Novelist | Singer
Today, amid the dissonance that is a “normal” job, I escaped from my head long enough to remind myself how really good life is. It was snowing a bit and outside, a quiet hush fell over the streets.
And I thought of Atolobako Vukoyo. How old would he have been now? 46? 47? He was my assistant in Garamba National Park in Zaire in 1993 and 1995 when I was doing my Master’s field work. That was before the military coup, before the civil war that left the already crippled country in tatters and took away my friend.
He was a guard at Garamba National Park, established in 1938 for the protection of the northern white rhinoceros. Those who choose to guard the animals make that choice much the same way as those who go to war. They carry AK-47s and hike in the brutal African sun through twelve foot grass, possibly at any time stumbling onto a camp of poachers also armed with AK-47s, or any hand-made firearm they can concoct from discarded pipe and wire. Those poachers could be friends or neighbors, and they are worth a month’s salary dead. Ten dollars, at mid-90s prices. Knowing the catastrophic state of the economy, it could be less rather than more now.
Atolobako was a very special man. We met on a trip into the park to locate the northern white rhinoceros which were collared for research and protection measures. His first words to me were a warning of the crocodiles in the Dungu River that forms the southern border of Garamba. I truly don’t remember in what language he said that, but I’m sure it wasn’t English. It might have been a mix of French and Lingala, but I knew exactly what he was saying, and I listened. We never really shared a language, but communicated perfectly.
That was September of 1993. I was a volunteer at the park, setting up a project in conservation for my Master’s study. Over the next several months, we became acquainted, and Atolobako helped me, became my guardian, started speaking English almost without any assistance, picking up the sounds that he heard mostly from me. Everyone there spoke either French or Lingala, or a strange mixture of both. I spoke what I could of both languages, but being proficient in neither, I defaulted to English for lack of any other words. Atolobako remembered and repeated, without a book or lessons, and within weeks, was speaking passible English. Impressive.
Since he was my assistant, we spent a lot of time together, 6 days a week, 6 or 7 hours a day. We talked a lot in our rounds through the farms and adjacent bush bordering Garamba. Farms planted and harvested by hand; large fields of millet, rice and cassava which by necessity were guarded day and night by their subsistence farmers from marauding wildlife; elephants, monkeys, duikers and hippos all mowing down the farmers’ hard-earned yields in a few midnight snacks that could devastate whole properties in the course of one night. Those who had had the foresight to move far enough away from the river forming the border of the park were in better shape than the ones who dared to stay within a mile. Everyone suffered from the destruction of the animals protected by conservation.
Atolobako was always helpful, always there for me. He was a good worker, never complaining. Every morning he joined the daily run with the guards to the bifurcation (an intersection with the main road across northern Zaire) and back, a distance of several miles, dressed in boots and fatigues. We always heard the cadence before we saw the runners, piercing the clear tropical air, complete with harmony in that beautiful language of Lingala. Those and many, many more memories remain from my time in Africa, but the largest one is of Atolobako Vukoyo, my friend who gave his life to conservation.
One particular memory involved the breakdown of the dirt bike we were riding at the far reaches of the village. In the waning twilight, we finally abandoned the bike and started walking the 4 kilometers back home. The baritone woofs of lions were often heard in the moist stillness of the bush, and I was plenty nervous without a flashlight or any kind of weapon – not that it would’ve done much good. Maybe Atolobako felt my nervousness. Maybe he was simply done with work for the day. He started teaching me “Biso touti na Nagero,” a song about going to Nagero, the village we lived in. It was a magical experience that I will never forget and think of often. He had a sonorous voice, one that could’ve been trained to be an opera singer. He and the other guys sang for our wedding later than month on the banks of the Dungu River. All impromptu, all sharing, caring, wishing us the very best of life together.
Atolobako was captured by Sudanese forces on January 16, 2009, found three days later, January 19. I know he had a wife and children. The community is strong and will help them because they have to. They are accustomed to hard living. In Nagero, there is no career choice. They are subsistence farmers – end of story.
Always, always at this time of year, he comes to my mind, and I am reminded of how good our lives are in these United States. We complain of our crooked politicians, our terrible traffic, the never-ending winter, messy husbands, bitchy wives and the tedium of going to work every single day, and somehow the awfulness of it seems real. But very few of us will have to give our lives for our jobs. Life is so very good in our country, land of the truly free. Let’s remember that.