Tamar in a 16' python skin.

 

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Den of Antiquity
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At Last the Author Answers Some of Your Questions!

The interviewer is the Devil's Advocate (D.A.)

D.A.: When and where were you born?

Author: I was born in 1948 in the Belgian Congo. The country is now called the Democratic Republic of the Congo—although it is anything but a true democracy. At any rate, it is one of the largest countries in Africa and straddles the equator right in the heart of the continent.

D.A.: Is it true, as you claim, that you were raised with a tribe of headhunters? That seems to be so preposterous as to be a gimmick to sell your books.

Author: It is indeed true. But wait; before I go any further I have to make a disclaimer: some of my answers might be deemed slightly edgy for the so-called cozy mystery reader. I want to give readers a chance to put the book down now if they think that they might be offended by a bit of reality.

D.A.: Whoa, hold on there! And you don't find that offensive?

Author: (Hangs her head shamefully.) Yeah, I guess it was. I'm sorry, I really am. All I want from the reader is that he, or she, withholds judgment from anyone I mention here—myself included—because all I intend to do is provide a series of snapshots taken with a Brownie box camera.

D.A.: I think that we can handle that, can't we readers?

Author: Well, then here goes. After my parents had been in the Congo for eighteen years—having arrived in 1932—they were asked if they would be the first of their affiliation to establish a mission station amongst the Bashilele tribe. At that time the Bashilele were known as fierce warriors who didn't take kindly to outsiders. Their coming of age custom for boys—think Bar Mitzvah—was to kill a man from another tribe. That man's skull became the boy's wine mug.

D.A.: Well then, how did you and your family survive?

Author: First of all, we didn't violate any of their sacred taboos. Sadly, the previous missionary, who was of a different faith, immediately began to chop down the villagers' sacred tree, The Tree of Life. His head became the witch doctor's drinking cup.

D.A.: Oh my! It must have been really strange growing up with these people. What was it like? How did you feel about it as a child?

Author: It wasn't strange at all: it was normal for me! Strange was coming to America. Strange was seeing the Midwestern countryside chopped up by fences—fences everywhere you looked. And pavement!

D.A.: What kind of house did you live in? What sorts of foods did you eat?

Author: I was born in a brick house on an established mission station. When my parents accepted the challenge to work amongst the headhunters I was two years old. My three sisters were five, seven and sixteen respectively, going up the ladder. We all lived at first in a house made of palm leaf stems (probably Raphia hookeri) and palm leaf thatch of the same species. This was the same material that the local people used when they built their huts.

At any rate, our house soon became a live-in buffet for millions of termites. It got to the point that just by pressing the walls one could get the entire house to commence shuddering as the insects "sprang to life." Later my father built a concrete block house with a corrugated iron roof and we felt like we were living in a palace.

For food we relied heavily on canned goods that were shipped up by sea from South Africa, than by riverboat up the Congo River and its tributary, the Kasai, and lastly, carried overland by truck. Beef arrived by special bicycle messenger overland through the forest and often wore a shimmer of green, so Mother cooked it until it resembled black shoe leather—but it is a taste I still enjoy. Occasionally we ate game, such as antelope, wild boar, guinea and francolin. Once my mother even served us "hamburgers" made from an elephant's trunk. She cooked these in a pressure cooker before pan-frying them to make them brown like real burgers. At boarding school—more on that later—we ate a lot of buffalo meat and hippopotamus meat.

D.A.: What did the Bashilele people eat? And tells us how they lived.

Author: The local people ate a very limited diet. They relied heavily on the manioc plant which was imported to Africa from Brazil centuries earlier. All parts of the plant are poisonous (they contain strychnine). The roots, which form the bulk of their diet, must be soaked in running water for three days. They are then dried in the sun and pounded into flour. The flour is subsequently stirred into boiling water until it forms a very stiff mush that is molded into a ball. When it is served the person eating tears off a piece and shapes into a scoop using their thumb and forefinger. They then scoop up a palm oil gravy that may or may not contain some bit of protein, and the boiled leaves of the manioc plant (They must be boiled and drained twice to rid them of the strychnine).

