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The Woman in White Marble

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Lionel Ntasano

I was born in the third smallest country in Africa, also, one of the most unknown countries in the world - Burundi. However, my life and work have taken me through Zambia, the U.S.A., Kenya, France and Switzerland, among others. I have now returned home, and run a small beach resort. I am musician at heart, culinary chef by profession, but, Georges Orwell tapped into my unconscious mind liberating a part of me through literature. I have made it my lifetime goal to share this liberating abstract ideology by writing. My first attempt was by publishing a novel, Greener On The Other Side. Writing this first novel has helped me reconnect to family and friends after a turbulent life of glamour, travel and tragedy.

You can visit my personal website:


Hotel California


{Hotel California is the story of Malakai, a biracial American, civil litigator by day and jazz pianist by night. 'Kai' as he's informally known, is in the midst of an early midlife crisis after spending the first part of his adulthood as a devoted pacifist and decadent; his head in paperwork, jazz bars or a bottle of whiskey - But by 35 the old answers-- drinking, smoking, lazing about, responding to all hostility with irony isn't satisfying him anymore. He is bored to tears. Convinced that the cure to his paralysis would be found in throwing himself into a new life, he decides to take a major whistle-blower case in the Democratic Republic of Congo - his mother's birthplace and last time they ever saw his American father.}






Mom arrived in America expecting peace and love – She’d entered the country the way one enters any grand love affair: with no exit plan. She once told me that she knew a girl of fifteen who burned herself to death because her parents refused to allow her to marry the boy she loved. For Mom, love refines truths.

And so begins one of the most wretched and mesmeric love stories…


A man in a shiny black training suit appeared determined to demonstrate his sobriety. He sat stiffly straight with his arms folded over his chest and his eyes fixed in a hard squint, aloof and appraising. He asked my name in resolute, robotic English, each syllable precise and curt. I told him, “Malakai.” “Ah.” He clutched my hand. “Like in the book of Malachi in the Bible?” “God’s messenger,” I said. “A prophecy,” he pronounced. He dropped my hand. His lips bunched up tightly, and he considered me with his humorless stare. Then he said, “I would like you to know that I’m a pygmy from the forest. But I learned English from a Catholic priest.” “Pleased to meet you mr…?” “Seki, Seki Ngay. I’m your local contact and the manager of the guesthouse where you’ll be staying in Lubumbashi. Mrs. Molly sent me to pick you up.


 Something in me was drawn to the voyage. A poor country, underdeveloped, utterly foreign -- this much I knew. I was prepared for the dysentery and fevers, the cold water baths and having to squat over a hole in the ground to pee, the electricity going out every few weeks, the heat and endless mosquitoes. Nothing more than inconveniences, really, and I was tougher than I looked, at least this much I knew for sure, tougher than even I had known myself to be. And anyway, that was part of what had drawn me to the Democratic Republic of Congo after Mom gave me my father’s personal journal after graduating law school.

So much water had passed under the bridge, after all the tears, the years of depression, therapy, and after all the years spent with my step-father, the promise of something new and important, helping rebuild Mom’s birth country beyond her reach; fate had brought me here. Don't follow the cry of riches to be; don't trek to the place where promise is made, for there you will find wolves and lions, my father ironically wrote in one of his journal entries. Man cannot stand a meaningless life; sooner or later, man discovers that he is the mastergardener of his soul. I wish I could meet him. Mom told me that he saw me just for a few hours two weeks after I was born. Man is a social animal, characterized by cronyism, nepotism, corruption, and gossip he later writes in the entry. That’s the intrinsic blueprint for our ethical behavior he concludes. It’s pure biology, I guess - So dark the con of man. I like to believe that I belonged to that race of privileged minds who are always right. A race of deep convictions, believing, among other things -- that we don’t know what justice is, and we don’t know what history is. There is no such notion as absolute justice; there is no history, which cannot be written in different way. I work with an international law firm -- our cases are so often about American companies committing harm overseas which they would not do in the United States of America. The reality is that there are companies out there that seek to profit from other people’s vulnerability. As a team of individuals seeking truth, we passionately believe that as a first world country we have a responsibility not to take advantage of people who aren’t in as fortunate a position. We are not afraid to take a stand, and we want to show there is a better way. In the Katanga province, where my mission was consigned, rich in cobalt and copper, some Western industrial mining companies operate provoking significant pollution of water sources, seriously affecting the local population. Although there is a lack of comprehensive data available, several studies conducted by local civil society show environmental, health and socio-economic negative effects. This is how Seki, my local contact described the situation to me upon my arrival: The invisible python came again this year, staring into the murky waters of his childhood fishing hole. It swallowed our food, guzzled our friends, and made away with our livestock. They say the python lives in the mountain, in a big hole, where people used to ditch deformed babies, albinos and people with leprosy. But people don’t do that anymore. So when this python is hungry, it churns and groans under the surface of the earth, sometimes making the world tremble and shake. When it becomes angry, it creeps through the dark nooks of the earth and finds its way out in one of the rivers that come down from the mountain. It creeps into the flow of the river, manoeuvres in its tide, vomiting volumes of water that it carries in its belly. The python rushes like gushing wind and consumes everything it finds in its way. It wreaks havoc on houses, slashes down trees and crops, sweeps away land, and swallows humans and animals to feed its hunger. It joins the river and runs down the valley to kill those of us who reside the concave of the country.

