I waited in Garoua-Boulaï by the border between Cameroon and the Central African Republic (CAR). Years later this would be the route for refugees fleeing political upheaval in CAR, but those days, the traffic was almost non-existent. It wasn’t until June 16 when my luck changed.
Late in the day. a telecom service truck with a young curly haired Israeli named Dov behind the wheel saw me, stopped, and asked if needed a ride into the CAR. I enthusiastically replied “YES.” My luck had changed for the better after a couple weeks of stalling without rides at various crossroads.
The Israeli, a Sabra in his late twenties, worked as a telecom tower technician for International Telecom covering Cameroon and Central African Republic. Dov was on his usual route to check and do maintenance on a major telecom tower in Bouar in CAR only a few hours away toward Bangui.
He was happy for the company. I was happy not just for the ride, but also for a chance to speak English and a little of my rusty Hebrew. He was surprised to see someone who looked like me hitch hiking. He had only seen Europeans or Americans driving in their own or hired vehicles
Any tension between us evaporated when I shared stories about my summer of 1968 as a “mItnadev” (volunteer) at the Kibbutz Hahotrim (The Rowers) on Noar del la Carmel in northern Israel. It is about 15 km south of Haifa. Israel is a small country; he knew the place well. I am sure that someone with a few phrases of Hebrew was one of the last things Dov expected to encounter on his route through Cameroons and CAR. Commonalities build bridges.
When we reached the cell tower with its surrounding compound maintained by International Telecom, we got out and had dinner in the company trailer that was permanently located there. Dov offered me a bunk in the trailer to spend the night. We were quite secure within our high fence, topped by barbed wire, secure enclosure.
In the morning, he set off to work, climbing the tower. He encouraged me to climb after him to the top. It was an intriguing offer. The tower was high, about 80 feet (a little more than 25 meters) and located on the top of a little hill. So up we went, up the highest free-standing structure I had ever been on that was not enclosed. It seemed like a long way up and longer with every step.
I could see the land we had been travelling through now from a bird’s eye view. Dov checked the equipment and performed the routine maintenance required to assure operation of the critical communications infrastructure for CAR. While he did, I marveled at the view.
The international arrangement had been made with Emperor Jean Bedel Bokassa’s government. There were quite a few such arrangements throughout this part of Africa with foreign companies bringing technology or improved services as part of the first world bringing assistance to African development. Israel was just one such country. Today the donor is mostly China, seeking to create influence and demand for their technology.
The vista on the way up and from the top was both awesome and spectacular. The view of the villages and family compounds far below was a revelation. From the ground, all you could see of little family compounds was the mud and thatch walls with buildings inside topped by circular conical roofs barely visible over the walls. From the telecom tower, we could see into the private family compounds with their out-buildings, washing and cooking areas and even small gardens inside. I felt like I was in a low flying airplane.
We could also see the hilly rich green colors of the countryside all around us: the cultivated fields, the bush interrupted by clearings, grazing cattle, with red clay roads and foot paths snaking through. Looking down I saw groups of people looking up at the strangers who climbed the tower. Crazy foreigners – what are they doing up there in the sky? I thought of Arthur C. Clarke’s line: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”
I really didn’t want to come down; I was overcome with the vision. Dov laughed heartily. He had a job to do and a schedule easily more demanding than mine. He said, “We’ve got to go. It’s time to head to Bangui.” We descended and came back down to the ground.
I helped him pack up and secure the telecom compound and then we drove off to Bangui a long hot day’s drive away.