the curse of the Congo
The Foreign Service lifestyle lends itself to eclectic acquisition. A couple of years in one country, several more in another – if one is really into original artwork, it’s easy to get carried away. We are not avid collectors by any measure, but we do try to acquire something meaningful everywhere we’ve lived – one or two pieces to subsequently stir our memories and help evoke all the good times we had in a foreign country that for a few years came to feel like home.
S began acquiring African artwork when she first came to the continent for a semester of study abroad in Ghana. During the two years we were posted in Kenya, we visited half a dozen countries in the region and acquired some pieces to complement the ones from S’s college days. The most memorable was, of course, the carved Swahili mirror frame S picked out in a dusty corner of a shop in Stone Town, Zanzibar that was as much of an ordeal to acquire as it was to transport back to our home in Nairobi.
Unlike its neighbors – most notably, the DRC – Rwanda does not have a tradition of carved wooden artwork. The masks and carved furniture that one frequently sees on display in souvenir shops or decorating hotel lobbies tend to be Congolese. And they are beautiful.
During one of his work trips, D met a Congolese artisan who keeps a small shop in the refugee camp where he’s lived for the better part of the last twenty years. D bought one of his carved statues – a warrior holding a spear, which the man had carved some fifteen years ago. “Eh, but that’s not Rwandan art,” remarked a local official who had witnessed the transaction. “Why don’t you make some baskets?” he added to the artisan, referring to the woven artwork for which Rwanda is famous. “Parce que je suis Congolais,” replied the artisan, smacking his chest proudly.
A couple of months later we stayed in a lodge that had some beautiful Congolese furniture on display. D fell in love with a carved chair and grew determined to acquire one for himself. But where? Under normal circumstances, we would simply plan a trip across the border, but we are not living under normal circumstances. Travel to two of Rwanda’s neighboring countries, including the DRC, is forbidden for Embassy personnel for security reasons, and we see no reason to think this will change in the near future.
As luck would have it, a few weeks later the Embassy organized a holiday market, and one of the vendors set up a table of Congolese artwork. The man mostly had masks and frames, but offered to acquire something larger for D on his subsequent trip back home. We arranged for him to stop by our house and then spent some time flipping through a stack of tattered photographs. We settled on a chair and wooden chest, gave the man a 50% deposit, and then he disappeared into the Congo for one month.
S had the fleeting thought that we might never hear from him again; oh, how wrong she was! He called D’s phone while we were in Namibia, and we got back in touch after we returned. A few days later he showed up again at our house with a group of young guys in tow, who by all appearances had walked half the city carrying the two items we had commissioned. The pieces were almost completely unlike the pictures we had seen, but they looked cool enough that they fit the bill.
D declared himself satisfied; the vendor demanded a bottle of wine to celebrate. We offered his crew juice and water, and when he insisted on something “a little stronger than what you’ve given to the kids” – at ten o’clock in the morning, no less – we gave him a bottle of beer and sent the entire crew on their merry way.
The next week he showed up again on our doorstep. S wondered if this owed to some confusion – something lost in translation when he offered to bring more artwork to show her and she had politely declined, or thought she had. But no – this was neither coincidence nor misunderstanding. The following weekend he called D’s phone. Once, twice, three times. And again the week after that. And again the week after that – phone calls at all hours of the day and night, during the week and on the weekend.
After the first conversation, in which D carefully explained that no, we did not need any Congolese masks, D simply stopped answering the phone. But this did not deter the persistent vendor. We mentioned this to a friend in passing and she went off on how this same guy spent months showing up at her gate unannounced after she bought something from him. Eventually, the phone calls petered out, and we haven’t received any in several weeks, though we are not quite ready to celebrate. Buyer, beware!