“If I can speak freely,” Seki said, “in a way you can understand,” he added dramatically. “In this stream, the fish vanished long ago, killed by acids and waste from the mines, pollution caused by copper and cobalt mining has not only poisoned the river, but has also caused widespread illness.”


For the Africans, one of the most terrible things that could happen was not to have a proper burial. The only way the dead can find peace is when the body is covered and placed deep into the earth. Every so often, things happen to us that we just cannot fathom. The world can be cruel and harsh, eventually, it breaks everyone. These happenings sometimes become the gateways to our fate - many are strong at the broken places; but those that will not break, it kills. I could not stop thinking about Mom, and my father’s journal. That summer solstice, it rained every day, the sun-shower brought fear to the villagers: some said that a hyena was giving birth, others said that the devils are getting married and although many said it was God’s wrath because the villagers had opened a casino next to the church. I knew that it was my fault, nevertheless, and mine alone, for I had learned to lie and my lips still retained the last words spoken by Mom before my voyage: “I never loved your step-father, but truly loved another man, who, I was told, had gone mentally ill; look for him and tell him my last thoughts are for him, for he is your real father.”

I would go back to my hotel room where the mini-bar was stocked, sometimes not. The air-conditioner would clatter, or not work at all, or be set too high or low with a fixed dial, and I would attempt to relax on an undersized bed with limp pillows, listening to the conversations from next door or to strangers whispering in the corridor. I would lie on the hotel bed and hark back in time, looking for mental and spiritual strength, remembering the day my step-father took me hiking in the Mojave Desert in southern California’s rugged mountains, woodlands, and canyons. It must have been the last week of October of 1994, I might have been ten years old; and we strenuously hiked through to the main Lava Tube cavern. As soon as we hit the main cavern, we were greeted with the fantastic view from the light cascading elegantly into the cave floor. We were enamored by the dramatic lightning and dark hardened lava. My step-father gently rested his muscular arm around my shoulder and said, “The very cave you’re afraid to enter turns out to be the source of what you seek,” my step-father quipped. “Your sacred space is where you can find yourself again and again, but by all means, do not tell anyone about this sacred space,” my step-father warned.

“Not even Mommy?” I remember asking.

My step-father sighed, hiding behind the sad smile that followed him like a shadow through life. “Of course you can tell her,” he answered, heavyhearted. “We keep no secrets from her. You can tell her everything.”


Before we eat Mom switches off the television, the window is open, the breeze cooling our backs and we start to eat in silence. My mother had come to hate loud noise. Every year on the 4th of July she had to take sedatives and go to bed. To Mom, silence is love. So in turn, I learn to love silence; although, lying is done with words, but also with silence. Besides, unexpressed emotions will never die. Like energy, they are buried alive and will come forth later in peculiar ways. When Mom beat me she would sometimes call me by my father’s name. I didn’t know how to respond, and when I tried to tell her that I wasn’t my father she beat me harder because pain changes people. She clicks her teeth and rolls her eyes around as if I’m a complete idiot, then inserts the cigarette for a painful drag. She holds my hand, “I just want you to know, I don’t hate you,” she whispers. “I hate your father.” I didn’t say a word. “I hate him for bringing me here, and I hate him for giving me hope.” I nodded. “Never, ever lie to people who believe in you, Malakai.” I nodded. In time, it made me think about my biological father, who, when the right time came - swiftly managed to abandon my mother as she was pregnant with me. My mother would famously accuse him of having lost his soul and not to expect much from him whenever I asked her about him, “Anyone can be heroic from time to time, but a gentleman is something you have to be all the time,” she would add. I would imagine, with my innocent ten-year-old mind, my biological father in a bar, lifting a cool beer bottle to his lips, asking someone the time. Naturally for the rest of my life I longed to see him.