The Bashilele men were renowned hunters. They hunted with bows and arrows. The bows were tightly strung and six feet tall. The arrowheads, made of hand smelted steel, and mounted on lightweight palm wood shafts, came in a variety of shapes and sizes; each style had a different purpose. There were arrowheads for shooting down the giant locusts that flew like birds across the savannah skies, to arrowheads meant to lodge deep into the hide of very large antelope, like kudu. Even an arrowhead this size could not bring such a large animal down immediately, but it could cause it to bleed considerably, allowing the Bashilele, along with their barkless dogs, the basenji, to chase the prey until it had "bled out." But when game was scarce the tribe relied on alternate sources of protein such as grasshoppers, grubs, bird eggs, snakes, etc.

D.A.: You mentioned boarding school in the book. Is that how you received your education?

Author: Yes. I was home-schooled for grades one and two. In third grade and up I was sent to a boarding school two days drive away. Sixty-five kids attended the school altogether—all of them white, and most, but not all of them, American. About ten children lived on my "route." The two day trip in a panel truck along a dirt track included three ferry crossings, one of which was always quite an adventure. You see, the Loange River was in Bapende territory, and the Bapende in years past had been cannibals. The people still filed all of their teeth to points and wore their hair in elaborate mud cones decorated with porcupine quills, etc.

The Loange ferry consisted of dugout canoes lashed together and then straddled by a wooden platform. The ferrymen with their pointed teeth and mud cones would pole their way across this very wide muddy brown river and greet us with the chant: "Tende mah-ye, tende mah-ye-he, wo-tende-mah-ye." Getting the truck on to the ferry was always exciting to watch, and we got to see it several times in one afternoon because there were huge underwater sandbars in the river that necessitated lightening the ferry load. Here the truck had to drive through the water and we children had to wade. To add to the excitement, the river was home to hippopotamuses and crocodiles. The latter could sneak up on us without our knowledge and snatch us in their powerful jaws. We successfully avoided that by holding hands and shouting, to make it seem as if we were one large animal instead of ten small frightened children.

D.A.: Were there any other dangers that you faced during this period?

My father in a sedan chair.

Author: Yes. In many cases the Belgians had treated the Congolese cruelly, so a lot of resentment had built up against whites in general. This was especially so if you were unknown to the locals. As the time for independence drew near the Africans grew bolder and their behavior became—well, perhaps "combative" is the word. Here is one event I will never forget:

We were making the two day trek back from boarding school and had stopped for a picnic in a clearing surrounded by elephant grass. Of course we didn't have ice and thus no way to keep perishables, so when we traveled, we usually ate sandwiches of canned Spam. On this day no sooner did we settle in to eat, than suddenly out of the elephant grass poured about a dozen African boys, all begging for the empty Spam tin. They spoke in a language we did not know, but it was very clear what they wanted.

You see, at that time, in their society, a tin can was an extremely useful commodity. It could be used as a small cooking pot, turned into a cutting instrument, shaped as an arrowhead, or even fashioned into jewelry. I have even seen a Spam tin given new life as a pair of dentures. At any rate, my mother gave me the job of deciding which of the boys would be the lucky one to receive this treasure. Unfortunately, although I had a very generous eleven-year-old heart, I also thought with an eleven-year-old's brain. I thought the fairest thing would be if I tossed the can up in the air and let them scramble for it.

Well, they scrambled for it! However, in the ensuing melee one of the boys received a laceration on his scalp from the sharp edge of the Spam can. Although the wound was shallow, it bled profusely. Then before we could offer him first aid several angry young men emerged from the elephant grass and strode over to us. Although language was a problem, they spoke some French, and my mother spoke a smidgen of it. We understood enough to know that they were demanding an enormous sum of money on the boy's behalf—but refusing first aid care—and that if we didn't pay it, they were going to take me as a hostage. Forty thousand francs was about eight hundred dollars, which is about $10,000 in today's money. Since my parents only made a thousand dollars a year, there was no way that my mother would have that much cash on her.

