The result is one of my most haunting images from the Congo, showing me crumpled and empty-eyed from dehydration, surrounded by a mass of earnest, unsmiling faces. The picture could be straight out of the 19th century - the white man, offered the best seat in the house, surrounded by curious but watchful natives.
There was little time to talk, but I did take down the name of one English speaker, a man who described himself as an English teacher, Kabinga Sabiti, who said, 'Thank you for coming. Since the war came we have not seen many outsiders. The UN came here once, but only by helicopter and they touched down and left in just a few minutes. Please help us find peace.' There was nothing I could do to help Kabinga. I felt ashamed.
The next 200km-long stretch was grim. My backside had moved into a painful phase; I learnt to lean on one side and then the other to alleviate the pressure, but it was agony. Much worse was my thirst. With only two bottles of drinking water left, I rationed myself to a gulp every 15 minutes, so, instead of watching the landscape, I started to examine my watch, urging the hands to sweep round to the quarter-hour so that I could take the next gulp.
By the time darkness came I was slumped half-asleep against Odimba's back. Every so often, I would lean over and stare at the odometer trying to count down the kilometers until Kasongo. There were times when, as I stared at the little numbers on the meter, my mind played tricks, convincing myself they were going backwards.
Night fell. I had lost all sense of time when I suddenly spotted a much brighter light up ahead. We were still moving, and it kept disappearing between trees and bushes. It was an electric light, the first for 535km. We had reached Kasongo and the modest house maintained by Benoit's aid worker colleagues from Care International. I remember little about the arrival, apart from the vast jug of filtered water that I gulped down and the smell of the previous night's hut on my mosquito net, in which I wrapped myself before collapsing.
From Blood River by Tim Butcher. Copyright Tim Butcher 2007. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt maybe reproduced without written permission from the publisher, Grove Press.
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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