Nine: Africa survey

Previous chapter: Eight: Paris, workcamps and more

1964

The purpose of my field trip was to interview volunteers about their work and their feelings for the volunteer assignment – and also to meet their employers and the field staff of their sending organisations. How satisfied were they? What were the problems and how might they be resolved? I will not describe every project visited, or my tale would become too long and tedious.

Algeria itself was in the process of recovering from a bitter war of Independence (1954-1962) – though local people never referred to the “war”, but simply to “les évenements” (the events), as they tried to put the years of violence behind them.

I headed first to Kabylia, a mountainous region east of Algiers and, before Independence, centre of fierce resistance to French authority. Then even further east to Constantine, an amazing city of medieval complexity, almost surrounded by a stupendous cliff. It seems astonishing today that Constantine does not figure regularly as a top tourist destination, but that has probably less to do with its character than with the terrible internal conflicts that beset North Africa in later years.

In western Algeria, I took three long bus rides south from Oran, getting into ever wilder and lonelier country, till I reached a refugee settlement at El Khemis with several international volunteers attached. Conditions were poor indeed, with only rudimentary shelters and little by way of possessions, clothing or food. Still, as the sun was setting and the bitter cold of a desert night set in, I was given a small room and invited to join the team for goat meat stew. The stew was tasty enough, but after the first spoonful I felt something like a marble in my mouth. I eased it onto my spoon and saw to my dismay the large gold filling from one of my back teeth, so carefully fitted by the well-endowed Swedish student almost six years before.

Waiting for the pain to begin, fearful of a deep infection, and with no idea what to do on the morrow, I passed a bad night.  In the morning, I had no pain, but learned that only 200 miles back in Oran, a long and weary bus ride, would I find a competent dentist. This threw my schedule completely awry, as my onward flight to Morocco was already booked. But then one of the volunteers said, ‘If you want to risk it, there’s a kind of dentist in the last village you came through, but I don’t think he’s very well equipped’.

She was right. Warily, I opened a door from the dusty road into the dentist’s shed – his surgery was little more than that – and found a kitchen chair, a cupboard and a small table with bowl, jug, cup and perhaps ten instruments laid out. And a man in shirt and trousers. Common sense told me to get out right away, but the young dentist was so welcoming that I found myself unfolding my handkerchief, handing over the filling and sitting down on his chair. From what I recall, he washed the filling and possibly dipped it in disinfectant, cleaned my tooth cavity, painted some glue onto the surfaces and pressed the gold back into my mouth. All done in five minutes, for 5 francs. Within two days I was in Morocco and for a while waited for the pain to start in my jaw, sure sign of a nasty problem.  But one week led to the next, and today, in 2015 – fifty three years later – that gold is still stuck tight. Since then, dentists around the world have peered into my mouth and asked, ‘Who put in all these gold fillings?’ So they hear about the Swedish students and the young Algerian with his scanty equipment who served me so well – all of whom I would thank if I could, though our paths were probably destined to cross just that once in a lifetime.

Visitors to Morocco, so I’ve heard, tend to enthuse either over Fez – a stone city up in the mountains – or Marrakesh, much further south. Personally, I go for Marrakesh, with its narrow alleys, hundreds of artisans working with a huge range of materials, beating copper, working leather, shaving wood, firing pottery and dying cloths in dozens of colourful vats before spreading them out to dry.

But having visited various volunteers in Morocco and the wonderful city of Marrakesh, I had one more dream to fulfil – to walk in the sand of the Sahara Desert. For this, I was told, I must take a bus over the mountains to the desert town of Goulimime. Spring had already come to the lower reaches of the Atlas Mountains as the bus snaked up and down the road, snows were melting, streams gushed between fields and orchards. The air was bright and clear among almond trees white with blossom.

bus to tan tan

The bus to Tan Tan

 

I reached Goulimime in the late afternoon and immediately felt cheated. Yes, I saw sand – but also a bush here, some palms over there. I had hoped for endless vistas of blazing sand, or at least rocky wasteland stretching out to the far horizon. However, Jens, a Danish fellow traveller, told me of another bus that would leave at 5.30 next morning for the town of Tan Tan – a once-a-week, 200 km  ride – and there it would be real desert. We caught that bus and, to be frank, within ten minutes of leaving Goulimime the land was as dry and desolate as I could ever imagine; but now on board we wanted to see what Tan Tan had to offer, especially as no other back-packers seemed to have been there.

By two in the afternoon, after bumping down and across the dried-out valley of the River Dra – which had watered hippos and crocodiles 10,000 years ago – we drove over a sandy waste seeming to stretch for ever. Suddenly passengers called on the driver to slow down, and we saw a tiny figure in black, flapping robes cycling like mad cross-country, trying to reach the road before our bus passed him. He would never have made it, but the driver stopped and we waited. At last, bike was hauled onto the roof, cyclist climbed aboard, talking loudly and we drove off over the endless sands.  An hour later, there came another shout, the bus stopped, our cyclist climbed down, mounted his bike, left the road and cycled away over a featureless terrain that to us seemed indistinguishable from the landscape an hour earlier.

