Twenty-six years ago, on a beautiful marble balcony, I shook hands with Mobutu Sese Seko, the former dictator of what is now the Democratic Republic of Congo. I was reminded of that day last month while on a work trip to Kenya. In Nairobi, I happened upon a clothing store with a t-shirt bearing the face of Patrice Lumumba. Lumumba was the Congo’s first democratically elected president, but months into his mandate he was hounded from office, then hunted down and murdered by Mobutu following a CIA-backed coup. Mobutu ruled thirty-two years. His regime was brutal and repressive and while his resource-rich country withered, he amassed a fortune so large that he became the third richest man in the world.
The day I met Mobutu changed me. It was 1987, I was eighteen years old, a participant on a Canada World Youth exchange and the experience would teach me that greed, power and corruption can slap your face and sting you for life.
I set off to Zaire—that was the name of the country then—full of idealism and eager for an ‘authentic’ African experience, but my middle-class Canadian life hadn’t prepared me. I lived with a family in Molegbe, a remote village of mud huts filled with hungry people. The father in my host family was a teacher, and the mother baked bread before dawn for sale in the local market. Still, they couldn’t make ends meet. Their infant son had kwashiorkor—with the telltale distended belly and thin limbs. He was getting enough calories, probably from the bread his mother baked, but not enough protein. The family was supposed to receive a stipend to host me and Apingaka, my Zairean counterpart. The stipend had been delayed for weeks. The family shared what they had anyway, but their meals didn’t fill me up. Every evening, hunger overriding my guilt, I told those generous people that I was going for a walk, and strolled over to the hut where our group leaders had cooked extra food.
One February morning we were shaken awake and told to dress in our finest, for we were to meet the president. Skeptical, we rode buses to Gbadolite, Mobutu’s hometown, thirty minutes away. Gbadolite was Mobutu’s gold-encrusted grand dame, dressed up like Florida but embarrassed by the adjacent slum clinging stubbornly to her train.
At one of Mobutu’s two local palaces, we lined up to await his arrival. He stepped onto the balcony wearing a brown collarless jacket and his trademark leopard-skin hat. His enormous hand engulfed mine, national television hovering behind to broadcast the moment. At a brief reception, Mobutu heard our group leaders’ polite requests for the stipends to be expedited, and for buses so that we wouldn’t be so isolated, should there be an emergency in the villages. He decreed that the stipend problem would be solved, that each of the three villages in which we were working would get a bus, and that in addition, we would receive a freezer and access to the presidential fridges in Gbadolite. The buses never arrived; there were whispers that corrupt officials intercepted them. The freezers did arrive but were useless in the village, where we had electricity only two hours per day. The stipends eventually came, just before we left for Canada. And the group leaders’ access to the presidential fridges would allow them to keep feeding us a second dinner every night.
After Mobutu had met with our leaders and the cameramen had packed up, we were taken for a picnic in the countryside. In a groomed clearing, servants brought us parasols and fishing rods to dip into rectangular dugout ponds stocked just for us. Lunch was served on white tablecloths under huge thatched payottes. It was an endless buffet of imported and local delicacies, with two hundred dollar French wine to wash down the queasiness.
Apingaka decided that afternoon was as good as any to show me his neighbourhood. While the others swam in the pool of a local hotel, he and I toured Gbadolite’s slum. Sticky in my ill-fitting sports jacket and breathing uneasily from the smell of burning garbage, we sat in people’s yards, drank beer and got light-headed in the heat.
Finally, at my urging, Apingaka hailed an empty bus. The driver, a friend of his, stopped at the presidential garage. The guarded compound concealed fifty Mercedes Benz limousines and ten buses, all at Mobutu’s disposal. A Belgian manager screamed at her workers, apparently having forgotten the country was no longer her colony, until she saw me and shifted her fury to our driver for bringing me into a restricted area.
We left hastily, and joined our friends just as they prepared to leave for dinner at palace number two. Mobutu appeared in the entrance of his sparkling ballroom, but only briefly, to announce he was on a diet and wouldn’t be joining us. We ate another sumptuous feast, which we heard was prepared daily for fifty people, just in case, and discarded if there was no one important enough to eat it.
After dinner, they took us to Mobutu’s private disco, where fibre-optic tree lamps and remote-control video cameras waited to amuse us. Faced with an open bar and dizzy from the rich-poor seesaw, I drank myself to sickness. Just before my mind clouded, I caught sight of Nsimba, a young man who had told me his secret: his father was jailed and tortured for political dissent. His tight-lipped smile and his haunted eyes betrayed the effort it took to dissemble. A few hours later we were driven back to our village. The driver stopped several times at the side of the road so that we could expel the tainted food and liquor.
I have no pictures of that day with Mobutu but clearly I didn’t need any. I do have a photo of the round-bellied two year-old son of my Molegbe host parents. He is holding onto his mother’s leg as she pounds cassava into flour in a large wooden bowl and there is a squeal of laughter on his face. If he is alive today, if he survived kwashiorkor, and later dodged HIV, he would be twenty-eight years old. I feel sad that I remember so much of that disturbing day with Mobutu, and yet I can’t remember the name of that sweet little boy.