The River in the Belly
Fiston Mwanza Mujila
Let ’em praise the Brahmaputra, let ’em write home about the Yangtze, let ’em acclaim the Zambezi, they can flaunt the Euphrates, go on about the Meuse, sing the Guadalquivir, elect the Mississippi, and its sons-in-law, the Arkansas, the Missouri, and the Ohio, I brandish the Congo, the only river that saps your concentration, the only river that fakes tuberculosis, the only river that dances the tango and salsa and bolero and flamenco and the cha-cha-cha, the only river that thumbs its nose at you, the only river that eats meat, the only river that offs itself in the ocean, legs together, arms crossed . . . I’ll give you my hand to cut off, my neck to wring, my body to castrate, if what I say isn’t true. In any case, I’m already castrated, and a sad sack like the Limpopo in its spare hours. In any case, what do I have to fear? Forced masturbation, the kiambi test, or murder disguised as a drowning in the waters of this very river?
The Congo has no reason to envy other rivers.
It’s got their froth, their hard-on, and virulence to scare you stiff. At the end of the day, it doesn’t even need to take the family deduction or apply for a visa to be a river. It was a river.
It is a river. It will remain a river. A river without nationality.
A free river. An independent river. An uppercase river.
I’m not the first to leave the continent
my exile won’t be the exile of a race
even if I die today in Minsk
or in early afternoon in Vladivostok
no city will fall quiet, no nation will mourn
I see only my mother crumple—her eyes tear up
a few friends get knots in their stomachs
the Congo River will pursue its nightly course
in Uele and Bas-Zaire
the copper factories will hum in Katanga
the grown-up and child soldiers aching for sex
drunk on blood and head will shepherd their
flocks between Buta and Isiro
and the freight trains will depart from Musumba to Ngandajika
passing through Ilebo, Kasangulu, Lwambo, Lodja and Kamituga
In the name of some kind of peace, after seizing both Kivus, after taking our diamonds, copper, cobalt, coltan, and uranium, after torching our fields, after trashing our schools and hospitals, after cutting our electricity, after raping our grandmothers and reducing our mothers to sexual slavery, after castrating our fathers and condemning our uncles to forced labor, after sabotaging the Inga Dam, after desecrating our cemeteries and keeping us from mourning our dead, will they also find a way to haul away the Congo River and use it as room freshener? This is not a question. It may or may not be an open secret: the river will drown anyone who so much as touches a hair on its head…
How can I continue to boil my tea each morning, how can I continue to drag myself through beer-soaked nights, how can I continue to calmly smoke my cigarettes and sip my red wine when behind my back, far away, in certain corners of my country, the rifles recite their idiocies, the same idiocies? I am ashamed to eat and drink to fullness. I avoid filling up my belly to feel less guilty. The proof: for the last six years, I have taken my meals standing up, out of solidarity with these mothers who dine with one foot in the house, one foot out, in order to disappear into the forest at the first belch of a rifle…
My first dream was to play sax. My last to become a river, the Congo or the Niger—little it matters!—and spend my days at peace, far from these wars you export and these famines that let you play at being proverbial Santa Clauses and Good Samaritans. What an act! You give with the left hand what you snatch away with the right. What an act! You give with both hands—scabby they are!—and then you run to brag of your exploits as saviors of humanity and sleepwalking Santa Clauses expressly put on the face of the earth to grant us rice, soap, salt, palm oil, cassava flour, condoms, and djudju juice. What an act! You keep up the absurd and this theater of the absurd!
(for all the Congolese killed in Kin-la-Jungle
and thrown into the river)
is it my fault if the river
spits out at Brazza
the bodies thrown in at night
in the hope of leaving no trace . . .
their favorite pastime
killing and dumping
corpse upon corpse
into the arms of the river
God only knows
how many of our own
the river has eaten
at Brazza and the Îles-de-Mbamu
since the coming of the sham
to give a reckoning
the river will have to
learn to speak a new tongue
to spell the names of all the corpses
from Anita Amundala to Floribert Chebeya
without forgetting Fidèle Basana
its complicit silence
makes me sick . . .
it’s as if I had
the mbanzu between my legs
Not blood but the Congo River
sloshes in my veins . . .
If you deny it, if you have your doubts, if you don’t believe me, take up a sharp object (a steak knife or bayonet will do) and cut me open, slice me up, skin me from belly to belly, from head to foot . . .
you’ll see what you see . . .
the left leg of the river . . .
where my guts should be
Didn’t they tell you, after all, my mouth stinks of Lake Munkamba, once infected with schistosomiasis? Didn’t they tell you the Nyiragongo beats in place of my heart?
Didn’t they tell you my hair is the equatorial forest?
Didn’t they tell you my tears are lava from Nyamulagira and my laughter is the gusts that blow on Mwene-Ditu and Kanyama Kasese?
If I may say two words
River Congo, I won’t drink your water
as long as you keep the secret
as long as you don’t
spit out at Brazza and Mbamu
the bodies of my loved ones
The Congo won’t slide easily into old age. The river is still beautiful, supple, raging, sultry, like a girl just ripened, with big tomato-breasts and wooded-savanna-hair and thunder-thighs and full lips determined to make us drool, to make our tongues wag, to go zonzing . . . Even Diego Cão (god rest his soul) knew that the history of this river is of a sea to drink dry, a sea to hurl against the panes of certain madcap ideas . . . The history of the river, a wound, fresh and suppurant, a filthy wound, a crushed-up vimba . . .
translated from the French by J. Bret Maney
For his excellent translation of Fiston Mwanza Mujila's work, J. Bret Maney is one of two runners-up of the 2019 Close Approximations Translation Contest in the Poetry category. Read judge Eugene Ostashevsky's citation and discover the other contest winners here.
Click here to read Fiston Mwanza Mujila’s poem “Kasala for Myself” translated by J. Bret Maney, from the Summer 2018 issue, and here to read “Roland Glasser on translating Fiston Mwanza Mujila's Tram 83”, from the Fall 2015 issue.