In the late afternoon we drew up in a dusty square at Tan Tan, its low, cement-block houses knee-deep in Saharan sand, doors and window sills rounded and softened by drifts in much the way that winter snow builds up around Swedish houses. We clambered off the bus, looked around and were promptly marched by four men in uniform to an officer who examined our papers. Our passports and my UNESCO I.D. card meant nothing to him. ‘UNESCO? Connais pas! Never heard of it’ he barked. Why were we in Tan Tan? Didn’t we know it was in a military zone? (Actually, yes, there had been quite a crowd of soldiers on that bus.) Had we informed the authorities in Rabat and Goulimime of our travel plans? Had we taken photos?

our jail in tan tan

Our jail in Tan Tan

 

After the initial grilling, and once we’d explained that we were simple tourists, he said we would be locked up for the night and must return to Goulimime next morning. Our lock-up turned out to be a rather grand palace, with a desiccated garden and dry fountain in the courtyard. We were escorted to a room with barred windows and two wooden beds on which we laid our sleeping bags, and the door slammed shut. Jens took it all very lightly, unrolled a skinny cigarette and asked if I wanted to share a puff. I had never tried any sort of drugs, excluding drink and a few failed attempts to smoke a pipe on board Geneviève in Paris, and was very wary. He said it was kif (marijuana) and not strong. I tried a few puffs, but was so nervous and uptight about it that I blew the smoke out almost immediately and felt no heady effects whatever. Such is the full extent of my lifetime’s experience of drugs, apart from an equally unsuccessful puff at a cigar, forty years later at a party in Adam’s house in Johannesburg.

Later that night the door opened and we were escorted by a grumpy soldier to the local eating house, after which we were locked up again, and had quite a good night’s sleep after such an eventful day. Next morning the guard softened so far as to walk with us to a Berber encampment in the dunes, with their big black tents, tethered camels and men and women with blue-black arms and faces. The pigment had leached into their skin from the dyed cloths in which they wrapped themselves against the Saharan sun, sand and dust.

On the long drive back, the bus stopped at an isolated village where a fantasia was in full swing. A dozen horsemen galloped furiously to and fro, their white robes streaming out behind them, their old fashioned powder-charged guns held aloft. At some pre-arranged signal, while still riding hell for leather, they all fired at once. The sound was impressive, loud enough to startle Jens and me. And it was a genuine traditional event, not a show put on for the tourists.

Then it was back to Goulimime, Rabat and the plane to my next country – Senegal.

I am not giving details of most of the volunteer projects that I visited in each country, partly because it would be so repetitious, partly because it is all well summed up in a booklet, Volunteers in Africa and Asia, published on my return to London. However, I do have happy memories of working for a week alongside three Togolese volunteers in a Senegalese village close to the border with the Gambia. They made an interesting change to all the young Europeans and Americans I had met, in that they blended so well into the local community, not only thanks to their physical appearance, but also to way of life. In particular, they did not have cooks and other servants, but were self-reliant.

togolese volunteers in senegal

Togolese volunteers helping fellow Africans in Senegal

 

Their standard of living was pretty much that of the village folk and they were admired not for their wealth and possessions, but for their many skills. They worked with the local men building concrete stores in which to preserve from rats and other destructive pests the harvest of groundnuts (peanuts). This was virtually the only cash crop grown in Senegal and the market price at harvest time was very low. But once stored safely for a few months, a village crop could command a far better price. By day, it was hot work, and hard on the fingers, bending and twisting the wire to make up metal reinforcing bars before pouring the concrete. I certainly flagged by the late afternoon. But the Togolese lads also ran a small dispensary most mornings – first aid for cuts and stings, aspirins for fevers, and such – and literacy classes in the evening.

This contrast, between international volunteers who know the local culture and those (the vast majority) who arrive unaware of the cultural basics, came home to me one afternoon as I sat under a tree shelling and munching a few groundnuts. Some children watched me and started to giggle. Then a man stopped by, stared and smiled. ‘C’est pas comme ça qu’on dépluche les cacouhettes, monsieur,’ (‘That’s no way to shell a peanut, sir’) he told me. Seeing the effort with which I broke into each shell to prise out a nut or two, he beckoned to a little girl who took a couple of unopened shells, one in each hand, and in an instant popped out their contents. The man explained that every peanut shell has a small depression at one end: press it, and it opens – a fact known to any child in the Sahel region of West Africa.

