Cold war In a warm place
Memoirs of a post-imperialist and A soviet advisor in Africa
Randall baker And Mycola polonski
The Lure of Africa
Perhaps it is difficult now to understand the lure of Africa in the mid-1960s, but it was powerful. It was made up of many components. First the continent had an innate attraction to us in the West because it was so vast, so utterly different, and romantic and so picked over in the Great Game of the Cold War. Secondly, it was awakening from a long political sleep embraced in the arms of colonial tutelage, and beginning to assert itself in the world. Third, a whole lexicon of new countries was appearing on the map of the world with new, strange and exotic names: Tanzania, Ghana, Mali, Botswana and so forth—some of these names were new, others revived from a distant past. Fourthly, there was a new idealism abroad as many of us saw the awakening of a sleeping giant. Furthermore, the work of the Leakey family in Olduvai Gorge in Tanzania was revealing to us Africa as the original cradle of mankind. A continent that had been ravaged by slavery, and thoroughly encompassed by colonialism was reawakening from a long slumber. All in all, it was the place to be at that time, and I dearly wanted to be there. During my studies at the University of Wales I had specialized in Africa and had caught the spirit of enthusiasm from some of my teachers. At that time there were many professors who had been somehow involved in the colonial experience who continued to conduct their research there. I had learned about the exploration of Africa; how one of the Pharaohs of Egypt had sent an expedition to circumnavigate the continent. The Romans too had sent a legion up the Nile, and it had never returned, giving rise to some interesting, if speculative, ideas about the Maasai of Kenya who wore red cloaks and fought with the same style of short sword. The Periplus of the Erythrean Sea had given us an insight into the forerunner of Eritrea in Ancient times. Africa, after all, was the last continent to be ―explored‖ by the Europeans, and as late as 1860 most of the interior was a colorful assemblage of groundless speculation to cover the emptiness of our knowledge. It was only a hundred years since Speke, Burton, Baker and Stanley had explored the sources of the Nile and the Congo, and less than a hundred years since the Powers had ―settled‖ the map of Africa at the Berlin Conference. Our student body had a sprinkling of Nigerians, Ghanaians and Gambians, and we shared with them the ardor that accompanied the coming to independence of their homelands. The international student society seemed to be having a ―coming out‖ party for a new country almost every month. How was it possible not to be swept up in this enthusiasm? It became a challenge to learn the new names of nations, as Bechuanaland became Botswana, Nyasaland became Malawi, and Northern Rhodesia became Zambia and so forth. New names, flags, currency and stamps attested to the flood of change that passed through the continent. Various members of the Royal Family attended independence celebrations almost on a rota basis. In the midst of all this Rhodesia and South Africa dug in their heels, and the Portuguese territories were aflame. The former Belgian Congo was a Cold War playground and seemed to be falling apart. Hanging over all this was an ideological confusion. On the one hand, the Soviets and the Chinese found much scope for interference, and their presence gave justification to the meddling by the West. Arms were flooding in to an already volatile situation and many communities had become pawns in a global game for preeminence. There was little in the
way of ideological coherence within the continent, though Ghana and Tanzania tried to establish some ground rules for the new Africa. Mostly it was a clash of foreign ideologies, best exemplified by the Congo, into which the United Nations had already intruded itself. Things, in short, did not bode well for Africa, but I wanted so much to be on the spot. My opportunity came with a Rockefeller scholarship to attend the African Studies Program at Makerere University College in Kampala, capital of Uganda that had become independent in 1963. I was overjoyed to be accepted into the program. My mother had other views on the subject, and asked me ―Why Africa?‖ as she sat on my bed in my student room. ―Will you have to live in a grass hut?‖ she inquired. I tried my best to reassure her, but she was never resigned to the fact that in 1965 I would fly off for an unspecified time to the ―Dark Continent.‖ In those days travel was not quite the commonplace event that it is today and I was gripped by a sense of continual excitement. I had always been something of a home body and my family found it difficult to accept the idea that I was heading off to such a remote place for a year or two. I had a good friend among my fellow undergraduates who hailed from Uganda by the name of John Magoye who came from the Buganda district of Uganda. He came home with me several times, and his warm presence served as a great reassurance to my parents. Both my brothers, and the greater part of my relatives still lived around our home town in Wales, and soon became fond of John. He was, though he did not know it, also serving to reassure me, for I now dwelled continually on the enormity of what I was proposing. After all, as a student, I lived barely an hour‘s drive from the family home. As far as my parents were concerned Uganda could have been on the dark side of the moon. Eventually, as the time to depart drew nigh, a farewell dinner was arranged at a thirteenth century pub in Clyro on the English-Welsh border marked by the river Wye. This was the moment when I finally realized that it really was going to happen. I suppose everyone tends to remember the past with a selective rosy filter, but I was imbued at that time with a wonderful sense of idealism—much of it misplaced. The 1960s, in Britain, was a time of prosperity, growth and a sense, as Prime Minister McMillan put it of ―you‘ve never had it so good.‖ The colonial era had fizzled out miserably, and finally, with the Suez crisis of 1956 when we all sat in our classrooms fully expecting World War III to emerge onto the scene at any moment. Instead a recognition existed that the ―old ways and old days‖ were past, and again in the words of McMillan, ―a wind of change was blowing through Africa.‖ However, the Cold War had produced some demons for the West, which was not entirely able to cast off its old ways. Nkrumah of Ghana was seen as the instrument of Communism, and this was to lead to the support of people like the tenacious Mobutu of the Congo who was to last until this book was written in 1997. So it was a very ambivalent time, and the news we read of Africa tended to be extremely one-sided. I still basked in the belief that Britain had been benign in all that it had done for Africa. We compared ourselves to our oldest ally, Portugal that was fighting a ruinous campaign to hang on to its ancient empire around the coast of Africa. Britons, in general, tended to believe that the trouble spots were, as much as anything, a result of weak colonial systems such as that of
Portugal and Belgium. Stories abounded of the pique felt by Belgium at some rather sensitive remarks made by Lumumba at the Congo‘s independence, as a result of which the Belgians left taking everything, including pencils, with them. Britain was wresting to create viable political units ―on the Westminster model,‖ out of places in which political activity had been banned until just a few years previously. Everyone, of course, could feel good about our record as long as there was South Africa, the universal pariah, against which to measure progress. Early in the 1960s there had been the Sharpville massacre, the image of which became an icon for all the idealists to resist. On cold winter evenings people gathered in church halls to discuss the idea of boycotting South African agricultural produce. Overall there was a sentiment of wanting Africa to succeed—maybe because of a sense of guilt, or maybe just goodwill toward a people who had such a terrible history of abuse at the hands of Europe. From the point of view of the ―new Africa‖ there was a tendency to blame all and every problem on the ―legacy of colonialism.‖ While there was an element of truth in this, the sentiment became a portmanteau to excuse all sorts of new abuses that the world community in general handled, as contemporary parents are wont to do with their children, by going into serious denial. These were ―problems of transition.‖ Goodwill turned into patronizing acceptance of denial of rights and the way was set for a generation of dictatorship. Rethinking history Looking back, and still being able to remember my thoughts and ideals as I set out for Africa, I can see now how hopelessly inadequate was my conception of the history of Africa. As a child of the evening of Empire, I had still been taught of the benefits of colonialism; of all the good things we did for those people in far-off places. I also heard, and nodded sagely before, many observations about how ungrateful these people were. They were keen enough to kick us out, and now look at what was happening: ethnic war between India and Pakistan, Ghana‘s flirtations with Communism, and the like. ―They will jolly soon want us back.‖ Of course in my childhood Britain was awash with people who had served in the Palestine Police, the Bengal Lancers, the remote administrations on the frontiers of Empire. They had, in most cases, invested most of their working lives among peoples radically different from themselves, and had frequently given selfless service. In addition there were hundreds of thousands of soldiers who had fought through North Africa, Abyssinia and other parts of Africa against their Axis foes. Unfortunately, they had little good to say of the ―locals.‖ Egypt, in particular, got a good airing when exservicemen gathered to reminisce. To me all this was exotic beyond words. The world was a much smaller place then. To fly anywhere was a rare and hugely expensive privilege. Travelers were rare birds, and in my eyes, were surrounded by a totally exotic aura that was almost palpable. So, the history I obtained was that of my culture and that current at that time. On the other hand, everybody wanted something better than the nightmare out of which the world had so recently emerged. If we go back far enough, to those days when the Portuguese made their first tentative voyages around the extremely hostile coast of West Africa, then there was little to choose between the great civilizations. Indeed, the earliest writings are not patronizing at all.
Unfortunately, Iberia of was soon to be locked in the intellectual vise of dogmatic Catholicism and the Inquisition. This was not a healthy environment for two cultures to shake hands. An aura of uncompromising superiority and the sense of mission to ―save,‖ convert or change others at any cost started over three hundred years of terrible injustice. Despite the efforts of Rousseau and others to create the idea of the ―Noble Savage‖ during the Enlightenment, this was as false as the effort, during the times of slavery, to portray the Africans as having no soul. Of course Africa had its own human frailties, including domestic slavers, wars, conquests, intolerance etc. What place on earth did not? We always reach for that argument now as a counterpoint to the European role in the slave trade: ―After all the Arabs were up to it, and didn‘t the Africans sell each other to us?‖ What matters is the effect of this long, and unequal, relationship, the conditions it engendered, the brake it put on indigenous development and civilizations. That wreckage then became the reasons for people of ‗good intention‖ to rescue Africa from itself and the slavers. In order for slavery to exist and flourish it is necessary to create conditions of instability and warfare—for it is mostly the prisoners and kidnap victims of this trade that feed the flow. In such mayhem trade, settled agriculture, social organization and traditional statehood falter. What you are left with are the sorts of conditions that well-intentioned humanitarians like David Livingstone wrote about. He loved the people he saw, and clearly they loved him, and there is nothing wrong with that. The world needs people of good will. However, his solution to the chaos he encountered was to bring even more external change into the lives of these people through ―Christianity and Commerce.‖ This was a gentler Christianity than the Iberians had used to beat Africa, but nonetheless it was another totally foreign package. It is hard to be critical of people who gave up so much to serve others, but what we have to consider is what this did to the unraveled societies of Africa. This was a religion that was served up by White people who came to tell you the error of your ways and offer you salvation as long as you accepted their faith. Soon after the missionaries, and sometimes directly because of them, came the ―flag.‖ Europe, of course, had no further use for slavery. The cynic might say that the rise of industrial capitalism had enabled these countries to enslave their own folks off the land. What mattered now were raw materials and markets. In the economics of the time prosperity came as a result of increasing your market—just as it does now. However, conventional wisdom stated that the market size was made up of the number of people, rather than their capacity to earn and spend as we stress now. What mattered was to have large, and preferably, captive markets. So, just as entrepreneurship had led to the enclosure of the Scottish Highlands, it led to the enclosure of Africa. Instead of fences, the new properties were surrounded with international boundaries. In most cases these boundaries had absolutely no indigenous historical legitimacy, and frequently they cut right through tribes and clans. Nearly all the dependencies, protectorates, colonies and the like, were completely spurious—Uganda is a classic case. They cobbled together people who had no ethnic, linguistic or any other common identity. Indeed the only way anyone could communicate within these boundaries was by the medium of the European language of the ―mother‖ country. This carried with it all the nuances and values that any language does.
However, none of these were African. So, to the foreign religions now had to be added foreign languages, laws and rulers—direct or indirect. In such an environment it is extremely difficult to retain any self-esteem, traditional pride or resilience. This reached its logical end point in the Portuguese, French and Spanish (yes, they were there too) policy of assimilation. If an African could pass muster as a black European then they could be acceptable enough to share some rights with their colonial masters. Indeed, in Senegal, black representatives sat in government in France. But, the total number of such assimilees was never more than a tiny fraction. The British, of course, would not have truck with such foolishness, going to the extent of ruling through ―indirect rule,‖ coopting local chiefs. If these chiefs behaved as anything other than loyal agents of the crown then they would find their subvention stopped and their shoes filled ―double quick‖ as Kipling would have said. So, it is not too difficult to see that Africa‘s long association with Europe had not been the ―civilizing mission‖ that many Europeans envisaged it. At independence in the 1960s a whole series of sovereign countries were created to which the indigenous people could not be expected to owe any loyalty whatsoever. They were European creations pure and simple. The real African units—the tribes and clans—threatened the integrity of these new ―countries‖ and so ―tribalism‖ became the ultimate term of sanction by the new African leadership. Given such a start, it is a miracle that Africa has survived at all. During the colonial period politics was, by and large, illegal. This is why so many emergent leaders had served time in British, French or other jails. So there was no political system to hand over when the mother country left. There were some hasty attempts to rebuild the homecountry system overnight, but that could hardly be expected to have much credence among the local population. What they needed was what the Americans had done in the last quarter of the eighteenth century. Having turfed out the government of King George, they redefined themselves in a fundamentally new and surprisingly durable way. We have to remember that this was extremely radical for the times. Unfortunately Africa never went through such an experience, though Nyerere of Tanzania searched around for a new ethic. Instead Africa got fobbed off with the Westminster model, or indeed the model that the late Mr. Marx had thrust upon an unsuspecting world. The Fascination for Me I suppose like many people of my generation I came to find a fascination with Africa though the medium of stamps. Back then, in the dark ages, this pastime provided a personal way to connect to the events of a fast-evolving history. The Africa of the past was a place of finely engraved, subtly colored vignettes of a far-off world. Next to the statutory portrait of the emperor, and later the Queen, were tiny microcosms of a truly exotic place. But in the 1960s the quaint names of the past, Bechuanaland, Nyasaland, Obangui-Shari and the Middle Congo were yielding—almost daily—to a lexicon of new, and sometimes revived old, names: Bostswana, Malawi, Gabon, Zambia and the like. Some of the old names were harder to erase like the arrogantly eponymous Rhodesia, named after Cecil Rhodes. Indeed, Rhodesia was shaping up to be a real problem in the decolonization process, for a quarter of a million Whites shared 50 per cent of the land ―equally‖ with twelve million Blacks. But that struggle was in the future while I was carefully redrawing my atlas each week. The
new stamps rejoiced in a revival of African culture as well as new names. They were large and colorful opening a window on the exuberant hopes and spirit of the re-emergence of this great continent among the body of nations. Often the new nations sported a heady truculence on the new-found diplomatic scene, especially at the United Nations, where humble Rwanda shared equal voting rights with the United States, much to the chagrin of the former Great Powers. In this arena they were seduced by the great socialist rivals China and the USSR to bait the West. Almost weekly, it seemed, a representative of the British Royal Family would attend a ceremony somewhere at which the British flag was lowered, usually to the ceremonial bleating of the bagpipes, and a new banner—often in the red, yellow and green colors of Africa was raised. This process was creating a whole slew of countries without any indigenous provenance anxious to show their independence in dramatic ways, but still hopelessly enmeshed in the colonial economy. The American-educated ruler of Ghana put forth his philosophy of Pan-Africanism in a series of books around the cry ―Africa must unite.‖ We waited breathlessly to see a totally new Africa emerge, but too many politicians had a stake in the power handed to them by the departing colonials. So matters stayed much as they had been in the pre-war period. I had the good fortune to take courses on Africa at university during this period, and there were many able teachers who had spent time scattered throughout the empire teaching, researching and building fine institutions of higher learning such as Legon in Ghana, and Makerere in Uganda. These people passed on their sincere enthusiasm, as well as building courses around places that was the epitome of remote romanticism. It was, the Cold War notwithstanding, a time of enormous good will. I listened to South African liberals, missionaries, my black fellow students; all provide their different insights into what was happening. I harbored the common concerns that the new societies and states of Africa would simply slip into a ―neo-colonial‖ phase in which the economic, financial and power relationships of the past would maintain a climate of inequality and strangle the chances for real rebirth. To help build the ―real‖ independence of Africa was the institution of ―aid,‖ which was to accelerate Africa into ―modernity,‖ somehow making up for three hundred years of exploitation. The recent success of the Marshall Plan had a lot to do with this thinking, but that plan was designed to reconstruct advanced economies beaten down by warfare. Monet and Schuman had proposed, also, an instrument of shared vision called the European Communities that would end the traditional warfare between rivals such as France, Germany and Italy. However, Nkrumah‘s plea for a similarly innovative united Africa to counteract the dead hand of history, was generally regarded outside Africa—and indeed inside Africa by much of the new leadership—as subversive. Who knows what would have happened had Africa, at this turning point of history, adopted a more visionary concept of the future. The struggle, it seemed, was simply for independence and selfdetermination entirely within a European map of Africa. This left us with a kaleidoscope of often small, poor states with rarely a nation in sight.
This then was the environment in which I made my decision to make my pilgrimage to Africa.
Taking the Plunge
The institution, to which I committed myself for the next two years, in 1965, immediately upon my graduation from the University of Wales, was Makerere University College in Kampala, Uganda. In 1964 it had become a constituent part of the ―federal‖ University of East Africa with campuses in Nairobi, Kenya and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. Uganda had become independent of its ―protectorate‖ status in 1962. Tanzania, as Tanganyika, had been first on the independence scene—largely because it was a former German colony (German East Africa), and had the status of a Mandate administered by Britain. The United Nations Trusteeship Committee, therefore, had some oversight and was able to push the situation rather faster there than happened in the other two parts of East Africa. Tanganyika became independent in 1960. The third member, Kenya, had had a more troubled history— largely because of its rather intransigent White population. During the 1950s there had been an armed struggle, termed by the British but not the Kenyans the ―Mau Mau‖ uprising. Eventually the Whites had to concede their position and were rather handsomely bought out by the British government. Kenya achieved its independence in 1963. The position of Uganda was Byzantine to say the least, and was a tribute to the cobblingtogether process by which colonies and protectorates were created. It consisted of totally disparate ethnic groups that had almost no shared history until the British came in the last part of the nineteenth century. They put together, what were then called, Nilotic, NiloHamitic, and Bantu people with a cheerful disregard for the realities of cultural geography and history. It contained several kingdoms—Buganda, Toro, Bunyoro and Ankole—mostly ruled over by the tall, angular northern peoples. It contained in its northeast corner wandering cattle keepers regarded by the rest of the Ugandans as singularly primitive. It contained a chunk in the northwest that had been horse-traded with the Congo in Belgian times, and a slice of what, by any sensible approximation, should have been in the southern Sudan—that archetype of ethic folly. It was Babel of languages. At the center of this curious concoction was Buganda. Here the British had excelled themselves in providing a new state with a constitutional structure that Rube Goldberg might have designed. First, it must be said, the British liked Buganda best of all, except for the true romantics who fell in love with the remote herding communities. The Baganda, after all, were more like the British than almost any group in Africa. They were bound together by a monarchic system, a court, and a fairly sophisticated system of administration. They had captured the imagination of John Hanning Speke who (a) ―discovered‖ the source of the Nile and (b) ran foul of his mercurial partner Sir Richard Burton who had fallen sick and therefore missed the prime purpose of the joint expedition. Burton hotly disputed Speke‘s attribution of the source of the Nile to Jinja, and poor old Speke had an argument with the business end of his sporting gun the day the two of them were to battle the issue verbally in public. Speke wrote an account of his visit to the court of the Kabaka (or king) Mutesa. He made to Mutesa the gift of a firearm, and Mutesa forthwith gave it to a page with instructions to take it outside and shoot someone. He did, fatally. This eccentric action had, I believe, a curiously endearing effect on the British, who
expect their monarchs to be at best unpredictable, often anti-social, and frequently completely round the bend. Anyway, the British saw the Baganda as having the capability of ruling the whole, loose congeries of states around it under some form of indirect rule— hence the ―protectorate.‖ Bagandan civil servants became a strong prop of the British administration. In turn, the Baganda were deeply resented by the rest of the Ugandans for the upper hand they gained with the British. The Baganda were to pay heavily for this after independence. In the mid-1960s, however, we had the following rather extraordinary situation. Uganda was a republic, but its constitutional president was that very same King of Buganda. Buganda maintained its own government and tiny ministries in the royal capital of Mmengo—truthfully a suburb of Kampala. Here a large traditional enclosure housed the court of the king/president. I can think only of Louis Napoleon, and the grotesque JeanBedel Bokasa of Central Africa, who held both offices of president and emperor. Well, to be circumspect, the Kabaka was never an emperor—just a monarch. The Kabaka himself was a quintessential product of colonialism. He had attended the British military college at Sandhurst, and was an honorary officer in a British regiment—whose uniform he affected from time to time. His name, Edward Frederick Mutesa, was usually familiarized as ―King Freddie.‖ He ventured forth in a venerable Rolls Royce that, on one occasion, he accidentally reversed into my car. He popped out instantly, surveyed the minor damage, and remarked ―Just a scrape Old Chap.‖ This regal figure, his face revealing his northern origins being smooth and long, was physically very different from the stocky Bantu folk he ruled. But they held him in the highest reverence, and were very happy that he, their king, was also the head of state for all the other races, tribes and clans that inhabited that extraordinary nation. This did not sit well with the other groups for it was a perpetuation of Baganda dominance that had characterized colonial times. But all this was a total mystery to me that day in 1965 when I boarded the Comet 4B1, the state of the art at the time, and hurtled down the Heathrow runway at what seemed to be an unimaginable speed into the unknown. I remember the seating as being very cramped, and when I saw a Comet at an aircraft museum recently, I was astonished at how tiny it seemed. But then, the Great Eastern, the leviathan of its day, seems so inconsequential in its dock at Bristol now, even though it was the greatest ship of its time and commanded awe from all who saw her, or sailed in her. My sweaty palms were a combination of flying off into the unknown for such a long period of time, and flying at all in a plane that periodically disappeared and introduced me for the first time to the term ―metal fatigue.‖ First impressions really do matter, and mine of Uganda are as clear now as they were then. The warmth and bright sunlight of course I had expected, and their presence was accentuated by the dismal overcast day that had been the backdrop of my departure. The
The Comet—first real commercial jetliner—had been plagued by a number of spectacular accidents when it would plunge into the sea. Between October 1952 and January 1971 20 of them dropped out of the sky. By 1965, the score was 15. One has to remember that BOAC‘s forerunner, Imperial Airways, never lost a plane.
second thing was the smell, a wonderful combination of soil and woodsmoke. It seems that Africa is pervaded from end to end by the glorious catch of embers in the air. And then the total difference of everything around me: the astonishing lushness of the vegetation, the startling redness of the soil, the torpor induced by moisture in the air, and the, an I‘ll be honest, sudden realization that everyone around me was black. Of course they were, this is Africa. But, the reality and the sudden impact of the unshakable truth that this is your home for at least the next two years finally hits you between the eyes as a stark reality and not some academic abstraction. I just stood there. It was so totally different from anything I had known. I also just stood there because whatever elaborate arrangements had been put in place to greet the new arrivals on the African Studies Program had clearly flunked the first test. There was no-one around to meet and greet me, or worse still, to transport me. The fact was, and remains to this day, that the airport is at Entebbe—the colonial capital—and the university is at Kampala—the commercial capital—some hour‘s travel. I was suffused with excitement, so much so I could not take time out to panic because there was nobody around to take me to ―my quarters,‖ as they always referred to them in the previous correspondence. I spent the bus journey in a captivated state. I had, after all, never seen a banana anywhere other than in a store before. The women in their all-encompassing Victorian-style dresses (basuti) with their leg-of-lamb sleeves and great sash waists swayed slowly and philosophically along the side of the road looking like galleons in full sail. The men, on the other hand, looked long and lean in their clean white Arab-style khanzu, overlain by a jacket and usually complemented with a walking stick and a small, white Moslem cap. I could not believe the movement (so much better described by the French as animation). The roads were teaming with people and bordered with stalls selling fruits and vegetables along the entire length of the way. From time to time blue-black Sudanese women, usually refugees, sat weaving their intricate multi-colored baskets unhurried and calm belying the mayhem that had been their lives before they fled to Uganda. Cattle ambled, goats nibbled and browsed, children stared and over all there was a sense of well-being. I was really happy to be here—something that would never change. The animation along the road was nothing compared to the bus station, which was a sea of humanity. This was my introduction to the fact that, for what reason I know not, Africans are always on the move. Traffic on the roads must work out its own modus vivendi with the waves of humanity constantly proceeding in both directions, day in and day out. Periodically the moving sea would change its hue as a small ebb tide of tartan-clad schoolgirls made their way home. The face of Africa is as restless as the face of the sea itself. As I looked around I could understand how so much of the history of this continent is made up of massive migrations of entire peoples, from the Cameroon, from Ethiopia, from the Zulu country and so forth. It simply never stops—well, not until the Europeans invented states and borders and then applied them in a frenzy of greed and expediency. Kampala is on several hills—―seven, like Rome,‖ was to be a frequent assertion—and so came into view well before we reached it. It all looked extremely neat and orderly: solid
white buildings with red tiled roofs echoing the red—ochre of the soil. All of this was placed in the deep green richness of the treebelt that thrived in the area around the north shore of Lake Victoria. In 1965 the streets of Kampala gave an immediate impression of thriving commerce: the sidewalks were bustling with people, the hundreds of small Indian shops (dukas) were stocked out onto the street, and as we wound closer to the center of the city, substantial old colonial businesses sat foursquare along the divided highway. All this wonderment ended as we descended into the central bus depot, which was more of a transportational anthill than any sort of ―bus depot‖ image that I had in mind before then. But, like the traffic in Beirut or Cairo, despite the laws of mathematics and physics, it worked, and buses came and went even as I dismounted and waited for my bags to emerge from the lower reaches of the bus. The vigor of the whole scene was enhanced by the fact that the drivers and touts for each bus were engaged in a shouting match to inform and attract passengers onto their vehicle. This all contrasted sharply with my image of the London Transport bus driver I had just left, sitting in his tiny isolated cab at the front of the double-decker, distractedly sipping coffee, lost in the Daily Mirror, while aspiring passengers rubber-necked their way around looking for the right destination only feet above his head—all done in silence. Fortunately, I knew the address of my ultimate destination, and had the unusual foresight to change some money into East African shillings before I left—for it was convertible then, and that was soon to change. Indeed the currency was an interesting relic of an era about to pass, for it had served as the legal tender of Kenya, Uganda, Tanganyika and Aden up to the time of my arrival, and was fully convertible for hard currency. The only problem for me was always that the largest unit was the shilling, and I was used to the pound—though I had no grounds to complain about currency, coming from the country which, at that time, had the most complicated and incomprehensible system in the world2. Quickly I found one of the ubiquitous Peugeot 404 Taxis, and gave him my destination. Unfortunately, I had never heard the name of Makerere University actually pronounced, and so it took a while to get it right. The taxi took me along a well-made road that paralleled a small, tree-filled valley where the trees were filled with bats (hence its name Bat Valley). Eventually we reached a roundabout, took a left up a small hill and came to the symbolic gates of the university. Inside everything was a case study in order and control. Everything that could be trimmed was, it was all as clean as Singapore, and the mind-numbing bustle of the bus park was replaced by a reverential quiet and orderliness. We drove up and past the stately administration building (the administrators always command the finest architecture and
For those who did not grow up with this bizarre system—which was replaced in 1970, here it is: The pound sterling was made up of 20 shillings (so, at least I was used to that term), and the shilling, in turn, was comprised of 12 pennies (no intrusion of the decimal system so far). So there were 240 pennies to the pound. Professional people never used the pound, but charged in guineas, which did not actually exist, but were equal to 21 shillings. There was also the halfcrown worth two shillings and sixpence (written 2/6d—the ―d‖ standing for pence (!) and being derived from the Roman denari) which was a convenient one-eighth of a pound. There was, of course, no crown, just a half of it. This was also one of the only currencies to be written in an astounding four notations, e.g. one pound three shillings and sixpence halfpenny. The whole thing was totally confounded by the fact that each coin had its own incomprehensible nickname (bob, tanner, quid, etc.). So the East African shilling was a doddle.
facilities in any university), and the modern library, down the hill, and left to a gray building with, again, that curiously Mediterranean feature of the red-pantile roof. My new home was a corner room in Livingstone Hall, a rather fine modern student block. It consisted of a square with an interior grass quadrangle, but it was built on a substantial slope, and so the quad dropped from the porter‘s lodge (yes, it really was called that), to the dining hall, which you faced as you entered. The porter, who was called Juma (Friday), rather than McPherson or Dobson, introduced himself right away, and said that he had been alerted of my arrival by Dr. Posnansky, head of the African Studies Program who, it seems, actually was at the airport but contrived to miss me. Being a distinguished archeologist, he would probably have better noticed me had I been four thousand years old and dead. Juma took me to my room, which was spacious, airy and light, and quickly ran through the laundry service he offered. I observed on a short walk around my immediate surroundings that all the residential buildings had European, and often Scottish, names which seemed rather curious for an African university, but not for a colonial institution. I was a little downcast to see that there were no Welshmen among these dead white greats. I did, however, have a letter of introduction to a Welshman who was the registrar and some sort of ―Welsh‖ relative of my former headmaster. He was away, but his bearded graduate-student house-sitter was primed to receive me, which he did almost as soon as I arrived, and I felt some considerable relief to have a contact at last. My first meal in Africa was taken with him—Ted was his name. This meal brought me my first real surprise, for I had never imagined, nor heard of, students having servants. Ted, it seemed, had two on the payroll, and one of them was cooking my dinner. I really had no idea how to handle this situation, and I ate in a sense of quite inappropriate grandeur and no little discomfort. ―I should say something to him,‖ I told Ted and feeling very self conscious as the cook spoke to me in I knew not what. ―Tell him funga mlango,‖ said Ted, and I did—with a wan smile. ―What does it mean?‖ I asked. ―Shut the door,‖ he replied. Another Scot. No wonder they got things named after them. Eventually, now rapidly falling victim to jet lag after a 16-hour flight and several stops, I had to retreat to my room. I lay on my cot bed, no sheets etc., to hand yet, and stared at the ceiling. Over and over in my head went the same phrase: ―I am in Africa.‖ I couldn‘t believe it.
