his life and, by symbiotic proximity, the life of his small country. And he would tell him his message as soon as the clock struck six.
When the clock struck six… Mobutu Kabamba had arrived on the barren, fancifully Baroque island of Malta. His journey, through skeleton deserts and over seas riddled with blood and diarrhoea, had been alongside fellow countrymen from the Democratic Republic of Congo. The soldiers that greeted him as if he were an unwelcome parasite, called his home country Dr. Congo. Mobutu Kabamba laughed to himself, more at the sound of their broken English than at the pidgin joke. And as he looked them straight in the eyes, as they took him into the quarantine deck, he made sure they could read his mind: “If I am a doctor, then it is you who are the parasite.”
His companions on the journey had become lifelong friends. Their names had become pillars of memory – the day he forgot them was the day he was ready to die. But even as they spent their first nights of freedom in a pseudo-Western quarantine deck, he knew, as he had always done, that he was not like them. They were fleeing the Congo because they were afraid for their lives. Most of them were displaced by the Mai Mai rebels, although one of them, Kyungu, was secretly a chef for the rebels. He had lived in the rainforests his entire life and knew what fruits and plants to cook to make men invincible. During the civil war he spent three years concocting 4, 001 recipes that allowed men a range of talents from the vision of eagles to the strength of gorillas. Others, like Joseph, had been conscripted as child soldiers with the counter-rebels. Having defected from the forces with the help of an ungodly cold night, whose icy bite was spared only young Joseph, he remained a perpetual defector and his body never grew to a full adult size. The rest of them were displaced victims of war, like Likasi, who had seen his entire family killed before his own eyes, and Jean-Pierre, whose small home on the edge of the forest was overtaken by a pack of stray dogs that bore the mark of the Mai Mai. Mobutu Kabamba had great sympathy for his stricken friends, but he felt it impossible to relate to them.
Mobutu Kabamba was not fleeing anything. His home, deep in the timeless heart of the Congo rainforest, had never been seen by the eyes of outsiders. Mobutu Kabamba belonged to a race of pygmies so rare it was said they lived in a rainforest as large as Brazil, which was hidden in some unknown lagoon. He was taller than the rest of his family, his oily-sleek black skin made him look taller, and gave him an irridescent shine, the kind seen on sizzling bacon. His young face belied his tender years and his shaved head made him appear wild and tough. Dressed in Western clothes he looked like an ancient half-man half-ape had time-travelled into modernity and camouflaged itself in the veneer of civilization. No matter how primitive Mobutu Kabamba looked, he left his homeland with metallic conviction and an unbreakable determination. All he had to do, the elders had told him with a voice so soft even the butterflies could decipher it, was travel north, to the West, and pass down a message of great import to the first ruler he encountered. Bouyed by youthful confidence and a timeless arrogance, Mobutu Kabamba accepted the prophetic challenge with glee. Confident in his abilities as a shape-shifter he expected little difficulty in carrying out the task.
Once freed from quarantine Mobutu Kabamba was taken to the detention centres in the south of the island. There, he and his friends lived a meagre living, having barely enough sleeping space for them and their dreams, and nothing to do but play football and watch the sorcery of television. The men from the Congo did not like to talk much and, indeed, a taboo gradually evolved that they would not speak to each other unless it was to discuss the rainforest that had bore them. This way the men learnt more and more of the rainforests; they learnt of shadow-like creatures without limbs and heads, thought to be the grotesque children of ancestral spirits mating with their living relatives; they heard of dogs that had been bred by people of the snake-tribe, and who had poison on their tongues to help their masters with hunting; and they shared stories of mothers who had given birth to seeds which eventually blossomed into a fully-formed baby. The entertainment of the stories did nothing to assuage Mobutu Kabamba’s frustration at being caged up, held back from fulfilling his mission.
He began a night-time quest of taking on the form of a sparrow that could just fly away from the purgatorial camps. But, accustomed to the viral boredom of the camps, his dreams grew lazy, and he only ever succeeded in shifting himself into a sloth or a lame cat. So, he reluctantly resolved to seek freedom through more diurnal means. He claimed the right to asylum on the grounds of human rights persecution back home. None of the authorities denied him his right to persecution nor even thought him a liar – but they were duty-bound to inform him that his case could take up to eighteen months before it was heard and cleared. He contacted a Christian human rights group who provided lawyers that helped speed up the hearings of refugees like himself. When he was introduced to the lawyer that was going to take on his case – a young, blonde, tall even for whites woman called Charlene Delia – he took one long at a Jesuit-made crucifix that she wore as a necklace and decided he had to sleep with her. It was the only way out for him. “This woman must dream of God.”