When Benjamin Blustein first met Henrietta, my mother, in 1983, she was twenty-five-year-old and had just finished studying History & Philosophy at the University of Lubumbashi mainly to please her well-learned, strict father. She’d developed several interests as a teen, including singing, fashion design and modeling. She auditioned and joined a Latin funk-soul band before going to University. After graduating, while secretly working on her singing career, she spent her days working as a front desk attendant at a small boutique hotel that mainly catered to European and American staff from their respective embassies in Kinshasa. The hotel belonged to one of the president’s valet, turned-businessman, a promising young lad in the eyes of the military dictator, Joseph Désiré Mobutu, or, to give him his proper title and pay him due homage – Mobutu Sese Seko Kuku Ndbendu Wa Za Banga; ‘the all-powerful warrior who goes from conquest to conquest, leaving fire in his wake’-- both men members of the Ngbandi ethnic group. Benjamin was a young diplomat working at his first diplomatic posting in Kinshasa as a political analyst for the State Department. In the 1980s Zaire emerged as a key strategic outpost for the Reagan Doctrine. Reportedly, the CIA used an airstrip in the remote Shaban town of Kamina in order to channel covert weapons into neighboring Angola. President Reagan hailed Mobutu as "a voice of good sense and good will." Benjamin was handsome and had a powerful presence, which struck with all who met him. Prepared for the worst, Benjamin was amazed to find that life in the American or European enclave of Kinshasa was not hard to take. He opted for the modern apartment in mom’s hotel and lived there quite happily for the entirety of his one-year assignment. Food prices were high, but the assortment of French cheeses and charcuterie flown in almost daily from Europe was mind-boggling. At first glance, life inside the embassy seemed very American. The canteens sold tuna melts and chicken nuggets; fliers advertising pickup softball games. But the barred windows and armed guards were reminders that the Foreign Service was not like living in America. Overseas, staying safe became a way of life. Most of what Benjamin had been told about the government was true. The government of Zaire under revered strongman, Mobutu, had a reputation for corruption, deviousness, and indifference to the plight of its people that was unusual even by African standards. Nevertheless, the embassy staff and other donors were able to accomplish a great deal by working outside the official structure.


The neighbors would say,

 “Mr. Malwaa’s daughter, Henrietta, loves a white man to whom she submits in everything. This white man works at the American embassy. He is her lord. She asks for nothing, demands nothing, except a bit of whiteness in her life. If you ever try to determine if at least he is handsome, or ugly, ask her and she will answer, all I know is that he has blue eyes, blond hair, and I love him.”

** Mom welcomed Benjamin upon his first day on the African continent, and gently ushered him to his new dwelling. Mom’s charisma and calm nature was refreshing like rain in the morning. She could be demure when the occasion demanded, which was most of the time, but underneath her composed exterior she was bursting with suppressed energy. She caught his attention. When Benjamin first walked into the club where Mom was playing with her band, he recognized her from the hotel and definitely knew there was something about her. She had an erotic effect on men, partly because her vulnerability induced a feeling of protectiveness in the onlooker. Mom would sing with her band every Thursday evening through Sunday at the popular open-air night club in La Cite Indigne. The event would be called ‘Karaoke Night Avec La Bande Henrietta’. Urban music became a valuable vehicle of disseminating political ideologies throughout this African nation. To Mobutu, the role played by popular musicians was an endorsement of his authority and power. Music was a vital tool for the success and survival of his Cultural Revolution. In 1971, Mobutu embarked on a project he called ‘authenticity’, creating a new form of nationalism that drew from Congolese and other African traditions. The country was renamed the Republic of Zaire. The capital, Leopoldville, was renamed Kinshasa. Western names were rejected in favor of traditional ones; Zairians were required to call each other ‘citizen’. Most foreign music was banned. The first decade of the Second Republic was a period of unprecedented developments, including a rapid rise in the number of young musicians, particularly in ensembles that revolutionized local music by incorporating traditional melodies, rhythms, harmonies and dance movements into their compositions. Henrietta’s band had some rough, homemade four-track demos of their own original songs that sounded like a funk band playing free jazz, reminding me of something out of reach, a half-revived memory of a previouslyforgotten loss. It was basic, but the songs were good, evoking a feeling that had less in common with music than it does with literature – a sensation of doomed love set against the thrum and hiss of the jazz age, underscored by a non-specific melancholy, as though Henrietta’s world had been soured beyond hope. And then there was mom’s voice, a contralto vocal range; the smokiest, most sultry voice you have ever heard emanate from a human being. I've always thought there are certain voices that make people feel better: Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, Nat King Cole and Ella Fitzgerald. But when Benjamin heard mom’s singing, he really felt she had it. Mom was a beauty; she also had an amazing effect on people in the studio, on stage, both men and women, her charisma and how she looked, with her almond shaped eyes, oval face, lustrous skin, and her sylphlike waist.


Benjamin and Mom’s cultural differences attracted them to each other initially. When they started dating, Benjamin was proud that she was from Africa. Benjamin thought that she was special and exotic. Not too long after, they would disagree over most of her ways of doing things. Mom was sensitive and shy. They just came from two different worlds. Benjamin was born in Sharon, Connecticut. Though he attended Catholic preparatory school St. John’s Beaumont School in England, he also spoke Spanish and French fluently and loved sailing, horses, hunting and skiing. He graduated Cum Laude at Yale University in American History and became known for his transatlantic accent and wide vocabulary. He wrote a nationally syndicated newspaper column.