Fieldwork: Student on Safari
I was, after all, in Africa to conduct my research—arcane though that may seem to many. It focused on the production and supply of been cattle and it may seem strange to many that a normal, healthy individual would devote three years of his life to wandering through the stock markets and abattoirs of Uganda, but I have to confess it fascinated me and led me down all sorts of avenues, and into all sorts of fields that were strange and mysterious. Uganda, as I have said, was a country cobbled together during colonial times from disparate elements, some of whom were pastoralists—people who lived from their herds. There were cattle all over Uganda, except where the tsetse fly had its domain, for it was inimical to cattle and the two could not coexist. However, there were two parts of the country where cattle were king, and these were at the geographical extremes of the state— the northeast and the southwest. In the northeast lay the district of Karamoja, dry and flat except for the remnant volcanic peaks that rose sheer from the landscape. Here, cattle were raised by the naked Karamojong, the Dodoth and several other tribes that the urbane and settled Bantu of southern Uganda regarded as wild, primitive and something of an embarrassment, not least because of their nakedness. This district ran clear across the border into the cattle-keeping peoples of the Sudan. However, contact was minimal because the southern Sudan was in a perpetual state of political foment. To the south Karamoja abutted onto the huge volcanic mass of Mount Elgon, through which ran the border with Kenya, and upon whose slopes lived cultivating communities. The Karamojong lived, for much of the year in small settlements ringed around with thornbush that protected those who dwelled there from animals and humans who would prey upon the domestic stock. In and around these settlements the women grew crops, but the weather was too uncertain to have a life-support system based on agriculture alone. It was the cattle that formed the basis of subsistence, and around which life was lived. In the wet season when a flush of grass grew, then it was possible for men, women and stock to live together on a diet of grain, milk and blood. However, in the dry season the men took off with the animals in wide circuits where experience had taught them water was to be found. Given the simple technology, water had to be on, or near, the surface if it was to be useful, and it had to be somewhere within reasonable distance of grazing, otherwise the cattle could drink but not eat. From time to time the women would trek across the dry landscape to bring additional food to the men. Then, when the rains returned, the menfolk and their animals would come back to their encampments, and the cycle would be over for another year. All this depended on tradition and the accumulated wisdom of what was where and when in the environment. That same tradition told of a time when the plains were covered with waving grass, but now—too often—what was visible was scrub, succulents, and red earth. The wisdom among the members of the Veterinary Department was that this damage had been caused by simply accumulating too many animals on a limited amount of land. Others said that this was the result of overgrazing, but the truth is that no-one knew what was happening, or whether the tales of waving grass were derived from a run of better-than-average years. Things were always better in the past. What was clear was that when a drought came now
the effect was devastating for the worn-out environment weakened rapidly and the animals started to die from lack of water or grazing. But, just as no-one really knew what was happening to the environment, similarly there were many tales about why the Karamojong kept cattle. It was true that there were many cattle to be seen, and some families seemed to have enormous herds, though it was never possible to determine which animals belonged to whom, or how many there really were, because people were taxed according to the size of their herds. The folks in Kampala determined early on in the Protectorate‘s history that there were too many and some of them should be culled for the markets of the south. However, what may have seemed ―too many‖ to the colonial authorities certainly did not seem that way to the Karamojong, and that led to years of acrimonious relations. Simply put it worked like this. The Karamojong lived from their animals—not by eating meat—but by consuming milk and blood. You can only get milk from a lactating cow, bulls are not really useful as they compete for grazing with the females. So, most of the herd was female, and that should have told the experts something. Furthermore, you have to give some of the milk to the calves or they will die, so the amount of milk available for the people was naturally limited. Then again, if you live in a place like Karamoja, a long oral tradition will have informed you that, periodically, Nature can turn nasty and you may have several years of drought. At those times animals produce even less, and so the human diet is, in turn, imperiled. Thus, the herder needs to keep a number of animals sufficient to see the family through the worst of times, not the best of times or according to some ―average‖ year. This was a very hard thing for the people from the agriculture department to understand, and they railed against the proclivity of the Karamojong to keep ―excessive numbers‖ of cattle to the detriment of the environment. But to cull animals by force, which was tried from time to time, was to attack the security of the family—its insurance if you will—and they would naturally resist. This resistance was explained by all sorts of theories that held sway from time to time as long as no-one would sit down and work out how many animals the typical family really needed. While I was a student I was taught that such people were conservative, meaning that they failed to respond to the natural allure of the money market and turn their animals into cash (which they could buy next to nothing in Karamoja). Then I was taught that they practiced what was called perverse economics. This said that if you upped the price of animals at the market, the Karamojong would actually respond by selling fewer animals. The only reason to sell animals was to pay taxes, and if you could pay your taxes by selling fewer animals, it made good sense. Nothing perverse about that. That phenomenon, by the way, was called the ―target income hypothesis.‖ What it came down to for many people in government was that these people were primitive and really did not understand what was good for them, and certainly none of them had ever read Adam Smith. On the other hand, if you got inside the head of a Karamojong, what they were doing was perfectly rational, and probably sensible too.
For most of its colonial history, Karamoja was a tramping ground for anthropologists, most of whom made the effort to learn the language and live with the people. You would have imagined that these folks would have spotted the problem, but not so. The anthropologists concentrated mainly on such things as kinship, cosmological concepts and the like, and never seemed to notice what these folks did to stay alive in such a difficult environment. Government employed anthropologists mainly to explain how change might be induced among such intractable people. When the outside world came to Karamoja after colonialism, it mainly compounded an already bad misunderstanding. Basically, there really did appear to be too many animals for the rough grazing to support, and nothing seemed to induce the people to part with their stock. It was, however, noticed that even in the bad times there were areas of grazing that were untouched, the reason being that they were in places where there was no water—at least not using traditional technology. The World Bank‘s answer to this was to drill deep wells and tap the groundwater, which they did on a mighty scale. This meant that, in a drought, the animals that would have died, now survived and went forth and multiplied (about 5 per cent per annum). On the other hand, nothing had happened to change the attitude of the people about why they raised cattle, and so the herds grew gobbling up the new areas of grass. In the great preliminary surveys—which ran to volumes—prior to investing in these schemes, the experts never seemed to question the local people, but assumed that western knowledge would solve all problems. Instead, it created a whole new problem that turned the place into a desert. Getting there and staying there The trip to Karamoja was a journey back through time. It started on the smooth asphalt east out of Kampala, and wound its way through the landscaped pleasantry of provincial towns such as Mbale, with their jacaranda avenues, and flame tree square, until you reached Soroti, the headquarters of the Teso district, and here things went backward fast. The road for one, for this lost all pretensions at being asphalted and turned into a corrugated washboard of red dust. Off to the right the volcanic slopes of Mount Elgon held one‘s attention, but that soon vanished into the rear mirror and the landscape became much drier and much flatter, and more and more the vegetation opened up, thinned out and eventually began to yield to substantial patches of bare, red earth. Here and there remnants of an older, higher landscape in ancient basement rock stood above the plains not unlike the landscape of Colorado close to the Utah border. If the driving was done in the wet season, then the landscape looked at its best with tall grasses in places, but even then the whole place had a tired and careworn look resulting from decades of relentless overgrazing as Nature‘s constraints of disease and water had been pushed back. In the dry season the landscape made no pretense. It looked haggard. By then the people and their livestock had collected around the diminishing number of water points, and their animals were eating the place down to the soil. Periodically on these drives, heralded by clouds of red dust on the horizon, came the cattle drovers with their hundreds of head of stock walking them the couple of hundred miles to the railhead. The walk alone, in these straitened conditions, would get rid of as much as a third of the weight of the animals. They were headed for the
railhead in Soroti where they would be put aboard trains for the more prosperous, denselysettled south of Uganda. Since the good folks of Karamoja wanted to keep the best animals in their herds, only the scrub stock was sold off to the market, and it was amazing to me that many of them survived the journey at all. You pulled over and let the herd go by, rather like driving through a time warp into the Kansas of the nineteenth century. There really was nothing in the way of settlements until, shaken and covered in dust like a trail boss, you pulled into the district headquarters at Moroto. Here, at the boma were grouped the rudimentary services by which this frontier district was administered. This was the last place to have a white district commissioner, probably because no urbane African in his right mind would ever choose to spend time here. The town boasted, as did they all, the Club, where some drinking, snooker and a few other basic time-consuming pursuits slowly nudged one day into the next. Bird watchers did well in places like this, so did alcoholics and people given to watching the grass grow. Amateur anthropologists went swiftly native, with the glorious exception of my friend, Colin Turnbull, who spent some time there. Colin, an ex Royal Navy man, was a scholar of style who reminded me of nothing more nor less than a reincarnation of T. E. Lawrence, another many who ―messed around in the company of natives,‖ as he was once described. There was a shy retiring quality to both of these characters, but they reveled in the exclusiveness of their experience given them by the utter remoteness of their chosen people. Of course, it is hard to be remote anywhere in 2000, but in 1966 that was not too unrealistic. Fresh from his famous study of the ―Forest People‖ of the Ituri in Eastern Congo, he was now engaged on a study of a mountain people on Elgon with the wonderful name of the Ik. His study was later to produce a musical that made it to Broadway. This was all the more wonderful because Colin would expound endlessly on how much he detested these folks—thieves and vagabonds he loved to call them. His experience with them was much like that of Captain Cook at Tahiti who was in danger of having his ship fall apart around him since the locals were helping themselves to every piece of metal used in its construction. I am sure there is some cultural explanation rooted in collective ownership of property that puts all of this on a respectable basis, but Colin traveled in some considerable style, and his stock of Mozart and Earl Gray was vanishing at a rate of knotts. He possessed, for his work, a famously huge red Land Rover with stereo—something of an innovation at that time, and his work was done out of this genteel extension of the English landed gentry. He traveled with an African American assistant who sported a Vespa and who was totally devoted to Colin. His views on the Ik were even more radical. I always felt I was in the company of the gentleman scholar, and the gentleman‘s gentlemen when the Red Land Rover came into town. What in the world the Ik made of all this I cannot imagine. One wonderful total anachronism about Colin and his field work is that he actually employed a runner, I even remember his name—at least the one in Karamoja—and it was Atom. Mail was addressed to him care of the remotest of the provision stores, and off would go Atom—Colin told me that he actually used a cleft stick, but I never saw that. He was paid on arrival. I certainly have a letter in my correspondence addressed to him, that he kindly returned to me, with the fee noted in the top left-hand corner, and Atom‘s purple thumb print as proof of receipt. It is hard to believe
we are talking about the 1960s—I expected this sort of thing to have faded away once Mafeking was relieved.
Despite the lingering sense of the colonial in the government rest house, the Public Works Department furniture that appeared and reappeared in identical form wherever you went, there were changes. The Chief Veterinary Officer, Mr. Parminter—prime contact for me because he looked after the ―cattle business‖ upon which my thesis was to be based—gave me the impression that he had been there since the British arrived, which was about 100 years before my arrival almost precisely. There was not a whole lot to do in Moroto unless you were an alcoholic or an anthropologist, and I was neither at this stage, and so Parminter suggested a drive. The landscape, with its vast plains and huge mesas assumed a purplish tinge in the sunset, which lasted about fifteen minutes. But, this was magnificent and wild country at any time, stretching away across the horizon toward the lawless of the southern Sudan. So, we drove around rather aimlessly, Parminter pointing out the features as we went. I was not taking it all in as I should because my attention was focused on the fact that, twist and turn as we may, we were followed throughout by a lavender colored Morris Minor. Eventually, as I maneuvered to see whether I was simply imagining this, it became clear that, indeed, we were being followed. I could not imagine any circumstances under which the police—even undercover police—would drive such an unlikely vehicle. Eventually, as we almost headed into the roadside ditch for the third time, Parminter asked me ―Is something wrong?‖ I said ―I think we are being followed.‖ ―That would probably be a lavender-colored Minor 1000?‖ I was astonished at the fact that he had identified the car without any possibility of looking at it, and asked him how he knew. ―That,‖ he responded with a wry smile, ―is the unlikely vehicle of one Vassily Kamakov, a Red Vet sent here under some sort of aid project with the Soviets. The poor guy is quietly going barmy up here, and so his only recreation is to latch upon any unsuspecting new face, and if they go anywhere, he just follows them in the sure and certain expectation that they know something about this place that he doesn‘t.‖ It sounded like rather a sad tale, and so eventually I made the effort to speak to the lonesome Soviet—you have to remember that in the mid-1960s ―Soviets‖ were like ghosts, Martians or bogey-men: something you heard a lot about, but generally never encountered. He turned out to be rather affable, normal and quite human. I had to revise a lot of my geopolitical fundamentals right there and then. I quickly grew to enjoy my time in Moroto, largely because it was more different than anything I had experienced before. Each day, I would go through Mr. Parmenters files. These were, looking back, like entering another age. Each file was held together with a piece of red or green string passed through two punched holes, and the contents were in various shades of gray, depending on which of the 6 carbon copies you were fortunate enough to have in front of you (no photocopies then). Huge tables of livestock sales were all completed on wide-carriage typewriters, whose clacking was one of the only sounds penetrating the hot silence of Moroto‘s daily round. The government offices, tin-roofed and shuttered were surrounded by neat ―lawns‖ of coarse grass, watered regularly. There was a sense of somnabulance about everything, and eventually it would surround and seduce you
like a drug. Day after day I worked through the figures and chatted with Don Parminter about the significance of certain patterns I thought I saw. ―Why,‖ I asked him between cattle-marketing statistics one day, ―is this place full of spears?‖ Indeed, he had a mighty collection of the very long, supple seven-foot spears with their classic leaf-shaped point. ―Fines,‖ he replied. ―These people are constantly raiding each other, and we go out and fine them. You can see for yourself, they have next to nothing, and the men walk around naked, so if you are going to fine them for breaking the law, you don‘t have much to take that makes any sense. So we take these. Of course, occasionally we extract them from someone on the losing side of an argument, but normally this is too precious an item to leave sticking out of your adversary.‖ I looked at Mr. Parminter who was very much on the short side, and tried to imagine him depriving the Karamojong of their spears. On the other hand, it was no accident that the Scots provided the backbone on which most of the Empire stood. ―By the way,‖ he interjected into my ruminations, ―the court is meeting today if you would like to see it in action.‖ So, we strolled through the sunshine a jacaranda trees, the intense sunlight of noon catching the sapphire breasts of the Splendid Starlings as they rose from our path. The court was being held in an open-air structure that had a roof for shade, but was otherwise totally open to view. We did not go ―in‖ but stood under the shade of an acacia watching the proceedings. Naked and semi-naked tribesmen stood around impassively, and would have been resting on their spears, but no spears this close to the courthouse. Benches were set out for the various participants in whatever action was being pursued—though you just knew that cows featured in it somewhere. However, I could take in none of this because my attention was riveted on a total anomaly—there, at the head of the ―court‖ the judge presided in red robes and wearing a white wig (he was also a white man). This seemed so totally out of place that it reminded me of nothing more than a local high school doing Gilbert and Sullivan (which, I discovered, they did). At once, the whole wacky nature of the British Empire manifested itself in front of me: the entire sense of transporting a ―civilizing missions‖ across the seas to the Dark Continent seemed, well, hilarious. However, no-one was smiling. Then, back to files. In the best, classical traditions, these files circulated among the hierarchy and comments were made in the margins, in different colored inks, by those up and down the ladder. Sometimes these marginalia developed into a correspondence—very interesting bearing in mind that these people were within paper airplane distance of each other, in the middle of nowhere. As I finished with the file, the office runner would collect it and carefully restore it to its timeless place in the archives. The runner, known as the ―boy,‖ was always emaciated and superannuated and turned out in those huge oversized khaki shorts the British loved, and a fez. I have no idea where the fez came from as it is a piece of Ottoman Turkish headgear— maybe our proximity to the southern Sudan had something to do with it. Anyway, here it was in the post-colonial world long after Mustafa Kemal Atatürk proclaimed it passé on August 30, 1925, and banned the thing altogether. I often wondered from where the British authorities obtained their stock of fezes (fezi?) since the Turks, presumably, did not wear the things any more. Anyway, this provided some intellectual relief from the endless pursuit of cattle marketing to which I had committed myself.
Work done, perforce at 5 since the office closed, I wandered back through the blessed cool of the evening to the government rest house to await my meat and potatoes. The British Empire certainly would have endured for one thousand years—or more—if it had been in the hands of the people who drew up the rest house menu. It was rigid and inflexible and built to last. Meat of course, in this cattle-keeping district, was de rigeur, but there was always some challenge getting vegetables since there was no real market to trade in these. So, the complements to the rather robust cut of beef often came out of a can from the local Indian merchant‘s duka. I could not but admire the tenacity of the Indians—mostly Gujeratis—who provided the basics of life in the remotest of places in this part of Africa. In West Africa it was the ―Syrians,‖ often Lebanese, who occupied the same niche in the commercial economy. If it were not for these people, there would be virtually no incentive, other than taxes, to the local people to sell anything—like cattle—since there would be nothing to do with the money. But every settlement had its family of Patels, and one could only wonder at their endurance setting up shop so far from their own home and culture. After dinner, unless there was someone else staying over, it was off to my room before the electricity was turned off, to write up the insights of the day. It is hard now, from the hitech perspective of 2002, to think back and realize that I wrote out everything in longhand on lined paper with a bottle of ink and a penholder. My calculations were done on a Facit machine that was a mass of adjustable knobs and switches to set up your computation, and then you would crank the handle the requisite number of times to provide you with the answer. Indeed, it was five years later that I saw my first four-function calculator and the company then using my services had just bought it for $550! In saw one the other day, with square root, percentage and memory, for $1.50. I had a camera with me at the time in order to take illustrations for what would, eventually, be my thesis. I have never had the capacity to run around a casually photograph people without their permission. Whilst I do not actually believe that it confiscates their soul, I do think it is patronizing and intrusive. So, my life has been an incredible progression of missed photographic opportunities. However, on one occasion, I came across a couple of Ik people who had given Colin Turnbull so many sleepless nights. They were hanging around the edges of Moroto—the district headquarters. They tried to sell me some craft items—tourists being thin on the ground this far north and this close to the Sudanese eternal civil war. At one point, one of them produced an object consisting of a stone rectangle topped with a stone circle with a hole through it. He kept looking at me through the whole, and eventually with my poor Swahili, I came to realize that, having been the subject of endless photographs by visitors himself, he had made himself a stone camera, and was looking at the visitors through that. Touché.
Although I had spent the last three years ―away at college,‖ as they liked to term it at home, I had the domestic skills of Bertie Wooster—without, alas, the supportive presence of Jeeves. Furthermore, I had grown up in a very sheltering and supportive home before they were abolished in the 1960s in favor of self-expression or something I never really understood. From there, at a time of unparalleled prosperity in the nation, I had progressed to, what seems to me now, an almost unbelievably privileged existence at University— McMillan was right when he told us we ―had never had it so good.‖. And I was at a state university—not some venerable limestone pile. My bed was made for me, my meals were cooked for me, and my mail was sorted and left for me. Now, here I was cast up on some foreign shore, but once more I found myself in the center of a privileged existence. The percentage of the indigenous population going on to higher education was less than 2. Indeed my domestic arrangements seemed remarkably similar and familiar: I suppose the British had done their work well in molding their bits of Africa to fit the needs and standards of expatriate officials (always known as ―expats‖). The campus had been landscaped to quiet and studious perfection, though frangipani and hibiscus replaced the older, temperate species of Oxbridge. The campus of Makerere University College was, despite its tropical location, serene and green, and I have to confess that I spent some of the most rewarding years of my life there, and certainly never came across anywhere so intellectually exciting as Makerere was then. For my student days, I spent my time in Livingstone Hall where I passed the time with other members of my African Studies program lodged there. Chief among these was a wonderful Ghanaian called Emanuel Hansen. Strangely, he was always known not as ―Manny‖ but as ―Emma,‖ which was guaranteed to confuse people meeting him for the first time. Generally they expected to meet some desiccated Danish lady anthropologist instead of a jovial West African, well-rounded physically and mentally. He always had a wry smile, had the capacity to sum up people very quickly, and would then find an appropriate moniker for them. One of our friends had a terribly earnest girl friend— American I think—who looked like an anorexia case (though before we were aware of such things and they had not become, if you will pardon the expression, the staple diet of the magazines at the checkout). He mused over her for a while, and the next time he brought her up in conversation, she was dubbed ―stick insect.‖ We immediately knew about whom he was talking in those days before political correctness. In those heady days of independence discussions were frequent, animated and inevitably ideological. After all, at the time Emma and I were sitting on the slope of the sunken quad around which Livingstone Hall was built, he gnawing incessantly on a big shaft of sugar cane and I craving chocolate, which always melted to fast for real enjoyment, the ―outside world‖ was moving rapidly toward 1968. Nearly all of that was quite unintelligible to us, and the broad sweep of African wars of liberation, neocolonialism, and Panafricanism filled our horizon.
The conversations of an evening in each others‘ rooms were far more likely to be about the Unilateral Declaration of Independence by Rhodesia on November 11, 1965, than about Hue, DaNang or any of those places that peppered the news over the short wave or the pages of the foreign press. We never had the slightest idea what the ―Tet Offensive‖ was, or achieved, but we could tell you exactly when Mr. Ian Smith declared his newly independent state a Republic. Life in Livingstone Hall (all the halls were named after white folk in my recollection) was laid back, even more privileged in its context that Oxford or Cambridge, and well-regulated. Meals were served in the dining hall where students gathered in the distinctive red gowns of Makerere (all the British traditions were transported intact to Equatorial Africa). Here the ethnic composition of urban Uganda first became obvious, for the meals fell into two categories: African and South Asian. I had not realized, before I arrived, that Uganda had a substantial ―Indian3‖ population that effectively controlled the retail and service sector, as well as most of the professions. The African students always told me that the Indians had been brought as ―coolies‖ to build the East African Railway from Mombassa to Entebbe. The Indians, on the other hand, said that the indentured labor that had built the line, and survived the man-eating lions, had returned to India, and that the current generation was descended from entrepreneurs who, partly at Mr. Churchill‘s behest, came to help build what he had called the ―Pearl of Africa.‖ The Indians were very sensitive about being called ―coolies,‖ and Emma Hansen would always throw in this term if an argument that included Indian students was sagging. In his case it was always good natured. Back to the question of diet. The African students seemed to subsist on an unchanging diet of matoke. This is a cooked (steamed) form of a variety of plantain. Huge bunches of green matoke bananas dominated the markets of the south of Uganda, and could be bought for 30¢. This yellow starch staple was supplemented by beans for protein and sometimes a peanut sauce. But it was basically the same meal day in and day out. That merely reflected the eating patterns of most African families, and tribes identified quite strongly with their staple crop. Herein lay a problem, because Uganda—or more correctly Buganda, the people around the northern shore of Lake Victoria, was blessed with a climate that ensured food production all year, and so the Baganda had wisely chosen a tree crop that needs little tending, and will produce through the year and for many years. On the other hand, many of the African students were not from Buganda—and tended to resent the upper hand that the Baganda had always had during the period of loose British rule. Matoke was not their staple, and worse than that, it was connected in their minds as the food of the Baganda. Not only did they miss their staple—maize or millet from the drier seasonal areas where bananas would not flourish, but they did not like the idea of ―eating someone else‘s food.‖ The poor fellow who ran the dining services, a Muganda of small stature, was constantly assailed about the ―ethnic bias‖ of the food he provided. He pointed out that the university
The Asian population was always referred to as ―Indians‖ because they came originally from British India. Today they would be Indians, Pakistanis, and Bangladeshis.
was bang in the middle of banana country, and the markets did not stock millet or maize, because (―civilized?‖) people did not eat it around here. Whatever, the diet never changed, and actually was well balanced and wholesome. But, there was one alternative, and that was to ―go Asian,‖ as it was described. This was terra incognita for me, being born to a solidly meat and potatoes generation fighting postwar rationing in Britain. I remembered only too well, at college, listening to the remark of one of my fellows when the matron ―experimented‖ with a choice of meal of some questionable ethnic provenance. ―Foreign food,‖ he said. ―I hate it—it‘s always greasy, or its full of uneatable spices that burn your nerve ends, or you end up throwing it up later.‖ That seemed a fairly comprehensive indictment, until he added: ―…and there‘s never enough of it.‖ But, at a point where I was matoked out, and this was a sentiment shared by Ghanaian Emma Hansen who looked at me and said ―if I see another banana I‘m going to see if you can beat people to death with them.‖ He was a spicy fish, pimento and hot soup man from the White Man‘s grave. We sat for a while with the Indians, who normally conversed in Gujerati, but they welcomed us, explained the lie of the culinary land, and we took the leap. From that day forward we were total converts, and ate together many times in the poorer Indian restaurants (that were not trying to cater to the Europeans).4 On my field work travels, it was always a delight to stay with the uncles and cousins of our dining colleagues from Livingstone, and I always treasured every opportunity to go to the Western kingdom of Bunyoro, where the Indian family there never failed to send me home with a huge jar of sweet mango pickle (murba). An unfortunate outcome of this dietary division was that the groups tended to sit together. We floated—the non-banana eaters. Conversation was lively and uninhibited, and it was not long before I realized that for the most part this was a real community in which—strange though it may seem—you did not notice the race of the people with whom you talked. I clearly remember someone asking me about a person I had mentioned ―is he an African?‖ I had to think about it. However, with the iron grip that the Indians had on the non-agricultural economy, the basis for tension was always there. The British had tried to protect the Africans on the land, first by granting them title to their land, then forbidding the ―alienation‖ of the land à la Kenya, and thirdly allowing the Protectorate authorities to take over the marketing of agricultural crops, in order the eliminate the Indian middleman. Kampala, the commercial capital of Uganda, wherein the university was situated, was largely an Indian town in terms of its appearance to the outsider. There were European suburbs with lawns and gardens; there was a huge African open market; there was the National Parliament and attached to it was Mmengo—the all-African capital of Buganda where lived King Freddie. But, the thing you noticed was the Indian business district with its dukas and offices and services. Go into one of these shops—all family businesses—and like as not you would find a lad of 10 helping out, who was happy to speak to you in
And here was another curiosity. A number of my colleagues at the University were from the United States. The racial categories used by everyone were European, Indian and African. The Americans could never get used to the idea of being called ―Europeans,‖ though it is no more absurd than the US habit of calling their whites Caucasians.
