Wally was friend, landlord, and fellow annotator of life as seen from the center of the world, i.e. Kinshasa. His shop got the news of his death last Tuesday; strange, how quickly a place can feel empty and abandoned with everyone still standing around.
Gouv, always the organizer, arranged for the music, the chairs, beer and eats.
The orators came forward. After Gouv, Baruti, a Kinshasa artist, one of many who frequented Wally’s shops and whose art hangs on his walls, explained what Wally was in the life of his friends and the city. Then François, at least ten years as one of the guards and gardeners, offered the necessary rambling prayer.
Below are a couple memories from Wally’s Kinshasa neighbors:
Reflections on my friend, Wally
I remember vividly the first day I met Wally back in 1981. I was just finishing up my service as a Peace Corps volunteer and needed some money. Word had it amongst the PCVs that there was this mysterious guy living in the Inga Shaba Residence who cashed US checks at the black market rate which was six times the official rate. Back then, in Mobutu’s Zaire this was an illegal activity so I was advised to be very discreet when I went to see him. With some trepidation, I presented myself at the Residence entrance and a sentry led me to Wally’s room. In s very cordial and business-like manner he took my check, and making sure that I understood the process, carefully counted out the local currency equivalent and the transaction was completed. I am sure that there are probably hundreds of other ex- Peace Corps volunteers who share this same memory. The difference with me was that this first encounter would mark what would later prove to be the beginning of a long and enduring friendship. Before I go on with my dealings with Wally, I would like to just share a couple stories that kind of give an indication of who the Wally we knew and loved was. These stories are pretty tame. The really good stuff I wouldn’t dare put in writing.
Wally was very independent and on occasion was inclined to use extremely unconventional means to solve a problem. He was also an extremely meticulous manager and he had a habit of making daily to-do lists. I remember one time glancing at one of his lists and one item caught my eye. It said “ask Toby about poison for the chicken”. Needless to say, I was puzzled by this notation and when I asked him about it, he told me that there was a rooster residing at the nearby Peace Corps guest house whose crowing was waking him up every morning at 3:00 o’clock. This was making him extremely unhappy and he had decided to do something about it. In classic Wally style, he went down and railed at the house caretaker about the noisy bird on several occasions, but with no results. Having failed at negotiations, he had then decided that he was going to take matters into his own hands. He had a plan, hence the poison. Fortunately, the plan never reached fruition because he ran into the Peace Corps Director soon thereafter at the AERWA bar also known as the American Club They got to talking and Wally told him about this issue. The next day they both went over to the Guest house and the rooster’s elimination was ordered, thereby avoiding the poison option.
As most of his friends grew to learn, Wally was his own man and when he didn’t agree with something, he could become quite confrontational and was known to lose his temper from time to time. Many of us, for the most part unwittingly, were subject to one of these angry outbursts at one time or another. One of my favorite Wally stories happened in a Kinshasa restaurant about twenty years ago. I was not present, but a mutual friend told me about it, and Wally later confirmed it. The two of them were dining at Chez Nicolas where the specialty was pizza prepared by the owner in a brick oven adjacent to the dining area. Nicola was also a legendary Kinshasa character, known for having a bit of a short fuse. Wally had ordered a pizza, repeating several times slowly and methodically to the waiter that he did not want any green peppers on it. Well lo and behold; when the pizza was served it came with green peppers. Wally was not very happy about this and was in the process of giving the waiter a piece of his mind when Nicola himself came over to join in the fray. After exchanging a few choice words, Wally just stood up, pizza in hand, and in a short, quick, motion dropped it on the floor at Nicola’ feet. He then turned around and calmly exited the premises. Chez Nicolas was one of Kinshasa’s most popular restaurants at the time and there must have been 30-50 stunned diners witnessing this altercation. I recently learned of an interesting epilogue to this event when a couple of weeks ago, I was relating the story to Kristel and all of a sudden her face lit up. She then told me that for years she had never understood why every time she asked her dad if they could go to Nicolas for a pizza, Wally would suggest some other place. An old mystery had been solved.
Being a friend of Wally’s I also had my run-ins with him from time-to-time. This went with the territory, but we always reconciled our differences after a couple of days or so. Two very important words in Wally’s vocabulary were confrontation and reconciliation. Arguments happened, but his door was always open to make amends and it was over and completely forgotten.
Back to my personal history with Wally; after finishing up with Peace Corps, I stuck around in Zaire and tried to make a living for myself without much luck. Then in 1984, when Wally’s partner at Logistics and Supplies Company scheduled a trip to Europe, he asked me to fill in for him during his one month absence. Being between jobs, I jumped at this opportunity to make a little money. When we found out that his partner wouldn’t be coming back to Kinshasa for some time Wally asked me to stay on the job for another six months to help him close down the company. During this period, we shared the same office which gave me a unique opportunity to get to know Wally and benefit from his good will. He was a natural trainer, patient and supportive, and he taught me how to use a computer and schooled me on accounting procedures. When the six month period was up, we had closed the books on the Logistics and Supplies Company and my job was finished. I think that Wally felt a bit guilty about leaving me unemployed, so he managed to use his contacts to find me a short term opportunity working for German Technical Assistance conducting a fisheries study in the hinterlands of the Bandundu province. When this contract was finished, he found another employment opportunity for me, a consultancy with Peace Corps. He started a new company, called Capitale Associates and made me a minor shareholder. This made it possible for me to obtain a residents visa. Later, he asked me to take over his business for a year and a half while he went home to remodel a house. Back in 1990, he introduced me to the vice-president of the company that currently employs me and has employed me for the last twelve years.