Charlene Delia was prone to flirtation. She was raised as a humble, honest girl, made to go to Mass every Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday, but her looks were anything but humble. She craved the attention she knew she was owed. At times she began to doubt what the mirror told her; “if I look like this, why won’t anyone tell me!” So when the reigns of her parents influence began to slacken and the occasional student, colleague and fellow laywer began to pass her compliments, she would glow with life-affirming light, as if she were a saint who had lost her heavenly virginity. And it wasn’t until she met Mobutu Kabamba that she thought of losing her virginity. One of the (secret) reasons she worked with refugees was to indulge in the goddess worship they (seemingly) reserved for her. It wasn’t that she was more beautiful than the women of their country (race), it was just that she was freer. At least, she was intending to be. She had lost her virginity to a man from Ghana, a few years back, who was six feet tall, had perfect rows of teeth, and who owed her his freedom. Making love to him was like making love to a newborn mountain. But much to her Christian shame, she never saw him afterwards. And she has been barren since the Mountain.
When Mobutu Kabamba, the virile, handsome pygmy made love to her a few days after they first met, her height difference made her feel vindicated. “I am a goddess,” she thought the day after. And no matter how long it would be before she made love again, she would remember that even in defiance of the voice her mother had implanted in her right-brain. Mobutu Kabamba made love to her like a rabbit. Fast, rough and from the back, she forgave him his haste when he saw his eagerness to cuddle up. They spooned like twins in utero, his arms coiling themselves around her naked breasts, his lap nestling into her generous backside, and his lips falling on her shoulders. She had never felt the same royal affection from a man before, and when she fell asleep in his arms, all she could do was thank God for creating her the way she was.
And as she dreamed of God, Mobutu Kabamba did what he had come to do: he looked God in the eye and took on his form, so that, for a night, Mobutu Kabamba was God. He ignored the streams of prayers that came his way and decreed only one nature-bending command: his case would be heard the very next day.
With Charlene Delia by his side the two of them appeared in front of the appeals board, the very next day. The trial was a formality. Charlene Delia was on inspired form, feeling herself inspired by God. The board also hung up feeling hungover on God’s love and, after all, Mobutu Kabamba’s case was clearly just. He was displaced from his village by the Mai Mai, had seen his entire family slaughtered, and was persecuted for being a Belgian loyalist… On that very day, he was given asylum status and freed from the detention centre. Charlene Delia never saw him again. But she didn’t need to.
Before making his arrangements with the Prime Minister, Mobutu Kabamba needed to make some living arrangements. He found a cheap flat to live overlooking a street riddled with transgender, overweight prostitutes, and made a living by hanging around the streets begging for odd jobs. He helped build five-star hotels, help wash them, worked on a young couple’s first house building their washroom, and even made a few tips working as a rent boy in a well-known all-male cruising area. He began to miss life back home and wondered what his brothers were up to. He wished he could have been with them, hunting hogs and taking on the forms of bonobos and racing through the tree-tops, stopping by a sheltered stream to make five-second love in the manner of the pygmy chimpanzee. He hated Malta, and made friends with a clique of East Africans who wanted to make the country their own. “Somalia in the Mediterranean” they cried. Mobutu Kabamba didn’t know what Somalia was, nor did he have a vague conception of what the Mediterranean truly was. But the phrase sounded alluring to his African-bred ears. But he didn’t let his soul fill with hate, he was there only so long as his mission lasted. The fate of Malta was of no consequence to him. And the feeling was very much mutual.
Mobutu Kabamba set about arranging an interview with the Prime Minister. He visited his office in the capital but was told he could not speak to anyone without an appointment. He was re-directed to the office of the parliamentary group, but they told him the Prime Minister was booked for the whole year. He then began hanging around the bars that surrounded the office of the Prime Minister and soon made friends with a security guard that worked the night shift at the PM’s office. Every other night, after finishing his shift, Mobutu Kabamba would plow him with drinks, inquire about his family, and made him laugh with dirty African jokes. After a month of the enforced merriment, the security guard was ready to dance: “I’ll see what I can do, but, what do you want from him?” Mobutu Kabamba replied in a rehearsed, poignant tone: “I have a message for him that will make his country great.” “You’re lucky,” the security guard said, holding back a burp. “The kid’s still young, it’s his first time as PM and he wants to make an impression.” Mobutu Kabamba smiled wide with optimism.