English, Gujerati, Swahili or Luganda. These children never failed to make me feel inadequate to the bone. So, in the daily flow of life, the buying and selling was an Asian domain for the Europeans and, apart from basic foodstuffs, for the Africans. Bargaining was de rigeur and, like many Britishers of my generation I hated it. As I had been told once ―a gentleman never discusses money.‖ I usually took Emma along as he was a master and could keep the gambit going for, as he put it ―as long as it takes.‖ I admired him secretly for this, and he seemed to accept as natural of a ―colonialist,5‖my total inability to engage in the to and fro, cut and thrust and endless amateur dramatics of this game. At lunch one day I was discussing this with him and asking him what was the secret. ―Well, many years ago, I studied Gujerati arithmetic.‖ This immediately, and not unnaturally since there is no such thing, caught the attention of our dining clique. One of the many Patels (Emma called them all Patel regardless) immediately looked up and said ―What in the world is Gujerati arithmetic?‖ ―I am astonished you do not know,‖ said Emma. ―In most parts of the world we work with basic arithmetic, which is 2 plus 2 = 4. But in Gujerati arithmetic we say 2 plus 2 is 5 minus 20%.‖ That brought the house down. One final observation on eating in Livingstone: to get to the dining room, everyone had to cross the quad—there was no other way. Lunch was precisely at 1. Even more precisely, at 12:45 this Equatorial climate would demonstrate its regularity by releasing a huge amount of water in a short space of time. It never seemed to vary, and so you always arrived at lunch soaked. For those who like order in their life, lacustrine Uganda was the place—it rained every day, the sun rose and set at the same time and seemingly in an instant, and there were no discernable seasons. Emma, from monsoonal coastal Ghana found this one of the greatest challenges to bear. From time to time I was granted parole from the Livingstone regime by house sitting, which meant that you inherited not only the house but the servants. While this was good practice for my Swahili, it did not come naturally to me to move into an ―Upstairs/Downstairs‖ situation. I felt perpetually uncomfortable (a student with servants?) because the whole thing felt unnatural, and it also was intimidating if I was trying to work. If they had crashed around it would have been fine. However, they discretely went about their business like ghosts—which was far more invasive and unsettling. You also got glimpses into the lives of others—such as the literature professor who told me, just as he was leaving and I was temporarily moving in: ―and in extremis there is a loaded crossbow under the bed.‖ Another professor, who was paranoid about burglars told me ―They broke into my house so many times that I decided to get a gun and keep it by my bed.‖ ―Did it work?‖ I inquired. ―No, the buggers broke in and took it while I was asleep.‖ On one occasion, I was subject to a burglary myself, while house sitting for a wonderful eccentric, John Weatherby, whose brother was a big man in the Jockey Club back in England. In fact, the thieves were intent on taking the wheels off my car, and I heard them, so moving to investigate I was told by one of them to go back to bed. Since they were four, and armed with pangas (broad-blade knives originally used for cutting sugar cane), I complied. But, as my car was a very unsavory, and rare, shade of green, I was able to buy the wheels back in the market the following morning.
He always called me that—everyone in Emma‘s world had a nickname
The only long-term counterpoise to my life in Livingstone was when I happened to meet fellow Welshman Dr. Martin Lewis and his wife Margaret. Martin was a pathologist at the prestigious Mulago Hospital in Kampala. This institution had produced pioneering work on sickle cells and Karposi’s Sarcoma long before AIDS made these things all too well known. Dr. Lewis worked with a very powerful team of researchers, one of whom had the unlikely name of Gabriel Horn. They invited me to lunch with them on a regular contributory basis, which provided a sort of home-away-from-home. The two partners could not have been more different: Martin an intense, dark prototypical Welshman, and Margaret a tall, willowy Scot who faced everything with equanimity. Lunch was always interesting as Dr. Lewis lived and breathed forensic pathology and induced in me a lifelong passion in the subject. From time to time he would come home with specimens, including on one memorable occasion, a foot in a clear plastic bag like a goldfish. This, of course, provided hours of entertainment for Fiona and Richard—their small children. This is not to suggest that Dr. Lewis was bringing these things home in a spirit of entertainment. He was so wedded to his work that even meat and potatoes would not take his mind off it. Either that, or he would muse about the ―morning‘s work,‖ (did you have a nice day at the morgue dear?) We learned to accept these tales in the spirit of scholarly rumination in which they were offered. On the other hand, I cannot imagine the impact on someone walking in. I distinctly remember several classics: ―Not much problem determining cause of death in the first one this morning. The ax was still in his nut.‖ ―So they bring in this woman, and the label says ‗bronchial pneumonia.‘ Except she has over 150 major fractures and breaks. Nothing in my training touched on coughing yourself into a splintered bag of bone fragments. It took most of the morning before I found someone who told me she threw herself off the roof.‖ ―I got in trouble again. I sent off the holiday films from our trip to Mombassa and forgot that I finished the last roll off on the decapitation case we had. The laboratories phoned to say that their technician had fainted right away, and that the police had been informed.‖ On those rare occasions when you could force him out of his necrotic environment, he went at it with the same single-mindedness. Someone—I don‘t remember who—had convinced him of the therapeutic value of fishing, and so he asked me to join him for a trip to Ninja: the source of the Nile where it flows out of Lake Victoria. Downstream of the huge flumes at the base of the dam was supposed to be some superior fishing. He had acquired all the kit, and rented a boat. I suspect he knew no more about fishing than I, but I asked him ―what are we fishing for?‖ ―Perch boyo,‖ he said with gusto. I don‘t think I have ever seen a perch, dead or alive. ―What sort of fish is it?‖ I inquired. ―No idea, but let‘s get one. I‘m prepared for anything and have a 30lb line.‖ So, off we go and pretty soon we are into the typical round of complex explanations for why absolutely nothing is happening. Well, we were soon relieved of that torpor. A perch bit. ―Good God Almighty,‖ said Lewis as the line ran out in a blur. For the next hour he wrestled with whatever was on the line,
but to give him his due, by the end of the afternoon he had landed a 92lb perch. ―What in the hell is that?‖ he said as he drew the vanquished fish to the side of the boat. ―I guess that must be perch,‖ was the best I could offer. Later that same day, as they always say in theater programs, we returned home. Margaret had remarked that some fresh fish would make a ―nice change.‖ Between us we placed this thing, bigger than both their children combined, into the sink. Margaret came into the kitchen after we had deposited the fish, and we heard the scream clear across the lawn. It was in the company of the Lewis family that my domestic life took another curious turn. Their house was situated on the other side of a coppice (if one may use such a temperate term for tropical trees). On the campus there were several of these treed areas to separate different zones. So, my journey to work was through one of these. One morning I became aware that I was being followed. Not just that there was someone behind me, but that it was pacing me precisely. I stopped; they stopped. I turned round suddenly to surprise my adherent—but it was I who had the surprise. There on the path behind me, clear three feet tall, was the national symbol of Uganda: the Crested Crane or Crown Bird. This is a magnificent, long-necked gray bird with accents of red and black and a very conspicuous yellow ―crown.‖ The point is, you normally saw these from a distance, and they were not in the habit of mingling with humans. I had absolutely no idea what to do. I carried on with my journey, and so did she. Indeed the bird followed me all the way to the door to my office, and then went back into the woods. Later, he followed me every day, and would wait at the bench outside the office until I came out. This seriously alarmed the Ugandan students for whom the proximity of the Crested Crane is a harbinger of death. Then the bird would follow me home and just before I turned off to the Lewis‘ home—she veered off into the woods. This was to have one very memorable consequence. Makerere attracted some very distinguished speakers from abroad for its public lecture series. Abba Eban of Israel was followed by Professor C. A. Coulson of the Mathematical Institute in Oxford—and academic patron of my oldest friend. Even though I didn‘t imagine that I would understand anything in his field of chemistry, I went along because my friend had talked about Coulson for several years, and went on to prepare his biography. I was sitting there in a mental fog on the end of a row when Coulson paused and looked beyond me. There, coming up the aisle was the bird. This, after all, is a creature with a seven-foot wing span. The bird was very discreet, and paused beside me taking my sleeve in his beak and indicating it was long past the time when we should have walked back through the woods. I could not leave and she, I thought, got the message and started out the way she had come in. The audience was transfixed, but
then settled back down to a world of valence and the like. Then, to my horror, I saw the bird come up the steps behind Coulson on the stage. The venerable professor was, of course unaware of all of this, but was aware of a seeming surge of interest in chemistry. The bird slowly came up behind Coulson, and then rose in the air extending its wings fully, and emitting a tremendous screech. Professor Coulson‘s reaction was swift and dramatic, for he turned around to see this avian monster going berserk behind him. I left quickly to go and get the bird, but the bird seeing me leave, made its own exit promptly down the back stairs. Chemistry was never so exciting.
During the first year of my studies in Uganda getting around was made easy by two things: the gift to our program of a long wheelbase Land Rover by Rockefeller; and my meeting with a reporter called Pamela. The Land Rover was always available to us with sufficient notice, and there were not that many people doing fieldwork in the good old sense of the word. Many of the participants were deep in the archives, or the library. Those braving the elements were generally the geographers and the anthropologists. However, the anthropologists usually needed to get some place, and stay there while they studies the kinship structure or the meaning of dreams. So, they could not have the vehicle for fear it would never come back should they ―go native.‖ So, the geographers always held the trump card, because they were always ―going places,‖ and needed maps and things, so they must be serious. Furthermore, since my fieldwork covered the whole country, I never got into the need to develop camping skills, though the program had some Barnum and Bailey sized tents that I believe Henry V used at some point. My purposes were served by the network of rest houses that had been established by the colonial government for officers doing the rounds. These were cheap and strategically located. Furthermore, they could provide you with the same chance encounters that airlines provide. You never knew who or what you would meet at these establishments. They provided a steady fare of meat and vegetables, with some variety provided by the chance that the cook had, at some point, worked for Indians and had not been destroyed by British cuisine and the desire to boil the goodness out of everything, and to deep-fry everything else. The furniture in these rest houses was always the same, and was known as ―Public Works Department‖ furniture— which always provided a home-away-from-home feeling because the furniture in university accommodation was the same. What it lacked in comfort it made up for in reassuring familiarity. Chance encounters were nearly always good, unless you met someone who had compensated for some social or psychological Achilles‘ heel by befriending alcohol in a big way. One engineer from Manchester explained how the system of home leave enabled him to have two completely separate families, with children, on two continents. He said it worked out well, especially as neither party was aware of the other, and this had been going on for quite some time. He fell silent when I asked him about his retirement plans. All good things must end I suppose. He was somewhat easier to deal with than the man with the chimpanzee in the diaper.
Beyond the Ruwenzoris
I have always had an insatiable love of small, remote places, which is why I chose to be born in Wales. To the west of Uganda there were two of them: Rwanda and Burundi. From the moment I arrived in East Africa I had been itching to go to both of them, but first I vowed to drive to Rwanda. Since it was a territory built on a cattle-keeping aristocracy for centuries, it had a natural interest for me, even though the ruling minority, the Tutsis, accounting for about 10 per cent of the population, had long since been deposed, and their king exiled. Those Tutsis who left went to Uganda where they remained a perpetual thorn in the side of the Hutu majority government, eventually overthrowing it after the massacre of nearly half a million Tutsis in the early 1990s. The neighboring country, Burundi, no less attractive, was an unattainable dream because the country had been in inter-tribal turmoil for some time, though the Tutsis were still firmly in charge down there. The old king of Burundi, or Mwami, Mwambutsa IV to give him his official title, had an extraordinarily long reign, having been around to greet the Germans when they came to add his territory to German East Africa before the First World War. He spent most of his time in Geneva married to a Swiss exotic dancer. I looked him up at one point in the local Swiss telephone directory and was surprised to find him listed him there under Mwambutsa, with the wonderful descriptor occupation roi. He was overthrown, just before my first visit to Rwanda, by his son who, between July and November of 1966 became Ntare V—last king of Burundi6. It seemed for a moment that I would be able to go there, so I went to the Burundi embassy in Kampala to get a visa. The embassy was located over a store, and was singularly lacking in furniture. It had a metal desk and two basic chairs. Resting on the floor, propped against the wall was a portrait of the former king. The representative of Burundi was immensely tall, as were most Tutsi, and very lean. He was wearing an electric blue suit that looked as though it was run off a concealed battery. When I announced my intention of visiting his country, he rummaged around in his drawer for the appropriate form, but finding none, he withdrew a legal-sized notepad and asked me ―what sort of questions do you imagine would have been on the form?‖ We pondered this bureaucratic conundrum for a while and came up with some possibilities that seemed to please him. Then, satisfied, he stamped the impressive visa into my passport. At that point he asked me for an inordinate amount of money. I told him that I thought these items were free. He countered with a lower bid, and eventually ended up with a request for a carton of 200 American cigarettes. I should not have been surprised, I suppose, his being a representative of a country that, at one time, broke of diplomatic relations with the United States by sending a letter to the State Department by sea mail. What did I know about these places? First they lay high in the mountains that divided the East African plateau from the huge, forested lowlands of the Congo Basin. Unlike the dark
The lad had a tragic life—first of all hanging around for a father, who had been in place from 1913, then ruling for a few months, and finally being slaughtered by the Hutu in an uprising in 1972. Indeed, Mwambutsa outlived his son, and died in 1978. A Greek with a grudge butchered another son, Crown Prince Louis Rwagasore.
rain forest, these two countries supported, on their resilient volcanic soils, quite extraordinary population densities. Indeed, Rwanda managed to support in the, mid-1960s a population density akin to that of the Netherlands, and virtually all of the people deriving a living by working the soil. To manage this they had, over the centuries, constructed amazing hill terraces that resulted in entire mountain ranges being sculpted and put to the use of man. It rained a lot there, and that, along with the volcanic soils, made the place exceptionally productive in contrast to most of Africa with its poor, worked-out soils. Both countries were land-locked, though they had access to Lake Tanganyika, but that did them little good in terms of moving goods, and Uganda was full of trucks en route for the two mountain states making the journey to and from the port of Mombasa in Kenya. Apart from that there was pitifully little contact, and the element of remoteness and mystery made them all the more interesting to me, and made me ever more determined to go there when the opportunity presented itself, though I could never find anyone who had made the journey. Alas, I was never able to put that Burundi visa to the test, but I traveled in 1966 with my Rwanda visa in the long-wheel-base Land Rover so generously provided to the African Studies Program by the Rockefeler Foundation in New York. The journey took me through some of the most indescribably beautiful country in the world—the mountains of Uganda‘s southwestern province of Kigezi. Within Uganda the roads were good, and well maintained, even when they were ―murram‖ or dirt surfaced. I stopped in Kigezi, exhausted and covered with a fine film of sticky red dust. There were many roadside cafes along the way, and their fare was generally good and sustaining. As I sipped my tea and devoured my eggs, a tall, ramrod-straight European entered, and seeing me asked if he might join me. He was clearly both elderly and German. I asked him what his business was in that part of the world, and he replied that he represented Coca-Cola and Fanta. This seemed wholly incongruous, but I had learned to expect anything in this neck of the woods. My next question, by way of making conversation, was to ask him his nationality. He rather surprised me by saying ―Prussian,‖ which entity I had taken to have been erased from the political map long since. I imagined him as some sort of shade of the Germans who, representing the German East Africa Company, had managed the trade of Ruanda-Urundi before the Allies during the First World War displaced them. He would have fitted in perfectly there. Indeed, this part of the world, Ruanda-Urundi as so many stamp collectors knew it, had a delightfully singular history, and matched well the cavalier way that European Powers played with African pawns in the nineteenth century. Originally these two mountain fastnesses had been added to German East Africa (later to become Tanganyika, and then Tanzania). This was a natural maneuver as these two territories were geographically part of the edge of the great East African plateau, and their ruling tribe had migrated from the highlands of Ethiopia ages past. The Germans had not been able to do much beyond establishing some fortifications and trading posts. The extraordinarily dense population that covered the hills precluded much in the way of European settlement, and the place was, after all, seven-hundred miles from
the nearest German sea port at Dar es Salaam. But before they could make much of an impression on anything, this remote outpost of empire was caught up in the First World War, and became the scene of fighting, with the British advancing from the north east, and the Belgians from their territory in the Congo Basin to the west. One of the more remarkable events of this war was the carrying, in pieces, of two British armored craft through the entire Congo to be placed on Lake Tanganyika where they disposed of the German fleet. The very eccentric British officer in charge of this mission expressed his oddity in two ways: one by making his ratings wear skirts, and the other in naming a British warship ―Fifi.‖ The bulk of the victorious war was carried by the Belgian troops, all fired up with a fervor over the occupation of their colonial motherland by the Germans. However, this produced an embarrassment for the British because the Belgians continued to proceed beyond Ruanda-Urundi into former German East Africa toward the railhead at Tabora. This was extremely bad news for the British as they saw their dream of the Cape to Cairo railroad compromised by a Belgian presence right across the line of potential permanent way. The British firmly approached the Belgians to stop right there and turn around. On the other hand, the Belgians were the allies of the British and one could not be too hard on them. A compromise was worked out in 1923, whereby the Belgians got to keep Ruanda-Urundi and added it as an appendage to their Congo territory. This was a geographical madness, as Ruanda-Urundi belonged to East Africa, not the Congo Basin. That is how the people of this area ended up speaking French and falling victim to one of the most incompetent of all colonial powers. But that was the way of the world then. The indigenous people had no say in any of this. The British ended up with Tanganyika as a League of Nations mandate, and they never did complete their Cape to Cairo railroad. The Belgians were exponents, in Ruanda-Urundi at least, of Frederick Lugard‘s famous ―indirect rule‖ principle, which, for reasons of economy chose to co-opt the ruling structure of the captured or ―protected‖ territory and use it to do their bidding. The British had done the same in Uganda using the Kingdom of Buganda. This maintained the wedge between the majority Hutu and the ruling Tutsi, which was to have terrible consequences many times later, culminating in the hideous massacres in Rwanda in 1994. They even imposed their language division, French and Walloon, on the territory as though things were not bad enough. As I drew close to Rwanda the horizon was dominated by the enormous bulk of the great volcanoes, on the sides of which dwelled the gorillas—to be made so famous later by Diane Fossey and others. Greatest of these, Virunga, was smoking as I drove and reminded one once more of the huge primordial mass of the African continent. The condition of the road deteriorated and massive swamps began to appear on either side of the thin trail. Eventually, in the middle of what appeared to be the heart of nowhere, a crude bamboo barrier traversed the road. To the right, in French and Flemish, stood a faded sign that read ―Welcome to the Belgian Congo. Remember to drive on the right.‖ This was some four years after independence. A heavy sense of equatorial torpor hung over everything, and at first I took the post to be unmanned. But I was mistaken, for a disheveled soldier, aroused from his slumber, ambled toward the Land Rover. In French he greeted me, and asked me
for my passport. The passport, and visa, seemed to satisfy him. However, he then proceeded to ask me for the ―carnet‖ for the vehicle. I had asked at the Rwanda embassy in Kampala, whether I was in possession of all the necessary documents to make this journey by road, and they had assured me that I was. Now I was being asked for something of which I had never heard, but without which I was clearly going no further. I would, he told me, have to return to Kampala to get it, and this was clearly out of the question being something in the region of several hundred miles. My only hope, he said, was to discuss this with the chief of the gendarmerie who, alas, was nowhere to be found at the moment. I could, however, wait for him in his office occupying a commanding position above the road. I ascended and looked around. There was clearly nobody there, and the walls were covered in posters dating back to the joys of the Belgian suzerainty. Time passed slowly, and I began to realize that it was possible that the man in charge of the frontier might not be coming in today. To pass the time I riffled through the pads on his desk and happened to notice one on pink paper headed ―Carnet de Voiture.‖ I inserted it in the typewriter and filled in all the necessary boxes, and then proceeded to stamp it with everything I could find on his desk. It looked amazingly impressive, and with it I strolled back to the frontier post. ―Is this what you are looking for?‖ I asked in French. ―Mais oui. Cest ca,‖ he replied, and waved me through the first do-it-yourself frontier post I had ever encountered. From here on the road worsened rapidly, deteriorating into a rock pile of volcanic stones that reduced my driving speed to a crawl. Soon, according to a crudely lettered sign, I entered the ―Ville de Ruhengeri.‖ I had never in my life seen anything so run down. Another sign, almost obliterated by languishing goats, directed me to the ―Centre de Commerce.‖ The same person named this, I imagined, as named Greenland. Along the main street was the outpost of a venerable British trading company, though it did not appear that the people I saw had enough money to maintain any business. I bought some provisions and fueled the thirsty Land Rover. However, one could not escape the majesty of the mountains that formed the backdrop of this benighted place. What man hath wrought amidst the majesty of Nature. I did, nevertheless, have that tingle of excitement that accompanied entering any new country, especially one so rarely visited as the new Republic of Rwanda: the ―Switzerland of Africa,‖ as it called itself. It was now getting toward evening, and I did not want to travel this road in the dark. Lord knows it was hard enough in the daylight. However, it did have the benefit of being almost bereft of traffic. And so it was that I passed my first night in one of the guesthouses at the Kagera National Park—which was to be the scene of much fighting during the later trouble. At that moment, I have to confess it was an island of civilization. The welcome was warm, and the food was good. All around was that rare and intimidating commodity of total silence. It was, even in the dark, primitively beautiful. The next day‘s driving took me to the capital, if such a term can be used, of Kigali. At that time it had a population of 9,000, and a curfew that prohibited anyone not living there from roaming the streets. It had one of the few stretches of asphalted road in the entire country, and it felt like driving on velvet. The city stood atop a hill, and still had a few buildings
dating back to German times. The post office, for instance, still bore the letters DOAG (Deutsch Ost-Afrika Gesselschaft) from the time the German East African Company operated here. The civic buildings stood in pride of place on the hill, and the main commercial street descended from it and provided the necessities of life. One curious fact was that Rwanda had the highest per-capita consumption of cigarettes in the world. This was not because the Rwandans were addicted to nicotine, but because they were heavily engaged in smuggling. They imported the cigarettes all the way from Mombasa duty free, and then shipped them back to Uganda—through which they had passed on their journey from the coast—to sell at a premium. At first it was hard to believe that this tiny burgh was the capital of a sovereign member of the United Nations. It looked as though a 1 per cent tax on the entire population would barely cover the airfare to New York. But, in its ramshackleness lay a charm that was never to be dispelled. Everyone moved at a languid pace, though the climate here was bracing, as a result of the considerable altitude. I had already discovered that it was possible to stay with the fathers at the mission, and so I made my way to their settlement below the town. They provided me with spartan accommodation, and I settled in for the period of my fieldwork. My task in hand was to find out what, if anything, was going on that related to the traditional livestock industry. This had an intriguing history worthy of some mention. The ruling Tutsi were cattle people from the depths of time, and had migrated here, with their stock. Because of their mobility, being herders rather than farmers, they had the opportunity to establish over the agricultural Hutu an almost feudal domination. The possession of cattle among the Tutsi was associated with status and ―wealth,‖ though in a rather un-western sense of the term. To own cattle was to establish your standing in society, and so the acquisition of them had more importance than the mere meat, milk, and profit of our farming systems. To obtain the extraordinarily beautiful cattle with their dewlaps, soft eyes, and huge lyre-like horns, the Hutu had to subjugate themselves to the Tutsi in a relationship known as Buhake. It is hard to explain this in terms of modern, western society, but it was very effective. The Hutu, in return, had to perform services of obligation to their Tutsi patrons. Though they could acquire cattle, the Hutu could never acquire status in the Tutsi-dominated system. Ethnically the Hutu belonged to the great mass of the Bantu people, and shared little in common with the tall, angular Tutsi. The Belgians, who ruled through the Tutsi for nearly half a century, achieving remarkably little in the way of modernization for the country, had absorbed the Buhake system. I made my way around the pint-size ministries that had anything to do with cattle, and found everyone—well, everyone who had turned up for work anyway—friendly in an uncompromisingly laid-back way. They gladly handed over buff files with the words Ruanda Urundi still boldly impressed on the cover. Dutifully, I copied down all the data I needed, and became a regular sight around the crowded, sparsely furnished offices of government. Outside each of these flew the Rwanda flag, three vertical bands in the African colors of green, yellow and red, with a huge letter R in the yellow band. That was
helpful to flag spotters, as almost every African country had some combination of these three colors. Out on the streets small boys assailed you at every turn to buy carvings of Tutsi dancers or other pieces of woodwork. In due turn I made the rounds of the embassies to see whether they had anything going on that might have some bearing on my studies. In each case they spent a great deal of time with me, and I gained the distinct impression that there was not much else to occupy the time. That was, at least, until I ventured into the offices of the United States embassy, and its associated office serving the US Agency for International Development. Apart from being distinctly better than any other building in Kigali, the place was positively bustling; and was the only thing in Rwanda to which that word could be applied. In fact, it was going to take me several days to secure an appointment with anyone, as they were ―so busy.‖ When, at last, my ―window of opportunity‖ presented itself I met a man wearing a pocket protector containing eight pens. At the end of a presentation from him I realized with some astonishment that the all the operation in the office had to show for its bustle was some assistance to a cooperative jam-making venture. I asked a diplomat from another country what in the world all those people were doing in the US office, to which he replied, ―administering each other I suppose—they are Americans after all and cannot bear to relax.‖ There was still, at that time, a surprising number of Belgians lurking around the government offices in some sort of ―advisory‖ roles, and several of them explained to me wonderfully grandiose agricultural projects, that they called paysannats, that looked a good deal less exciting on the ground when I later encountered them. ―These people,‖ one of them confided in me, ―do not understand the meaning of work. Though we try so hard, I fear little will come of our efforts.‖ He was right there. One evening I was liberated from the Catholic brothers by an invitation from one of the American families. At that time I had not met many Americans and did not really know what to expect. The hospitality was warm and welcoming, but the life style was something of a mystery to me. There seemed to be little compromise with the fact that they were living in Africa, and the kitchen was stocked as though they had just come back from the A & P. There were careful instructions from the embassy regarding the chemical cleansing of lettuce. The Americans, I was told, were putting money into modernizing the electricity generator at the bottom of the hill, as they relied heavily on electricity to maintain the pretense that they were still in Idaho. The local supply broke down regularly leading to a rush for the kerosene lamp, and an expression of total dismay as the air conditioner ceased to function. While I was waiting for the meal, I asked whether there was a telephone directory for Kigali, and with a smile, a political officer handed me a folded A4 page (four sides) with all the numbers in the city. The calls were made through an operator and, in a remarkably frank admission, the directory informed me that there were periods in the day when calls could not be put through. This was, the political officer informed me, ―so that the operator could answer, not the calls of the folks on the phone, but the calls of nature.‖ It seemed very practical to me, and indicated that the city had one operator at a time. I asked about the curfew that excluded non-resident Africans from the city. ―Oh, the Belgians
invented that, and the Rwandans retained it as a good idea for keeping the undesirables off the streets.‖ It was almost a year later, long after I had left Rwanda, that I made a return trip, this time in a venerable Black Mercedes that I had bought from a Belgian missionary fleeing the Stanleyville massacres to Uganda7. This time I was armed with a carnet and crossed the same dilapidated border without incident. On this occasion I decided to see more of the country, and I drove west across northern Rwanda toward the Congo border. This was too much driving for one day and so I paused at a guesthouse run by a Belgian and his two wives—both Tutsis. He asked me how many days I would stay, and since I had become entranced with the bucolic beauty of this place, I said ―two.‖ ―That‘s fine,‖ he responded. ―In that case I will give you a room with two beds.‖ I thought that a little strange, since I could occupy only one. So I asked him why I needed two beds. ―Oh, I don‘t trust these people to come in and clean you room, so I will give you the number of beds according to the number of nights.‖ I imagined that if I had planned a long-term stay, he would have ushered me into some sort of dormitory. He then asked me if I wanted a bath, which I very much did. So I accompanied him outside where he lit a fire under an old oil drum full of water, from which a pipe proceeded to my room. ―Pay attention, that water can take your skin off,‖ he alerted me. Both his wives were charming and attentive, and they looked after me really well. One of the wives accompanied me fully loaded with farm produce, on my departure from the highlands to the city of Gisenyi on Lake Kivu. It would be hard to imagine a more beautiful spot in all the world. The town faced onto the water and had a corniche fringed with palms. The overall effect was totally Mediterranean except for the population. Here was made the excellent beer, and a plant extracted methane from deep in the lake. With a little imagination one could be on the approaches to Monte Carlo. In the hills around grew the excellent arabica coffee that helped this country try to pay its way on the international scene. Just across the border was the Zairian city of Goma, and the prospect of adding another new country to my list. I went there to have lunch as I was told the fish was excellent. On the way I had to stop at the customs and immigration post that divided Rwanda from Zaïre8, which boasted a tin hut and the flag of, what was then, the Republic of the Congo. Inside the hut was a lieutenant, and he and I fell to chatting about this and that. He, like the diplomats in Kigali, had time on his hands, and passed the time of day. I was just about to depart when the door was flung open and a disheveled white youth was
The area around Stanleyville had been declared the Marxist People‘s Republic of the Congo and there were several atrocities involving Europeans. Eventually a force of mainly Belgian paratroopers invaded the place and that brought that breakaway nation to an end. It sometimes seems that the whole Congo Basin was invented with the mission of causing confusion. The French were, forever fiddling with the names in their possessions in the general area of the Congo, and then when the French and the Belgians both granted independence to neighboring countries called the Republique du Congo the two were distinguished by sufficing the name of their capital, e.g. Congo Brazzaville, or Congo Leopoldville. Then Leopoldville became Kinshasa. But at that point the French republic went socialist and became the People‘s Republic of the Congo, and the Belgian state became the Democratic Republic. But then the DR of Congo became Zaïre and simplified everything. Of course in 1997 Zaïre disappeared and became the DR of the Congo again. We wait to see what happens to the RP of the Congo.