Other foreign volunteers in Senegal included British, French and Americans – the U.S. Peace Corps – who numbered several thousand throughout the so-called “developing world”.

american peace corps in senegal digging wells

American Peace Corps volunteers – digging wells in Senegal

 

For the sake of brevity, I will take the next few countries at speed. Sierra Leone was welcoming, though besides Freetown I only visited volunteers in the central town of Bo. But Lumley Beach is one of the most delightful tropical beaches I ever saw.   Don’t jump onto a bus for a quick trip, cross- country, to Guinea. I did, and was arrested once more for entering illegally. I had to take a plane out of the country – any plane – within hours, or go before the magistrates, so I bought a ticket to Bamako in Mali so as to stay more or less on route. It was rather disconcerting to have one of the crew sit next to me, as we flew on through a sand storm half an hour after our ETA, and confide that the pilot was lost, but would lose height and zig-zag until he found the River Niger – which he would follow to reach Bamako Airport. At the airport, feeling lonely and despondent (especially on hearing passengers being called for departure to London Heathrow) I changed the “lucky” US$20 note that Arthur had given me as I was leaving Paris. No sooner had I done so than I spotted Miecezlaw Klos, a Polish member of the Coordinating Committee strolling by. It was so good to see a friend after three months travel among strangers and we enjoyed a good meal together before going our ways.

my transport to ougadougou

My transport to Ouangolodougou

 

If you ever get the idea of travelling from Bamako to Ouangolodougou, standing in an open-backed lorry along with a load of timber, cycles, boxes, bags and thirty other passengers, at least make sure it is not the night before the start of Ramadan. Once day breaks there will be no stopping for food or water, not even for a foreign infidel. It was a grim, twelve-hour journey and I was exhausted by the time we crossed the border to the Ivory Coast. Perhaps that is why I was then so ready to accept a lift in a flash Mercedes driven by a fat, well dressed Frenchman who was going all the way to Abidjan. What a piece of luck!  He told me he was an engineer at one of the diamond mines in the centre of Ivory Coast, but the longer we drove, the less I liked him. He was the ultimate neo-colonialist with a big bungalow, servants galore and unashamedly racist views on “The African”, while he grew wealthy on the country’s diamonds. Every now and then, he would stop the car, reach for his shot gun on the back seat, fire out of the driver’s window, and moments later toss a dead or dying bird into the boot.   It was a classic dilemma: I couldn’t bear the man, but his car was swift, comfortable and going in the right direction. My conscience and my political views should have made me say, ‘Thank you, monsieur, but please stop the car and let me out’, but to my shame, I put up with him till the end.

In contrast to the Ivory Coast, I immediately felt at home in Ghana. I knew people at VOLU, the voluntary work camps association and, by George, they were playing cricket in the grounds when we visited the University of Ghana at Legon, Accra!

I headed west from Accra to visit volunteers and staff at various boarding schools, particularly at Cape Coast. One, Adisadel, was so “English” it was almost embarrassing: the assemblies, the uniform, cricket practice in the nets, the Shakespeare. One evening, the boys put on Macbeth and I am sure they tried their best, but it was almost unintelligible. Of course the Bard has a universal validity, but the boys’ English was just not good enough. They would surely have got much more from the play’s essential drama if they had performed in a local language.

From Cape Coast I headed further west to Elmina Castle, built by the Portuguese in 1482 and, as such, the oldest European building in Africa south of the Sahara. Although at first a trade settlement, Elmina then became a key holding centre for African slaves before their nightmare ocean crossing to the West Indies. I meant to stay at the castle over the weekend, but on arrival heard that there would be no staff around as it was a general holiday. If I wanted to sleep there, fine: they would lock me in, but the doors would not be opened again until Monday. I quickly bought some coconuts, bread and a tin of condensed milk from a street store and got back to the castle just as they were locking up. The huge doors banged shut and I was alone.

Inside, I was free to go wherever I liked, more or less, though it was already growing dark and a thunderstorm had swept in from the sea. Pink lightning lit the walls of my small room and thunder echoed around the castle courtyard, but I felt quite safe within the ancient stone walls. After a reasonable night, I had all Saturday to explore the building and it felt eerie to walk the battlements and descend into the cold cells, with their narrow window slits and low ceilings, all in stone. It was all too easy to picture the hundreds of frightened Africans cramped and chained, 200 years before. Back in my room, I read a little, brought my diary up to date, looked down over the townsfolk busy in the streets a few hundred yards below. Suddenly I felt very alone. Again, a violent thunderstorm enveloped the coast, the castle and the town. By six, night had fallen and time dragged. I had tired of bread, condensed milk and sweetish coconut water for each meal, so crawled into my sleeping bag – it had suddenly grown quite chilly – and tried to sleep.

castle ramparts ghana
On the castle ramparts, canons face the storm

 