Quietly, but firmly, my mother and the male driver ordered the ten missionary children back into the panel truck. Meanwhile the young men grew angrier and their threats more violent. If we fled, they said, we would be met by a roadblock—they would send a signal by drums to the next village—and instead of just being held captive, I would be taken off the truck and killed. But flee, we did. And when we approached the next village, I was instructed to lie flat on the floor of the truck, while the driver pressed the pedal to the metal. It was something we would repeat for the next several villages until we were well into another tribe's territory. We did not encounter any roadblocks that day, but needless to say, on subsequent trips to and from boarding school, we skipped that clearing in the elephant grass when it came to choosing a picnic location.

D.A.: Goodness gracious! What else? Do tell!

Author: Well, just a few months later the chief of the Bashilele village nearest where we lived appeared on our front verandah during our noon meal. We were used to be being observed while we ate—we had the funny habits, after all—but usually the observers were women and children, not a chief and his warriors. So my father went out to see what this man wanted.

D.A.: And?

Author: The chief said that when independence came he was going to move into our house. He was also going to take us girls as his wives.

D.A.: So what did your father tell him in response?

Author: He told the chief that he wasn't going to get his daughters and that he better get off our porch. So the chief left, but not before threatening to burn us out of the house.

D.A.: Did that ever happen?

Author: No. We left the Congo for America for a year long furlough just one month before Independence Day. However, we were one of the very first white families to return to the interior of the country. By then many whites had been killed, tortured, and raped. It was a very difficult time to grow up—especially since now there was a tribal war waging between the Baluba and Lulua tribes and we found ourselves caught smack-dab in the middle.

D.A.: We'll get to that in a moment, but I want to backtrack a bit and ask you about boarding school in the Belgian Congo when you were younger. Would you please describe that?

Author: My sisters will hate my answer because I'm a more negative, less forgiving person. Well, to begin with, like I said before, there were sixty-five children and one set of houseparents—at least for my first two years. The only way to maintain discipline in that kind of situation—or so they thought—was to beat us for even minor infractions. For instance, my first morning there, as part of an initiation process, I was yanked out of bed by some high school students before the six-thirty gong had sounded, which was against the rules. Following classes that afternoon I was soundly beaten. Another time in sixth grade the school principal beat me with a mahogany cane until he was out of breath—paused to rest—and then resumed beating me. This was just because I did not understand long division and had not completed my math homework.

Sure, there were good times, like playing "lion and sheep" on Friday nights. The thrill of this game was heightened by the fact that the school was located in real lion territory and employed a hunter, named Samson, whose job it was to keep track of how close lions were to the campus. On days when lions were within a couple of miles our activities were restricted. Anyway, one day when real life got to be too much I told the housefather I'd had enough of his cruelty and was going to run off into the forest. He told me to go ahead and to get a sandwich from the kitchen first—which I did. I'd gone less than a quarter of a mile from the campus when I heard a lion roar and came hightailing it back. When I reported the lion to the housefather he merely laughed. It's possible that he'd known about it all along.

The school followed an extremely conservative Protestant theology. As a child I lived in constant fear of hellfire and damnation and being Left Behind. We were forever confessing to sins we couldn't possibly have committed and yearning for our mansions in the sky. Our dorm was built at the very top of a steep hill, and when viewed from below the clouds seemed to sweep over it. One day a friend and I were playing below the dorm when a cloud appeared to land just the other side of it. My little friend and I were positive that this was Second Coming and that the cloud held none other than Jesus Himself. We raced up the hill, our lungs bursting, lest we miss the big event and be left behind. Imagine then both our disappointment and relief to discover that this had been simply an optical illusion.

D.A.: Okay, now you're straying into dangerous territory of another kind, Tamar. You know that you're going to get some flak for this. Maybe it's time to skip ahead to the tribal war.

Author: I couldn't agree more. Indeed, I'm sure it was my own fault that I allowed tales of eternal torture to haunt me in the third grade. Now a word about the civil war: one possibly good side-effect of colonial rule (others will hotly dispute this viewpoint) is that it put a lid on tribal warfare. The Baluba and Lulua peoples were linguistic cousins who had, at times, lived peacefully with each other and often intermarried. The war actually began before independence, but erupted with renewed vigor afterward. In the end hundreds of thousands of people died on both sides.