hurled onto the ground. The corporal who had cast him down informed the lieutenant that the man was ―photographing the frontier.‖ Why anyone would possibly want to do this was beyond me, but he had clearly aroused their passions. Furthermore, it was evident that the young man, who was an American anthropologist, did not speak French. The lieutenant hurled questions at him in a very intimidating manner, and then announced to me that the man clearly ―worked for the CIA.‖ I would have thought that was a good thing since that organization was very visibly propping up their boss, general Mobutu, in Leopoldville (soon to become Kinshasa). ―Excuse me,‖ I ventured to the American, ―these folks say that you were photographing the frontier with some sinister purpose in mind. Is that so?‖ ―That is total bullshit,‖ he informed me, but I did not know how to translate that, so I told the lieutenant that he was photographing birds. The lieutenant clearly did not believe that, and told the corporal to ―take him outside and shoot him.‖ That seemed a little drastic, and so I told the lieutenant that the Americans were very peculiar about things like this, and before he knew it, there would be all sorts of unsavory pressure put on the government in Leopoldville. He could well become a scapegoat, though clearly he was only protecting the interests of his new nation. I also took the trouble to inform the American that if he had any last wishes he should let me know post haste. He did not believe a word of any of this, so I informed the lieutenant that the American was ―deeply regretful of any misunderstanding, and profusely sorry.‖ ―Could we not,‖ I proposed, ―settle this matter diplomatically and without bloodshed?‖ The lieutenant, who was at heart a reasonable man, responded, ―I shall trade him with you for twenty kilos of Gisenyi strawberries.‖ That seemed an excellent barter to me, and I informed the American that because of him I was now going to have to miss a good fish lunch, and drive back to Gisenyi. The corporal threw the American into the trunk of my car and told me not to take any nonsense from him. Some miles down the road I released the hapless Yank and informed him of what had passed. He still refused to take the matter in any way seriously. So I dropped him in Gisenyi, and bought a pail of strawberries, for which he was reluctant to pay, and drove back to the frontier to prove that a Britisher‘s word is still his bond. Graciously he shared the strawberries with me, and they were excellent. I almost wished the corporal would throw another American through the door. I asked the lieutenant when they stopped serving lunch in Gisenyi, and he told me I still had ample time. So it was that an excellent lunch was devoured in a setting that would later become the home of tens of thousands of Rwandan refugees after the massacres of 1994. But, even then, in 1966, the tranquillity was deceptive for the country west of us was in total turmoil as mercenaries and Katangese gendarmes roamed the land looting the banks. The general, in the capital, had sadly forgotten to pay any of these folks, and so they drew their own salary using explosives. I had one last mission. I had been carrying around a letter that I had written to my mother for some days now, and I vowed to post it. She was an excellent correspondent, even though she had not the faintest idea where any of these places were. In the post office I handed the letter to the solitary official. He said it would be, as I recall, 1,500 francs. I had nothing smaller, in this land beset with inflation, than a 5,000-franc bill, which he accepted without the prospect of change. He then started to tear of 10-franc stamps. ―Wait a moment,‖ I said, ―the total surface area of those stamps is several times greater than the
total area of the envelope—regardless of the fact that they will cover up the address.‖ ―But these are the only stamps I have,‖ he said apologetically. ―Just a moment, I will sell you a very big envelope, and then you will have plenty of space for the address.‖ ―Good idea,‖ I retorted, and he handed me a huge official envelope with the words Congo Belge at the top. I dutifully applied the stamps by overlapping them in strips, and then handed the envelope to him with a smile. ―Oh dear,‖ he said. ―The total weight of the envelopes and stamps is now too great for the stamps I sold you. It will be another 3,000 francs.‖ He started to tear off sheets of the 10 franc issues, and I said ―Thank you for all your help, I will take it to Rwanda.‖ Ah, bureaucracy. Since all the roads west of Goma were under siege from the mercenaries, I am astonished the postal official had anything at all to sell me. Some time later, at a garden party to celebrate the birthday of Queen Elizabeth in Kampala, I met the British High Commissioner who, it turned out, was also the ambassador to Rwanda. He knew that I had been there and asked me what I thought of the place. I conveyed some of my enthusiasm to him, and he confessed to me that he found the place ―terribly dull.‖ There were, it turned out, no British subjects there, and no commerce worth talking about, so there was nothing much to justify his monthly visits. ―Why don‘t you come along next time? We can surely find a spare bed in the embassy.‖ That was an offer too good to miss, and so it was that I found myself in a Land Rover with a British High Commission chauffeur, an member of the intelligence staff who was an expert on Turkic languages, and His Excellency himself. Before we ever got to Kigali the driver was lapsing into sleep and once almost delivered us into the swamp. The conversation was interesting as the ambassador asked me about my work at the university in Kampala, and whether or not I would ―keep an eye open‖ for events there that might be of interest to HM Government. This was the 1960s and Africa was in a state of continual turbulence and irascibility about the whole colonial epoch. Cuba, Russia and China were furtively making their way through the continent fomenting unrest in places as far apart as Ghana and Zanzibar. I had never thought of myself in the mold of a James Bond character, and I really didn‘t come across much, but I would remain ever alert in the service of Queen and Country. And so it was that I came to find myself, from time to time, living at the British embassy, and opening to the general public on the first Monday of every month. That did not seem too exhausting a schedule, and even then, virtually nobody came to the door on anything that could be called business. When they had asked me to undertake this guardianship of the frontier of British interest, the High Commission people told me that, in essence, ―nothing ever happened,‖ and so I was getting them off the hook, and there was little real damage that I could do. They were certainly wrong about the first part of that reassuring statement. However, when the time of crisis came, I was fortunate that I was not alone. On this occasion, the consular officer, whom I will call Bill, was there as well. As usual we settled down for a period of studied inactivity. We sat and chatted beneath the signed portrait of the Queen on the fireplace, graciously flanked by two candles lodged in beer bottles. Bill was an easy-going sort of
fellow, and not at all a member of the blue-blood brigade that dominated the Foreign Service at that time. We did the rounds of studied hospitality, and made a few trips out into the countryside giving a good impression of busy people, though we could never come close to the Americans in the AID office with their jam project. As a constant background to everything in Rwanda was the ongoing chaos next door in the Congo. Rwanda had a common border with the eastern province of the Congo with its twin urban centers of Bukavu and Goma. Gradually, the rampages of the mercenaries, and the Congolese troops who were in pursuit of them consumed the whole of this area. Towns were laid to ruin, and hundreds died or fled. It was anarchy plain and simple. It has to be remembered that Zaire is a vast country, something akin to Western Europe, with a feeble system of infrastructure. The roads were plain dreadful, and so it was a logistical nightmare to hold this somewhat artificial country together. Indeed, general Mobutu had engaged the mercenaries in the first place to put down regional insurrections such as Katanga, Stanleyville and the like, but now the mercenary system had turned against him. The group nearest to us was under the leadership of a former plantation owner from the eastern Congo, a Belgian known as ―Black Jacques‖ Schramme. Bill and I awoke one day to the news that the mercenaries, and some six-hundred Katangese followers, had been cornered around Bukavu and had backed across the Rwanda border, and were now occupying a tea estate in the town of Cyangugu (Shangugu). They were heavily armed and right at their backs were the soldiers of the regular Congolese army-thousands of them. Schramme played a trump card and informed the Rwandan authorities that either they got him and his men out of there, or he would take over the country. A first-class diplomatic crisis followed because Rwanda had no army to speak of, and was in no position to resist the mercenaries—Rwanda was theirs for the taking. On the other hand, it was unacceptable for an independent African country to be taken over by a bunch of armed foreigners (though this is precisely what happened on more than one occasion in the tiny insular republic of the Comoro Islands that were taken over by Maj. Bob Denard and his South African friends posing as a visiting sports team). The situation was interesting and immediately drew the attention of the Organization of African Unity, and the few European powers that had an interest in the area. This would have been an unfortunate precedent. Schramme contacted the International Red Cross (IRC), and said that if they would fly the mercenaries out, then that would be an end of the matter and Rwanda could revert to the Rwandans. This was too good an opportunity to miss, and the OAU clearly thought this got them off the hook too. Still, this event was nothing more than a local fascination for Bill and me. That is until there was a knock at the embassy door one evening. I opened the door to find a diminutive gray-haired lady standing there who looked, for all the world, as though she was collecting for the church fete. She introduced herself as the representative of the IRC and asked if she could come in and talk to us. The story she told changed a news story into a personal crisis. ―Six of these people are yours,‖ she announced, and we did not connect for a moment. ―Ours,‖ said Bill, ―in what sense?‖ ―These mercenaries in Cyangugu, six of
them claim to be British, but I cannot verify this because they have lost their passports.‖ How convenient, I thought. Bill looked perplexed. ―Lost their passports? That sounds a bit unlikely to me—I mean all of them?‖ ―Yes, and without their passports we cannot get them out of here,‖ said the IRC representative. ―We have lined up a plane to ship the lot of them off to Europe, but if they don‘t have valid documents we can‘t take them—you understand?‖ The lady spoke with a slight undertone of German origin in her voice, though I seem to recall that, in the best traditions of the IRC, she was actually Swiss. ―Do you have any details of these people?‖ Bill asked. ―Oh yes,‖ she responded, ―I saw them this morning and took down the following details.‖ With that she placed in front of us several pages of neat handwriting, one for each person. It did not take Sherlock Holmes to see what was going on here. At this point I can no longer remember the exact names, but the first three looked like van der Moerwe, Bothe and Pretorius. In other words they were from South Africa and had no right whatsoever to British documents. Bill was quick to point this out, and get himself off the hook. ―Well, of course, I realize that,‖ the lady said, ―but there is no representative of South Africa here—or anywhere else since that place is a pariah.‖ Bill, continued, hoping to ignore that unquestionably correct observation. The next two had British-enough names, but their place of birth was Rhodesia. This could be finessed as Rhodesia, having declared unilateral independence in 1965, was not recognized by anyone other than South Africa, and so, by default, remained technically British. Whether these persons were citizens, subjects or any other category it was hard to say precisely, but we did not have the time to indulge in niceties. The last one was definitely British; a twenty-one year old from Dundee, Scotland. ―Well, at a pinch I suppose I could work out something for the last three, but I don‘t want anything to do with the first three, thank you,‖ Bill explained. The lady looked grim and determined and said, ―If you don‘t take them, then no-one will, and monsieur Schramme has explained that it‘s all or nothing. You understand, we cannot have anyone undocumented. No-one.‖ She fixed Bill with a look of steel. ―I will see what can be done,‖ he responded. ―Meantime, I need more details. I will write down what I need, and I will have to have photographs—signed by someone reliable—stating that these are good likenesses of the people they are supposed to represent. Maybe I should go down and do this.‖ ―Ah no,‖ she responded immediately. ―It would be better to keep this to the existing channels. Tell me what you want and I will get it for you. I have a Polaroid.‖ ―Good God,‖ said Bill, as we quietly closed the door on the Swiss lady. ―I don‘t want to get stuck with this, so I am going to radio Kampala and see what they suggest.‖ A somewhat antique radio set had graced the corner table all the time we had been there, but I had never seen it used. Bill cranked it up, and through the ether established contact with the High Commission. Graham Greene could not have better scripted the conversation that followed. In short, Bill was told to keep his head, and that the procedure he had initiated was probably right. ―Bill, old man, check in the safe and see if there are any blank passports would you?‖ a very cultured voice inquired. ―Yes, there are in fact six,‖ Bill replied. ―In that case, this is what you should do.‖ If this were a film there would be a slow fade at this point, and I don‘t think I am at liberty to discuss the sleight of hand that was confided to
Bill. ―But what about these bloody South Africans?‖ he asked. ―Ah yes, delicate that. But, if it is a make or break for the rescue operation, I don‘t want us to get the opprobrium for putting the kibosh on it. Let them go. If you follow my instructions, they will arrest all these buggers at Heathrow anyway. The Red Cross is demanding that they sign a document attesting to the fact that they will never return to fight in Africa.‖ A clearly discernible chuckle was heard at the end of the line. Bill now had his orders, and he proceeded, next day once the photographs had arrived to prepare his doctored docs as he called them. I looked, intrigued, at the photographs. There was something totally unreal about these faces—soldiers of fortune as they called themselves. They were not people I would want knocking at the embassy door under any circumstances. I did not see such faces again until I spent time with the Spanish Foreign Legion in level Villa Cisneros, and with the French Foreign Legion in Beirut. The time had come, I thought, for reclassifying Homo sapiens into separate categories. Bill, his moment of glory over, passed across the documents to the Swiss lady, and the following morning all the mercenaries were flown out. This left the Katangese, who had no one to represent them in Kigali. They were, strictly speaking at that point, Congolese citizens, and so they were handed back under a broad agreement of good faith. Almost immediately they were all massacred by the Congolese troops. Somewhere in this chaos the British honorary consul, an Indian gentleman, in Bukavu disappeared off the face wrong of the earth. There is a curious footnote to this episode, other than the fact that the mercenaries were arrested in London. Some years later I was flying to Zambia on business, and I decided to buy a book to read on the long flight. The Dogs of War was the title of the book I bought, and I was astonished to discover that our exploit was there in detail (p.100). I then remembered a reported from East Anglia—a Norwich paper I recall—who had come calling at the embassy inquiring about the mercenaries. His name did not mean anything to me at the time, but it was Frederick Forsyth. A brief moment of glory for Bill and me. The account was, however; rather different from my recollection of events, but Mr. Forsyth was in the business of writing a novel, not history. After I had been elevated to some sort of representative—a king of diplomatic janitor was how I could best describe it—I had several more journeys to Rwanda. It was a truly magical place that could conjure up some of the most magical visions of loveliness. I remember, on one occasion, driving through the mountain country of the southwest and coming upon a group of Tutsi women, tall, endlessly elegant in their long, bright robes that served only to emphasize how tall they were. They were proceeding across the low arc of a bridge that led them over the top of a cascading waterfall that had been created by the outcropping of horizontal layers of volcanic rock. Behind them the trees rose from a deep ground mist, and the bright sunshine and the clarity of the air at this altitude enriched all the colors. It looked like a tableau vivant of classical times, and I just sat there and soaked it all up until the women, with their bundles of precious firewood on their heads, had vanished into the mist leaving me with the plash of the gentle waterfall. Periodically, the landscape would be transformed by a sudden mountain downpour that would have the effect of turning the roads into chocolate pudding, over which the car had almost no
traction whatsoever, usually leaving me too apprehensive to proceed, or with the vehicle nose-down in a ditch. As I have already mentioned, there was almost nothing to do, diplomatically speaking protecting British interests, and so I was able to get on with my research among the peasants who were introducing irrigated rice, with Taiwanese aid, to help offset the pressure of population on the food resources. Rice is the most productive of grains, and Rwanda has a lot of swamps that could be converted to irrigated land. On those occasions when I was doing my fieldwork, I tried to avoid turning up in the official car (CD 1 proudly embellished on the plates). I think I was one of the few graduate students to conduct his fieldwork behind a flag. The Taiwanese were in the process of tearing their hair out as they attempted to get the Hutu to work to a Chinese work schedule. It was evident that these two cultures were having a hard time getting in synch with each other. ―They simply do not know the concept of work,‖ one of the Chinese mission confessed one day after half the farmers failed to turn up. I pointed out that these farmers and workers on the rice scheme also retained their own farms further up the hill, and given a choice they would put the work needed to feed their family before they would put work on an alien irrigation project. Though the rice was supposed to ease the food problem, the severe pressure on land was too much for any individual farmer to neglect. The landscape of this country, now heavily stressed and overworked by—what was then one of the world‘s highest rate of population growth rates (doubling every 19 years or so)—was still a testimony to the ingenuity of traditional people. They had carried agriculture up into the soaring heights of the volcanic slopes over the centuries, and I suppose in earlier times, disease, war and other catastrophes kept the population growth within reasonable limits so things could happen gradually. Now, with the wonders of modern preventive and curative medicine—rudimentary though it might be in Rwanda— the constraints of Nature had been rolled back and the population was free to expand at terrifying rates. There was no way this packed landscape could support a doubling of the population in well under a generation. This place was headed for the sort of catastrophe that Rev. Malthus had predicted at the end of the eighteenth century.9 Anyway, whatever the eventual fate of this place, it was still breathtakingly beautiful, and it was impossible to tire of it. From time to time ―official obligations‖ could not be set aside by the pleasures of field research. In charge of all these events was the man who ruled my life—André. I am at a loss to say exactly what André‘s duties really were. He was a sort of major domo and fixer, though I never learned his real title. I learned never to make a move without him. Complementing him in the daily management of this corner of the United Kingdom was a
The Reverend Thomas Malthus examined the relationship between land and population about the time the French Revolution took off. He said that the world had only a limited amount of natural resources, whereas population had the capacity to grow astronomically. He saw this ending in famine, pestilence, starvation and war over competition for basic resources. Of course he could not foresee the agricultural revolution, but some believe that his basic tenet is ultimately correct, and Rwanda looked like a manifestation of his worst fears.
gardener of totally indefinable age, but manifest antiquity. I had not appreciated quite how long he had been around until one day, when he was informing me that (a) I had put up a flag of British India instead of the Union Jack (British India went away in August 1947); (b) I had put it up upside-down, I noticed that his enormous army greatcoat had brass buttons with the letters DOAG. Officers of the German administration that disappeared some time around 1915 wore these. But, back to André. His level of resourcefulness was a source of constant amazement to me. I can cite two examples that should establish his reputation as a character worthy of Graham Greene: The Case of the Purloined Sliver. One morning the elegant André was hovering around the breakfast table in a manner that always warned me that something was coming. ―Your Excellency,‖ he said, for in that totally inappropriate way he always chose to address me, ―I believe the Ministry of Works10 will be doing their regular inventory.‖ That piece of news was of almost monumental irrelevance as far as I could see, but André was clearly exercised about something. ―Well sir, I am responsible for everything in this building and will be held accountable for anything that has gone away.‖ I looked around wondering what had vanished that I had missed—nothing immediately suggested itself as looted. ―What‘s missing?‖ I ventured. ―The fact is,‖ he paused for effect, ―six teaspoons are absent.‖ ―Six teaspoons!‖ I said without taking care to disguise a laugh that escaped. ―You don‘t know these people, sir, they are very thorough. These teaspoons belong to a set with the royal cipher and we have to have a full set of everything, even though we have eleven times more settings than we can seat people around the table.‖ That seemed to settle it for me. ―Then it really doesn‘t matter André old man—we have heaps of spares.‖ But that was not the point, and André believed he could be hung for a spoon as easily as for the entire Royal Doulton. ―Look, if they‘re gone, they‘re gone and that‘s that,‖ I said, trying to sound philosophical and imparting solace simultaneously—but then a thought crossed my mind. ―André, do you happen, by any chance, to know were these teaspoons have gone?‖ ―Hmmm, yes,‖ he said, but added disconsolately ―it would be indiscreet for me to speak on that matter.‖ ―What?‖ I retorted, ―that‘s ridiculous,‖ but I knew that his lips were sealed. We stared at each other for a while, and then he looked at me thoughtfully and said, ―All I can tell you is that they disappear on Tuesdays . . .‖ The silence and fixed look at the end of that statement was the first physical expression of three periods I had ever encountered. I mused for a while about Tuesdays and then, with horror, realized that this was the day when we invited the Papal Nuncio and Madame X11 to tea. They were both partial to the Darjeeling, warmed pot, and all the other niceties of British tea making. They also, presumably, had nothing better to do. ―If I may suggest something, Excellency,‖ André proceeded, a new light behind his eyes though his posture had not changed. ―I am able to get the spoons back—‖ I stopped him
At this point in time I cannot recall whether it was the Ministry of Works or some other shadowy element of Her Majesty‘s government, but they will act as the Aunt Sally for this occasion. For reasons of preserving the balance of power among nations, I obviously cannot reveal the name of this lady or the country her husband represented.