On Sunday, I woke to another full storm coming in from the Gulf of Guinea. Waves crashed endlessly on the shore a few feet away, the coconut palms bent and lashed in the squalls, their green nuts at eye-level with my window. The warm air tasted wet and salty, a welcome, savoury change to the sweetness of all that condensed milk. I climbed up to the roof of the castle, to a wooden observation room built there – quite inappropriate to the architecture, but a wonderful vantage point. From it, I could see right down the coast, the line of palms by the water’s edge, a sandy shore now flecked with flying foam, with wooden boats dragged well up the beach out of harm’s way. The sky was ever-changing as dark clouds drove in, some pouring rain, others lighter and sometimes letting rays of sunlight turn patches of sea glassy green and blue, where a moment before the tumbling waters had been a sullen grey. In strong gusts, the wooden cabin shook and I fancied a window might blow in – but sat there for several hours thinking how lucky I was, what adventures I had experienced already, wondering what the future had in store for me. I wouldn’t have swapped my life with anybody.

new volta dam

Behind the newly-built Volta Dam, the river waters start to rise

 

Before leaving Ghana, I visited volunteer teachers at schools in the hills around Peki. This meant crossing the Volta River where a massive dam was just nearing completion. The waters though, had not yet started to rise to form the lake that is (as of 2012 at least) the biggest reservoir in the world, containing 143 cubic kilometres of water. A Ghanaian engineer on the project invited me to eat and spend the night at home with his family, an invitation I was glad to accept, though I hesitated to drink the tap water that came with my meal and was acutely embarrassed when the purifying tablet I’d furtively slipped into the glass refused to dissolve, leading to questions from my hostess as she cleared the table.

My last night in Ghana was passed, most comfortably, in a brothel on the beach. It came about like this. Two days before leaving, I met the owner of an outdoor cinema in Accra, who invited me to that evening’s show. What an audience, cheering the goodies and booing the baddies with great enthusiasm! Next afternoon, the owner invited me to tea, which I gladly accepted, but warned him that my flight left at 6.30 and I must be at the airport by 5.00. ‘Five?’ he said, ‘Ridiculous. Six will be fine. There’s absolutely no hurry. I’ll drive you there.’ We chatted and drank our tea. Time ticked by, and again I said we should be leaving. ‘My friend,’ he replied, ‘in Ghana you must learn to take things easy. I know the people at the airport and they know me. You won’t miss your plane. Another biscuit?’

When we finally left, he drove fast, but not fast enough, and when we reached the airport the departure gates were closed and, no, his pals couldn’t reopen them as the plane had already rolled onto the runway.

With a big grin my friend said, ‘No problem. You just catch the 8.30 flight tomorrow morning. Today – tomorrow – it’s all the same. I’ll see you are comfortable tonight. I will pay for your hotel, close to the airport.’ With this, we drove towards the coast and stopped at a building with a thatched roof at the very water’s edge. ‘Everything is paid for,’ he said, after checking me in, ‘and I mean everything. Good bye, my friend, and remember me!’

The room was fine. It looked out between palms onto a moonlit beach with the surf roaring up and then receding with a long hiss. It wasn’t more than half an hour though, before the first girl came in and asked if I wanted anything. I thanked her, but said that I wanted a good night’s sleep as I had to get to the airport early next day. She wandered off with a shrug, but a moment later another young woman eased herself in and wondered if I fancied a drink. Again, I explained that I really needed to get some sleep in before an early morning departure. When she left, I locked the door, and during the next hour there came several knocks, giggles and whispered conversations before they finally took me at my word and left me in peace.

Lagos was a nightmare. The heat, the humidity, the traffic and sheer size of the place. Its people, too, seemed much more streetwise and challenging than in Ghana. I left as soon as possible and took a train –painfully slow, walking pace for long stretches– to the north. Jos, on its plateau, was pleasantly cool, while Kaduna impressed me with its “pyramids” of a staggering height. These were built not of stone but with sacks of peanuts awaiting export. In Kaduna, I stayed with a VSO volunteer doing an administrative job of some sort. He had been at Eton, but had no airs and graces, just a very pleasant personality. ‘Look me up if you’re ever near Milford Haven in Wales,’ he said, ‘If you like sailing, my parents have a place at Lawrenny on the river’. I promised to do so, but thought it most unlikely. I had a lift in the cab of a lorry all the way back to Lagos: much quicker than the train. I also saw first-hand how often a truck driver had to stop at check points and hand over “dash” (bribes) to the police. If he refused or the dash was too little, the police would fail his vehicle on a technical point or make him unload all his goods “for security reasons” and delay him by hours.

Before I left England, my mother’s cousin, Rita (married to Guy Davies of Weet Ing waterwheel fame), had urged me to visit the Oba of Benin. ‘He’s a kind of king,’ she said, ‘and he stayed with us in Hampstead while he was studying here’. So, when my bus stopped in Benin City, I found my way to his palace. Actually, less a palace than a large, low house, with inner courtyards and dim, cool reception rooms. After a few introductions, the Oba – only a few years older than I – invited me to take tea. We talked about Guy and Rita, his student days in London, and the fine Benin bronzes that have been cast in his kingdom for many centuries. I told him something of my research into long-term volunteers, but I don’t think he was very interested. My guess is that he had no idea of why I had come to see him (indeed, why did I?) and our tea party was over quite soon.

