Around the World: The Belgian Congo
Tamar Myers gives readers a unique look at the Belgian Congo during the late 1950s in her new mystery, The Headhunter's Daughter. With fighting tribes, feuding missionaries and killer animals the nation is full of dangers. When the American missionary Amanda Brown hears of a European girl being raised by a native tibe, Amanda sets out to bring this mystery child back "home". But all is not as it seems when this young girl's reappearance threatens to exposed a secret that is decades old. Now the author shares her personal experiences with the Belgian Congo in this author interview!
For The Headhunter's Daughter, which came first, the story or the setting?
The setting for The Headhunter's Daughter came first. The Bashilele village where Ugly Eyes grew up is a stand-in for the location where my parents built the first "successful" mission station amongst that tribe in 1950. The previous attempt had been made by a Catholic priest who had gone in and immediately attempted to chop down the sacred "trees of life" described in the book. The headhunters lopped off the priest's head and the witchdoctor turned it into his palm wine cup (mug). At any rate, I was two years old when my parents established this mission. My mother built a nearby boarding school for the girls so that they didn't have to engage in "child bride" marriages with much older Bashilele men to which they had been betrothed--which made her hugely unpopular with some prospective grooms! My friends were all the children of headhunters and they called me Ugly Eyes!
How did you make the Belgian Congo a character in the book?
I didn't really intend to make the Belgian Congo a character in my book. I just wanted to write books that were close to my heart and that meant setting them where I was born and grew up--where I spent my "wonder years." I am pleased that some readers--and reviewers--have come to this conclusion. It warms the cockles of my heart. It took me 23 years to get my first book published! I started submitting at age 22, and it wasn't until I was 45 that I got my first offer. Then I had to write 33 mysteries set in America before any publisher would take a chance on one of my "Africa" books. Even then I am obliged to make them mysteries, although I would love the freedom to not have that restriction.
If you had to personify the setting, how would you describe it?
The town of Belle Vue, which is the setting for most of the novel, is where I lived for the three years that I was 13, 14, and 15. It was an abandoned Belgian diamond mining town. We lived in what had been a very nice Belgian villa on a hilltop above terraced gardens overlooking the Kasai River. Across the river was the Workers Village and the real-life bridge spanning a rapids (but not a spectacular waterfall). Most unfortunately, however, for part of the time there was a machine gun post just above our house on the crest of the hill, and another one across the river at a lower level. The Baluba tribe lived on our side of the river and the Lulua tribe on the side and they were at war with each other. When they would shoot the bullets would pass through our house, obliging us to crawl around on all fours to get from room to room. Not a comfy way to live. But.....in the book the river serves as a metaphor for the great divide between the Africans and the colonialists, with the missionaries on the African side, but perched on the edge of the chasm.
What kind of research did you conduct about Africa for the story? Are there any personal stories about the country that you would like to share?
I don't do any research--other than dredge up old memories, many of them very, very painful. The period in which I write is the beginning of the end of colonial rule and the tide was turning rapidly against the whites. Often times we Americans were classified as Belgians in the Congolese mind because of our skin color. Also, my family was one of the very first missionary families to return to the interrior after mass evacuations of the 1960s and stories of atrocities--the likes of which would truly shock you--were common in the newspapers and adult conversations. I absorbed everything. To make a long story short, when I remember, I remember everything.
What would you like readers to take away about Africa from your book?
I want my readers to understand that Africa is not a place--it is a myriad of places: landscapes, climates, races, cultures. In the Belgian Congo of my childhood--and the Congo of today--there are 200 different tribes. We say "ethnic groups" today for political correctness, but tribes is what I prefer because they had tribal scars on their faces and backs, removed certain teeth to show tribal affiliation, went to war to guard tribal lands. It was, and is, a very diverse, group of people, and to expect Western style Democracy to just somehow "happen" there ain't gonna happen. Folks think along tribal lines first; that is the ancient way, the way it should be. In the Congo the horrible dictator Mobutu, the Satan-Incarnate, who ran the country into the ground, was able to succeed because his tribe dominated the military when the Belgians dumped the colony and ran. I don't have an answer for a fix--although I do think that President Obama would be wise to appoint me as Ambassador to the Democratic Republic of the Congo as I understand it a whole lot better than a lot of people do (oy, what hubris!). Whew, what a rant. In any case--Africa is complex, with many, many viewpoints.
To learn more about Tamar Myer's Belgian Congo, pick up a copy of The Headhunter's Daughter on shelves now!