abruptly, ―No, no I don‘t want you to do anything that will embarrass me or the embassy— you understand? I appreciate that you feel you will be fried by the British bureaucrats, but there are bigger issues at stake here.‖ He raised his hands to reassure me immediately, ―Absolutely not sir. I have a cousin who works at the XX embassy, and we can rescue this situation without anyone being embarrassed.‖ I knew I was being reckless, but I told him to go ahead. Tuesday arrived. André arrived with an elegant tray and maneuvered it so that the cup in one corner was closest to Madame X. She took the cup, and surreptitiously started to slide the spoon into her bag when she (and I) noticed that the spoon bore a dramatic emblem of a well-known European country that is not the United Kingdom. She must have got the message because, over the next six weeks, she would pocket one of her own spoons, and replace it with one she had purloined from us. Thus was war averted, and André‘s bacon was saved. The Military Mission. As I mentioned, there was little enough to do in terms of official business, but from time to time the powers that be would wake up to the fact that we were there. On one occasion they sent us an expert on giraffes, who promptly disappeared off into the bush. One day a communication arrived to say that some high-ranking military type was going to come and sell the Rwandans some much-needed hardware to the army. This seemed something of a waste of time, as Rwanda had no army to speak of. That did not deter them in the least, and they asked me to meet the officer at the airport. The problem was that CD 1 was out of service—I believe it was off chasing giraffes. I asked André how we were going to cope with this, and he replied—as always—that he had a cousin who could solve our problem. I felt a seep sense of apprehension, but knew better than to challenge the master. On the appointed day André turned up with a sleek black Mercedes of unknown provenance. I got in and he—now in the role of chauffeur—drove me to the airport. At the appointed hour the military gentleman exited the plane dressed like the governor of the Falkland Islands, complete with sword. He bluffed his way through the customs, and entered the car. All went well until we were about a mile from the embassy, and the whiteuniformed officer turned to me and said, ―This is an official visit, isn‘t it?‖ I was not sure what answer to give to this. ―Yes,‖ I said. ―Then, why do we not have the flag on the car?‖ I glanced up and caught small André‘s alarmed glance in the rear-view mirror. ―Oh, we are almost there,‖ I commented nervously. ―That makes no difference. We must keep up appearances.‖ He then poked André in the back, at which he flinched visibly. ―Put the flag on,‖ the military type insisted. Reluctantly André exited the car, removed the leather cover, and we made the rest of the journey behind the flag of the Chinese People‘s Republic. ―These limos all look I alike,‖ I attempted, but was met with a frosty silence. By 1968 my work in Rwanda was done, and I had no real reason to go back there, but I will always remember it as one of the most beautiful—and one of the most troubled—places on
Spies R Us
By taking myself off to Africa in the mid-1960s I managed, unintentionally, to avoid many of the defining moments in the lives of other people of my generation. It was, after all, the decade of Vietnam (a total mystery to most Britishers); the student riots in Paris, the Baader-Meinhoff group, the Red Army Faction, and other political concoctions challenging the fundamentals of western democracy. Sometimes I feel now as though I was residing on another planet during those times, especially when I get into conversation with people who were at the center of those events. I remember only one Vietnam protest in Kampala, and during that the students hurled rocks at the US embassy windows. Unfortunately, the American embassy was on high up in the building and the student rocks were only able to make it as far as the Germany embassy lower down, which took the brunt of the assault, despite having no interest in South-East Asia whatsoever. In Uganda the chief political concerns of those days were involved with defining what the nature of that new, and totally artificial, country would be, with reconciling long-standing tribal differences in this amalgam of old African nations, and with experimenting with the various forms of European ―socialism‖ that had been adopted by so many of the continent‘s countries. It was curious to me that countries would give up one form of European cultural and political domination so quickly for another. This soon after independence, and with Africa deep in the heady process of ―decolonization,‖ there was a constant whiff of paranoia and conspiracy in the air mainly containing the idea that the West would continue to interfere, covertly if not overtly, in the future of the continent. There was some real basis for such apprehension I suppose in those days. After all, for most of the history of Africa since the end of the fifteenth century, it had been the playground for the European powers and the Arabs. First slavery, and then colonialism. The assertiveness among my fellow African students was a natural reaction to generations of being commodities and subjects of other races. It often surprised me that they were as open and friendly with me as they always were after so much humiliation, patronization and humbug from Europeans on ―civilizing missions.‖ When Mr. MacMillan, the British Prime Minister, made his famous speech in Cape Town about the ―winds of change blowing through Africa‖ he was right. In the space of about ten years from 1958 to 1970, most of the former colonial protectorates, trust territories, and the like, had been brought into some form of doubtful statehood, independence and membership of the United Nations. This was a time of tremendous change and volatility. But, above all, for most of us it was a time of hope. Africa was about to come out of the long darkness and into the world community of free nations. That was, anyway, the hope, and we believed it, and we wanted to believe it. When the prospect of self-rule first became a reality in the mid-1950s some thought, though much too little, was given to the appropriate reconfiguration of the African political map, and the role of the state. After all, this was a one-time chance to make lasting changes and right old wrongs and nonsenses. It was not enough just to press for independence from European rule—the big question was ―what was the nature of the new Africa going to be?‖ Unquestionably the intellectual leader of this process was Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana—
which country gained its independence early in 1958.12 His idea was that the balkanization of Africa by the European nations had created a whole jigsaw of meaningless ―nations,‖ with which the majority of Africans could not identify, since these states did not in any way reflect any traditional organization of African states based on language or earlier indigenous conquests. Uganda was a prime example of this cobbling together of disparate peoples and languages, reflected in the fact that the news was read many times over in different languages on the radio so that most of the people could understand it. The only things holding these states together were, as far as I could tell: historical inertia; the vested interests of new politicians and power groups; a unifying nature of the former colonial language, and often a foreign religion—though Uganda had lots of these exotic faiths too, to add to the confusion. The alternative to limply accepting what the Europeans had drawn on the map of Africa, however, was for Africa to fly apart into dozens, if not hundreds, of tribal states. These, however, unlike the European-created ―nations‖ had real meaning ethnically and historically to the Africans who lived in them. This fragmentation had already happened in Biafra—and the first of many terrible wars was going on there while I was a student—and in the neighboring Congo where diamond-rich Katanga and South Kasai had broken away. The southern Sudan was in flames, and the Eritreans were fighting a guerrilla war that was to last for decades. Nkrumah preached a policy of ―Panafricanism,‖ and stated that ―Africa must unite.‖ However, this was a lonely voice in the wilderness, and his conviction that he, personally, should make this happen by covert means, plus his coziness with the Chinese in Beijing, set most of Africa‘s incumbent leaders, and their patrons in the West, against him. His enormous ambitions, including opening embassies in all new nations and flying the Ghana Airlines to all of them eventually bankrupted his nation that had come to independence with a substantial surplus. The Chinese prime minister, Chou en Lai, had made a speech in Africa saying that ―Africa is ripe for revolution,‖ and this put the wind up Washington, London and Paris in no uncertain terms. Nkrumah was overthrown, with the aid of the CIA, in 1965, and this convinced my fellow students that the meddling of outsiders in Africa had not stopped. Every American student and Peace Corps was considered to be an agent of the CIA. The leader of neighboring Tanzania, Julius Nyerere, offered to delay independence for his country (then Tanganyika, former German East Africa), in order that the three East African territories of Kenya, Uganda and Tanganyika, could form a viable federation. They already shared many common services (posts, railroads, harbors and currency) within an East African Community. However, the Kenyans did not like that idea, and saw more prospects for material gain in going it alone, rather than being tied to the vast, but poor, territory of Tanganyika. Nyerere did, however, succeed in forging a union between Tanganyika and Zanzibar (hence Tanzania). The reality to western eyes at that time in the era of Cuba and Vietnam, was one of apparent threatening penetration by Russian and Chinese communism into these fragile and unstable states of Africa. This was, after all, the height of the Cold War. The West reacted
It had formerly been the British colony of the Gold Coast
accordingly in uncompromising terms as was seen in the debacle of the Congo and the murder of Patrice Lumumba. Africa remained firmly in the mind of the Africans as the eternal plaything of the Great Powers; this time moving pawns in an uncompromising ideological game of chess. This heavy-handed interference bred a climate of conspiracy theory and paranoia. The hand of the CIA was seen in everything that happened. This distrust was fed by the philosophy espoused in the US that ―our enemy‘s enemy is our friend,‖ and unquestioned support was given to some extremely undemocratic regimes in the name of defending democracy. Most new African countries were renamed colonial possessions, and so had no legitimacy in the eyes of their citizens who still identified with the tribes and clans. Furthermore, under the colonial regimes political activity had been considered seditious, so there were neither coherent political movements that had ―national‖ support, nor were there people with much experience of policy and governance. Democratic institutions were, consequently, weak, emerging political parties becoming often tribal anyway, and corruption was rife because of the lack of any feeling of identity with or loyalty to the ―state.‖ ―Nation building‖ was the catch phrase of the time, though these were not nations by any stretch of the imagination. Consequently, ―tribalism‖ (or a resurgence of real African history as I saw it), was considered to be the principal threat to nation building. This curious piece of legerdemain consigned most of Africa‘s authentic, indigenous history, traditions, and institutions to the dustbin. The Organization of African Unity meeting in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia had gone so far as to declare the boundaries of post-colonial Africa inviolable. They saw the alternative as mayhem; rather like what happened in Yugoslavia after Serbian domination was removed. Little wonder then, that the democratic institutions that the colonial powers had labored to construct at the last minute before rushing away failed rapidly. Furthermore, in most of Africa there had been no real ―liberation struggle‖ that could have served to unite the peoples—but even where there was as in Angola, it did little good as it turned into tribal and ideological armed camps after independence. Fairly quickly one-party states and military dictatorships, as well as some fairly bizarre forms of government such as Jean-Bodel Bokasa‘s Central African Empire modeled on Napoleon‘s first empire, came to dominate the scene. The early idealism of many, myself included, regarding the independence of this benighted continent, began to erode before the growing totalitarianism. In the huge vacuum that was left by the departure of the colonial powers, it was hard to see how the ―Westminster‖ model—or its French, Belgian, Portuguese, or other equivalent—could ever work. Africans, in general, felt that they had had a raw deal out of colonialism. I, like most of the people around me when I grew up in Britain, had the idea that we had been a ―modernizing and civilizing‖ influence—whereas, in reality, all we did was come and take control of the anarchy that we, and the Arabs, had created over three-hundred years of slavery and callousness. The missionaries, for instance, had done much good in terms of building schools and health centers, and ―giving their lives to the good of others.‖ But, the fact is that they had been part of the relentless process of stripping these people of their traditional cosmologies, social controls and responsibilities, and self-respect; all of which was traded in for salvation courtesy of hopeless confusion of European faiths. The colonial administrators introduced new Western laws, and the scientists rode roughshod over
centuries of accumulated tradition, ethnoscience, and experience. The whole process was unidirectional: there was nothing to learn from the Africans, and their role was to learn from ―us.‖ No people had ever undergone so rapid and thoroughgoing a destructive transformation of their lives in history. The Europeans may not have had quite the methods of the Mongols, but their impact on traditional societies was just as devastating. The theories of Mr. Darwin put the final nail in the coffin, as they provided for many a spurious scientific ―justification‖ for the benign superiority of the West and its heavy-handed attempt at pushing evolution down the collective African throat. People coming out of such a demoralizing, overwhelming and suffocating experience will, naturally, be assertive, truculent and confused. President Nyerere tried to look back into the history of Africans, preserve the best of what the Europeans brought, and forge a new social order called Ujamaa, or African Socialism, which turned out to be something of an intellectual fantasy world. There is no question that he was a great and sincere man with true humility (he invited his former landlady from Edinburgh to the independence celebrations for instance), but his new faith had few sincere followers among the bureaucrats who had to implement it. Under colonialism the bureaucracy was all-powerful, since there was no representative political system, and they savored this power and used it against the politicians all too often. The west saw Tanzania‘s experiment as a dangerous flirtation with communism (Tanzania: China’s Bridgehead to Africa was the title of one Reader’s Digest article I clipped), and made life as difficult as possible for that country. This, then, was the political climate swirling around our heads, during the 1960s. In the course of long nocturnal conversations with my fellow students I disabused myself of some of the sillier ideas I had harbored about the all-embracing benefits of colonialism. I read, with horrid fascination, a book published by the Spanish Government about its few tiny remaining possessions, which referred to Spain’s Civilizing Mission in Africa. I thought, instead, of all the ―civilization‖ they had brought to pre-Colombian Latin America, and the centuries it would take to repair that damage. I did not, as did some of my colleagues, become a rabid anti-colonial dogmatic Marxist, blaming all of Africa‘s woes on colonialism, because that would lead to a lack of any serious effort to take responsibility, but I did gain a more balanced appreciation of the facts. History, I learned to the horror of my innocent faith in comfortable knowledge, was like an egg; it could be served up in many ways starting with the same truths. Occasionally the events of the lunatic outside world would ―reach out and touch us.‖ During 1967 I had become friendly with a visiting professor of geology named Dr. Slavik from Czechoslovakia. He was an affable man with steely gray hair swept straight back in the Slavic way. He talked about changes in his country over copious glasses of good scotch in the late afternoon. At that time events were moving dramatically in Czechoslovakia, culminating in the presidency of Mr. Dubček and the remarkable ―Prague Spring‖ of 1968. What was happening there seemed unbelievable after the crushing of the Hungarian uprising in 1956. If Mr. Dubček were to succeed, then it seemed as though anything would be possible throughout the states of central and Eastern Europe. Because of the strong role
of both the USSR and China in Africa, official response from those countries to events in Prague was muted, though not hostile. Into our lives at the university, one day came a new student of African history. She was a slim, ravishing, raven-haired beauty from Slovakia named Viera, (In case she has subsequently discovered democracy I will refrain from using her family name). She was friendly, poised and sociable, and you have to remember that, even in the academic community, people from the ―Eastern Bloc‖ were exotic then, and attracted much attention, like some rare species. Her views seemed to support those of the Dubček camp, and we spent many long hours discussing events in Central Europe. Her enthusiasm seemed genuine enough, and she often invited me round to her student flat to discuss the news of the day from her home. She discovered that I had held some vague post with the British in Rwanda, and her interest sharpened measurably after that. She asked to be introduced to some of the people at the High Commission. Her main attribute as far as I was concerned, was the fact that she could down huge quantities of slivovitsa or plum brandy with no visible effect. She never seemed to be without it. I think that it had, what might be described as a ―loosening effect‖ on various diplomats when applied by the lovely Viera. She would produce a flask of this at every occasion—in the movies, at a concert, or just sitting around in her room. I might have gone on suffused by her loveliness had I not gone round to Dr. Slavik for a dose of Glenfiddich one day. I mentioned her, and he smiled an enigmatic smile. ―About Viera,‖ he ventured, ―You know her well?‖ ―Yes, she is such an interesting person,‖ I responded. ―Interesting—yes,‖ he said, ―but there are things that you should know about this lovely lady. Chief among these is the fact that she is . . .‖ and here he leaned forward conspiratorially, and I thought for a moment that he was going to check under the sofa, ―a spy.‖ He leaned back, took a swig and looked straight at me with a knowing grin. ―. . .a spy!‖ I responded in total astonishment, for this thought had never crossed my mind. Then I remembered my injunction from the High Commissioner to ―keep an eye on things.‖ ―Good God, how do you know that?‖ ―Well, we learn to know these things where I come from. But, watch your step.‖ On the one hand I wondered what I could possibly know that might be of the slightest interest to her. On the other hand I was tremendously flattered that I had been thrust into something that mirrored the James Bond image that was all the rage then. I conveyed this piece of intelligence to the powers that be at a dinner soon after. Her cover was, however, rather rapidly blown by the fact that she had a very distinctive sexually transmitted disease that began to show up among prominent figures in the community such as a diplomat and an Indian student-group leader. Later she was seen pursuing a diplomat of a ―friendly Western power‖ through the streets. The fact that it was just after midnight, and he was in his pajamas added a certain rare value to this sighting. Then, as fast as she had come, she vanished. One day she was no longer among us; roughly about the time that the Prague spring turned sour. I have often wondered since what became of her and what
contribution she made to the Cold War. I can never watch a rerun of a James Bond movie now without thinking, ―these things really do happen.‖ Some years later, actually beyond the scope of this book, though the theme works well here, I ran into a similar situation. This time I was in Khartoum, capital of the huge and eternally troubled Sudan. This is a vast country held together in part by the Nile and blown apart by an unholy misalliance of northern brown Islam and southern black Christianity and animism. Just how vast this place is, and how bad the infrastructure was, was illustrated by the fact that it took eleven days to get from north to south in a truck. Khartoum was hotter than Hades, but no city that lies astride a great river can fail to provide appeal to the visitor. However, I must confess that Khartoum, apart from Baghdad, was one of the least inspiring and dull cities I have ever visited. Still, the tree lined walk along the riverbank had a certain charm and alfresco cafes provided a place to sit and watch the men, water and donkeys pass by. The few exceptions to this torpor were provided, for me at least, by memories of the brandy and soda days of general ―Chinese‖ Gordon who bamboozled the British into the occupation of the Sudan by disobeying orders and becoming every schoolboy‘s hero by being speared in full-dress uniform on the steps of the Governor‘s palace: a victim of the very trouble the British ordered him to avoid. He was made for martyrdom. I stood on the steps I had seen so many times in jingoistic history books, and invited the shades of those days to return. All I got for my troubles were two mosquito bites and a touch of dizziness. I marveled that people wandered around seeking martyrdom in those days wearing uniforms of worsted buttoned up to the neck. Maybe the compression on the blood vessels to the brain by the full-dress uniform accounted for some of the barmier decisions they made in Africa in those times? The other attraction of the city was Omdurman, on the other side of the river, where in the 1890s, British troops, including a very young Winston Churchill, had defeated the armies (―fuzzy wuzzies‖ they called them) of the Khalifa. In its dusty streets one knew right away that one had crossed a major divide from Black Africa to the south, to the world of Islam and the domain of the Arab. In all my time in Africa, I could never take seriously the idea that Egypt, the Sudan and the Maghreb were part of Africa— they were part of the ―Middle East‖ as far as I could see. They were totally strange to me after so many years in Uganda. In the occasional breaks I took in my work for Unesco who had commissioned me, I went to the torpor of the Khartoum club, and there it was one day that I met Lydia who was from northern Italy. Her father, she confided, was the chief of police in one of the great cities there. I know better than to mention which one for reasons that will become obvious. She seemed friendly enough and we met frequently. I could not divine, despite many attempts, what it was she was doing in this neck of the woods. She did not, as far as I could tell, do anything much at all—which may have accounted for her ample size—and she was a fixture of the club. One day, while we were out walking she told me that she needed to confirm an airline booking, and so we ended up in the offices of Balkan Airlines—the national carrier of Bulgaria. Her task at the counter seemed interminable, and I took to eating a bag of nuts while lounging in a chair. In the course of this reverie I dropped several of the nuts accidentally into the capacious bag that she had left to the right of my seat. Idly, I dropped my hand in the bag and rummaged around unsuccessfully in search of the nuts.
However, instead I came across a bundle of booklets held together with a rubber band, and being a curious Celt, I slid them out and peered slyly down past the bag of nuts. I was not prepared for the fact that I was holding a handful of totally blank, and seemingly genuine, Soviet passports. I extracted one and pocketed it, for this could not be part of anything good. By the time she came back with her green, white and red ticket, I was again deep in the nuts and nodding off. I never looked at her quite the same way again, and wondered what Daddy would have thought of his daughter running red passports in darkest Africa. Again, I often ruminate on the meaning of what I found, and wonder who it was that did not end up in some clandestine training camp for guerrillas as his new passport was now sitting on my desk.
My exams over, and the first phase of my stay in Africa done, I decided to spend some time at home with my family. They had not seen me for two years, though they were wonderful correspondents. The main difficulty in this exercise was the cost. This was before the days of bargain fares and jumbo jets. However, my parents offered to help out, and so I set off in search of a reasonable fare. It was well known that certain countries played fast and loose with the international fare structures, and chief among these was Egypt with its (then) carrier United Arab Airlines (Egypt was formally the United Arab Republic at that time). A visit to their office confirmed this intelligence somewhat furtively, and some arcane procedure was outlined involving one price on the ticket and another price being paid over the counter. Whatever the creative bookkeeping, I obtained the ticket, and was ready for a departure one weekend in April of 1967. Those with a keen sense of history will know what is coming before this chapter is done. A small group of friends came to see me off at the airport, for such journeys were still something of a major event at that time. Entebbe, the lakeside capital of Uganda, was as green and lovely as ever, and the airport had a relaxed atmosphere; not unlike the attention to rules at United Arab Airlines. Just how relaxed was revealed to me when the gentleman at the check-in desk told me that the plane had not yet arrived. I was disappointed at this news, though I did not realize that he meant, actually, the plane had not even left Cairo yet! Being British we never telephoned in advance as an American would, to find out these things beforehand, for Europeans believe that the phone was invented with the express and exclusive purpose of conveying only bad news—so better you stay away from it. We retired to the lounge, but it soon became evident that this delay would run over into the next day. So, after a telephone call home to my parents to inform them of the change, we all drove back to Kampala. Next day a now somewhat smaller and more jaded party and I gathered again at the airport at noon. I had in my care, as a result of the unexpected change of plans, a young lad who was going back to a rather exclusive private school at Repton in England. Little did either of us know what fate had in store for us. As I checked in I noticed the astounding amount of luggage that the other, mostly Asian, passengers were consigning. I remembered that the man at the UAA office had said I could bring ―as much luggage as I wanted as the plane will be half empty.‖ Contrary to his belief, the plane was entirely full, as two flights had been melded into one, and everyone had taken him at his word, and beyond. The departure was uneventful, though the aircraft seemed to take an eternity to get airborne and I thought we would continue straight into Lake Victoria—as had happened previously to one unfortunate flight. Slowly, and painfully, the plane struggled into the African sky. The captain, his voice wonderfully confident and free of the hysteria that had gripped us all, announced that this was Lufthansa flight so-and-so, and that we were bound, non-stop for Cairo13. One of the requirements of this ticket was an overnight stay at the airport hotel
The UAA flight never, in fact, appeared, and we were bundled onto the Lufthansa flight, which must have done bad things for UAA‘s creative accounting.
in Cairo, for which the airline paid, and then we would connect with the morning UAA flight to London. I was rather looking forward to that, for I had never been to Egypt and it was one of the most exotic locations I could imagine, even though we would probably see nothing. I am fortunate in that I can sleep on planes. After a short conversation with the portly German on my left, I dozed off and dreamed of pyramids and the like. I was awakened by an announcement, first in German, then in English, stating that the plane would be landing shortly in Khartoum, capital of the Republic of the Sudan. This was something of a surprise on a non-stop flight to Cairo, so I asked the stewardess what was happening. ―The captain is having some problem keeping the plane in the air,‖ she responded with Teutonic brevity—and I could think of no better reason for landing. I was, of course, given no technical details—airlines hate doing that—and so we landed in the Sudan. My theory is that we were overburdened with all the boxes that our companions had brought on board, but who knows? We used every inch of that runway to bring the plane to an eventual halt, and I noticed that everyone around me was gripping the seat rests tightly. Now the lad (my charge) and I found ourselves with time to kill in one of the world‘s dullest airports. On my way in from the tarmac I had found an Iraqi ten-dinar note, a not inconsiderable sum at that time, and tucked it into my pocket. The airline informed us that they were going to wait for the early morning to take off—I suppose because cold air is denser than warm air, and Sudan has lots of warm air being a substantial chunk of the Sahara desert. Who knows? I idled around the airport, and eventually found a post office tucked away in a corner. Being a rabid philatelist, I thought I might do myself some good here, and so I waited for someone to come and show me what stamps they had on sale. The facility was clearly open, and the ledger of stamps was on the counter. I remembered my convertible Iraqi dinars, and thought I would help myself to a selection and leave the dinars as a more-than-adequate payment in return. So, I slipped behind the desk and started to do this. I was interrupted by a heavy, guttural German voice, ―How much is it for a postcard to Berlin?‖ I looked up, and around me to see whom he was addressing, and then I realized that he was talking to me. I was in something of a fix, and had been caught red-handed going through the books. ―500 mills,‖ I said, tearing off a stamp, taking the money and giving change. ―Danke,‖ he said and disappeared into the spartan lounge, leaving me with a curious glance of confusion. I hastily completed my task and retreated to a dark corner. Eventually our flight was called, and we all went on board—the air being sufficiently dense now I supposed. As I sat there the remainder of the passengers struggled up the aisle. One of them, my erstwhile German companion, looked at me astonished, and I recognized to my horror, the man who had bought the stamp. ―Mein Gott,‖ he said, ―You people work right up to the last minute.‖ The German on my left looked perplexed, but I was not forthcoming on this matter. The rest of the night passed without event, and we were served a quite reasonable airline breakfast. I was just starting in on the eggs when we were informed that ―due to weather conditions we would not be able to land in Cairo, but were proceeding to Beirut.‖ I, once
more, called the stewardess (as we were allowed to describe them in those unenlightened times). ―Why are we landing at another unscheduled destination?‖ She did not seem to know but thought there was a sandstorm raging at Cairo. This was alarming news because, as we had lost our night‘s stopover in Cairo while stripping the post office in Khartoum, we were supposed to get our connecting flight this very morning from Cairo—past which we were now flying. Now we were off to Lebanon. Soon enough we landed at Beirut—a picturesque and very charming place in those days— and were huddled into a transit lounge with a large number of Orthodox priests. There seemed to be no information whatsoever on what was to happen next. Also, I could not find the airline office, not realizing that UAA became Egypt Air in the Middle East. After much confusion with the Asians sitting around disconsolately, and all the announcements being made in Arabic and French, a uniformed representative told us that, in light of the delay, the airline had arranged for a short trip for us to pass the time of day. ―Where to?‖ I asked. ―By bus to Tripoli,‖ he responded. This was a matter of some real confusion and, indeed alarm, because, in my limited geography Tripoli was the capital of Libya half a continent away.‖ ―Oh no,‖ the official laughed, ―it is a resort town on the coast here. You will love it.‖ We were ushered out through the front of the building and into an ancient bus. The Asians had visible misgivings about this entire process, and history has proved them to be right. Eventually, we pulled around the circle in front of the airport, crashed through the gears, leaped forward, and had to great misfortune to knock over a policeman who stepped into the road without looking. He did not appear to be hurt, but this was unknown to our driver because he had jumped out of the bus, and run across the dunes toward the sea the instant after it happened. Once the mayhem died down, we all trudged back into the airport and waited, and waited. I started to feel nauseous. It was in the early evening that a convoluted, and much distorted, announcement in French told us that our plane was ready. It was at that point that we lost a lot of the Asians—a language problem perhaps? But it certainly lightened the load. We were bundled at great haste on the plane, and flown, not to London but back to Cairo, a whole day out of synch. When we landed in Cairo the schoolboy‘s luggage was gone. My nausea that had begun as the policeman disappeared under the bus had worsened considerably and I lay on my bed gradually blending in with the color of the white sheets. Young Repton said he would ask at the front desk about a doctor since ―you look jolly grim.‖ He did this and it was two hours later, as I was about to give up my diminishing hold on life, that a knock at the door heralded a moon-faced gentleman. ―Sick person here?‖ he inquired. I lifted a limp arm. ―Soon fix you,‖ he reassured me, and I asked him where he was from, since he was clearly not an Arab. ―North Korea,‖ he responded. ―I am not usual doctor man. He sick now. But I know these things.‖ Later, as we talked a little more and I started to feel much improved, it transpired that he was not a doctor at all, but a veterinary surgeon. ―Same principles,‖ he reassured me. ―All animals. One type or another.‖ His philosophy must have had some grounding in truth for the worst of the nausea passed. On the other hand I felt as though I had not slept in weeks. Later, I wondered whether I had dreamed the entire episode.
With the coming of dawn we were bussed out to the waiting plane, and made our way to the seats. Normally there is an interminable delay before anything happens on a flight while the crew consults the excuse book for a reason to explain the inevitable delay, but on this occasion the plane departed in almost unseemly haste. In such haste, in fact, did we leave that we appeared to have left behind a significant part of the cabin staff, and so we were told that if we wanted breakfast the navigator would show us where it was. It also looked as though we had left two-thirds of the passengers behind, and numbers were really thinning out now as we entered day 3. Stanley‘s trip down the Congo had a lower loss rate than this flight. I tried to catch up on sleep, when I was awakened again by an announcement all-too reminiscent of the one over Cairo. ―Regrettably, we shall not be able to continue to London, and so will terminate this flight in Rome,‖ the disembodied voice told us. I wondered what we were supposed to do there. I was certainly getting to see the world, though my parents must have become frantic by this time. In Rome, as promised, they dumped us, but asked us to go to a counter in some part of the airport that I believe even the architect did not know existed. That was where they dealt with charters, and Repton and I found ourselves transferred—quite illegally I was sure—to one of these, and subsequently boarded it. We sat there in solitary splendor until a horde of schoolgirls from Birmingham entered, much as Tamberlane and the Mongols must have entered Europe in the thirteenth century. The noise was staggering, and never relented. This, on top of everything else, seemed to be the final touch—it was, however, far from that. In London, Repton and I were running on fumes while the schoolgirls continued their rampage. At least I could now phone, and found my parents at home having given up waiting for me. ―Where in God‘s name have you been?‖ asked my father. ―Khartoum, Beirut, Cairo and Rome,‖ I replied. He searched in vain on my itinerary for most of these places. ―Look,‖ he said emphatically. ―We can‘t come to the airport again or we will be charged rent, it‘s 172.5 miles14. There is a coach link between the airport and the railway station at Reading, and then you can get the train to Cardiff. I will meet you there. You should be able to get the 3 o‘clock and we will meet that. Right? See you there.‖ Well, that was businesslike, and indeed there was a coach, and a connecting train, and ere long I was on the platform, at Reading, ticket in hand. The train came into the station, and some officials trundled out a mail cart stacked high with mail sacks to load on the train during its short stop. They misjudged the physics of this operation, and with a slow and sickening crumple, the top two bags fell straight under the wheels of the engine. I suppose some of that mail was registered because mayhem ensued. No one was allowed in or out of the station—including the train—until the letters had been accounted for. The railroad‘s schedule collapsed in a heap. I tried calling my father but he had left to meet me, and so I called Cardiff and asked if they could page him. No luck.
My father, an accomplished rally driver in his day, was not given to inexactitude where distance was concerned.
Ages passed. Then we were told to get aboard, and the final stage of the journey began. By now I could barely keep my eyes open, I smelled rank, and was soon asleep. When I awoke the train was pulling into Swansea. The only significance of this, for those who do not already realize it, is that to get to Swansea you have to go through Cardiff. I called home, and got my father. ―Good God. Where are you?‖ ―Well, I‘m in Swansea actually.‖ ―How can you get to Swansea without going through Cardiff?‖ he asked perplexed. ―You can‘t,‖ I confessed. He told me precisely where I could get the bus from Swansea to Merthyr Tydfil—our home. With respect to the return journey to Uganda there is not a lot to say. All you need to know is that I was booked on United Arab Airlines, stopping over once more in Cairo. My ticket—and I still have it—was dated June 6, 196715. That was the first day of the ArabIsrael Six-Day War, one early feature of which was the bombing of Cairo airport. British Airways was the beneficiary of this catastrophe as my UAA ticket was now worthless as the airline and its counter staff had departed in disorder. There was a curious sequel to this story. Years later I found myself in, of all places, the Solomon Islands, and invited to dinner with some aid personnel. At one point during the evening I recounted this tale, and found myself being questioned as to its veracity, as, sad to say, is often my fate. I was about to defend myself when one person in the audience spoke up. ―It‘s all true—every word of it.‖ I looked at the speaker, and in an astonished voice asked, ―How could you possibly know that?‖ ―I was Repton,‖ he told me. And he was.
