One morning I saw André, the houseboy from the parish in Minembwe, set off down the hill with a chicken under his right arm. He’d stuffed the legs of his trousers into his rubber boots and he was wearing a crumpled dress shirt over a T-shirt. That was all he had on him—apart from the chicken, which he would carry all the way to Uvira to sell.

He would walk through the hills, valleys, and swamps, cross streams and take narrow paths through the forest—fifty-five miles as the crow flies. All that time the chicken would accompany him. He’d have to feed her and she was bound to soil his clothes. At night she would sleep beside him, tethered to the string he’d knotted to one of her legs with the other end around his finger. None of this seemed to bother André. He was happy; he smiled. He was off to visit his wife. And Curé Jorojoro, the parish priest, had given him a chicken that was worth three dollars in Uvira—fifty cents more than here.

This was April of 2004, and soon I’d be making the same journey. Not in four days like André; no, I’d look about me as I went, visit the markets of the high plains, and try to understand how people lived in this inhospitable part of southeastern Congo—a place without roads or electricity, with inhabitants so averse to bureaucracy that my Belgian forebears never really managed to get a grip on them.

The colonel in command of the high plains lived in a large fenced-off house on a hill at the edge of Minembwe. He’d assigned me a guide, Bavire, a somber man with a little mustache and a glassy look in his eyes. Bavire had broken off his law studies in the valley to be with the colonel, who quickly appointed him boss of his legal service. Bavire would accompany me on my journey, but first we’d take a trip or two in the surrounding area to get used to the “milieu,” as everyone called it. And to each other, as Curé Jorojoro added.