But soon after the promise was made, the security guard was transferred from his post. Something to with pre-election promises, he said. And, no, he didn’t get a chance to get a word in. Despairing, his youthful confidence ebbing away, Mobutu Kabamba was succumbing to the temptation to shape-shift his way into the PM’s office. But that would be too intimidating, and the message would not come across. Besides, he began to notice that his shape-shifting powers no longer worked outside the camps. Maybe he needed the company of fellow Africans. Or maybe he was outgrowing them. Either way, he had to remain patient and mature. Life has a funny way of maturing one when one least desires it.
But before despair could age him beyond recognition, a stroke of miraculous luck came his way. The miracle, as always with miracle, was not truly down to luck, there was a reason behind it: after having been God for a night, Mobutu Kabamba still retained a thread of godliness, and his inner desperation forced the miracle to occur, right before his needy eyes. He was in the north of the island one morning working on the construction of a new hotel along the coastal roads, a hotel, he knew, was destroying and displacing countless families of wild thyme, orchids, chamomiles and other long-established floral dynasties along the garrigue. But nonetheless, a living had to be made. And, while on break, taking a cup of coffee along a busy road, his clothes all white with dust and his eye-lids a drunken red, he saw two little girls, not older than eight, looking to cross the road. What were they doing on their own? The pretty little twins, like the sun and the stars, had they no escort? Mobutu Kabamba heard, from the near distance, an adult voice calling their names, but the girls ignored it, determined to cross the road as if it were some kind of dare. He walked over to them and before he could reach them with an outstretched hand, the girls flung themselves unto the road. By the time they made it unto the third lane, they stopped, paralyzed with fear. And mired in the stasis of alarm, they could not see, but only feel, the approach of a bus heading their way. Even the driver could barely make out the petite little shadows in the middle of the road, and by the time he hit down on the rusty breaks, it was too late. He skidded on his side, dragging the long bus on the tarmac in a trail of death. The driver’s head ws bloodied by scattered glass, and most of his passengers were winded and weeping; but still he got out of the bus, running to the middle of the road, to look for signs of the little girls. He looked under the overturned bus for signs of blood, looked towards the cliffs that enclosed the road. Looked down the garrigue that lead to the sea. Nothing. Where had they gone? The driver felt suicidal. The pain in his forehead was a lie. And the passangers were all trapped – all of that happened on his watch. How could he face his wife, especially with all her Oriental superstitions, how could he live with her anymore?
“Sol, Estelle, where are you?” The voice that had been calling the girls before they crossed the road emerged from the steep garrigue. He was a driver himself, dressed in an all-black suit and with a police-style hat on his agitated, greying head. The bus driver looked to him, “they’re not here. They’re not… here.” The bus driver broke down crying, all five feet and 100 kilos of him. The driver looked at the scene, the wreckage of the bus, the distressed passengers and computed the miserable equation. “Where are they? Where are they!” He shook the inconsolable bus driver, his own eyes welling with a concoction of fear and rage, his heart bleeding cyanide. “They’re not here.” Was all he could get out of the bus driver and, before he could undertake his own search, he heard an echoing voice calling from above.
“We’re here, Manuel! Up here!” The girls were stood atop the cliff on the side of the road, waving like orchids in the breeze, bouncing with the joy of Christmas in their sweating feet. Manuel and the bus driver looked up and their face turned white with relief. “Girls, come down from there, what are you doing there?” Manuel ordered with a dictatorial voice he was only permitted to use on such serious occasions. “We got a ride.” “With who?” Manuel and the bus driver asked in tandem. And the girls replied with their own synchronicity. “With Mobutu Kabamba.” And so he appeared, standing proud above the wreckage, his arms on the girl’s shoulders, a feather still dangling on his shoulder.
The miracle was not his discovery that he did not need fellow Africans around in order for him to shape-shift. The miracle was that the little girls were the Prime Minister’s daughters.
