Do you hear her?
Pierre-Jacques Kissing, do you hear her?
It was mid morning when John Hart met Pierre-Jacque’s Mom. This is how John described it:
“Good day sir. We are expecting you to spend the night with us.”
The French greeting with impeccable intonation and accent seems incredible to our team as we step from the forest into the small village clearing of Batiakayandja.
Batiakayandja is just one more yellowish smudge on our satellite image: A tiny settlement lost in the forest. Another stop to ask questions about wildlife in the area, the history of the people, and hopefully to find chicken or dried fish to buy. Then we plan to continue for at least another four hours today…
Paka buys a pineapple in a Lengola village. The cable leads to the GPS antenna taped beneath his hat.
So this is a surprise, and most of all, this elderly man who speaks French from a colonial era, long gone, all but forgotten.
Leon Mandaki introduces himself as a former schoolmaster.
“We have heard about your expedition,” he tells us, “please spend the night with us.”
“Do you have news from Mr Kissing in Brussels?”
Chairs appear for us to sit on and, what must be the entire population of the village crowds around. Leon leads forward an older woman. “This is Sophie Ikwauku Leon tells me. She is the wife of Mr. Pierre Kissing who owned the plantation, Ngawa Luki.”
Leon, in white striped shirt, introduces Sophie, in pink head scarf, to John.
Mama Sophie half curtsies. Her hands are gnarled from years of garden labor, but she stands straight, her bright eyes and smile that of a great beauty. In Swahili, she eagerly tells of life over 3 decades ago with Pierre Kissing and her son, Pierre-Jacques, born in 1952.
Sophie Ikwauku, still a beauty.
The father took his son when he fled from Simba rebels during Congo’s first rebellion in 1964. Pierre, the father, died shortly after, but Sophie kept contact with Pierre-Jacques until Congo’s second rebellion.
“He always sent me money through the Belgian fathers at the mission in Kisangani”, Mama Sophie says. “But when the catholic priests fled (during the rebellion of the mid to late 90s) my son had no way to reach me. Pierre-Jacques must think I am dead.”
Sophie hands me a stained photo of her son at his marriage in Belgium in 1971 and her recent voter registration card, which Leon points out has her name misspelled.
Staring out from the stained photo is a handsome Belgo-congolese man with his demure Wallon bride. “That is my husband’s Belgian wife”, Sophie points to a woman smiling proudly from the background. “Our husband did not live to see his son marry.”
A 35 year old photograph and a voter registration from the new Congo
“Can you find Pierre Jacques and tell him I am still alive?”
Pierre-Jacques lives in Brussels. She does not know where, or his employment. There are no other links she can muster.
“I’ll try to see what I can find out,” I say lamely wondering if I will have time to check the Belgian phone directories during our stop-over in Zaventem airport.
“I understand” said Sophie, smiling confidently.
Just yesterday morning in our brief stop-over in Belgium we checked the directory in the transfer lounge. There were a few similar last names: several “Kiss” and one “Kissane”, but no “Kissing”. That was only Brussels. Did Leon give spelling right? Has Pierre-Jacques moved to another town?
Pierre-Jacques, if you are out there, your mom would love to hear from you.
Anyone else with access to Belgian directories and the right SIM card, please, if you have a lead check it out and/or let us know.
The teams moved on from Batiakayandja, but pitched camp very late that night.