By bus then to Enugu and south to Abiriba, a small town near Aba. I wanted to see the hospital buildings that Sigyn had helped to build on a workcamp and the school where she had taught for nearly a year. The missionary couple who had been there during Sigyn’s stay made me welcome and said they remembered her very fondly. The hospital rooms were now complete, though not yet in use and it felt good to see something that she had helped to construct in this small town thousands of miles from Paris, where she now lived.

Back to Enugu, where I had a choice to make: should I travel all the way back to Lagos and board a plane for Leopoldville (Kinshasa) in the Congo, or take a local bus across the border to Cameroon, check things out there and then catch the same plane at the stop-over it made at Douala on its way to the Congo? Cameroon was tempting, partly because I wanted to meet Willie and Dora Begert – pioneers of voluntary work-camping and founders of the Coordinating Committee back in Paris. Now, they took part in community development programmes in the Bamenda region of Cameroon. Another pioneer of voluntary service, Alec Dickson, had run an Outward Bound school at Man o’ War Bay, below the huge extinct volcano Mount Cameroon. He later founded both Voluntary Service Overseas (VSO) and Community Service Volunteers, and in the early days interviewed and inspired every single young volunteer setting out for a year’s service in the Third World. A third reason was that the hill town of Bamenda looks out over the district of Bafut, where its alcoholised Fon (Tribal Chief) was still alive. Bafut had become known to the outside world in the 1950s thanks to Gerald Durrell’s humorous books on animal collecting, including The Bafut Beagles. These are still well worth reading. So I skipped Lagos and headed directly to Mamfè, just over the border in Cameroon.

The bumpy bus ride as far as Mamfé, through rain forest fit for any Tarzan movie, seemed particularly hot and enervating. It had rained for much of the way, but as the sun broke through, pools on the road evaporated, the dank vegetation steamed and the heat and humidity felt even more intense. Not for nothing is this area known as the “arm-pit of Africa”. My next bus, to Bamenda, was emptier and as we zig-zagged up a wooded hillside the air grew deliciously cool. At turning points on the road we glimpsed stunning views of a great escarpment with several waterfalls pouring over the edge into the jungle below, each stream draining the Bamenda Plateau above.

From Willy and Dora I learned more about the origins of international voluntary service in Europe, the role of the Quaker Ambulance Service in helping injured soldiers on both sides during the First World War and the work of Service Civil International after the war rebuilding houses in Flanders, with volunteers from countries that had earlier been enemies. Just as important as the physical reconstruction had been the spirit of reconciliation created, between volunteers and within the local communities. Willy’s role had come a little later, particularly after World War II, as volunteer programmes multiplied and in 1949 UNESCO had agreed to sponsor a small secretariat in Paris: the Co-ordinating Committee for International Work Camps – which later became CCIVS. Willy had been its first General Secretary, and it was a real privilege to meet him and his wife, Dora.

I never ran into the Fon of Bafut, nor visited Man o’ War Bay, so will press on with the story.

After the cool uplands of Bamenda, the port of Douala again felt oppressive, hot and steamy, and with no volunteers to interview, I chose to fly on to Leopoldville (now called Kinshasa) in the Congo  as soon as possible. A Nigeria Airways plane, from Lagos to Leopoldville, was due to stop by at midnight, which suited me fine. To be sure of getting on board, I reached the airport by late afternoon with my ticket ready to present at the counter. ‘I am sorry, Monsieur,’ said the check-in man, ‘but your ticket is not valid. It is for the stretch Lagos-Leopoldville, not Douala-Leopoldville.’

‘But I’ve come from Lagos by bus, and the plane stops here. Surely I can just forfeit the stretch Lagos-Douala?’

‘No. I regret, Monsieur, but you must go back to Lagos and board the plane there.’

‘And then fly back to Douala in order to go to Leopoldville?’

‘Exactly. Excuse me, Monsieur, but there are other passengers waiting.’

Maddened by this, I stalked off, determined to beat the system. And I must have been mad indeed, because I found a baggage handler and asked if he could get my suitcase onto the Nigeria Airways plane that night, the one bound for Leopoldville. He assured me that he could, accepted a hefty tip and disappeared with my case. Well pleased, I found a place to wait out the next seven hours. Time ticked by, very slowly. The airport filled and emptied as planes arrived and departed. I fiddled with my Olivetti typewriter case that now held all my worldly goods – passport, money, air ticket, research notebook, clean shirt & pants, toilet bag and malaria pills. The sun set. And as I waited, it began to dawn on me that I had been a little hasty. First, the suitcase: I knew nothing of the man who’d taken it. He could be selling my stuff downtown at that very moment. And even if he were honest, could he get it onto the plane? Second: how would I get on board myself? Even in 1964, when airport security was slacker than today, they still checked your ticket, passport, visa and boarding pass. Just what was my plan? I had none.

