It was hot and we were dying of thirst. We had been walking for hours along pathways and through thick bush. My feet had started getting blisters so I had to remove my shoes. I also had cuts on my legs and had started limping. Louis would wait behind for me when I could not keep up with them, and would help me carry my bag.
Then we came across two men carrying a log on their shoulders. “Connaissez-vous la route vers la Zambie?” (Do you know the road to Zambia?) Philippe asked them, hoping that they would understand French. They frowned and muttered together. Unfortunately, they were speaking another language, unknown to us.
“Zambie, Zambie,” Philippe kept repeating, gesticulating.
“Zambie?” one of the men asked at last, recognising the word. We all nodded. Then he showed us a path to follow. We walked and walked.
“We need water,” my brother André eventually said, panting from the heat. “We have to drink or we’ll die from thirst.”
“I’ve got some,” Louis said, taking a big plastic bottle out of his bag.
“Uratubyaye,” (You are a lifesaver.) André said, before drinking noisily. Everyone else drank from the bottle and when it was my turn I took it and lifted it to my lips, but then I froze, and stared.
“What is it?” asked Louis, quickly.
And then they saw what had frightened me. Up ahead were a group of soldiers with guns. They were chatting and laughing but when they saw us coming they became serious and signalled us to stop.
We couldn’t turn back. We couldn’t hide. All we could do was walk slowly towards them. And they waited for us to come close before they started shouting. One of them raised his gun and said something.
I saw terror on my brother Philippe’s face. I know he, like us, didn’t understand a word the soldier was saying. He was speaking Lingala.
“We are your neighbours from Rwanda,” Philippe stuttered, guessing at what the soldier was asking him. As soon as he spoke, one dark soldier shuffled his fingers together greedily. They wanted a bribe, as they realised that we were foreigners.
“Quarante dollars,” (Forty dollars) the dark soldier said.
André proved to be good at negotiating. With this skill at hand, he somehow managed to persuade the soldiers to take twenty dollars, not forty.
As soon as we were out of sight of the soldiers I drank from Louis’ water bottle and then made the boys look at me.
“From now on, I cannot talk,” I told them. I put some dollars in a plastic wrapper and tucked it into my mouth.
“What are you doing?” my brother André asked.
“We cannot let these thieves take all our money, or we will never reach Zambia. Each time before reaching a roadblock, I will put my dollars in this plastic, in my mouth. If one of the soldiers speaks to me, tell them I am dumb. I will use gestures instead of words.”
“Brilliant idea,” Louis said. I was so pleased.
Before leaving Mugunga Camp, I had also put some money in notes in another soft piece of plastic, covered it with a piece of cloth and stitched it firmly, then placed it in my underwear. I was pretending the cloth was for my periods, so hiding it in case roadblock soldiers tried to steal our money. I knew how they would stop at nothing.
As we continued we soon found ourselves in dense forest. It was getting dark. The trees towered above us, blocking out the sunlight. We walked and walked, looking out for snakes on the ground. And as the evening fell we saw bats and strange birds swooping around us. It was very scary.
Eventually Philippe stopped and told us that we had got nowhere. That we had been going round and round in circles. We were lost. There was no way we could find out of the forest.
“Let’s make a fire to scare away the animals,” he suggested, when we couldn’t walk any further.
“But we have no matches,” said André.
“I think it would be safer if we climbed a tree and spent the night there,” I said. And so we climbed a big tree and settled in its branches.
“We will have to take turns watching and sleeping,” André said.
It was not easy to sleep lying with my body stretched out along a big branch. I couldn’t let myself fall into a deep sleep for fear of falling. The insects ate us alive in that tree. My feet were aching from walking and the night was long. I also kept thinking about my mother and sister in Mugunga Camp. Had they survived the cholera?
From time to time, I felt Louis’ hand reaching to me, to let me know he was there, and to give some comfort.
“You are a good friend,” I whispered to him in the pitch dark.
“I love you,” he whispered back to me. The words penetrated deep in my heart like a needle in a piece of cloth.
The next morning as we came into a clearing in the trees we heard the noise of people nearby, branches breaking underfoot, the sound of voices coming nearer. And then a group of almost naked hunters appeared in the clearing. My heart leapt. We were not sure how they would respond to us. We communicated with them using gestures and luckily they proved kind and helpful, showing us a track to follow.
A few days later, exhausted, hungry and thirsty we came to Uvira town, on Lake Tanganyika. The sight of this mass of water meant hope for me. Across it lay a new life.
Before the day was out we had bought travelling papers and were on board a ship to Kigoma in Tanzania. This was going to be the shortest way to Zambia, we had been told. And, as we sailed over the water so hope was growing as we travelled further and further away from home.
“Lord, protect my parents, my sister, my uncles and cousins,” I prayed in my heart.
Tell us what you think: Will Zambia be all that Odette dreams it to be?