At any rate, the site for my fictional town of Belle Vue was the real city of Tshikapa. It was, and still is, famous for its diamonds. After independence the Belgians fled leaving a ghost town of sprawling villas on the hills above the Kasai and Tshikapa Rivers.

My sister and a python.

We leased one of these villas. At that time the Baluba tribe was predominately situated on one side of the Kasai River, and Lulua tribe on the other—well, that is they were so after a refugee exchange. Then machine gun fortifications were installed along the hilltop above our villa, and across the river at a lower elevation.

The gunners were aiming at each other, not us, but unfortunately our house got right in the way. When shooting commenced we had to crawl around on our hands and knees. Then one night my parents came into my bedroom with news that the opposing tribe was expected to breach defenses and make it across the bridge that night. As we were ensconced with the enemy—well, let's just say that my mansion in the sky was dusting off its welcome mat again.

"But," Daddy said, "there's that nook there above your bedroom door, where we store the suitcases. Stay in your room, and don't come out, no matter what you hear. Just climb into that nook and pull that big suitcase in front of you. Your mommy and I might be killed, but if you survive maybe you can slip down to the river unseen. Just follow the river south. Then keep going until you reach Angola."

D.A.: And?

Author: Well, obviously I survived.

D.A.: Yes, but did they—I mean, what happened that night? Don't leave us hanging!

Author: I honestly can't remember the rest of the night. We weren't attacked; I know that much. But later our African neighbors were—they at least had their car burned in their driveway. Then I never saw them again. I have a lot of memory gaps of that period. Forty-six years later I still listen for the sound of footsteps under my window; I listen for men coming to hack me into pieces with machetes.

D.A.: Now you've done it again; you've forced me to change subjects. You haven't talked much about animals. Did you have many animal experiences?

Author: Not really. My part of Africa was a mixture of savannah and forest, situated along the southern edge of the Congo rainforest. It was forests in the valleys where there were streams, and tall grass on the hills and plains. There were no open grazing lands capable of supporting large herds like in East Africa. Most of the animals I saw were either on my dinner plate or staring into the headlights of our panel truck at night.

One night my uncle (a mere lad in his 20s and fueled by testosterone) purposely ran over a leopard in the road and then tossed it in the back of the truck where we three children were sitting. The leopard was dead, but every time we hit a bump its giant paw would jiggle, causing us to shriek in abject terror. My uncle was thoroughly amused. Oh, lest I forget, my father was bitten by a deadly green mamba—and yes, he survived.

D.A.: Tamar, before we wrap this conversation up, is there anything else you'd like to share about the headhunters? Did you get a chance to learn any of their customs?

Author: My father was a man of many interests, including anthropology. From the time he arrived in the Belgian Congo he began taking and keeping notes. He also wrote to his mother in the States on a regular basis. My grandmother saved the letters. When she died the letters were returned to my father and now I am their keeper. Most of my knowledge comes either directly from him, or his writing. Very little of it is first hand because I was a child at the time, and even though I had close Bashilele friends, topics I am about to discuss are not ones children normally talk about with their friends.

D.A.: Such as? I mean, should we be warning sensitive readers that they may wish to set your book down at this point?

Author: Absolutely. If they have queasy stomachs or have trouble remembering that this was the situation in the first half of the 20th Century in traditional tribal culture of this one tribe, then they should stop reading now. By the way, I have no idea how things stand now. I'm not even going to guess.

D.A.: Okay then, I think that's enough of a warning. What unusual custom pops into your mind first?

Author: Burial customs—actually, they involve burial except for one. And that's polyandry. Did you know that the Bashilele are one of the few polyandrous societies in the world?

D.A.: Uh—no, because I don't what polyandry means. Please explain.

Author: Polyandry is when a woman has more than one husband.

D.A.: Ouch!

Author: My thoughts exactly. But it can be to her advantage. With multiple husbands she and her children are ensured of being supplied with food and shelter. And she gets to select the additional husbands—just not the first one; that's her father's choice.

D.A.: So how did this unusual custom come about?