By now night had fallen and the airport was nearly deserted. I sat alone, sensing that every airport official must have his eye on me. Perhaps the police were already informed…

By eleven o’clock, I knew I had to do something, anything. Simply waiting was not an option. I sauntered out through the main airport door into the night. Once away from the buildings, I turned down a road that ran parallel with the perimeter fence and after some hundreds of yards the fence ended. I only needed to get over a ditch to be on the airfield. It did cross my mind that something nasty might be lurking in the waist-high vegetation, but having got so far, I must go on. Once on the tarmac I edged back towards the airport lights, then stood behind a pillar and waited. Ten minutes later, a plane landed and as it taxied up to the building I saw its Nigeria Airways markings. A rear door opened, a handful of people came down the steps and were escorted into Arrivals, but nobody came out to board the plane. This posed a problem, as I might have mingled with such a group, but now time was now ticking by. To compound the problem, a huge Nigeria Airways cabin attendant, with arms crossed on his chest, filled the open doorway of the plane sampling the sweet night air. I fixed the Evil Eye on him, willing him to move, but he remained indifferent to my powers. Time was running out, and what if my case were now on board? I was just starting to tell myself what a stupid, stupid fool I had been when I saw the doorway was empty!

I nipped up the steps as quietly as possible, praying that the steward would not be waiting just inside. At the top, I turned into the aisle, now forcing myself to move slowly, like a sleepy passenger fumbling his way back from the toilet.  For several rows, every seat seemed occupied, but then I found a space, slid down and pulled a blanket over my head. Now the tension became acute as I lay there comatose, urging the plane to take off. Stewards passed up and down the aisle, seeming to count the passengers, and my heart was thumping. And then – the cabin lights dimmed, engines roared, the plane shook – and we moved.

Dawn in Leopoldville, weary passengers standing round the carousel. Of course my suitcase did not appear. At the Nigeria Airways desk, I complained, but also enquired if, ‘It might have been taken off at Douala?’ Frankly, I never thought I would see my case again, but some days later they rang to say it had arrived and where should they deliver it? So, a happy ending, all things considered, but I don’t recommend this approach as a way to travel and I swore never to try it again: a vow I was not to break for well over two months.

AFRICA, CENTRAL AND EAST

In Leopoldville, I stayed at the home of a UN staff worker. It was clean, peaceful, air-conditioned, and I gathered strength drinking in the beauty of his collection of long-playing records. A Beethoven violin romance felt particularly exquisite and therapeutic. When I hear it today it still takes me back to that week of physical and mental recovery. Once recovered, I began to visit the offices of various volunteer programmes and also walked out to see the mighty rapids on the River Congo and, across the water in the distance, the city of Brazzaville – capital of a different “Congo” state.

However, Léopoldville and the Congo generally were very tense as civil war raged in several provinces. I wanted to visit Luluabourg (today, Kananga) and the Katanga region where Belgian volunteers were trying to help victims of a vicious war that was raging in Congo (Léo) at that time. The United Nations had planes flying there and had free seats available to aid workers. The UN staff in Léopoldville advised me not to go; they themselves were considering leaving the country if the war got any closer to the capital. And we were all aware that three years earlier, Dag Hammarskjöld, Director General of the United Nations, had been shot down in a UN plane just over the Katanga border in Northern Rhodesia, probably assassinated on orders from London and Washington.         My UN plane to Luluabourg

On the other hand, local organisers of the volunteer programmes laughed at the U.N. nervousness and urged me to travel, so I took the chance of a couple of free flights.

Outside Luluabourg, we visited several blackened villages where houses and crops had been burned down, first by one set of soldiers and then by their opponents as the line of war swept back and forth. Men and women in rags stood about, listless and without food. Yet they also came up and unravelled bits of dirty cloth to reveal uncut diamonds picked from the river bed. My travel companions warned against buying, as Congolese Customs made detailed searches at the airport. Nor would I have done, as I had very little money and certainly no use for diamonds. But what a strange and tragic predicament: to have handfuls of diamonds, and yet be starving.

Despite the nearness of the fighting in these rural areas and my dire warnings from the UN staff back in Léopoldville, I found volunteers from Belgium, Holland and Germany working with no signs of panic. Some were training Congolese extension workers in agriculture, poultry breeding, carpentry, house construction and metalwork. Others taught women’s groups child care, hygiene, sewing and the propagation of soya beans as a source of protein. I was especially impressed by the extent to which Congolese volunteers and staff had a role in the conception, running and evaluation of each project.

Back in Léopoldville, at the airport, leaving for Uganda via Burundi, I was more or less stripped by Customs, though at least they didn’t examine my body orifices. They examined my pockets, shoes and socks, tipped out my cases and checked each item, paying special attention to the toilet kit. They went through my anti-malaria tablets, probed my bar of soap and squeezed down the length of my toothpaste tube – then left me to repack the lot.