 It was a Saturday night in La Cite, the great, reptilian slum in Kinshasa. Benjamin had made plans with his new friends at the Embassy when the car he had rented bogged down in sand in a dark place. Someone offered to help him push and luckily met up with the lingering, new friends: Raymond from finance, Percy the marine, Vergil the journalist and Jessica the social scientist. All night they talked, danced, drank -- strangers pushed together haphazardly, moving from place to place, through the narrow, sandy alleys, the sprawl of gimcrack homes pressed close together. The music throbbed with primal energy. Drumbeats followed them down darkened byways lit by kerosene lamps that spread white pools on vendors' wares -- cigarettes, kebabs. They halted at an open-air nightclub. You paid the entrance fee by handing cash through a slit in a concrete wall. The clientele was all African -- outsiders generally did not go there. The shack was brimming with bodies, thick smoke and booze. They sat on upturned beer crates. They talked and listened to loud, insistent music and drank beer from big, cold bottles. The pungent smell of strong marijuana filled the air. Suddenly, though, Benjamin’s hosts lowered their eyes in deference. A self-confident young man with gelled hair and plum velvet jacket had just arrived, accompanied by the beautiful lead singer of the band, Henrietta -- Mom. The place bowed to them. Although it took some time to realize it, the young man was part of the answer to the baffling question that drew Benjamin to La Cite and other places like it: How did Mobutu Sese Seko -- Zaire's rapacious President and the most durable of a breed of African dictator whose despotism spilled frequently into bloodshed -- get away with it for so long? The sleek young man was not only the owner of the nightspot, but also owned the Hotel in which Benjamin stayed-in during his time in Kinshasa. And Mom was his cash cow, his winning muse. More important, he worked in some minor function at the presidential palace. He might have been the President's valet, the man who pressed and ironed the presidential hosiery, privy to the mysteries of the boudoir. Whatever his job, the man drew power and position from the association -- enough to open a nightclub, a guesthouse; buy loyalty with largesse and spread the grip of the palace in his own small backyard for when a man gets power, even his chickens and dogs rise to heaven. The young owner presented Mom to Benjamin and his friends, and left her in the care of his American guests to attend more pressing business in the backroom. As the night progressed, so was Benjamin’s loss of inhibitions; his arm around Mom, clutching a beer and struggling to shout his point into Raymond’s ear -- an inaudible reply from Raymond brought a red faced gut laugh from Benjamin. Percy looked over to see what was so funny. Virgil bumped through the crowd half dancing while carefully balancing his jar of clear liquor. He bowed the drink to Mom, but Jessica’s hand swooped in to take it. Jessica waged a finger before taking an eyebrow raising sip at the stout stuff. She eyed Mom, who smiled back at her. Virgil pulled Jessica up to dance not forgetting to reclaim his drink. He proceeded to dance in a way that spread the crowd. Mom nudged Benjamin. They laugh watching his friends dance, they were happy in this place -- an ordinary beginning, something that would have been forgotten had it been anyone but her. ** One night Benjamin brought Henrietta to this colon-style house in the outskirts of Kinshasa. He was secretly renting it, but also, it was where he had decided to write a romance novel that he had long dreamed of writing. They decide to make love for the first time. ** In Kinshasa he had been so full of life, so eager with his plans. At night when Benjamin and Mom were alone, they spent hours together talking about their dreams—his of seeing the world, hers of being an artist. The more they spent nights together, the more they revealed their hearts to each other. One night, Benjamin told her about growing up as a boy during the Vietnam War, watching his eldest brother leave to join the army, hearing the news that he had been killed and forever feeling lost eversince, while the American troops set villages aflame. He emphasized that at that time the American public demonstrated faint concern about a tiny country on the other side of the world and after the death of his brother, depression crept in their family, slowly eating away on the little pleasures of daily life. Mom would tell him about the forgotten history of African women such as Angola’s warriors queen Nzinga, and warrior queen of the Congo, Llinga, armed with ax, bow and sword. Mom implored the need to promote gender equality in Africa. Indeed, the need is obvious as millions of women toil in dreary, largely unpaid and unfulfilling tasks, responsible for most of the farming, marketing and commerce of rural Africa in addition to their child-bearing and child-rearing responsibilities. Mom lamented on long history of powerful African queens, consorts and rebel leaders which seldom make it into current history books. The role of women in ruling African nations, fighting against colonial enslavement and supervising the policies of their heirs and offspring as they rose into political primacy is a suppressed and forgotten history. This is a history which deserves to be taught in the schools. ** She asked him, point-blank, a question which may have lead into a painful talk: “how do you feel about what is happening between us?” Instead of trying to describe his feelings in their ambiguity and confusion, he asked, “How do you feel?”


Benjamin would usually wash away long working days with a swim in the hotel pool, usually found in the bowels of the building. He would trek along corridors in fluffy hotel slippers, past rows of identical doors, almost naked under the bathrobe, both intimate and exposed. The pool would invariably be empty, and for a long time, the swimming ritual was helpful. But then, on one of Benjamin’s habitual cleansing ritual away after a particularly disorientating working day, Benjamin floated on his back, buoyed by chemicals and water, and heard an odd bright voice in his head offering up a simple suggestion. “I want to die”, it said. A calm, lucid voice, perfectly meshed with the flickering light reflections on tiles and the sound of lapping water, of taps being turned on somewhere else in the hotel. He flipped onto his stomach and began a slow breaststroke. “Go down,” it said, and so he did, swimming underwater with eyes closed until he nudged the edge of the pool. Almost nobody could have anticipated the apparent desperation of his inner life, or the caustic nature of his vision. He was a writer almost before he was a man. Benjamin truly believed that literature was the one indication of civilization. For him, a fine piece of prose could not only cure a depression, it could clear up a sinus headache. What he sought to heal most of all, what saturated his spirit more than anything, was his loneliness. The next time it happened, the voice was stronger, and the time after that, stronger again - An insistent, reasonable interior monologue. “Where am I?” Benjamin would ask himself. “Who am I? And how, I wonder, will this story end?” Random swimming pool, random country, “Whom do I know here?” Nobody, really, “Who would miss me?” Nobody, really. “Go down then, and let go,” said the unambiguous and sober voice that terrified him.