Mobutu Kabamba sat in the Prime Minister’s office drinking a cup of coffee that tasted like armadillo skin. The Prime Minister sat across from him, on an armchair guilded with gold brocades and faded floral motifs. He looked young, anxious but armed with a peaceful smile. His face was surprisingly stubbly. His balding, red head betrayed his youthful demeanour, and his hoarse, almost pre-pubescent voice felt charming and intimidating. His ambivalent appearance did nothing to calm Mobutu Kabamba’s nerves.
“So, Mr. Kabamba, from what I’ve been told, you’ve been meaning to meet with me for quite sometime.” He said drinking from his porceilan mug, his legs crossed in a macho manner, his pinky held daintily up in the air as he drank.
“It is the reason I came here, excellency.”
“Sounds interesting. Is that what you told the appeals board?” He put down the mug with a wry smile.
“I told them what I had to.”
“Mr. Kobamba,” the Prime Minister leaned forward on his armchair, proud of his political intuition. “I assure you, my government is doing the best it can to alleviate the immigration crisis we are facing. I have just commissioned my minister of the interior to look into the abuses and the disgraceful state of our refugee centres.”
“Your excellency, you are a well-meaning man, but that is not why I am here.”
“Oh,” the Prime Minister leaned back in his armchair, his ego slightly scolded. He put his hands together without the fingers touching.
“I have a message for you, Prime Minister. A message which comes from a place you have never heard of.” Mobutu Kabamba did not mean to speak in a demeaning tone. But that was how the Prime Minister perceived it.
“I am told you come from the Democratic Republic of Congo, correct, formerly Zaire?”
“On paper, yes. But I come from a place not even the people of the Congo have heard of.”
“Enlighten me, Mr. Kobamba.” The Prime Minister said, his annoyance plain to see.
“It is not for you, or anyone, to know of it, your excellency.”
“So,” the Prime Minister forced a smile. “What is this message, then?”
“It is a message that will make your country great, your excellency. Do you wish to hear it?”
“I wish nothing more than to make our country even greater than it already is.” He spoke the way a man speaks with a child. “Please, unburden yourself.”
“Very well. Prime Minister, the new year is soon approaching. You must make sure that, as soon as the next year dawns, you find a suitable location and… you plant 175 trees of your choosing.” As he spoke, the coffee mug shook in Mobutu Kabamba’s trembling hand.
“May I ask why, Mr. Kobamba?”
“It will start a wave, your excellency. Your country will become a role model for all the rest to follow. A green democracy. It will herald a new age of verdure, it will make Europe healthier, much like good meat makes the body healthy.”
“And why 175 trees precisely, Mr. Kobamba?” The Prime Minister sighed, his cheeks bloating like a toad’s, his right foot twitching and his eye looking towards the door and the silhouette of the new security guard stood outside.
“Do not question it, your excellency, merely have faith in it. Your countrymen’s faith is something that has astonished me. I am sure you share it, too.”
“I am a man of great faith, I assure you Mr. Kobamba.” He stood up, straightening out his suit jacket. “And I will pass on your message to the minister of the environment.” He stretched out a hand. Mobutu Kabamba rose to shake it.
“The spirits will be most pleased, your excellency.” He said smiling up into the Prime Minister’s eyes. But he could see the Prime Minister forgetting him even as he held his rough hands in his. He was nothing to him. His message would go unheeded. But he did not blame the Prime Minister. What could he tell him? The truth? That the 175 ancestral spirits of his tribe want a new home. That they want to leave behind the wars and deforestation of the Congo to make a better lives for themselves in Europe and, what’s more, to one day reap a new rainforest for all humanity to live in in the borders of that golden continent. But why would Europe take in the spirits of his ancestors, why would they let them make a new lives for themselves in their backyard, when they did not even care for the lives that daily died out at sea and in their camps? Europe would never be verdant.
Upon his return, Mobutu Kabamba told his story to his family, nestled in the secret lagoon. He told it with unbridled pride and cocksureness. But he could see the sadness on the faces of his naked, beautiful brothers, sisters and neighbours. He could see dark knowledge etched across their face. When it came time for them to die, their own spirits would be imprisoned in the trees that were destined to be cut down, used for firewood, used for war. Such was their fate, and the fate of Mobutu Kabamba, and no one would listen to their message. Not even after the many miracles at the end of the year.