On the road from Cotonou, Dahomey (Benin), I got a ride with the Nigerian Ambassador to the Central African Republic. He took me all the way to Lagos, where he welcomed me to stay at his house for a few nights while I got my visas for Central African Republic (CAR), Cameroon, Zaire and Uganda. He invited me to look him up when I arrived in Bangui which I planned to reach in a few weeks. Lagos was generally intense, jampacked with people and vehicles, but almost miraculously quiet and peaceful behind his family compound’s walls, with lush gardens and several houses with his immediate family and then others with close relatives. It was also quiet in the hostel with garden that he directed me to as one very popular with Europeans and Americans & Aussies-NZs. He was quite insistent that he wanted me to contact him the moment I reached Bangui.
After a phenomenal 3+ weeks adventure hitch-hiking from Lagos to the extreme Northeast frontier of Nigeria, including Maiduguri (May 27-June 19), I had come East and South crossing into Cameroon (where I had to walk 10km at the border to catch a ride down to Ngaounderre and then into CAR.
The day after I arrived at Bangui, I called Paul from the French Yacht club on the Ubangui River, where I was water skiing with some local French whom I had met at the club. They thought that it was fun to ski with an American who had learned and become proficient on Lake Cochituate in Massachusetts. There were never any crocodiles or other similar species in the lakes of Massachusetts, as there were here in the Ubangui River in the Central African Congo. My hosts appreciated the fact that I preferred and was always ready to launch my rides from the end of the dock, and was happy to end my rides with a landing on the slightly submerged end of the “landing” dock intended for that purpose. They were as happy as I was that they never had to fish me out of the river!
When I called my friend Paul the Nigerian Ambassador, he advised me that he was planning a diplomatic dinner later that week. That was fine. I wanted to rest a while here in Bangui, where I was staying in a wonderful hostel (including a great outdoor tropical shower). I was happy to have a break from the road. Here in Bangui, I could get Visas for Zaire and Uganda. Bangui was GREAT. I was able to hang out at the French boating club, waterski, and check out offers and fun things to do on the Bulletin Board. I found a note and a number for a Dutch anthropologist who was looking for a translator fluent in French and English to help with a remote trip to visit a pygmee group deep in the forest to the south of Bangui. I called and was accepted immediately for the research-study trip in two days’ time! (See link to Pygmees story)
When it came time for Paul’s diplomatic dinner, I showered and dressed up in my nice khaki pants and polyester sport jacket. I even wore a tie! After traveling through northeastern Nigeria and into Camaroon, he invited me to join as an American Student Observer guest in a diplomatic dinner at his house a few nights later. Fortunately, I had a polyester Suit jacket and dress pants suitable enough to wear for the dinner. The other guests were the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, the Sudanese Ambassador and the Sudanese Military Attache. The meeting was prompted by the growing panicked flow of refugees from Southern Sudan into the Central African Republican. The Sudanese Military Attache had the look of evil with a chilling sardonic “Ha, ha, ha, ha, ha …ahhhhhh..” sort of unforgettable laugh.
The Nigerian Ambassador lived in a beautiful colonial mansion, with lush and spacious gardens. Nigeria was the most populous state in West Africa, and the pomp and dignity of their position on the continent showed well at the property. There were five guests for dinner: the Nigerian Ambassador as host, the Sudanese Ambassador, the Sudanese Military Attache, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, and me. The entire dinner was conducted in French. I was introduced as an American student, graduate of Ivy League Cornell University and a Masters’ Degree student at University of Pennsylvania Wharton School (and Department of Peace Science/Regional Science) on a 1-year Leave of Absence to travel and study the world.
As introductions were made, Paul welcomed each of us in turn. He opened the discussion by asking the UNHCR ambassador to describe his understanding the nature and scope of the current state of the flow and disposition of refugees from the Sudan into the Eastern regions of the CAR. The Sudanese Ambassador was then asked to comment of the UNHCR’s description of the situation and conditions as “dire.” The Sudanese Ambassador claimed that the situation was not quite so dire, and he consulted openly with his Military Attache, who commented lightly that everything was under control, and repeatedly laughed in a chilling sardonic “Ha, ha, ha, ha, ha …ahhhhhh..” sort of unforgettable laugh. The two most distinct memories I have was the warm welcome from the Nigerian Ambassador, and the almost cartoonish blast of evil that oozed out of the Sudanese Military Attache. He was a mix of arrogance and evil. When he spoke of the refugees from his home of Sudan, he spoke of them as dismissively and disparagingly as he would a plantain or mango that he had discarded for its poor quality.
Your posts remind me of Paul Theroux’s style, with all the character development. Your tales of post-colonial Africa are similar to what Theroux writes about from his time in Malaysia, where I served during that same post-colonial era. They must have been somewhat parallel universes, with my universe being much less dangerous. Cheers, Larry
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Thanks for your gracious comments, Larry. The experiences and feelings are all mine, but the writing (especially the better writing) is a collaboration with my dear friend and editor, Barry MIlavsky (currently safely situated in Toronto, CA), whom I met at a Penn Alumni Association event in Manhattan in January or February, 1974. (We became squash partners, playing 2-3 times a week for 5+ years — including at the time of the NYC blackout (https://cantorburytales.com/2020/01/31/when-you-are-totally-in-the-dark/ ). While my survival for my 6-month journey across Africa was unlikely, I was fortunate to have a survivable attitude: I was traveling in a state of joy, a gloriously happy smile, infinitely curious and respectful of anyone and all that I encountered, totally self and situation aware, and prepared to defend myself, if necessary. I guess I got very good at reading situations and people I encountered, and prepared and inclined to love and respect everyone and everything. I felt like I was still in college on a one-year trip to study the world. It was a leave of absence from Penn and I was insatiable to learn all I could about wherever I travelled. Still I accept that there is some degree of luck which played a role in my survival, for which I am forever grateful.
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