There were evenings, unhappily, when Benjamin had to leave Mom alone in order to fulfill his social obligations. He would go to La Ville, the fashionable part of Kinshasa inhabited by the “European whiteys,” most of them government people and military officers. Among Benjamin’s colleagues, who like him had been marooned in the region by the containment policy of the cold war, some had managed to have their wives join them. Mom understood that Benjamin could not always hold himself aloof from them. She also accepted the fact that she was barred from this society because mom was a local; but she could not help being envious. An unforeseen aspect of their relationship arose as Benjamin explaining to mom that his private life was something that belonged to him alone and that his social and diplomatic life was something else, which was not within his control. Mom nagged so much one day that Benjamin finally took to her to La Ville. They spent the evening in one of those little villas that she had admired since her childhood, with two officers and their wives. As expected, there were plenty of disapproving glances. Mom was staggered, almost awestruck, at this condescension. The women kept watching her with a superior air of haughtiness that she found unbearable. She must have probably felt that she was wearing too much makeup, or that she was not properly dressed, or that she was not doing Benjamin credit, perhaps simply because of the color of her skin. They would ask: “So what does a guy of Benjamin’s caliber see in lowly local like her?” Such questions are best left in peace -- great love is never justified. Mom spent so miserable an evening that she decided she would never again ask Benjamin to take her with him.


One Eastertide evening blooms away in 1983; Mom seems nervous watching the fading sun sink lower from the wraparound porch of a colon-style home. She liked to sit there in the evenings, especially after working hard all day, and let her thoughts wander without conscious direction. It was how she relaxed, a routine she’d learned from her father. Her eyes cast down. She’s beautiful. She picks her head up and takes a deep breath. Her big brown eyes are 18

soft in the light of the front porch, “I’m pregnant,” she says. Benjamin listens. He takes in the information. A smile breaks across his face, revealing a mouth full of white, perfect teeth. He quickly draws his lips over them, swallowing the smile. He begins to nod, a more reserved smile coming through, and says, “Good. That’s real good.” At this, Mom’s shoulders drop with relief. They sit close to one another on the front steps of the house. Benjamin takes her hand. Mom leans into him. An ominous sound grows in the distance -- A rumbling like thunder.


Copyright © 2019 Lionel Ntasano


Recipe for an Escape

The day begins like any other summer day for Seki as the radio turns on automatically waking him from his deep sleep. A jazzy Herbie Hancock tune plays as the deejay mentions that the legendary musician will be performing live at the Montreux Jazz Festival later in the week. Seki takes a mental note not to forget to grab himself some tickets; the festival is happening fifteen minutes away from his large apartment. He gets out of bed as the aroma of coffee from the timer-operated percolator lures him toward the kitchen. Curls of steam rise from the bowl of instant oatmeal; the microwave had produced predictably perfect results in perfect cadence with his thirty-five minute wake-up schedule. After wolfing down his power breakfast, he enters the bathroom, splashes some cold water on his face, and glances at himself in the mirror. His tired and sluggish look turns into a determined one. He unhooks a pair of sweat pants from the bathroom door as he wears them one leg at a time. He then unhooks a grey H&M sweater and wears it over his white t-shirt. He then buckles his digital Casio watch – it reads 5:19. It is early. The sun is about to rise and Seki is going sailing on his private boat on Lake Geneva.

Getting away from shore, Seki felt a link to those ancient mariners who set off for undiscovered lands. He was harnessing the same forces of nature that powered the early explorers.

“Sailing is harnessing the power of Mother Nature,” Seki would always answer whenever he was asked why he loved sailing so much. There was nothing, absolutely nothing, worth doing as much as simply messing about in a boat. Any kind of boat was exhilarating. The escape of the stress and anxieties of everyday life, conveyed on a craft powered solely by the force of nature was enlivening. Perhaps the most enlightening part was the instance his imagination emanated his mind to places he had never been, promising experiences yet untold. President Kennedy pointed it out best when he said that all of us have in our veins, in our blood, in our tears, in our sweat the exact same percentage of salt that exists in the ocean. We are tied to the ocean, and when we go back to the sea, whether it is to sail or to watch it, we are going back from where we came.