UGANDA

 Apart from visiting some VSO volunteers on camps for Watutsi refugees, I decided that Uganda would be my holiday country – a point roughly halfway through my itinerary in time and distance.

In Kampala, I put up at the Amber Hotel, known to backpackers as the ‘Dysentery Arms,’ and for a week I just enjoyed the life and colour of the city, built – like Rome – on seven hills. This was before the time of the cruel dictator Idi Amin, people were relaxed and services seemed to function well. I could collect letters at the main Post Office, send parcels back to Manchester, go to dances at Makerere University and enjoy good meals at prices that were quite modest, even for me on my living allowance of US$5 a day.

A long bus journey then took me west to Fort Portal and a Land Rover (I no longer remember how I cadged this lift) took me even further west, past Lake Albert, over the mountains and, technically, back into the Congo. There was no border control and we just drove until we came to a village of pygmy people deep in the jungle. Today the term ‘pygmy’ is perhaps pejorative (and in the Congo they are now referred to as Bambenga) but in 1965 it was widely used. Adults were, indeed, very small – not much more than four feet tall – and from one such man I bought a bow sheathed in monkey skin and arrows that I thought might have been dipped in a poison for which there was no cure. In all likelihood they were not, but I washed them well as soon as we got back to Fort Portal.

From Fort Portal I hitched south between Lake George and Lake Edward in the Queen Elizabeth National Park – the most visited game reserve in Uganda and truly beautiful area. En route, I hoped to glimpse the Ruwenzori Mountains, which are pretty much on the equator and yet are snow-capped and have extensive glaciers – or did have in the 1960s. With the heaviest rainfall of the whole continent, they are often hidden by mist and cloud, though they can emerge at dawn and sunset. For years, European travellers doubted that they actually existed, these legendary “Mountains of the Moon”, but they emerged for me late one afternoon as we drove by.

Just before sunset I pitched up at Kichwamba Camp, a game observation lodge perched on a bluff 250 metres above the river plain separating the two lakes, and watched lines of elephants with their young passing below me. The river itself held hippos and crocodiles, while the birdlife on either bank was truly amazing. Unfortunately, I’ve never been much of a bird watcher – partly due to poor eyesight – so I could not identify them, but even I could appreciate their sheer quantity.

Next morning, I wanted to visit a small town eight miles away across the game reserve, but no buses made the journey so I decided to hitch. I asked the staff at Kichwamba if was dangerous and they said that camp regulations advised not walking on the road, but that actually it was pretty safe.  Village people did so quite often. ‘Just don’t get between a hippo and the water,’ they said. ‘That’s when they charge’. I set off, hoping for a lift, but unworried as I could see gangs of Ugandan workmen far down the road mending the potholes and clearing ditches. Also, I could see across the plain, and there was no sign of game on either side. ‘Jambo!’(hello) I called as I passed each group of labourers, and ‘Jambo!’ they replied in unison.

After an hour, though, it grew hillier, the vegetation became more dense, with thicker grass and clumps of trees, and it struck me that I had seen no workmen for quite a while. A cloud darkened the sun and everything grew very still, with no birdsong. The road now had bends, obscuring what lay ahead and I became acutely aware of my senses of sight, sound and smell. I could not decide whether to retreat, slow down or walk on at a brisk pace. I looked round for a stout stick (the caveman instinct!) but there was nothing by the roadside and I was certainly not going to search among the trees.

Suddenly, coming round a sharp bend, I froze: for in the fork of a tree above the road, eyeing me at fifty paces, drooped a dark brown shape – leopard or mountain lion, I didn’t know which. The hairs on my arms definitely stood up and my mind raced as to what to do. ‘Do not turn and run,’ said an internal voice, ‘that will excite it, and it will catch you within seconds.’ Instead, still looking forward and willing the beast to stay in its tree, I took one step backwards, as slowly as I could, and then another and then another…. until I had backed right round the bend and could turn and run full pelt away from danger.

Ten minutes later, still lurching along and gasping for breath, I saw the most wonderful sight: a lorry

TANZANIA

I felt at home in Tanzania from the moment I landed. Dar es Salaam airport was low-build and higgledy-piggledy and hens scratched around near the arrivals building. (Some years later, the French put up a modern terminal with much less character.) The city, too, had a lovely feel to it, built round a peaceful harbour (Dar es Salaam = Harbour of Peace) fronted by old-style colonial buildings with tiled roofs and climbing bougainvillea.

Politically, it was an exciting time to be there. Julius Nyerere and the Tanzania African National Union (TANU) had not yet drawn up The Arusha Declaration that was to inspire a whole generation of Tanzanians – and many of us living thousands of miles away – with its egalitarian principles, but the spirit was already at work. This spirit had already attracted volunteer programmes from at least a dozen different countries, sometimes leading to confusion, though a local coordinating committee was already sorting out some of the problems.