During the last 26 years, I guess that I got to know Wally about as well as anyone in the DRC and throughout this period, he has had a profound positive influence on my life. He was a true self-starter, energetic, creative and always looking for new ideas and activities. He was a friend, mentor, role model, and advisor, and someone whom I could trust and confide to. He always seemed to be looking out for my best interests.
Wally was a creature of habit and generally, at around 5:00 PM, he would glance at the clock, proceed to lock up the office, and invite anyone present to go over to the American club for some liquid refreshment. I can still hear him saying “hey buddy, let’s go grab a beer”. I was a regular participant, and I wasn’t alone; in the old days there were usually a bunch of us guys who would conveniently show up at Wally’s late in the afternoon.
At the club, Wally was pretty much an institution. All sorts of people went there just to see him…..Lebanese, Pakistanis, Europeans, Congolese, Chinese, businessmen, pilots, CIA agents, Embassy officials, and people coming back after prolonged absences. They all knew Wally and wanted to get his take on the latest happenings in town. I was fortunate to be a spectator of and later a participant in these encounters. During the dark period between 1992 and 1997 when Mobutu and Zaire were being shunned by the international community, Wally and I were amongst the very few Americans still residing in country, and many times we were the only clients at the club. With no one else to hang out with, we got so accustomed to each other’s company that we used up all of our drinking stories. Countless times one of us would start up on a favorite anecdote and the other would say “I’ve already heard that one, but go ahead; I don’t mind hearing it again”. To this day, when something funny, out of the ordinary or outrageous happens to me, my first reaction is “I must call up Wally and tell him about this”.
While he could be cantankerous on occasion, Wally was also a very caring, compassionate person, and he was a great father. His office was located behind his residence and while at work, he frequently received visits from one or the other of his two young daughters. On these occasions he would immediately put aside anything he was doing to give his daughter his full attention. Among other things, Kristel would show up with questions on her homework and Nathalie was especially prone to bursting into the office, jumping up into her Dad’s lap, and wrapping her arms around his neck. He made a point of always being there for a hug and a few comforting words. I remember one time Wally told me that a visitor, after seeing him interact with his daughters had said he had decided to rethink his own lifelong decision to not have children. Wally told me that this made him feel pretty good.
While I miss Wally’s presence, I am comforted when I take into account that his suffering is over. Getting to know Kristel during her recent visit to Kinshasa reassured me that Wally’s spirit is embodied in the minds and character of his two daughters and this helps to take the edge off my grief. It isn’t easy though. Kinshasa will never be the same without my old friend. May he rest in peace. TOBY
We first visited Wally’s “atelier” about 25 years ago. I remember it as bare and empty; a sort of forgotten back lot along the ports, but Wally obviously thought it was great. And it is! Wally took the storehouses and built apartments, he planted avocadoes and bougainvillea. He hung orchids in every corner that needed a little softening. Now we all live there, Dag, Minaz and us. We are there with the team Wally built up of handymen that can fix about anything: they will build a cabinet, frame a picture, or turn a container into a house. It is just Wally who is missing. No one delivers the three day old paper anymore, with half-smile and humor as dry as the newsprint itself. No one to stop by with the little pot of beans he cooked himself or to divide up the ripe avocadoes so we all get exactly our share. No one watching the evening news then up at 6 o’clock to get the day off right. Somedays just don’t get off right anymore. We miss you Wally. Terese
I think it may have been our rural Midwestern backgrounds that set the stage for the friendship between me and Wally. But it was a shared sense of humor about life in Kinshasa that led to a special understanding of each other over the years.
Every day in Kinshasa brought its little tribulations, hassles, problems that could have been avoided if only things were better organized. There was nothing we could do about most of them. They were as unavoidable, and unchangeable as the dusty crowd milling along the cratered road with its interminable traffic jams just outside our gate. But we could always joke about it all, most often relaxing over a beer at the end of the day.
Both Wally and I liked Congolese contemporary art, and especially the painting. One day we were commiserating about the difficulties encountered on the detours and back roads we took to avoid better traveled cross roads where there were traffic cops notorious for their petty shake downs. Wally made the off hand comment that “ a slice of the old gray matter gets taken off every day”.
“At this rate it won’t be long and there will be nothing left,” He laughed.
The image became a standing joke between us. Every small problem we reported to each other was announced as “another cut”. Every absurdity endured, we told each other, “It’s going fast”.
One evening, over a cold beer as the lovely golden light slanted into the parcel, Wally suggested we go see his friend the Congolese artist, Cheri Samba. Cheri Samba’s paintings developed themes of Kinshasa’s daily life. He certainly had an appreciation of the absurd that attracted Wally and me.
“ Let’s see if he can pick up on that theme of the daily cut”, Wally laughed.
Cheri Samba loved the idea, and one day, almost a year after we met him at his workshop in one of Kinshasa’s neighborhoods, he called Wally to come and get his “tableau”. Wally called me over that evening to come and see it. It was magnificent and totally hilarious. A series of vignettes, images of Kinshasa’s daily life, with a self portrait of the artist in each witness to it all, a caricature of resignation to the forces beyond his control. In each self portrait his brain was sitting beside him, attached to his head by an umbilical-like cord, and a slice neatly cut off. There was the traffic cop, stopping the car for some imagined “major infraction”. There was the street scene with an overloaded hand-pushed wheel barrow creating a major traffic jam. There was the petty bureaucrat presenting a list of hitherto unknown and unpaid taxes.
As I think back now about that painting, and how it came to be, it brings together for me a special side of Wally, his unswerving capacity to take Kinshasa as it came, and to make some thing of it.
I will miss Wally dearly. Kinshasa will continue to lurch on to its destiny unknown…But there will be for me an empty place that won’t easily be filled, a sharing of experience and an understanding of life in this African capital that will never be replaced. John