Seki’s day officially begins after his habitual two hours of summer sailing. It is now about eight in the morning. Apart from the night porter and the kitchen brigade, no one else is awake at Seki’s popular restaurant Domaine-de-la-Bastide. The kitchen is ubiquitously calm in the morning: the stainless vinegar induced glimmers of the chef pass, steel pots and pans sit neatly in their places, split evenly between stations. Columns of polished milky china run on shelves beneath the shiny tabletops. The floors are mopped and dry. Most of the equipment is switched off, most significantly the intake hoods. Without the insistently loud clamor of the hoods, serenity engulfs the place. The only sounds are the purr of proofing boxes, the occasional burble of a thermal immersion circulator and the hum of refrigeration. The garbage cans are empty. It smells of nothing. The place might even seem abandoned if it weren’t for the prep lists dangling from the ticked racks above each station.

Seki is Chef-Patron of this fine dining establishment. Graced with a natural poised nature, a large smile, clean hands, a well groomed beard, and a calm voice with a sincere tone to it - Seki is star. He is humble enough to get behind the wheel of the delivery van, and hit the road to the Montreux Riviera Market for the local, fresh produce - artisan oil, cheese, jam, honey, liqueur or local wine. He loves talking to people and farmers at the market; he is sort of a local celebrity with his tamed African accent when he speaks French. He regales them with stories from his gastronomic world of fine ingredients, excellent recipes and valued guests. People love his common-sense approach to life, his charm, good nature, and seemingly unselfconscious ability to have fun no matter the circumstance. Feeling good, having a moment to think less about the daily stress, and sharing a moment of joy with one’s neighbor are simple pleasures that he does not take for granted. He could fool the most astute psychologist or detective because Seki hails from one of the grittiest slums of Bujumbura, Buyenzi. He grew up in a neighborhood where most homes are modest mud-wall structure shacks, rusting corrugated tin roofs, rocks and dirt floors. Buyenzi is typically crowded with displaced relatives from other parts of the country, barefooted kids careening at full speed between food stalls, chickens and many dogs.


It is now nine o’clock and the deliveries have begun to arrive at Seki’s restaurant. American Linden crates of produce lie in heaps in front of the back kitchen doorway: Turkish pistachios, Manni extra virgin oil, balsamic vinegar, Brinata cheese and top-drawer saffron. These are the samples Seki had requested from the dry goods purveyor. He takes hold of the box, tiptoes past the rest of the deliveries, and heads to the office. He places the box on top of the compact refrigerator designated for chef use only. It holds safe the chefs’ supply of expensive perishables: white truffles, rare cheese like Bitto Storico, Strottarga Bianco caviar, and fine wine like 1986 Chateau Mouton Rothschild. Suddenly, the phone rings and Seki answers quickly.

“Cuisine – Domaine de la Bastide ! ” Seki answers.

“Yes. Hello? May I speak to Seki?” A familiar man’s voice answers back. Seki is rather surprised to hear French with a Burundian accent.

“Who am I speaking to? This is Chef Seki on the line.” He replies feeling tense for no reason.

“This is Kagenza! Seki, how are you?” In spite of the lightness of his words, Seki detects worry in his interlocutor’s voice. Rather quickly Kagenza adds, “What are you doing? Do you have a minute? I would like to speak with you!”

Seki sits down in his revolving chair to brace himself. This is his oldest brother probably calling from home. They had barely spoken since he moved to Switzerland twenty years earlier. Understanding family is always complicated.

“How are you doing Kagenza? How did you get this number?” Seki asks trying to diffuse the rough air.

Kagenza answers, “It was actually easy finding you now that you are a big time chef. I have something to tell you though.”

Already, Seki feels alarmed. He tenses up because he feels how hard Kagenza is working to normalize the conversation. Seki then speaks from inside a numb fog, “I’m listening!”

Into the silence, Kagenza says, “There was an accident. Dad has passed away.” Flashes of lightening go off behind Seki’s eyes. His breathing speeds up, yet he is suffocating. Immediately he asks, “When?”

Kagenza answers, “Yesterday morning.”

“How did it happen?”

“He fell in the bathtub.” It painfully got silent. It seemed as if the problems Seki worried himself sick about never materialized; it was the ones he never saw coming that usually knocked him off sideways.

“Does Ciza know?” Seki asks about their other brother.

“He has already booked a flight.” Kagenza answers calmly.

“How was Dad doing these last years?” Seki asks with no emotions.

“Well you know how quiet he became once Mother passed.” Kagenza answers candidly.

“How are you feeling?” Seki asks trying to keep his cool now that Kagenza has mentioned their mother.

“For some reason, I always thought he would always be around, you know?” Kagenza answers sounding disappointed and hurt.

“Yeah, umm, Kagenza!”


“I will have to call you back, I need to process this.”

“Yeah, okay! Take your time.”


Now, alone in his office, in shock, adrenalin rushing through his body, numb on the outside, Seki tumbles slowly through blank space. “Please, God, no,” he hears himself moaning deeply from his gut. Vincent, Seki’s sous-chef comes into the office with the day’s guest list and notices Seki’s face fraught with agony. Vincent asks if he is feeling well. A flash of commiseration and guilt crosses Seki’s face as he shares the news with Vincent. His sous-chef remains silent, for one seldom knows what to say in these kinds of situations. Seki stands up aggressively, irritated and lost as he opens one of the fine wines, pouring himself and Vincent a glass. Seki gulps down his glass of wine as if it was a dose of medicine. It gives him the sensation of being hit on the back of the head with a rubber club. The burning in his belly dies down and the world begins to look more cheerful. Seki pours himself another glass and gazes out the window. The world outside begins to dissolve, melting into images from another time, another place. His eyes stare blanking out his immediate surroundings, blinded by his memories as he begins to hark back to his time in the slums. A broad, affectionate smile of reminiscence lights up his bearded visage as he savors the memory of himself at age seventeen.