There has to be some trend at work here. Also framed in our home is my wife‘s boarding card from Newark, NJ to Paris dated September 11, 2001
The Spanish Sahara—And now for something completely different . . .
One of the long-gone benefits of working in Africa on money provided under old colonialstyle contracts was the fact that you were given the option of a sea passage home. The time that I was working on my British Government contract teaching at Makerere was about the last moment that such a thing was possible. Virtually all the great scheduled passenger routes had closed down in the face of competition from commercial airlines. In fact, it was no long possible to get a sailing from Mombasa at all on a scheduled service. So I was told that I could be flown to Cape Town to embark for England there. This seemed fantastic, as I would have to fly halfway across Africa in the wrong direction in order to connect with an ocean greyhound. On the other hand, this was too good an opportunity to miss as the sea passage represented to me the great age of travel—The Union Castle Steamship Company, the Messageries Maritimes, Elder Dempster—all names to conjure with from the past16. One undoubted benefit of an ocean passage, I always thought, was the fact that it made you appreciate the distances that separate places on earth. Now we simply enter a pressurized tube, watches a movie, and are shot at six hundred miles per hour through the upper atmosphere. We see nothing, and we have no sense of distance any more. Furthermore, travel by air is, at best, an uncomfortable bore, whereas the ship—because of the time passengers have to spend on board—develops a life of its own; a folklore even, and can be a comfortable bore at worst—mal de mer notwithstanding. There is a whole language relating to this mode of travel; there are formalities and conventions and a definite sense of a past age of style, order and good old-fashioned class prejudice. This is certainly not true of cruises or ferries, and belongs only to the now-vanished breed of scheduled transoceanic services17. Plus, of course, you can take as much luggage as you like. To start my journey, however, I had to fly, not sail, to South Africa, though my time there was to be short. The prospect of visiting this ultimate pariah nation was, in itself, fascinating—particularly for someone coming from Black Africa. But first I had an opportunity to go to a place that really didn‘t exist in any legal sense: Rhodesia. I had a friend there from earlier times, and we had made arrangements that I should visit him. This was not going to be easy because there was, as a result of urgings from the Organization of African Unity, no communication with the renegade state. I could, for instance, not write there because the letter would come back with ―SERVICE SUSPENDED‖ stamped over it. Phones and telegrams (remember telegrams?) worked and so some contact persisted. However, there was one crevice in the wall built around Rhodesia, and that was South Africa, which very directly supported the Smith regime. But, there was another way round the situation and that was the African nation of Malawi—
Of course you can conjure with Titanic, Lusitania and Andrea Doria
Anyone seeking an impression of the character of this vanished age is encouraged to visit the post office at the Battery end of Broadway that is situated in the former White Star office where, in 1912, nervous people gathered to learn the fate of the Titanic.
which had been called Nyasaland when I was growing up. This was ruled over by Dr. Hastings Banda—a medical doctor in this case, not a PhD in political science as was popular elsewhere18. Now, Dr. Banda did not fit any mold that was common in Africa by the 1960s. Though he had been to Ghana—the locus classicus of African radicalism during the time of President Nkrumah—he turned into something very different. Some years later, I had the chance to work, on several occasions, in Haïti, and there was Dr. Banda again— only it was ―Papa Doc‖ Duvalier. Both men not only looked very similar, they had identical tastes in clothes: the rather dated heavy black formal suit (day in and day out), the black homburg hat, smallness of stature, and the fact that they had both started lives as doctors to go on to be unquestioned dictators of their own countries. One of the singular differences that separated Dr. Banda from the rest of the other heads-of-state of African countries, was his willingness to do business with South Africa. As a result, you could fly from Malawi to South Africa and, indeed, Rhodesia. And since Malawi was an independent Black African nation, you could fly there from several places, including East Africa. So it was that I made my way to Salisbury and the rebel colony. On arrival in Salisbury (now rechristened Harare), our passports were inspected, though not stamped. Instead a stamp was applied to a piece of paper that was then stapled to the passport. To try to enter any independent African nation with a Rhodesian stamp in your passport was looking for trouble. This ―piece of paper ploy‖ was to recur several times during my stay. To my relief my host and his father were there to meet me and take me off to their home in the suburbs. The set up did not seem particularly strange to me because I had visited friends in Kenya where a residual ―settler‖ society still kept up appearances, rather like Miss Haversham in Nicholas Nickleby. This vestigial group of people, to me at least, presented a sort of social and historical theme park. The manners and stratification were those of a society that I believed had long since passed into oblivion except in British Embassies. But, there they were, and here they are again in Rhodesia. The ruddy, robust colonial version of the yeoman farmer cum Imperial keeper of the gate against the forces of chaos. This was a group, really unlike any outside the Evangelical types, who were absolutely convinced of their rightness and their role as the arbiters of standards of
I lie—Dr. Banda did indeed study Political Science at Indiana University where this book is being written. But, he then got his MD from Tennessee and moved back to Britain, where he practiced as a GP in the North of England before returning to the political changes in African in the 50s, first to Ghana, then back home to Nyasaland.
civilization in a world that had thrown away everything of value. The conversations that passed between my hosts ensemble and me each evening had this frightening combination of unshakable rightness and old-world civility. Since I had come from ―Black Africa‖ there was an everlasting curiosity about what ―people think.‖ I came to appreciate that this was a society desirous of being preserved in amber, unchanged, while at the same time quite astonishingly remote. Behind the bluff and bluster of ―holding the line,‖ there was a very discernable uncertainty and insecurity. This was clearly represented for me by the use of symbols. The British government had been unequivocal in declaring the independence and government of post-UDI Rhodesia illegal. It was still a colony as far as H. M. Government was concerned, and was totally embargoed. The RAF flew missions out of, of all places, Madagascar, to patrol the seas and ensure that no fuel reached the rebels. South Africa made sure they got what they needed. Back to the stamps. Rhodesia quickly started to run out of the stamps, previously printed in Britain and supplied through the good offices of the Crown Agents. So, they reprinted them locally, including the head of Queen Elizabeth II, to whom they Rhodesian UDI government initially declared allegiance. These stamps were deemed unacceptable, though the ones printed in Britain originally were just fine—except of course they looked the same. So some poor soul in St. Martin‘s Le Grand, where the big ideas of the Royal Mail are thought to reside, had presumably to distinguish between these two versions in order to work out how much ―postage due‖ to collect. Later, during my stay the type 1 stamps ran out so Rhodesia had only unacceptable copies now, which were fine internally, but would carry a letter overseas. So, the next time I went into the post office, they told me ―no stamps mate—those buggers won‘t take them.‖ ―Oh dear,‖ I said, wondering what happens next. The postal clerk took my letter and struck it with a mark that said ―postage paid.‖ Then he stuck a stamp on a piece of paper, canceled it, and gave it to me. It seemed totally backwards to me, but the letter got there, presumably because it bore no stamps at all. It all had the air of something that Peter Ustinov could so easily have scripted. Later I was to go to Transdniestria and other ―non-existent‖ states, and they had this same feeling of suspended animation—of having, somehow, stepped aside from the natural flow of history and being stranded in a tidepool. I found Rhodesia curious if not fascinating, beautiful yet depressing, and basically, a gigantic charade that was as sure to end as night follows day. White folks were always polite and charming, hospitable and gracious, at the same time as they held views so totally out of the context of the times we lived in then that it reminded me of the animotronic figures Disney has created to bring the past to life. I kept hearing that old cliché from the travel movies of my youth ―a land that time has passed by…‖ The first stop after Rhodesia was Johannesburg and this made Rhodesia look tame and amusing in comparison. Here was a feeling you could cut with a knife but, still the same 1940s politeness and fossilized mannerisms with which I felt familiar, since I had grown up with them, but I had moved on. I had decided to spend the first night of a few days layover in this commercial heart of South Africa. The country had been ditched by the
Commonwealth in the early years of the decade, and had become a republic and the world‘s favorite pariah. It was strange actually to be there since so many people around me at college had been so exercised about the place and its grotesque philosophy of racial separation. There, however, in the hotel, life went on as it does under the most bizarre situations. I was introduced that evening to the custom of communal dining. The elderly gentleman opposite me studiously sliced his tomatoes with a large, menacing looking knife that he produced from somewhere on his person. ―What are you doing here?‖ he inquired in a heavy Transvaal inflection. ―I am on my way to Cape Town,‖ I responded, ―but have only the one night in this town.‖ ―Well,‖ he said pointing his knife at me by way of emphasis, but without ever looking up from the remorseless process of peeling, ―if you go out of this hotel, you had better make sure you turn right and not left.‖ ―Why?‖ I asked. ―Because they will kill you if you don‘t‖ he replied. ―Take it from me, this place is going to the dogs.‖ Actually I went neither right nor left, but stayed in bed after that menacing augury. My first impression was that the dogs had already gained the upper hand. Cape Town was more beautiful than I had ever imagined. No city ever had a finer setting, and the architecture was a pleasing mix of Cape Dutch, British colonial, and some indefinable other styles. Over all loomed the mass of Table Mountain with its distinctive tablecloth of cloud. Everywhere was astonishingly neat and clean, but my observations were necessarily superficial because of the short time I had to stay there. The city did leave me with one memory, however. Soon after I had retired for the night everything started to rattle and shake. I knew this noise all too well from my experience in Fort Portal—we were in the middle of an earthquake. I ran outside into the courtyard of the hotel and felt the ground move under my feet. I could not believe that this was happening again, though I noticed that I was alone, and everyone else in the hotel seemed to have slept through the experience. As quickly as it had come it went, and I went back to bed, though it was a long time before I slept. In the morning I took a cab to the docks, and went through immigration and caught my first glimpse of my new home for the next week. The S.S. Oranje had, in a previous life been the Windsor Castle, and bore the clean, angular lines of a ship from an earlier age. Her appearance stressed the vertical and the vessel looked small compared to the cruise behemoths of today. Also it looked like a ship—not a human container transporter. The vessel was painted white and gleamed in the bright South African sunlight. From her stern fluttered the orange, white and blue of the South African flag. A further benefit of my colonial-style contract was that I was clutching a first-class ticket, and so was ushered on board before the main mass of the passengers. A steward escorted me to my single cabin, through the porthole of which was a fine view of Table Mountain. On my bed lay a printed list of the first-class passengers and some details of the ship, including the drill in case this should prove to be the last voyage. I lay on the bed, stared at the ceiling and imagined all the thousands of people who had made this journey since Vasco da Gama rounded the Cape at the end of the fifteenth century. I had, in fact, made a short trip in a rented car down to the actual Cape of Good Hope, the southernmost point in Africa and watched the frigid waters lash the cliffs at my feet. It was strange to think that there was nothing between this point and the continent of Antarctica. I also tried to imagine the thoughts in
the minds of those Portuguese explorers as they finally realized that, contrary to popular scientific thinking, Africa did not extend into a great southern continent. The geographers of those times imagined that it was necessary to have a Terra Australis Incognita to balance the weight of Eurasia in the Northern Hemisphere. Instead, Da Gama found the way to India and untold riches. They had stared at these very cliffs and what exhilaration they must have felt. For them Africa was merely an obstruction on the way to the spice trade of the east. Da Gama apart, I now had to get used to my floating home. I joined the rest of the firstclass passengers on the observation deck to wave farewell to South Africa. Beneath us a band was playing and we were showered with paper streamers—the sort of departure I had seen previously only on grainy old newsreels. I felt a real thrill as the huge engines began to vibrate beneath my feet, and a pair of tugs slowly moved the ship from its moorings. I watched fascinated until eventually the coastline fell away below the horizon. We were at sea. I soon discovered that the rest of the first-class compliment was considerably older than I— by a factor of about forty years I reckoned. I wondered how I would ever pass the time on this trip, though I had stocked up with books. The ship, I noticed already, also had a wellequipped library. At one point in the late afternoon of the day of departure there came a gentle knock at my cabin door. It was the chief steward (I think), and he said, ―Dr. Baker?‖ The speaker was diminutive, immaculate and deferential. ―One and the same‖ I replied. ―The captain has observed that you are in a rather different age group from the rest of your traveling companions, and hopes that you will join him at his table for the rest of the journey.‖ ―Delighted,‖ I responded. ―We are not terribly formal on this ship, but we do observe a certain style at mealtimes,‖ he informed me enigmatically, which led me to rummage for my one suit. The captain was a delightful man, and was accompanied on this journey by his wife from Tonbridge Wells. ―I couldn‘t help noticing,‖ he said, leaning across the table, ―that you are booked only to Las Palmas. That‘s a bit unusual. Are you taking a bit of a holiday there?‖ ―Well, I am taking a holiday, but not there.‖ I mentioned. ―I am off to visit a friend in the Spanish Sahara.‖ ―Good God,‖ he laughed. ―We never had anyone go there before, so we shall drink to that.‖ He conveyed the news to the other passengers at the table, and we downed the first of very many glasses of champagne. ―Young Baker‘s off to the Spanish Empire,‖ he said. ―Thought that was long gone,‖ observed an elderly military type across the table. The main event of the day, several times a day, was eating, and on a scale I had never imagined before. Each day the chief steward would come to my room to discuss the menu, most of which was Greek to me. We enjoyed the time together—―a few moments with the post-war generation‖ he called it, and mentioned to me once that probably the Boer War would be the defining moment for some of the people on my table. He was extremely correct, but wonderfully irreverent when he wanted to be. Even between meals he was always asking me if I needed a snack. The meals were served in considerable style, and it is forgotten now but ship‘s stewards were a breed apart and had often been born into families
that had had a seagoing tradition for generations. The chief steward on our table was termed the captain‘s ―tiger‖ and his knowledge of food and wine was encyclopedic. Everything was done with such style that I lived in total agony of picking up the wrong fork, or asking for the wrong wine. If I did, the ―tiger‖ never revealed my social solecisms to the other guests. I could barely move after each meal, and if the ship had started to go down at that point I would have been done for for sure. Each day the ship would provide the passengers with a short summary of the news from the BBC garnered from the radio shack, and we had the opportunity to send cables to reserve our private railroad carriages, or whatever people do from ships. In the library a board revealed the number of nautical miles we had steamed the day before, and bets were taken on the next day‘s total. A thinly veiled tip from the captain led me to have great expectations on the third day, but I lost again. Slowly but surely I began to meet my traveling companions. Chief among these was Sir Arthur ―Bomber‖ Harris who had done so much to contribute to the flattening of the Third Reich. He developed a particular dislike for the gentleman who entertained us with an electric organ in the main lounge. ―I have it in mind to lose him at sea,‖ he confided to me one day. ―If the bugger goes missing, I am counting on you for an alibi.‖ ―Of course,‖ I replied in awe of the man who removed Dresden from the map. A mere organist would be no challenge. Another gentleman with an astonishing predilection for gin was a former colonial district officer in Bechuanaland.19 His tales of the Empire were amazing though he seemed to harbor a deep presentiment about the future of his former charge. As things worked out, he was wrong, as Botswana is one of Africa‘s few success stories. ―Can‘t see it all lasting,‖ he said one evening staring into a fast emptying glass. ―Gave my life to the place, and loved it. Let‘s drink to them anyway.‖ We toasted Bechuanaland, and then he fell into a deep, reflective silence, and I stole away to watch Midnight Cowboy. This was, as a piece of entertainment, a total disaster with the British upper classes and erstwhile colonial masters. ―I didn‘t come on this trip to see peoples‘ bums,‖ Harris observed as he left. I wandered all sections of the ship—a privilege of the first class—and met some more twentieth-century people. I offered them invitations to join me for drinks until my good friend, the chief steward, told me that the ―other ranks‖ could not enter the first class, though it was fine for me to ―mingle with the hoi poloi.‖ I spent much of my time with the proletariat after that slumming it in the second class. It was there that I went to observe the ―crossing of the line‖ ceremony as we steamed from the Southern to the Northern Hemisphere. I had intended to take a bath at that precise moment in order to see what confusion reigned as the bathwater exited through the drain. I was told that it went one way in the north, and the opposite in the south, though to this day I have never confirmed that. At the ceremony, members of the crew, suitable adorned as the court of King Neptune, proceeded to hurl passengers into the pool—concentrating particularly on one exceptionally attractive late-teenage woman who was almost wearing a very attenuated bikini. I did not detect Sir Arthur at these proceedings, but he was probably elsewhere
working out his scheme to throw the organist overboard. The other ceremony I observed in the second class was the ship‘s dance. This was most unexpected as the crew was there in force, half of them dressed as men, and the other half elegantly kitted out as women. This is another tradition of the sea that must have passed into history I suppose, but it seemed a logical response to being isolated in an all-male domain. One night, as I was standing at the rails with an accountant from Leeds, the captain joined us. ―Now, focus on the point on the horizon where the sun is about to set,‖ he said shading his eyes. ―At the precise moment when it dips beneath the line of the sea you will observe a phosphorescent flash.‖ I did, and he was quite right. A bright green shimmer lit the sea for a fraction of a second. In the quiet that followed I asked him, ―How do you feel about the airlines putting all the liners out of business?‖ ―I have been at sea all my life, and have felt that this was inevitable for some time now,‖ he reflected. ―But there is nothing to be gained from sentiment—that is progress. On the other hand, people like me have been doing this since Man discovered that things floated. It seems strange that we shall not be doing that any more. I mean, cruises are not the same thing—you are not going anywhere. You end up where you started, and what is the meaning of that? I am captain of a ship that takes people where they need to be. I am not the manager of a hotel.‖ That left us somewhat downcast, and we felt for him. He then told us that he was about to retire to Leamington Spa and did not really want to stay to the end. The days of the Oranje as a passenger liner were, anyway, numbered. The captain was a very warm person and he and I maintained a correspondence for many years afterwards. After six days of steady sailing and unrelenting dining I was totally relaxed and grossly overweight. The time was nigh for the Oranje to make its first stop, which was Las Palmas, and I would say good-bye. It would then sail on to Southampton. When the time came we docked in the darkness, and I made my way to the gangplank. The chief steward was there, and so were the captain and his wife. We were all at the sea end of a long pier. They walked with me down to the immigration point and we bade a genuinely sad farewell: he to one of his passengers; me to a fine man and a way of life. I have never sailed on a liner since. At the port to meet me was a man I had met through—of all things—stamp collecting. We had corresponded for years, and our contact came when he answered a request I sent to the Spanish Sahara post office years before. We had entered into a long correspondence, exchanging photographs and the like, and he had come to Wales for a vacation where he totally enchanted my mother and taught her the tango. Now he was waiting in the shadows of the customs shed, and we renewed our old friendship face to face. His name was Manuel Sicilia Valladares, and he was of a family that came from the Canary Islands, though he was a Sahrawi, or someone who had been born in the Spanish occupied chunk of desert that lay to the east of the Canaries. First Manuel took me to the house in which he had arranged for me to stay, for there were some formalities to complete before I could leave for the Sahara Province. I enjoyed my first night on dry land for a while, but not before I was entertained to dinner by Manuel‘s
parents. His father, who worked for the post office, welcomed me like an old friend and it was not long before I felt like a member of that warm, hospitable Mediterranean family transposed to an island off the coast of Morocco. All this was despite our mutual lack of each other‘s language, though Manuel was able to stand in as translator. In the morning we went to the administrative offices of the Provincia de Sahara. This inhospitable tract of desert was largely run by, and for, the military. Originally Spain had occupied other properties on the mainland, including the quaintly named territory of Ifni, recently returned to Moroccan control. It had been a tiny square of land, of no visible merit, surrounded by Morocco. This very year, 1968, they had granted independence to their last sizable possession, unless one considered the Canary Islands themselves—far distant from Spain—to be some sort of outlier. These were the twin provinces of Fernando Póo and Bata tucked into the space where West Africa turns south. By some mystery of colonialism, Spain‘s long possession of these bits of real estate led to the creation of Africa‘s only Spanish-speaking state—Equatorial Guinea—in that year of my visit. The place soon collapsed into a ferocious dictatorship under Francisco Marcias Nguema, who introduced something akin to slavery, and kidnapped the wife of the German consul. He proceeded to brutalize the population and kill off the opposition, until he was eventually stopped by his cousin and shot in the football stadium after a public trial. In the Spanish Sahara things were a little different, and it was controlled by the Spanish Foreign Legion (the Tercios) who had been instrumental in initiating General Franco‘s sweep into mainland Spain from North Africa in the mid-1930s, precipitating the Spanish Civil War. This place could only be described as a relic, though it had some economic value in terms of the enormous phosphate deposits that were brought to the coast by the world‘s longest aerial conveyor system. To be frank I did not know what to expect, but before I could experience anything I had to present myself before the representatives of the Province in Las Palmas. Their offices were remarkably inconspicuous, tucked away in some commercial building. There, with the approval of Manuel, who seemed to be well known to the authorities, and after I had handed over a photograph of myself, I was handed my salvoconducto—a document that I still treasure. This would allow me in and out of the Sahara. Soon after that we took off on Iberia’s flight to Villa Cisneros, capital of the southern part of the Spanish Sahara, and named after a Spanish bishop20. After a short time one of the most desolate landscapes in the world appeared off the port wing. The desert was absolute in its starkness, and contrasted with the intense blue of the Atlantic lapping its shores. There appeared to be absolutely nothing down there. As we descended some fortifications straight out of Beau Geste presented themselves, and a modest town, the same color as the desert took shape. On the ground we parked next to two German Heinkel bombers— veterans no doubt of Hitler‘s generosity to General Franco. The strange corrugated crates with their three engines—one ahead of the cockpit—seemed to summarize the archaic
The administrative capital of the entire province was El Aiyun. After Morocco occupied the territory a few years later the name of this city was changed to Layoun, and Villa Cisneros became Dakhla.