Since development work in Tanzania will figure many times later on in my life story, I will pass over it here. However, I did want to climb Kilimanjaro, so at the end of my visit I made for the town of Moshi and the village of Marangu, cut myself a stick and started walking up the track. I soon caught up with a Canadian chap who had the same idea. He also had stout boots, a climbing rope wound round his waist and a massive back-pack topped by a huge sleeping bag.  Neither of us wanted to hire porters and cooks (as is obligatory today), we would be self-reliant, but he was already beetroot red and puffing like a grampus after the first mile. Personally, I was travelling light: taking food to give me inner warmth, but little in the way of warm clothing.  After two days, and having reached Kibo Hut, the last shelter beneath the summit of the volcano, my Canadian friend seemed to have made the better choice of equipment. Altitude sickness meant that I could scarcely touch the food I had lugged with me up to 15,000 feet.

kibo hut kilimanjaro

Kibo hut

 

Meanwhile, the unheated Kibo hut was bitterly cold. With no sleeping bag, I sat up all night wrapped in jacket and raincoat with my lower legs in my rucksack and a handkerchief over each knee-cap for extra warmth. At five next morning we started to climb the final slopes of the volcano, in 1964 almost entirely covered by thick ice sheets which today have nearly disappeared. It was a slow, slow business. Taking even five steps drained our energy and it proved too much for the Canadian (still with the coil of rope round his waist). We shook hands and he wished me luck, turned and started his way back down the slippery volcanic rubble. An hour or so later, I stood on the rim of the crater. Before me was whiteness, a scene from Scott of the Antarctic, huge blocks of ice piled together and whirlwinds of snow whipped up by the wind. Behind me, a vast tract of land stretched to the far horizon, greens and browns, touched by the early sunlight of one more African day.

on crater of kilimanjaro

On the crater edge

 

Various local buses took me from Marangu at the foot of the mountain to Nairobi, capital city of Kenya, and, to my surprise, we did not stop for border control, customs or stamping of passports. I made my way straight to the office of the Kenya Voluntary Workcamps Association, where an old friend, Cephas Munanairi, was General Secretary. It was nearly Christmas and as Kenya lay outside my research area, I enjoyed the next couple of weeks with Cephas and his family, resting, looking round the city and visiting Lake Naivasha, with its population of hippos and extraordinary bird-life. Tens of thousands of flamingos turned the shores of the lake pink as far as the eye could see and when they took off on an impulse, soared, circled and then landed again the changing colours had an almost psychedelic effect.

Restored in body and mind, I took a colonial-style train overnight from Nairobi to Mombasa. The compartments were in dark mahogany, with polished brass fittings, plush curtains and deep – if threadbare – upholstery. The railway line went through the Amboseli game reserve and I thought of the cost in human lives back in the 1900s when laying the track, principally the scores of African labourers and a number of European engineers – all eaten by lions. [Known as the “Lunatic Express”, the railway was built from 1896 to 1901, using some 32,000 Indian labourers, too. Many of the workers died from disease, clashes with local Masai people, as well as the attacks by those lions – note added by Adam].

I passed a couple of nights in Mombassa in the Young Women’s Christian Association hostel (they put up men, too) and bought the cheapest boat ticket I could (on “G” deck) for the crossing to Bombay. However, on seeing that my passport showed no record of entry to Kenya (nobody having manned the border control when I crossed from Tanzania by bus), the shipping clerk said I would need to go back to the same border crossing, or at least to Nairobi to have it stamped by the immigration department: otherwise, I could not leave the country. My heart sank. ‘Douala!’ I thought, ‘Here we go again….’

Actually, it was much easier the second time. Some hours before the ship was due to leave, I wandered along the quayside, suitcase in hand. Trucks buzzed up and down, loading and unloading. Dock workers dragged boxes and bundles, and I saw that – while the passengers’ gang-plank connected the terminal building to an upper deck – provisions and general cargo were being loaded through a smallish door in the ship’s side at quayside level. Choosing a quiet moment, I nipped in through this cargo door and made my way to “G” deck, deep in the bowels of the vessel. Essentially one huge, ill-lit dormitory, it held hundreds of double bunks, but with no mattresses, no sheets: just metal frames strung with wire webbing. This became my home for the next week as we crossed the Indian Ocean.

My fellow passengers were mostly Indian families emigrating from East Africa after finding life there increasingly difficult as the African peoples started to assert themselves following their countries’ independence from Britain. Babes in arms, toddlers, children, adults and grandparents swarmed up and down the stairs between “G” deck and the fresh air of the open decks far above. We got our meals three times daily on a metal tray with five depressions sunk into it. One held rice, another dal, a third vegetable curry, a fourth pickle and the last mango chutney. Each meal was fairly tasty in itself, after fourteen or fifteen of them they were hard going. Funnily enough, on the seventh day, with only a couple more to go, I began to enjoy them again and was quite sorry to finish the very last one.

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CONTENTS: MEMOIR CHAPTERS