Seki had already quit school when his mother knowing he could use spending money of his own, got him a job washing dishes in Bujumbura’s most popular restaurant at the time. Last born child of a family of three boys, Seki spent a lot of time at home with his mother. Kagenza, the oldest was more like a caring and dependable uncle than a brother. Ten years older, Kagenza worked closely with their father maintaining their small business repairing cars and trucks. Ciza, the middle child, lived in perpetual motion and the youthful air of a guy who had managed to escape the normal adult responsibilities and emotions. Graced with natural athletic talent, Ciza played professional soccer for a second division league team.

In order to let his mom rest, Seki would do the shopping of groceries, cleaning up, washing and cooking. Occasionally, he would also do the stitching and sewing. This type of work didn’t scare him. Their mother, a stay home matriarch was the kind of cook who would heap up a plate with such food as sweet potatoes, plantain bananas, red kidney beans, finger-licking Mukeke fish and cassava. The more you put away the better she felt. They could only afford to eat meat only a few times a month, but she always spoiled them with snacks such as groundnuts, sugar cane and fruits. She passed this love and ability to cook and care to Seki, and he intuitively respected food and cooking, especially the power it possesses in bringing people together. Seki worked out at her kitchen table like there was no tomorrow. Inevitably, all this annoyed their father down to his core. This brought so much grief and despair to Seki’s father because deep down, he knew Seki was different from all other boys. Seki could see the disappointment in his father’s eyes when he looked at him. His father would always comment on Kagenza’s diligence, and Ciza’s dexterity, but there were no words of love, no words of pride when it came to Seki. Maybe it was his father’s way of acting out of love, maybe it was his beliefs, but, if you notice closely, reality often possess its own kind of power. Seki’s way of being was a challenge to the integrity and moral fabric of his family and Burundian society - Men have their roles and women theirs. Regardless, Seki’s way of being should have been respected. His way of being was not the totality of his identity; it surely didn’t make Seki a bad person. However, this reality kept his father awake at night, and sadly, it influenced all of his reactions toward his last born son over the years. He even went to seek advice from religious leaders, and they told him that homosexuality is a grave sin. He had difficulty loving his son.

Seki found refuge in his job and new found trade thanks to his mother. Chef Marc, Seki’s boss was an all round fair Belgian man. It was fire working there; laboring impossible hours for next to no pay, but learning a thousand tricks of the trade. It was a fabulous experience for Seki, it opened his mind. He had the luck to see every aspect of the business. The restaurant was called Hotel Restaurant Tanganyika. Located by the shores of the lake it bares its name from, it got flooded from 1963 to 1967 and abandoned until the early 70’s. Chef Marc’s family, remnants of colonial Belgians, purchased the place in 1972 and restored it as it became the most popular place in the city of Bujumbura. Marc, the heir of the family, took over in 1982 after winning culinary prizes at his hospitality school in Liege in Belgium. Not only was he a visionary, he was a clear-eyed businessman who knew how to count. He was a master saucier in the art of French cuisine and the restaurant was known for their delicious fish from Lake Tanganyika. Soon word went round the foodie grapevine of Burundi’s expats, politicians and wealthy individuals that extraordinary things were happening at Hotel Restaurant Tanganyika.

Seki had spent almost seven years working there; it was like an apprenticeship of life. He spent his youthful hours doing the dishes, and then got promoted on prepping everything for the chefs – salt, oil, vinegar, all the basic stuff, and then he began cutting the herbs: chives, tarragon, garlic and the rest and dicing shallots for the rib steaks, then prep the beurre Cancalais.

“Whip the butter, salt and pepper it, and add lemon and tarragon. It’s still the best sauce there is for seafood,” Seki would say. It went on the grilled lobster just before it got sent out into the dining room. It was quite evident that Seki was made for this work. He had the physique for it, he was very agile with his hands, he had the ambition and he wanted to be recognized.

They would serve exquisite dishes which were a la mode at the time – dishes like thrush pâté. Chef Marc would finely ground the bird meat into the robot mixer, mixed with chicken livers, juniper berries, and goose fat, and slowly cooked it in the pâtissier’s oven, reposing in the gentle luxury of a bain marie. When it had softened to the texture of a thick puree, he passed it through a fine sieve to free it of the last bits of bone and beak or any other hard matter likely to distract a client’s attention from its enjoyment.