nature of the whole place. Even more surprising was the fact that these venerable aircraft were still operational and ran missions into the ravaged interior of this arid corner of the world. To meet me on the runway were a local priest, a friend of Manuel‘s, and the manager of the Banco Español de Credito. This last enigma was solved when Manuel informed me that I would be sleeping in the manager‘s back room behind the vault full of pesetas. This was definitely going to be a curious experience. At my back a cooling wind, of some force, blew in from the Atlantic, but the moment I stepped into the lee of a building the temperature rocketed reminding one firmly that this was the edge of the Sahara, and no mistake. In the diminutive airport building—Villa Cisneros picked out in blue across the front—my passport was impressed with a circular stamp reading Sahara Español. Entrada and a regimental number, for this place was most definitely a military operation. The gentleman in army uniform asked me the nature of my visit. ―Tourism,‖ I replied. ―Madre de Dios!‖ was his surprised riposte. Manuel laughed, took my arm and my suitcase and ushered me through the front door into the remorseless sunshine. Outside, the features of the town were softened with blown sand, and around the entire city was a tall, barbed-wire fence—my first intimation of the ongoing hostility between the Legion and the wandering Tuareg nomads. I caught my first glimpse of one of these at that moment. They are often referred to as the ―Blue Men,‖ because of their all-encompassing robes in cobalt accompanied by a matching turban worn partly round the face. Nothing could have confirmed more dramatically the exotic nature of this locale than that sight, and to think that only one day before that I was pondering over the vichyssoise versus the avocado au vin on board the Oranje. I felt like I had stepped through some time warp. Visitors were rare in this part of Africa, that much was obvious, and as a consequence I was to become the recipient of unremitting hospitality. The Spaniards, anyway, are wonderfully welcoming people, but here in Villa Cisneros, the graciousness never stopped. Carlos, the manager of the bank, showed me to my room and proceeded to play, for the first of innumerable times, an LP of Dionne Warwick. Do you know the way to San José? ever after became firmly associated in my mind with this unfamiliar location. And so I settled down to my first night under the red and yellow of the Spanish flag. The following day I got my introduction to the town. The Spaniards had taken their location seriously and had constructed all sorts of crenelated buildings making this city look like a film set from the 1930s. The post office looked like it was designed to stand a frontal assault from the Rif. Everywhere was this curious mixture of blue Tuaregs and legionnaires kitted out in something disturbingly akin to Nazi field-green uniforms. Some of the soldiers were fishing off the quay, while Tuareg merchants peddled their wares of Saharan silver along the side of the street. In the harbor numerous Korean fishing boats were moored, for they had gained the concession to fish these extremely productive waters. A cold current welled up offshore bringing the fish and ameliorating the climate. In the middle of the main quay wall sat a submerged two-master that had previously been the lifeline between Villa Cisneros and the Canary Islands. Apparently it had sunk while being
loaded with cement and this had set rendering the ship forever useless. So, there it sat, and presumably still sits. That day at lunch Manuel introduced me to Commondante Pablo, as far as I could make out, the officer in charge of the Legion. He was dressed in gray with something resembling a French gendarme’s kepi, but also in gray. His uniform was finished off with white cotton gloves, which must have required high maintenance in this location where the air seemed to consist of 20 per cent blowing dust. He informed me that this place had the highest ratio of men to women of any place on earth, and most of the needs of the Tercios were taken care of by a nightclub set apart from the rest of the city, and out-of-bounds to civilians. It lay set back from one of the few green areas in the entire place, an agricultural research station flying in the face of Nature. Continuing, the officer told me that he had an English wife, whom he had met on a holiday in the British working-class resort of Blackpool. This was a surprising piece of information, and I asked how she liked living in so remote a place. ―Well,‖ he said with a smile, ―when she asked me where I was from, I told her Spain. She had been on holiday on the Costa Brava and fancied the idea of a place with sun. What part of Spain, she asked me, and I told her Villa Cisneros. I don‘t think she knew where that was, and she was quite surprised when we steamed clean past Spain, and kept on going until we got here. Then she didn‘t say much of anything for a while.‖ Just then, we were joined by the lady in question, who pressed me for news of Britain. I had to explain that it was many a long year since I had been there, and there wasn‘t much of anything I could tell her that she didn‘t already know first-hand. As it turned out, she had adapted well, and seemed to enjoy this rather bizarre life style on the edge of the desert. ―Plenty of beach here, anyway,‖ she said. There was no denying that. Pablo then invited me to accompany him to the fortress on the edge of the town. First he gave me some background. ―You may find the legionnaires—well, different—from other people that you have met. There is an understanding that if you join up, serve five years, without taking any leave, then you qualify for Spanish citizenship with no questions asked. As a result of this, we get many people with colorful histories—there is even an Englishman here. In general, they are not used to visitors.‖ I was not sure what to make of this, but with that we got into the car, and headed off along the coast. The fortress was vast and dun-colored. In front a Spanish flag fluttered in the sea breeze and two legionnaires stood to attention in chevron-painted sentry boxes. A great arch opened onto a central square that seemed to cover several acres. Around the walls were low barracks, and there wasn‘t much of anything to see in the square. Pablo, in his immaculately starched and pressed uniform, led the way into one of the barracks. The legionnaires leapt to their feet and stood at attention. The thing that caught my attention right away was that they had artillery pieces stashed around the building, some of them between the beds. I also noticed that some of the older soldiers were wearing military decorations of Nazi origin. That added to the sense of unreality, and made the place seem more than ever like a movie set. In the back was a small room in which we stacked piles of automatic weapons, handguns, grenades and the like. Pablo handed me a machine gun, and said, ―a small souvenir.‖ I assumed he was joking and handed it back smartly. We went
back out into the square where Pablo took me around a Panhard armored car. ―Do you ever have to use these things?‖ I inquired. ―Frequently,‖ he replied. ―Our defenses are constantly being tested by the Tuareg and we had a full-scale assault the other day. I think it is in their blood. But, there is something of an ‗independence‘ movement here supported by the Algerians across the border. They call this the ‗Western Sahara‘ and the Tuareg are organized into a political group called Polisario. Algeria has little love for Morocco, and they don‘t want Morocco to get hold of this territory when Spain leaves.‖ ―Is Spain intending to give this up?‖ I asked. ―Yes, I‘m sure. We have been giving back bits and pieces to Morocco for years—Ifni, Cape Juby, Villa Bens—and the assumption is that they will get this too.‖ I wondered then why the legionnaires would have much stomach for defending a territory that Spain didn‘t even want. I thought it better not to ask that question. By now we had moved to the officer‘s mess that was decorated with vast oil paintings of great Spanish battles of the past. ―If,‖ I asked, ―the legion was to leave, where would they go?‖ They were, after all, the foreign legion, and if there were no foreign places left, what would they do? ―If we leave here, we shall go to Ceuta probably,‖ Pablo replied. Ceuta is the last anomaly—a Spanish town on the northern coast of Morocco. To the east, the Spaniards had another Spanish enclave at Melilla. These two towns were the first places to be occupied by Spain when it expanded out across the ―Ocean Sea.‖ It was interesting that what they started with at the end of the fifteenth century was what remained halfway through the twentieth. By now, the sun was setting and darkness came quickly. Pablo and Manuel invited me to join them at a small cantina where they ordered a huge steaming bowl of mussels straight out of the Atlantic. They were delicious, and quickly the first bowl was followed by a second. Seafood abounded in this part of Africa, and was to be one of the joys of staying in Villa Cisneros. The following day, accompanied by one of the Panhard armored cars we set out for one of the small settlements in the interior. Once we moved away from the coast the temperature rose alarmingly. The road rapidly deteriorated into a set of twin tracks across the desert. Manuel‘s sister came with us and seemed quite at home in this wilderness. Around us was a vista of unrelieved nothingness. This was not the dunes of the true sand desert, but rather a sort of gravely plain unrelieved by vegetation. We paused, eventually, at the Sahara Bar, which was nothing more than a tin shack that became a furnace in the noonday sun. The beer, however, was cold and unbelievably welcome in that wilderness. In the entire journey we never saw another soul, though we did find another agricultural research station. I was unclear as to what happened to this research. ―Don‘t you love this?‖ asked Manuel‘s sister waving her arm at the horizon. ―I think it takes time to get to love this,‖ I commented. As the days went by, even this place began to get familiar, and I came to know the stores, the clientele at the cantinas, and waved even to the exotic Tuareg traders who had managed to offload some rings and blankets on me. I now knew all the words to Do you know the way to San José, and had written to everyone I could think of who would appreciate a letter
from such an exotic location. I began to feel a little claustrophobic in the midst of all that sand. Just before I was due to leave, I was invited to meet the governor of the Province. He had his office in the middle of the municipal square, which boasted some civic style with flag, imposing buildings, and a small square of grass with a children‘s playground fighting back the sand. The governor was a robust, cheery individual who obliged me by putting an even-more elaborate stamp into my passport. He then presented me with a silver knife, of the style sported by the Tuareg. He asked me many questions about Uganda, and I realized that, even though he was in charge of a part of Africa, Uganda might have been on the moon as far as life in Villa Cisneros was concerned. I felt that I was present at the end of an era that had begun with Vasco da Gama and Christopher Columbus. In fact, I was. That last night we celebrated over bowls of mussels and beer, and I felt genuinely sorry to say good-bye to these new friends. In the morning everyone turned out, even Commandante Pablo, at the airport. The Iberia airliner taxied past the Heinkels, and pulled up. I hugged Manuel, kissed his sister, was blessed by the priest, and saluted by Pablo. The bank manager was humming San José and I felt a real member of this isolated community. The stark coast dipped below the wing and the Atlantic passed beneath us as we headed for Las Palmas—an outlier of Europe. As a postscript—eight years after I departed from Villa Cisneros—in 1976 Spain packed up and left. In fact, the Province of the Sahara had been formed only in 1958. In 1975 Morocco organized a huge non-violent ―Green March‖ into the Sahara, and rather than deal with this, Spain agreed to divide the territory between Morocco (two-thirds) and Mauritania (one third). In February 1976, the Spanish administration left. Mauritania made peace with the Polisario, but Morocco pre-empted this arrangement, and occupied the whole area. Villa Cisneros became Dakhla, but the Organization of African Unity refused to accept the de facto annexation of this territory, and recognized it as the Western Sahara. The area, twenty years later, now awaits the resolution of its status under a UN referendum. The Legion moved to Ceuta, and Manuel moved to Madrid. The world moved on, but I was glad to have left my footprints in some Spanish colonial sand
The Road to Zanzibar
There is no more magical name in all the lexicon of places than Zanzibar. It had fascinated me since I was a child, though I knew almost nothing about it. That is not strictly true, for it had intrigued me in January 1964 when I read that the Arab sultanate that had ruled the island, and a chunk of the mainland, since 1744 had been brought to an end. This was the result of the sudden and unexpected outbreak of a revolution among the Black population. The Sultan, Sayyid Jamshid bin Abdullah had just led the country to independence in December of the previous year, and graced the one and only set of stamps on which he was destined to appear. By a special order of the Revolutionary Council his portrait on the stamps was to be obliterated by pen until the stamps could be replaced. A local typesetter made up some slugs bearing the Swahili word Jamhuri (Republic), and that too had to be pressed onto every single stamp. I had obtained some of these by writing to the postmaster, and they arrived on an envelope bearing the printed heading On His Highness’s Service, which had been neatly struck through, and On People’s Republic Service added in script. In Uganda I had read everything I could lay my hands on about the expeditions into East Africa during the nineteenth century, and nearly all these started from Zanzibar—the great entrepôt at one end of the dhow trade. Each year, using the changing winds of the monsoon, traders from Arabia and India came to Zanzibar, and the Sultan‘s protectorate of Mombasa, and had returned with a crop of spices. Chief among these was cloves, the island‘s main crop. Travelers by sea had, for centuries, remarked on the fact that you could smell Zanzibar‘s wonderful aroma borne on the winds, long before the island hove into view. The ruling family of Muscat in Arabia claimed the islands and occupied them making them a major base for an enormous slave trade. It was this trade that the British moved in to suppress, bringing them into confrontation with the Sultans, eventually resulting in a brief naval bombardment of the royal palace21. One problem for the British was that this center of the slave trade lay off the coast of the German ―sphere of influence‖ in East Africa, and great sensitivities arose from this. These curious ―spheres‖ arose from the Berlin conference of 1884-5 in which the spoils were picked over and generously distributed among the Powers, without, naturally, recourse to the wishes of the Africans involved. Eventually, in a move so characteristic of the nineteenth century, the British in 1890 swapped Heligoland, off the North German coast, for influence in Zanzibar. One of those imaginative protectorates was established, and in a symbolic gesture, the cathedral of Zanzibar was erected on the site of the former slave market. The British co-opted the Omani dynasty, and ruled through them. As I sat in my room in Kampala I mused on the possibility of going there and seeing this outlier of Arabia off the African coast. There were three reasons for going: its place in African history was fantastic; no place had declined in importance faster; the only Arab state in this part of the world had just been toppled by an African revolution. My
It would be uncharitable of me to mention that the British had, of course, profited mightily from the slave trade for centuries before waking up one morning and finding it morally repugnant. The arrival of capitalism and the industrial revolution had allowed them the expedient of enslaving their own people instead.
opportunity came when it was announced that the annual East African University games were to be held in Dar es Salaam. That city, the name of which means ―Haven of Peace,‖ lay on the shore right opposite Zanzibar. Zanzibar had recently been ―merged‖ with newlyindependent Republic of Tanganyika and its status was uncertain. I needed no visa to go to Tanzania, but I did to go to Zanzibar, which was part of Tanzania. Three of my friends had asked whether I could arrange to drive them to Dar to attend the games, and we would go Dutch on the petrol. On the appointed day we piled into my green VW Beetle and headed east along the well-made roads of Uganda. By early afternoon we were at the border with Kenya. At that time travel among the East African countries was still a rather informal business, and though we had to stop at the border town of Busia, the formalities were minimal. Quickly the border guard pulled aside a wicked-looking piece of wood pierced with nails that would have seen off the tires of anyone trying to crash the frontier. We headed off into Kenya that had become independent only three years earlier in 1963. Fairly quickly the countryside changed and we moved into a landscape of large, well-ordered fields as we passed through the huge farms of the white settlers in what was still referred to as the ―White Highlands.‖ Uganda had never allowed the alienation of land in this manner, and was, with the exception of a few sugar estates, the domain of small African farmers and stock raisers. At the center of each Kenyan farm stood something resembling the home of an English squire. Huge and solid, these buildings mimicked the Tudor or mock Gothic styles, and the overall impression was of driving through Oxfordshire. That was until the asphalt ran out and we were on the red murram road with its long veil of dust behind every vehicle. After each day‘s journey on such roads, you exited the car covered in a thin, sticky film that made you look as though you had a blood-pressure problem. The trick was always to overtake and not end up chewing the dust of the car in front. The problem was that you could not see to overtake, and so the whole thing was an adventure. We had the inevitable flat tire, at which time we were very grateful for the presence of the huge Nigerian boxer who occupied most of the back seat. The army of small fundis, or workmen along the road who patched up tires and kept the traffic moving quickly resolved the problem. At one point we had to wait while the East African Railways train made its way across the road. Two gigantic locomotives hitched together drawing an enormous complement of passenger carriages drew the train. Their fireboxes glowed even in the strong African sun, and we exchanged a wave with one of the drivers. This railroad, like everything else in this part of the world, had a fascinating history. It was built by the British to open up their new possessions in British East Africa (later renamed Kenya) acquired in the 1890s. Initially the settlers were the usual remittance men, and third sons of the British aristocracy, but these could not provide enough business for the railroad, and so, after the First World War, the Uganda Railway—as it was then known—offered land to demobilized soldiers who were not having too good a time of it in the Land Fit For Heroes, to which they returned in 1918. The railroad was conceived to connect the landlocked Uganda Protectorate with the sea at Mombasa. The East African Protectorate through which it passed was considered well-nigh worthless—though it was to be the highlands of the EAP that were to be the economic lifeblood of the railway eventually. This thin ribbon of steel was the lifeline of much of the interior—though the Mercedes truck was, by 1965,
rapidly displacing its role. It was also a widely held belief that most of the Asians in East Africa had come as ―coolies‖ to build the railroad, and had stayed on. This was not, in fact, true. Most of the indentured laborers had returned to India, but the news of the territory they had traversed brought a whole new generation of Indians as shopkeepers, businessmen and clerks. It was this first generation of Indians who, alas for them, had provided lunch for the extraordinarily resourceful team of lions who ravaged the bridge-building camp at Tsavo. We stopped for a late lunch at the town of Eldoret, which still had something of a Western frontier town atmosphere with its verandahs and tin roofs. Beautiful avenues of flowering jacaranda and frangipani trees softened the overall effect. But, towering above all, and making a dramatic statement were the flame trees with their shocking pillar-box red foliage. Eldoret had been the favored location of the Boer settlers who had trekked here in huge wagons hauled by enormous spans of oxen—sometimes sixteen of them. They were very different from the effete and clubbish British immigrants, and gave Eldoret a distinctive and unique ―no-nonsense‖ atmosphere. They had a rather gruff, rough and ready approach to life. Also, they had little time for people from Uganda, which place had always been hostile to alien settlement. After we skirted Nairobi we drove through the flat wilderness of the Athi Plains off toward the Tanzania border to the south. Here game abounded and the real Africa—the ―National Geographic‖ Africa—began in earnest. The sun was now behind us, and before long we caught sight of one of the world‘s great monuments. Kilimanjaro—all 19,000 feet of it— towered over the acacia-dotted plains. Atop the conical beauty of its perfect volcanic slopes sat a topping of purest pink—the former Kaiser Wilhelm peak with its modest glaciers. Nonetheless, snow on the equator was a miracle indeed. Earlier, we had passed the circular monument marking the exact point of the equator where it crossed the road, and we posed for a photograph with one foot in each of the hemispheres. But Kilimanjaro was astounding. It rose so high that, initially, we had not seen it because we were looking too low on the horizon. It rose out of an evening haze and overwhelmed us with its mass and symmetrical loveliness. Now it was getting dark, and we were on a road of gravel. This gave us limited traction, but we had to maintain a good time, for some distant relatives were waiting for us in Arusha, across the border in Tanzania. As I rounded the bend, my Tanzanian colleague in the front seat sat up suddenly and shouted ―Hatari sana—ngombe.‖ This translated as look out—a cow. I braked, and that was a bad mistake. The car careened on and with a sense of real horror we realized that the cow was, in fact, a rhinoceros. I had absolutely no idea how totally huge they were, and when we ran into its rear, it had the effect of driving into a wall. An ominous noise came from beneath us. ―Sit absolutely still,‖ the Tanzanian said. He cannot smell us above the smell of the car, and he has rotten eyesight. We froze, and the great head began to turn revealing that monstrous horn. I was certain that his weight was considerably greater than that of the car and its occupants. Slowly he or she proceeded to circle the car—its mighty head just feet from mine as it peered inside. After some circumnavigations of the car, it slowly trotted off up the road ahead of us snorting. We
drove slowly but it was keeping to road, and we had to follow it for several hundred yards before it crashed off through the bush. The rush of breath between teeth was almost comical. I was shaking almost uncontrollably. But we had to go on. We were thankful for the fact that the Volkswagen had its engine in the rear. We had not gone many miles before we found someone lying drunk in the road. We stopped, only to find that the man—dressed in an old army greatcoat—was stone dead and had been clearly murdered. We knew better than to hang around as local people had a habit of taking out their fury on anyone they suspected of being in a road accident. So at the next settlement (by now we were in Tanzania), we rushed into the police station. ―There is a man lying in the road,‖ I exclaimed. ―Right, I‘ll come with you,‖ said the policeman grabbing his ancient rifle and rushing for the door. ―How is he?‖ the officer inquired. ―He‘s dead,‖ I said. ―Oh, then we need not hurry. How do you like Tanzania?‖ It was dreadfully late when we pulled up at the single story house belonging to my sisterin-law‘s sister and her husband. ―We thought you were gonners,‖ he told us reassuringly, and as we laid out the bedrolls, we told them the whole story. It seemed quite unremarkable to them. I was still shaking—one rhino and a murder in one night were too much for me. In the morning we made an inspection of the battered VW. It had been pushed in, but did not seem, superficially at least, any the worse for its encounter with nature. On the other hand it was remarkably heavy on the steering. We took it to the local garage, but were unable to do much there as the chief mechanic had also been murdered the previous night. We took our chances, and made an early start. Tanzania seemed to go on forever—endless plains. The roads were corrugated like a washboard, and along the sides of the highway wandered the tall, immensely poised Maasai with their broad-blade spears. Recently, Tanzania had passed a ruling that the Maasai must wear trousers when they entered the townships, but these warriors were blissfully free of such Western prudity. The car became harder and harder to steer, and at one point it took two of us to turn the wheel, and then turn it back having rounded a corner. Catastrophe once more came in the form of a stone thrown up by the rear tires of a truck in front of us. Suddenly the world disappeared behind a shield of frosted glass. The Nigerian stuck his fist straight through the screen, and millions of pieces of glass showered into my lap. Now we were breathing red dust and struggling to guide the car. I have no idea, to this day, how we ever made it to the university in Dar es Salaam—a collection of futuristic buildings rising clear out of the primordial bush. We staggered to our dorm rooms, and found oblivion almost immediately. In the morning we woke to the scent of the sea and the glorious colors of flowering trees. There was a unique quality to the air—the smoke of the plains, the ozone of the sea and the bouquet of aromatic plants. The students around us were clad in a mixture of jazzy Dutchmade beach shirts, and the Mwalimu suit—a two-piece, cotton outfit without a collar. It was seen by some as a pale reflection of the awful Mao boiler suits, but it was very practical and cool. It took its name from the president, Julius Nyerere, who was known in Swahili as Mwalimu, or teacher. We rejuvenated ourselves with a shower and fresh fruit.
We had some time before the games and so I took the chance to wander round Dar. I think that all ports are fascinating, being a sort of frontier between one place and the rest of the world. Dar had a definite run-down quality, but it still sported some fine German colonial architecture. The city lay around one of the world‘s finest natural harbors, and was a wonderful fusion of Arab, Indian, colonial, African and the indefinable. In its old dusty streets lined with lime-washed buildings the air was filled with the scent of hundreds of different spices colorfully arrayed in baskets. The sound was muted, and the air heavy and it had the effect of swallowing the harder sounds. Coffee sellers poured their green coffee from elaborate brass dispensers into small cups from a great height. The narrow streets were shady, though the dank air was still. Turning a corner, one would be assaulted by the hard brilliance of the sun on a white wall. There was, however, a tension in the air for Tanzania had threatened to break off relations with the UK over the matter of Rhodesia‘s unilateral declaration of independence. That very morning, December 12, it happened, and now I was a citizen of a country unrepresented in Tanzania. On the other hand, there was no discernible difference that I could detect in the friendliness of everyone; though Tanzania was forced further into the arms of the very Cold War adversaries that the West feared so much. It all seemed ridiculous. At a suitable moment during the games I booked myself a passage on a small plane to Zanzibar. It had taken me the best part of a year to get the visa. Although, technically Zanzibar was part of Tanzania it still retained a curious amount of autonomy—issuing its own postage stamps and granting its own visas for instance. My visa came on a ratty piece of paper run through a duplicating machine granted by the ruling Afro-Shirazi Party. We touched down on a palm-fringed grass strip, and my colleagues, two Chinese gentlemen in Mao suits disembarked first. They had maintained a stoic silence throughout the flight, reminding me that this was the time of the Cultural Revolution back home, when it was not wise to say anything to anyone. The Eastern Bloc presence in Zanzibar was well known, and the East Germans were training the coastal patrol as well as part of the police. Nevertheless, the airport appeared nothing more nor less than a sleepy colonial outpost— tiny and ramshackle. I had to go through immigration even though I was still theoretically in the same country! An ancient Peugeot took me from the terminal to my hotel: The Queen Victoria Guest House. There was nothing East German about that. Mine host was a short Indian with an impeccable English accent, who assured me how totally delighted he was to see me, and apologized for the inadequate service that he would be able to provide because of the ―troubled times.‖ The hotel was filled with very dated overstuffed furniture and had a comfortable feel to it. Just as the books had said, the air was alive with the alluring aroma of the many spices. ―I imagine you would like a spot of tea—Darjeeling suit you?‖ the owner inquired. In due course, the tea appeared on venerable, but mismatched English china. ―Dreadfully hot, right now,‖ he observed as we sipped our tea. ―In the old days, things were so different, you know.‖ I am not sure I knew exactly which old days he was referring to, but I presume not the old days when this was the principal slave market of the whole of Eastern Africa. At this time you met a certain class of Indians who had somehow got trapped in the Victorian/Edwardian era, and refused to come out. Of course that was the time when the steady tick of the clock of Empire brought order to all, and we
were top of the heap. Who, after all, would want to leave that period? The ―civilizing mission,‖ the ―Great Game,‖ the ―White Man‘s Burden….‖ Except, the gentleman extolling the virtues of Victoria‘s long reach and confident ways was not white. And so, over ―a spot of tea,‖ he relived the steamy but self-assured torpor of this most romantic of colonial backwaters. Into the room at that moment came a man of rotund build and oriental caste. ―Good evening everyone,‖ he said cheerfully. ―I am Mr. Santosi, may I join you for dinner?‖ He sat, and we were served very English fare, and that did not seem to bother him at all. ―I am from Indonesia,‖ he mentioned, taking another spoon of stew. ―I buy the Zanzibar clove crop—all of it I think.‖ He volunteered a propos of nothing. That seemed rather remarkable to me, so I asked him what he did with it. ―In Indonesia we put them in cigarettes,‖ he informed me, and produced a pack of rather fat cigarettes from his shirt pocket, proceeding to light one. The smell was akin to marijuana, and pervaded the whole room in a trice. ―Yes,‖ he went on, ―I am, as you might say, the gross national product of this place. I have been coming here for years to buy the crop.‖ ―Have things changed much?‖ I asked. ―Well, the place is really run-down, and most of the Arabs have gone. It doesn‘t feel like an Arab place anymore. You know, when the revolution came it was a really amateur affair led by a Ugandan. But they gave the Sultan his marching orders, and he left in the royal yacht for Mombasa. Your people looked after him and now he is living in Southsea—quite modestly I believe. Amazing that two hundred years of rule could end just like that. The place is a shambles now, but they need the money from the cloves, so they look after me. I wish they would look after the trees, the cloves are getting worse and worse.‖ He continued to talk about the many years he had been coming to the island from Djakarta. He rarely ventured out of the hotel, except to make his deals. He seemed to me as though he had walked right out of the pages of Graham Greene‘s ―The Comedians.‖ Mr. Santosi bade me good night and I retired to my room. After a short time, and before I had dropped off, there was a quiet knock at the double doors of my room, and the owner entered. ―I am most horribly sorry to trouble you, but I should secure the shutters.‖ I had visions of revolutionaries creeping around, but he added ―The bats you know. Jolly fellows really, but they can scare the living daylights out of you if they thrash around in here after dark. I think it would be better to keep them out, don‘t you?‖ I agreed—my visions of revolutionaries hastily transformed into visions of vampires. ―Bye bye then,‖ he whispered, ―Sweet dreams and all that.‖ The door closed quietly, and I quickly dozed off in the night air full of cloves and lemon grass. The following morning I awakened, not to bats, but to a most horrible smell. It was as though all the drains in creation had collapsed simultaneously. I could not imagine what had happened, and asked the owner as he cheerfully went around setting the breakfast table humming Gilbert and Sullivan. ―Oh Heavens,‖ he said. ―I am used to it, and forget. It is not the drains, it is Mr. Santosi.‖ That seemed like a damning indictment of our Indonesian friend, but the situation was quickly explained. ―He always brings with him a supply of durian. It is a fruit they grow out there—a pink thing that I understand to be fearfully
expensive. When you peel it all hell breaks loose and, well, you can tell what happens.‖ ―You mean this smell is something to eat?‖ I asked incredulous. ―It smells, well . . .‖ I searched for the comparison, ―more like something someone already ate.‖ ―Ha, jolly good simile,‖ mine host responded, and he tip toed off to Mr. Santosi‘s room to crave his indulgence and ask whether he could desist with the durian. To make matters worse, Mr. Santosi came out to show me the offending fruit and the odor became overpowering. ―Try some, you don‘t smell it when you eat it!‖ I couldn‘t get near it, never mind eat it. It became a standing joke, and Mr. Santosi would threaten me with durian every time I appeared. To some extent I did get used to it. The urge to vomit went away. After breakfast I strolled through the old Arab town. The city consisted of sinuous, incredibly narrow streets that provided welcome shade throughout the day. Through these streets cars fought with pedestrians providing a constant threat to the unwary. In the old days the Sultan would hurry through the streets in his red Rolls Royce; the all-red flag of the Sultanate fluttering on the hood. At this everyone would flatten themselves against the walls and hope for the best. Set into the walls along the streets were the huge, elaborately carved wooden doors for which Zanzibar was famous. These usually, in Arab fashion, opened onto a green courtyard, while the house presented a closed and forbidding face to the street. Occasionally, through a crack in the door one glimpsed the verdant oasis that nestled within. But most often the door would open and a local woman covered from head to foot in the traditional black bui bui would glide by reminding me of the ―jolly bats‖ that had threatened to invade last evening. The men wore—if they were Arabs—full length white robes (the khanzu) and a white head covering. If they were Africans they wore the colorful lungi or wrap-around skirt. Most of the Africans were also Moslems and wore a small cotton skullcap. Many of the older Arabs sported long white beards and looked like Biblical prophets in retirement. In rare cases, the Arabs also sported the traditional Omani curved dagger set into a waistband. It was a true-life costume drama; all made more surreal by the silent way in which the people moved on soft sandals through the dust. The place was totally bereft of visitors, and curious eyes followed me as I strolled. I was completely captivated. I entered a dark shop in which bric a brac was piled in disarray. It looked like Aladdin‘s cave. There was a wonderful, but indefinable smell. A Biblical patriarch approached. ―Good day, sir. Visiting Zanzibar and looking for a bargain I‘m sure,‖ was his opening gambit. ―Well, I had not actually thought of buying anything,‖ I confessed, but he was not having any of that. ―Excuse my asking,‖ I said, ―but what is that smell.‖ For a moment he looked worried, but then he took me by the hand and led me to the back of the shop. ―Is it stronger here? ‖he asked. ―Yes,‖ I responded with conviction. ―It is this, sir,‖ he said throwing open the lid of a huge and ancient chest. ―Sandalwood—perfect for storing your clothes.‖ It looked the size of something you could be buried in when you had done with it, but the aroma was captivating with the power to transport you straight from this world to some magical garden of Eden. ―And you know sir,‖ he continued, ―this piece of furniture is several hundred years old and it still smells so sweetly.‖ ―Sit down, and let us talk,‖ he said gesturing to a tiny stool. I told him, right away, that there was no way I could ever transport such a huge item (and have regretted it ever since), and so he directed my attention to more
portable items. With a flourish he produced a white metal ewer of considerable grace. ―For coffee?‖ I inquired. ―Gracious no—for washing hands. Soap here, water there, scrub, scrub. You come at a good time, sir, for many of the Arabs fled leaving their things, and we have no tourists, so prices tumbled.‖ So it was that I came into possession of a large ewer that he sent round to the Queen Victoria Rest House that evening. I ambled on—nobody hurried in this place—and eventually found myself in front of the very post office to which my letter requesting stamps must have been delivered in the troubled times of 1964. I bought some stamps, and asked whether the same postmaster worked here as worked in 1964. ―Definitely sir,‖ said the counter clerk, and went to get Mr. R. S. Maddon, an Indian who shook my hand. ―Oh yes, I remember that now,‖ he confessed. ―I hope everything arrived in ship shape.‖ ―Splendidly,‖ I replied, falling into the affected English of several generations back. Taking me by the arm, Mr. Maddon led me into the middle of the street. ―Not wise to chat in there,‖ he told me quietly. ―Difficult times, you know.‖ He went on to tell me that the day after the revolution representatives of the new government came into the post office and told him to stop selling stamps with the portrait of the Sultan. ―Of course, I pointed out to them that we could shut up shop at that point, as that was all we had. Even they could see the sense of that, and so we had to sit up all night crossing out the chap‘s face. The we got these overprinting devices from a local printer, and it was very appropriate that the slug was soldered into a 303 cartridge!‖ They had gone one step further now and the new stamps showed an African with a Kalashnikov rifle. Mr. Maddon grew increasingly uncomfortable as we spoke, and I thought we were more conspicuous talking in the middle of the street than anywhere else. I bade him farewell and wandered off. Eventually I reached the port, such as it was. It was difficult to imagine now that it had been a major terminus of the dhow trade. The few ships that were there looked unkempt, and nothing much of anything was going on. On a promontory stood the large, coral-rag house of the British consulate where Burton, Speke, and Livingstone had stayed, guests of the resourceful consul Hammerton. Sic transit gloria mundi was never better exemplified than here. A short walk along the sea front brought me to the wooden multi-storied former royal palace with its central tower. It was a curious fretted structure, and had been known for many years as the House of Wonders, for it contained the first elevator ever seen in Zanzibar. Here, the al-Busaidi family grew rich on the trade in slaves sent all over Arabia. Over the palace now flew the yellow, blue and black flag of the Afro-Shirazi Party ruled over by a former trade-union official (soon to be assassinated). There was not much evidence of Tanzania anywhere. In this part of the town the aroma of cloves gave way to the stink of the mud flats at low tide. Hanging over everything was the terrible memory of the thousands of souls who had been bought, sold and shipped from here, brought over from the ravages of the wandering Arab traders on the mainland. I tried to imagine the bustle and sadness of those times, but it was gone. Near the beach were some traditional Arab bath houses constructed from coral blocks, and the remnants of old homes, now only
parts of walls. The humid air hung over everything like the smell of the grave, and it seemed wholly appropriate to the circumstances of Zanzibar in 1965. Back at the Queen Victoria, I was welcomed to another round of tea. This time the owner took me into the garden and plucked some leaves from a tree and put them in the tea, imparting a vary passable imitation of lemon. ―Still got a few tricks up my sleeve,‖ he winked at me. Then it was durian time, and I lost my appetite completely. In the days that were left I always had the impression of a place waiting for something to happen. I wandered, one afternoon, up to the district where various foreign governments had established their diplomatic offices. Just after independence these had been embassies, but now, with the Union of Tanganyika and Zanzibar they were consulates. Clearly, however, they still regarded Zanzibar as an independent laboratory for their intrigues. This was best illustrated by the point in one street where the USSR and the Chinese People‘s Republic had their missions opposite each other. The monolithic unity of the communist bloc had fallen apart some years back, and the Soviets and the Chinese faced each other in a shooting match across the Yalu river. Festooned across the front of each mission in bold Swahili were provocative invocations to the people of Zanzibar not to be fooled by the artifices of the other party. The Soviets were referred to as ―Revisionists,‖ and the Chinese as ―Aggressors.‖ In glass-fronted window cases in front of each building were photographic indictments of the actions of the other party. The Chinese captions were in the doggerel of Party cant as though written by some ideological machine, which—in a way—they were. Meantime, the good people of Zanzibar went about their business blissfully indifferent to these admonitions. The American consul, in another part of town, watched this with some amusement as the great Cold War rivals turned their attention on each other. I called on him for tea one day and he turned out to be something of a history buff. He reveled in the enormous sense of history that hung over this place like a miasma. ―I think the Zanzibaris do well out of all this ideological nonsense,‖ he confessed. ―They get something from everyone, and don‘t give a tinker‘s cuss for any of us!‖ Eventually I found myself back on the airstrip, again in the company of some of Mao‘s emissaries. Once more they maintained a stoic silence, and one of them perused the inevitable ―little red book.‖ Back in Dar I packed and prepared for the journey home with some trepidation. The car was becoming impossible to steer, but we had no alternative other than to trust ourselves to it. We did not have the money to get it repaired. With the assistance of my Tanzanian friend we drove home, pausing only when the car lost power and stopped on a vast, featureless plain in Kenya. We looked at the engine—none of us having the knowledge to diagnose the problem. A shadow fell across the car, and we were aware of a tall Maasai, spear in hand, and standing alongside us. He pointed with the spear at the engine. ―Induction coil,‖ he said. Seeing our lack of comprehension, he reached forward and reconnected an errant wire. ―Try it now,‖ he said, and the car spluttered back to life. Back in Kampala we all retired to Christo‘s, the town‘s popular Greek-owned hangout. We all looked disconsolate, as we had no money to fix the car. We had learned at Arusha that the half chassis (whatever that was) had split, and the entire weight of the car was resting
on the steering column. With that there was a scream of tortured rubber on the road outside Christo‘s, and a terrible bang accompanied by the tinkle of glass. We rushed outside and saw a large black Mercedes, steam issuing from its hood, deeply embedded into the rear of our car. The VW had collapsed completely into two. The owner of the car rushed up to us, our Nigerian raised himself to his full, intimidating, height, and the owner of the crunched Mercedes apologized profusely for what he had done. We affected shock and horror, mentioning nothing of our car‘s ―pre-existing condition‖ and within a few weeks I had been paid in full for the car by the insurance. This money was parlayed into a venerable green Mercedes 180 that had formerly belonged to my girl friend‘s father.
