After a week in Niamey, I was ordered deported. Yes, it even happened in deepest Africa in those days. I had entered Niger without a Visa since I had originally planned to return to Algiers from Tamanrasset. Hiro and I had planned to leave after a week, so we left only a little prematurely.
We caught a ride in the back of a westbound truck 300 kilometers to Fada-N’Gourma, the first major town in what was then Upper Volta (now Burkina-Faso). It was very hot, dry and dusty, about halfway to Ouagadougou.
While we were standing by the road in the heat, a nice new station-wagon stopped and a man motioned us over. Dr. Malé smiled, greeted us in French and introduced himself as the Minister of Public Health for Upper Volta. His wife and teenage daughter were with him, each smiled broadly, although his daughter did so a little coyly. He welcomed us to his country Le Republique de Haute Volta –Upper Volta and asked us where we were headed. “Accra,” we replied.
You might think it was odd to continually meet such important people as I have mentioned before. However, this was Central Africa in the early 70s and few foreigners, outside of French government functionaries, travelled in the region. Hiro and I definitely looked out of place, a tall blond gangly white guy speaking French in a calf-skin hat along with a 5’2” German-speaking Japanese with a scraggly beard, so we attracted the more educated and curious people – often those had authority.
He asked us if we would like to join him and his family to see one of the most beautiful parts of his country. We replied, “Of course!” – one of Hiro’s favorite English phrases.
Hiro and I climbed into the back section of the wagon, and we headed east towards Niamey where we were not welcome! About half-way back to Niger, we turned south to Diapaga in the corner of Upper Volta, Niger and Dahomey (now Benin). There we spent the night. Our host was curious and gracious, peppering us with questions about our travels and our lives back home.
We drove early the next morning into the Parc National de l’Arly on the border of Dahomey. We were directed to the VIP lodgings in the Encampement de l’Arly – the upscale tourist area. As a member of the Minister’s entourage, we were welcomed by the Parc staff and served a festive meal the first night. During the day, we went on a safari through the Parc to see the abundant wildlife, drawn by the Arly River and the forest – elephants, hippos, lions and many types of antelope. Our host was right; it was one of the most interesting natural areas of Upper Volta.
After a couple of days in Arly Park with our host, Hiro and I rose at sunrise thanked them for their graciousness and caught a ride headed south into Dahomey where the Arly Parc became the Parc National de la Pendjari.
As we rode south, we passed down through the Falaises de Gobnangou – magical cliffs at the Pendjari River (Oti River). There we crossed a very rickety bridge that I would not have considered safe to cross. If you wonder why there were few tourists in the area at the time, this would be a clue. Such obstacles do not get in the way of local transportation where they are a wonder.
Once across, we stopped at the riverbank and gazed at a large group of hippos wallowing in the river to the west.
We continued south on the rough road until we encountered a VW van stuck diagonally in what was really just a muddy track at this point. The left rear of the van was on an angle and the left rear wheel was deep in the mud, down to the axle. Surprisingly, several tall Europeans were standing around. Hiro and I jumped out of the truck we were in to see if we could help.
First, we watched as the three men tried unsuccessfully to lift the rear of the van enough to free it. We greeted the men, me in French, Hiro in German. They were three Germans. They spoke briefly and intensely with Hiro. We offered to help. With our added help, along with the driver of our truck, we were able to free the van from the mud and open the road.
Dr. Hans-Peter Richter, the driver of the van, invited Hiro and me to join him as he and his friends from Germany drove south 600kms back to his hospital in Savalou.
Back on our way bumping along, we had an animated conversation, mostly in German – with Hans-Peter who translated into English for me. Hiro was beaming! He had relied upon me for communication for weeks, since we had met in Tamanrasset – I was his French connection to the world. Now everything had completely flipped. Hiro told our new friends about his 10 years in Germany, gymnasium, university and then work for the largest German bread and pastry machine manufacturer. He also described our odyssey over the past weeks since we met in Tamanrasset.
We stopped several times in the Parc to look at the wildlife. It was a wonderful ride all the way to Savalou, where Peter was the sole doctor and the director at the hospital. Luck was with us, Peter showed Hiro and me to our own private hospital rooms (with bath)! It had been a long time since Hiro or I had slept in a real bed (much less one with a mosquito net). After settling in, including a heavenly shower (with actual hot water), Hiro and I joined Peter in his neighboring house for an evening meal.
The next day, Peter suggested that we might want to take a kit of medicines, bandages, etc., that we would find useful (and lifesaving) as our journey continued across the interior of Africa. This would prove prescient and would essentially turn me into an itinerant EMT (Emergency Medical Technician) over the next 4 months.
So also began a friendship that continues to this day. I would see and stay with Hans-Peter again a month later, after traveling to Accra, Bamako, Tomboctou, back through Niamey and back to Savalou.
While we were out of touch for a few decades, we re-connected in 2003. We met again in 2009 in California where Hans-Peter, a leader in neurosurgery for the hand, was giving a lecture at an annual gathering of neurosurgeons.
In his annual lectures, he shows slides of his time as doctor at the hospital in Savalou. Over the years, he had mentioned to friends about the curious time a Japanese and an American helped him free his van and then stayed briefly with him at his hospital.
I was in tears, at the lecture, when he asked me to stand before the full auditorium. A handful of his closest friends in the Society hugged me at the reception after his lecture. It was wondrous. You do meet some incredible people, even in the most remote places, when you are open to travel! A random good turn can last decades. To this day, Hans-Peter, who lives in Ulm, Germany, and I speak and correspond often.