At the end of day, before going back home, Seki would usually cross the narrow street separating the restaurant from the lake to share a drink with some of the other cooks and dishwashers. Common Burundians hung out there - drinking, dancing to music and experimenting with various drugs. They basically indulged in activities that soothed their feelings of inferiority and sadness. One night, during their habitual after work drink by the lakeside, Seki and his colleagues stumbled upon a half-naked woman holding a large beer bottle, drunk out of her mind, venting her frustration about how she lost her husband to two fishermen who usually fished with him. She lamented on how one fateful day the three of them went on a fishing trip together as they always did. At the end of that day, only two of them came back. Her husband was missing. At that particular time, there was a shortage of fish, and fishermen did not manage to reach their normal quotas; anxiety was rampant as their catch basically meant their livelihood. She accused them of having thrown him into the lake. She explained how they did so as a form of sacrifice to whatever creature or mermaid God ruled the deep waters in order to appease it so that it could release the flow of fish. It sounded absurd, and Seki could not believe what he was hearing. She further explained how she had never been the same since. She searched, and went to the police, but all to no avail. She went to see pastors, gurus and witch doctors to get justice, but nothing worked. Frustrated, she started drinking to alleviate her trauma. It destroyed her. It annihilated her energy. It confused her, making her hallucinate.

Seki walked away after hearing enough as he perched under a palm tree, slowly sipping on the local brew and started thinking about happiness. He wondered what made it so fleeting; he did not even know what it meant. Was it love? Was it the ability to love? Was it the sensation of being loved unconditionally? Could it be security? Peace? What about the stillness of the mind? These philosophical thoughts got interrupted by an old bum playing beautiful music on a dingy homemade guitar. The music was hypnotizing and soothing, but let out feelings of despair, hurt and disappointment. The small waves smashing on the reef mixed with the complex guitar riffs made it sound like a symphony of life - a life of sadness counterbalanced with a consoling promise of hope.

After the drinks, Seki would have to go back to the slums. Conditions were more crowded than elsewhere; people with all kinds of different psychologies were constantly in your face. People would verbally say that they were not into politics, but rather into prayers and business. Nevertheless, any power one had depended on their ability to know everything that was going on around, but mostly, to be sensitive to changes. Unequivocally, there was no time or room to escape to some inner dreamland. This intuitive sense of urgency to stay connected to the environment and the people around was somewhat imperative for survival. If you acted like a child in the slums, you were not going to last long. Seki had to quickly understand his world - a nation that lived in social ghettos. The insecure generally congregated around other power hungry individuals, and the religious and spiritual lot were ecclesiastically cloistered in their worlds because people like to associate with those of their kind. Even though the very air was so disturbed by a myriad of tongues blabbing about ethnic relations, Seki had resolved to stay still and worked harder. He had the opportunity to live in between these narrow worlds; he had the privilege to be an observer of another way of life.

In 1994, Burundi was standing on the brink of genocide. Seki, aged twenty-four, would never forget the day he heard the story of how the Zaire-based guerrillas attacked the King Khaled hospital as they tried to overthrow the government. Windows in the hospital maternity ward had been shattered by rifle butts. On the floor in one room was dried blood where a patient had been shot by the guerrillas. In the courtyard was a charred area where another patient had been set on fire on her mattress. Many Burundians were fleeing the country, running away from danger, escaping their reality.

Seki decided to flee Burundi in order to survive, and also, perhaps, find a kind of love that was forbidden. He had to get to a country that was safe, accepting, and understanding. He then fled to the closest safe country, Tanzania. He walked a lot and caught numerous buses. Plagued with worry, distracted by nostalgic memories of home and busy with the red tape involved with migration organizations, he failed to notice time pass by as he spent two years in a refugee camp. Life was reduced to basic needs and physical protection. The talented oral folklorists present in the camp blissfully created passing but powerful illusions that life had remained the same. It was accepted that, in conditions of exile, nostalgic feelings were nourished by altered memories of past life. All forms of divisions were discarded, while peaceful everyday life was praised and venerated. This was quite ironic as the history of their nation made it difficult to romanticize past life. The devolution of culture can be traced directly to broken men. Nonetheless, through the solidarity of certain upright individuals, Seki found himself boarding a plane destined for Geneva in Switzerland. He was granted asylum on a humanitarian visa.

Here he was, in Europe, feeling like a hayseed, and he rather looked like one as he fumbled and wandered around Geneva metro system in his shiny new shoes, smelling of misery and trying to locate a restaurant called Brasserie du Grand Chêne. Seki had nothing except a pair of knives and thick skin – he was used to being treated like he was piece of dung on someone’s shoe. Reaching at the entrance of the restaurant, a skinny, businesslike man of fifty or so approached, wearing a cook’s apron and a sardonic smile. His face bore the characteristic flush of the wine-drinking bon vivant as he welcomed Seki in letting the immigrant know that he would start work the next day. All Seki wanted was a chance, a promise of recognition – respect. All he wanted was to prove to his father that he was worthy.


It is now ten o’clock. The restaurant is two hours away from opening its doors to its guests. Seki is inebriated after having finished a whole bottle of wine with his sous-chef, Vincent. Looking back at everything he had gone through in his journey up to this day, Seki had never shed a single tear. For some unknown reason, he lets out tears like never before. Things have come full circle because all roads lead to the past.

Copyright © 2105 Lionel Ntasano