Author: It's a response to polygamy. When all the available young women are taken, what are the young men supposed to do? Sharing a wife keeps them from stealing another man's wife or engaging in bloody battles for the right to breed. But when a young girl does come of age and can be purchased by one of the husbands in a polyandrous relationship, he may disengage from that relationship and start his own new family. It is really a rather clever social construct when you think about it.

D.A.: If you say so. I'm afraid many readers with a traditional view of marriage are going to find the concept offensive.

Author: I only "report the news." Besides, isn't our system of marriage, divorce, and remarriage a form of serial polyandry?

D.A.: Now you've really gone too far. Please, let's move on to burial.

Author: (Sigh.) Let's begin with an ordinary death. Let's say Grandpa dies from choking on his manioc mush. Grandpa has grandchildren and other kinfolk in a number of scattered villages, and getting them altogether for the funeral will take weeks, not days. Plus, food will need to be collected for the feasting and dancing that are part of the celebration. The total amount of time needed might be as much as three months. This is the tropics we are talking about, so what is the family supposed to do with Grandpa in the meantime?

Ah, the answer is simple. Every Mushilele hut contained a smoking rack, centered over the fire pit. As the family cooked their meals on rainy days, or warmed themselves on chilly nights, they would also be preserving fish, game, herbs, or whatever. Now it's time to move over food and put up Grandpa. Keep the fire going. Of course Grandpa will be oozing juices and fat, which will drip down into the cooking pot. By the way, that is not cannibalism; it is simply passing Grandpa's good qualities on to the next generation.Witch Doctor

Hey, you haven't started to judge, have you? Because I can say plenty about silk-lined, bronze caskets with puffy pillows in this country, while across from the cemetery children go to bed hungry.

D.A.: Truce, shall we?

Author: Hmm. Alright, but you won't be happy because I'm going to talk about twins.

D.A.: Twins?

Author: Yes—and here is where sensitive readers must stop reading. What I'm about to say will be really hard for most Westerners to take absorb.

D.A.: Proceed. We've been sufficiently warned—I think.

Author: You see, in many tribes in my area twins were considered taboo. After all, everyone knows that it is normal to have just one baby at a time. Therefore, when a second, or third, baby shows up, then the spirit world is obviously up to mischief. Unfortunately there is no way to tell which child is the authentic twin, and which one is really an evil spirit masquerading as a human twin. The solution then is to kill both babies, thus ensuring that the evil spirit can do the tribe no harm. This is done by shoving hot peppers up the babies' nostrils and burying them alive in an ant hill. This is not to hurt the children, mind you, but to torment the evil spirit. The suffering baby is collateral damage. It sounds terrible, I know, but we "civilized" people have done things equally terrible, and on a much larger scale.

D.A.: Are you getting political here? Because if you are, then this interview is over. Besides, we no longer use napalm—that was the Viet Nam War.

Author: Good example, but relax. I'm just relating customs, and I only have one more. This one is about the chief and his wife. A Mushilele chief is quite often not a Mushilele by birth; he is usually a slave that was kidnapped or traded from another tribe. The reason for that was because when the tribe misbehaved—in the eyes of the Belgians, that is—it was often the chief who was punished instead of the entire tribe.

D.A.: Oh, I get it! If a foreigner was chief, it really didn't matter if he got punished.

Author: Exactly. But there were perks for being chief. You had real power, which led to riches, which led to lots of wives. And there were perks to being a chief's wife, like having your own hut, and not having to sleep with the old coot that often. However, there was one very, very major downside to being a Mushilele queen.

D.A.: Uh-oh. I'm afraid to ask. (Sigh.) Bring it on.

Author: When the chief died, his wives—all of them, be it just one, or even thirty—had to accompany him, live, to the next world. As you can imagine, the royal women were not happy about being buried alive with their husband, so they had both arms and both legs broken so that they could not dig their way out of the communal grave.

D.A.: Stop! I can't take anymore of this—really.

Author: I understand. I did try to warn you, however. Maybe we can talk a little bit more when my next book comes out. I have a lot more I could talk about.

D.A.: Maybe. What is the title of your next book in the series?

Author: The Cannibal's Confession

 

Out On A Limb
Painting: "Out On A Limb" by Tamar Myers


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