“Durticum che!” In company with fellow student, Dr. C. C. Patel, ―CC‖ to his friends, and a cousin of his, I decided to take a break from studies and head west to the Ruwenzori mountains. CC was a medical doctor working his residency at the prestigious Makerere Medical School. He had the advantage of seeming to have a relative in every town in Uganda. Our destination, in this case, was Fort Portal, the capital and district headquarters of the Kingdom of Toro. This was one of the remnant African kingdoms that had been incorporated into the new jigsaw of Uganda. At that point, there was still a king, or Omukame, who resided in modest style in the royal palace. The king himself was a student at the university. His sister, princess Elizabeth was a striking woman with the tall grace of the ruling Nilo-Hamitic peoples. She had huge doe-like eyes that were, in the future, to stare out from the cover of Vogue, and add an exotic touch to the United Nations General Assembly when she was, briefly, the foreign minister of Uganda under the rule of Idi Amin. She later fell out of favor with the general and he accused her of having an affair with a man in the rest room of Charles de Gaulle airport. But that was all in the future, and for the moment she was a member of the ruling family of this mountain kingdom. She was to be seen from time to time riding in a venerable, chauffeur-driven Mercedes with the coat of arms of Toro in place of the license plate and a colorful flag on the hood. The kingdom lay in one of the most spectacular parts of Uganda—the foothills of the Ruwenzori mountains that separate Uganda and the Congo. As we ascended the air became sharper and crisper, and soon we came in sight of the snow-capped peaks that lay astride the equator. The town itself benefited from the altitude and people moved in a more sprightly way here, not least because Fort Portal was above the environmental limits of several of the major diseases of Uganda. Like most towns it had a frontier look—the shops being set back from a boardwalk cum verandah, but there were more solid buildings, and a sense of prosperity here. Residential houses were fronted by neat gardens, and the town sported many amenities including banks, a bookshop and a couple of restaurants. Also like most of the towns in Uganda, its population was predominantly Asian. Our host was a local doctor—a member of the Ismailia sect that reveres the Aga Khan, and who had prospered in Uganda. They, unlike most of the Asians, had the practice of adopting the country in which they lived, and always seemed to me to be much more at home than their other counterparts from Asia. Their Aga Khan foundation did much to support the social services of Uganda, and in general they seemed to have better relations with the African population. Dr. Bhimji, our man of the house, was a distinguished looking man with silver hair and an air of assurance. His wife Nargis completed a pair of excellent hosts and lived comfortably in a single-story building in a residential area on the edge of the town. We told him that we intended to drive down to the Congo border that evening. He clearly did not think that was a great idea in view of the anarchy that reigned in that place. In fact there was almost no communication between the two countries at this place, not least because of the rugged terrain. We had brought with us the long-wheel-base Land Rover, and we thought that would be more than a match for the terrible roads that we were warned led to the mighty Congo Basin.
In mid afternoon we set off. We had to head north to get around the highest part of the Ruwenzori range that goes from southwest to northeast, and then we would turn south again heading for the Semliki valley, which marked the international border. Just as we had been told, the roads were pretty awful, but we made reasonable progress, as we wound down the hairpin bends on the dirt. Even if we did not get as far as the border, we were determined to see the spectacular hot springs that were to be found at the foothills near the town of Bundibugyo. Eventually we got there, passing circular mud huts thatched with grass along the way. The weather became dramatically hotter and stickier, and eventually we arrived at the hot springs in the valley of the Semiliki river. To our astonishment, there were no hot springs. We asked some of the local people, and they informed us that the springs had suddenly vanished in the last day or two. ―But,‖ we remarked, ―they have been here for centuries. They can‘t just disappear like that. Are you sure this is the right place.‖ ―Yes,‖ a local responded, ―you can smell them. But they have gone, and nobody knows where or why.‖ This was a great disappointment after such a long journey, but we decided to cut our losses and go back. The local people invited us to stay, but we had told Dr. Bhimji that we would return, and he would be worried if we did not appear. On the return ascent the Land Rover developed some serious clutch problem and would run only in second gear, so our journey was endless. We waited the whole time for the clutch to give out completely in a cloud of smoke, and trap us there on the side of the Ruwenzoris with a menacing drop below the road‘s edge. Luck was with us—though we did not appreciate at the time just how much—and we staggered into Fort Portal in the dark. I explained our dilemma to the good doctor, and he said the local garage would take care of it in the morning. ―But, I don‘t understand about the hot springs,‖ he said contemplatively. ―I never heard of them doing that before.‖ Nargis cooked us a good curry, and we all chatted until just before midnight. CC, his cousin and I were all sharing the same room at the back of the house. We were more or less exhausted and fell asleep quickly, which wasn‘t difficult in the clear mountain air. It was at seven minutes past three in the morning when I awoke. For a moment I was totally disoriented, until I realized that all the burglar alarms on all the cars in Fort Portal were blaring. There was nothing I could imagine that would do that, as it required the car to be moved so set off the alarm. I sat up in bed and gradually the alarms ceased their noise. It was then that I noticed that the silence was not just a reaction to the previous hullabaloo— it was a total silence. This was not normal for the African night, which was generally filled with the sounds of insects, particularly the cicadas. I had never experienced this before, and again, I could think of no explanation. I sat up and pulled the curtain aside. Just then I heard a massive tearing sound, and the unmistakable clamor of a heavy train approaching. This was odd, for we were nowhere near a railroad. The train passed, seemingly, directly underneath us. At this point we were all awake and sitting up in bed totally confused. I looked over to CC to ask what he thought was going on. But, we had no more time to contemplate this enigma. In a trice I was hurled violently and inexplicably to the floor, and the entire contents of a shelf above CC‘s cousin projected itself onto the
floor. Then the shelf itself fell with a crash. The entire house lurched sideways, and a great crack appeared over the lintel of the door. Then silence. I started to get up, and was immediately thrown across the room again. ―What the hell is happening?‖ I shouted. ―God knows,‖ said CC. With that we were aware that someone was putting his weight against our door that appeared to have jammed when the lintel dropped. Eventually the door splintered, and Dr. Bhimji crashed into the room. In his excitement he lapsed into Gujarati. ―Durticum che!‖ he yelled, and CC jumped up. ―Hey,‖ I shouted, ―What‘s happening?‖ ―It‘s an earthquake. And a big one too,‖ shouted CC over his shoulder as he went through the door. ―Get outside onto the grass NOW.‖ I rushed after CC, and bounced off the wall, missing the door, as the ground jerked horizontally like some mad cakewalk. Eventually, I crawled through on all fours, and out into the inky night. My first sight was of the back wall of the house next door collapsing in slow motion. People were screaming, and the banshee of the car alarms added to the surreal madness of the whole event. Each time I tried to stand, I was thrown down violently. I lay on the grass in the absolute confusion that reigns when the ground beneath your feet becomes insane, and there is no point of reference or sanity. There would be a lapse, and then that prodigious subterranean crunching reverberation as millions of tons of the Ruwenzoris moved along some fault. It really was like the end of the world—a world over which all semblance of control had been lost. Nature held all the cards now. This mayhem went on for two hours, each event becoming gradually less dramatic than the last. Though we continued to sit, or lie, on the grass. As day broke we saw the inhabitants of the house next door seated round a card table. They were covered in blankets, and it looked like a gathering of Comanches. The doctor drove around offering what help he could, but there were remarkably few injured people. Of course the power had failed. The bookshop had lost part of its roof, but the most extraordinary thing was the capriciousness of the earthquake‘s destructive powers. In a street, one building would have collapsed, while the others remained intact. Everyone was in the streets, fearing the re-enter the houses. Groups of people gathered to share their experiences of the previous night. What we had experienced, however, was nothing compared to what had happened on the other side of the Ruwenzoris, though we were not to know that until later. The Ruwenzoris form the western arm of the Rift Valley in Uganda; a zone of seismic instability. Here, in geological terms, the landscape is young and is, in a manner of speaking, a work in progress. The epicenter of the quake had been on the Congo side of the mountains somewhere in the Semliki valley we had visited, and the shock waves had traveled into the mountains, been focused, magnified, and hurled back. The people of the town of Bundibugyo, where we had searched for the springs yesterday, never knew what hit them. The force brought down the mud walls of the houses while the families slept, killing over 600 inhabitants. Given the shambles that was the Congo, it seemed unlikely that much relief would reach them from that direction. It seems that the disappearance of the hot springs had been associated with some subterranean movement that was a precursor to the
calamity that followed. We never knew that we had been watching Nature setting the scene for a terrible disaster. The aftershocks continued in Fort Portal for several days. We always knew because ―Rajah.‖ the Bhimji‘s black Labrador, always stood up, growling, from the stone floor, somehow sensing the vibrations before we did. Household artifacts would rattle, but nothing worse. Once the dog felt comfortable enough to lie down again, we would relax. The first night after the shock we slept in the car, which was extremely cold at this altitude, and we did not get much sleep as the car bounced in the after shocks. Sleep never lasted long, even when we were able to doze off, for we woke each time the alarms went off. I can never hear a motor alarm now without the sensation that the ground is going to move. Things got back to normal enough to get the clutch fixed on the Land Rover, and CC, his cousin, and I decided to go back behind the mountains toward the Congo and see what had happened. As he was a doctor, his services might prove useful to the people of the Semliki valley. At this point, nobody had much idea of the extent of the damage on the Congo side—to the extent that the Uganda press was calling the events the ―Fort Portal‖ earthquake. As we rounded the northern edge of the Ruwenzoris it was clear that things were much worse on that side. Anything that had been standing no longer was. The full extent of the damage was something we never saw first-hand, for a few miles down the dirt road to Bundibugyo the track ended abruptly. There was a vertical break right across the road, which continued on its way about twelve feet below us. It was impossible to take the Land Rover any further and we had to turn back. At the first possible moment, I contacted my parents by telephone to tell them I was all right. I had written to them telling of our intention of going to Fort Portal. When I told them, dramatically, that I had survived the earthquake my mother responded, ―Which earthquake was that dear?‖ That took the wind out of my sails. In the saga of geological history this was just an ―incident,‖ but for us it was a defining moment in our lives.
Part II. Chifra
Soviet military advisers in Ethiopia, or The observations of a translator under fire
Miscebis sacra profanis
(You will mingle the sacred with the profane)
(this will have, eventually to come out)
Fons et origo Chapter 1. Via Addis Abeba to the Northern Front
1 5 11 13 21 26 28 30 34
Chapter 2. Better leave Asmara for sandy mountains Mai Amida Chapter 3 – Mutatis Mutandis Post coitum omne animal triste est Chapter 4 – Difficult road to Debre Zeit Debre Zeit – Sweet Resting Place Airborne brigade or parachute infantry brigade? Chapter 5 - Jungle survival course in Awasa Future ruthless general and the residence of princess Zauditte Chapter 6 – Mit dem Wissen wachst der Zweifel - with knowledge grows doubt Chapter 7 - Axum, Adwa, Adigrat, Makalle - Glorious Past , Troublesome Present El Deseo Vence al Miedo Chapter 8 - En route to Chifra Chapter 9 – Chifra Week one - Pas tous songes sont mensonges, mais… Week two and three. Aequam memento rebus in arduis servare mentem Week four and five. El tiempo corre, y todo tras el December 1983. Au desespoir. Le bon temps viendra? Chapter 10 - Revisiting Chifra Chapter 11 - Translating to logistic supply advisers - Non datur tertium Molibso Chapter 12 - Ex Africa semper aliquid novi
Fons et origo, By Way of Introduction Soyez prudent when choosing books for reading. It may happen that, in the course of reading, you are drafting the itinerary of your future travels and the nature of your adventures, perceptions, and excitements. The geography and empirics of my first professional adventures call for some explanation about this background. The first books that impressed me in my green years were ―King Solomon‘s Mines‖ and ―Montezuma‘s Daughter‖ by the British Victorian Rider Haggard. I was amazed by the mysterious heroic adventures and wonderful discoveries described there. This was the cause of my quite unexpected desire to venture and experience something of the kind. These aspirations were reinforced even more after reading the story of 19th century adventurer and researcher Boulatovych in his ―With the Army of Menilek II,‖ where the author describes the country called the African Tibet with its abundant and unique flora and fauna. Forty-one elephants, several lions and leopards became the trophies of emperor‘s hunters. Ancient Greeks called the country‘s inhabitants Ethiopians—people with ―burned faces‘. In Book One of the Iliad, Zeus is said to have departed to the country of ―blameless Ethiopians.‖ So, it was with some excitement that I happened to meet students from ancient Ethiopia in the beginning of the 1970s, in the student university hostel in the Ukrainian city of Kharkiv, where at that time Soviet students shared rooms with the students from Africa, Latin America and Asia. The Soviet Union was supporting the National Liberation Front of Eritrea militarily and politically. The Front was struggling against Emperor Haile Sellasie, and trying to create their own separate state. Many students from Eritrea studied Russian in Kharkiv and continued their education in higher military institutions in the USSR and, upon return, became significant leaders of separatist movements. I was amazed by the uniqueness of their culture and the courageous and proud appearance of the Eritreans when first I became acquainted with them. None of us thought at that time that, in ten years we would meet again—but this time in Africa and on opposite sides of barricades. My first attempt to visit the country was a complete failure. An opportunity emerged after two years of regular service in the Navy, which I had to complete after ROTC at the University. Almost every other civil translator, who served in the aviation regiment with me for two years, signed a contract to work for two to three years with Soviet military advisers in Asia or Africa. A month before demobilization most my interpreter colleagues already knew that their next stop would be Mozambique or Angola‘s jungles or the mountains of Ethiopia. My documents and candidature were not approved for such responsible assignments and, as my colleagues relayed to me in private, following the resolution of a very special department: ―You have written something extra to your friends, don’t you know that these most knowledgeable and most alert boys diligently inspect all our letters?‖
Then I remembered that about two months earlier I had written a letter to Sasha Zobnin, who served with the Baltic Fleet as a translator with the transport aviation service, and boasted how I ―had breakfast in the severe winter in Severomorsk, enjoyed lunch in Havana and dinner in Luanda (Angola‘s war-torn capital) in the tropical heat.‖ This was in response to his letter where he proudly informed me that he was going to Madagascar via Cairo and Dar-Es-Salaam just to swim and fish in the Indian Ocean for the seventh time. After such sincerely happy letter I was compelled to enjoy, sincerely but not quite happily, my breakfast, lunch and dinner up to the end of my active service in a military settlement lost in the debris of the Vologda forests located near the village of Kipelovo where the long-range aviation regiment was stationed. The second opportunity appeared only three years later when I sent my documents to the Personnel Office of the Ministry of Defence and they invited me for an interview. Galina Ivanovna, who handled the files of civil interpreters, tender inquisitive women, limping slightly on the right foot, was greatly surprised when she learned that my documents were not submitted to her after my demobilization from active service. It meant that, at the Ministry of Defence, no-one knew about my ―sincere‖ letter, and my documents were withheld at the regimental level, or at the level of the Northern Fleet. Now, I had to make a decision about which country to chose. The experience of previous sojourns in Africa by my colleague interpreters proved that, without the right contacts and private connections, your choice was most likely to be limited to, as a rule, the jungles of South Angola and semi-desert mountains in the north of Ethiopia. With regard to the ―fraternal‖ countries with a welcoming mild climate, and where there were no active hostilities going on at the time—Egypt, India, Libya, Sri Lanka or Zambia, priority candidates appeared to be specialists from the capital and those who had the right, wellpositioned friends and relatives. So, way down the chain of influence, I had to enjoy the privilege of choosing between Luanda and Addis Ababa. In Luanda we were stationed for a month with the crew of a TU-95, on our way to the South Pole along the coast of South Africa. Residing in the spacious and cosy building of a former English school, we slept under mosquito nets, and bathed in the Atlantic in the evenings trying to avoid the 45˚C (106˚F) daytime heat. Angola was the best-paid country for Soviet advisers and specialists ranking top with Laos. But English-language translators in Angola, for the most part, worked in the training centres for Namibians, as the training of their soldiers was in English. It would mean living in a tent for two years, making written translations in the evening and at night by candle-light or by a kerosene lamp, periodically making spirited sprints hoping to reach the safety the air-raid shelter to hide from the South African Mirages, which used to donate their bombs vertically, from timeto-time to Namibian training centres, located in the south of Angola. Ethiopia looked more attractive, despite the fact that the payment in Angola was twice as high. War with neighboring Somalia had just ended, several Cuban tank and
mechanized infantry brigades without great effort had re-established the status quo, and sent back home to rest the Somali troops that had managed to conquer most of the Eastern part of the country and, consequently, were positioned only 200 kilometres from Addis Ababa. Even though separatists in Eritrea and Tigray Province continued their individual wars for independence, over the previous seven years the hostilities had taken place mostly in the northern and central parts of the country. The rest of the country was relatively calm and peaceful—relatively being the key word here. Judging from the scarce and scrappy information, which we managed to obtain from Western radio and newspapers, the Soviet press—though it focused on the achievements in peaceful cooperation—and from the words of advisers who worked there, the civil war was coming to its ―logical end.‖ The decisive role, however, in this geographical choice was played by my interest in the exotic nature, ancient civilization and glorious history of remote Abyssinia. It is the only country in Africa, which Europeans were able to colonize only for fifty-nine months. Here at Hadar, in Ethiopia, the progenitor of us all – Australopithecus afarensis, fossil skeleton dubbed Lucy was recently discovered and this event rocked the world of palaeoanthropoly by pushing back the ancestry of our species at least a million years further in to the past. The there was the remarkable culture of Kingdom of Axum, which flourished more than a thousand years ago, and from where the Queen of Sheba set out when she paid her historical visit to King Solomon. I thought, too, of the ten monolithic churches of the Emperor Lalibela who—according to legend—visited the third sky, where he was instructed how to build and decorate them. I would see too, the church of the ―Light of Trinity,‖ described as ―a stupendous and wondrous edifice,‖—the bronze bells for which were presented by the Dutch Governor of Batavia and, in the realm of nature, Lake Tana, the source of the mighty Blue Nile. On one of its islands, in the Ura Kidanemeret monastery, so I had read in the works of modern British researchers Graham Hancock and Dr Richard Pankhurst, the Tabot – a representation of the Ark of Covenant, was hidden for a long time. Evidently, a wonderful opportunity was emerging to attend these historical places, rediscover and learn more about the mysteries of this archaic, romantic, and remote African civilization. Ad interim, the theatre of war at the beginning of the 1980s, staged several of its performances in proximity to these legendary places, but the rapidly occurring events and quickly developing situation did not always allow one to accomplish one‘s personal aspirations to cast at least a quick glance at these desirable and rare sights—not, at least without being shot. The forces of the Ethiopian government, formations of various ―separatist‖ troops in the north and centre of the country, more prosaic bandit groups in the East and South, all staged absurd and merciless scenes from the drama of civil war, each according to its own scenario. The main role, animo et fide, in the majority of these quickly-occurring crisis moments of the tragedy fell to the young battalions of the Parachute Infantry Brigade, which had to pay an extremely dear price for the successful execution of their orders.
Via Addis Ababa to the Northern Front
For the whole week already the long line of energetic and silent visitors near the cabinet of colonel Stareltsov and lieutenant-colonel Ryanov—both responsible for the instruction and distribution of military advisers and specialists to Ethiopia and Algiers— never seemed to dwindle. An intensive preparation for the long-awaited general offensive was underway in all sectors of the Northern Front in Eritrea. It carried a stimulating code name Kei Kokeb - the Red Star. Its clear objective was to finish, once and for all, with the separatist movement in the Northern parts of the country. The strategic plan of the forthcoming grand operation, meticulously designed and thought through by the Chief Military Advisor, general Bremin and his staff office in Addis Ababa, had just been approved by the Ministry of Defence in Moscow, and the end of January 1982 was to witness the launching of an unprecedented offensive by government troops in Eritrea. The preparations for such an important event had been under way for more than a year already–government troops received new tanks, APCs, artillery pieces and ammunition, which arrived in big shipments from the Soviet Union. Infantry and mechanized divisions and brigades, which in the various mountain battles, had lost more than half of their personnel in the course of seven years of continuous hostilities, had been refilled and reinforced with new soldiers and officers freshly and speedily trained in the centres in the south and centre of the country. As anticipated, to ensure and guarantee the success of the operation, the existing acting groups of Soviet advisers in Algena, AffAbet, Mai Amida , Molybso and Keren now awaited new advisers and specialists, who were gathering in the capital, and were being briefed by the personnel department at the Ministry of Defence: I was one. It was not very difficult to speculate that we were most likely to be ―resettled‖ soon from our peacefully sailing ship in tropical waters to this far less accommodating obscure mountain mass. Out of more than a hundred military ―advisers‖ present, the majority was sent to reinforce advisory groups on the Northern front. A feeling of creeping fear and uncertainty dominated the departing group–for few, if any, advisers could boast of having previous experience of participation in similar campaigns anywhere, and it would be naïve to expect, or seek, from them any sort of valuable, or reassuring advice. However, no-one at the top cared about this sentiment, as real knowledge and experience was gained ―by action and with time.‖ Most confidently poised and reassuringly behaved—indeed surprisingly brave looking—were the naval advisers in our group. The Ethiopian government Navy actually possessed only a few patrol boats and ships for which the crews needed basic training. The separatist troops had no combat ships whatsoever—and indeed many of them represented landlocked provinces—and the worst that could be expected by a naval military advisor was the sudden shock of an electric skate, or the murena’s unexpected bite during underwater fishing, or a force-nine storm in the Red Sea.
Ten newly drafted civil interpreters were still mutely and nervously waiting for their pending distribution verdict to be decided by the administrative officers when they arrived in Addis Ababa. The administrators told us, in passing, that one translator will be required for the newly formed group of parachute brigade advisers: eight advisers and one specialist in parachute rigging were currently freshly deposited in the capital and awaiting transportation to their school up-country in Debre Zeit. The chief paratrooper might like to choose one astergwamy* for his group right here and now. We hurried right away to research and inquire about this Debre Zeit location; the climate and military situation there, reassuringly to find out that it is a ―quiet place very close to the capital with a mild climate and absence of hostilities.‖ The last circumstance sounded great and brought many translators quickly into a proactive state, and quite a number of them started to ruminate over some course of conscious actions aimed at securing the position. ―Absence of hostilities‖ indisputably produced a more positive affect on our morale and state of mind than the uncomfortable semi-desert climate of the Simien Mountains in the North. However, the administrators made it clear that the chief paratrooper himself will choose the translator for the group during the key briefing. But the question still remained—on the basis of which criteria? The last day before the long awaited departure into our collective unknowns we received the first financial surprise in the form of new instructions from the all-powerful Ministry of Defence. The military accountant explained to us enthusiastically that this change had been devised, for our own benefit of course, to make our calculations easier and our savings bigger. If you are not married or if your wife can‘t accompany you to Africa, he told us, the newly introduced financial rule alleviated your heavy financial burden. Thirty percent of our payment in hard currency was converted into roubles, which were transferred to our personal accounts at high interest rates. Quite a time elapsed until we were able to perceive and realize that this was, like most military schemes devised for our lasting benefit, something of a financial trap rather than benefit, whereby we actually lost half of those thirty percent in hard currency. That‘s, anyway, how it looked to us, rather than being the ―humane compensation of M of D for sending you alone to an alien country.‖ It was not easy to bring your family along with you either, as there was inadequate housing for all, so the first in line entitled to receive—the higher military ranks, got it all . Standing in the corridor during the break among briefing sessions, I was approached by some fussy energetic man of middle age and height who asked me bluntly: - Can you read English? - Yes, I am supposed to. This is my profession. - Are you a translator then? Could you translate this instruction for me, please? He produced a two-page description of the drug Finalgon and I did some translation of the ―Dosage and Indications‖ section. He thanked me, and disappeared so quickly that I
did not manage to remind him about the assumed compensation for my work. This turned out to be the test of the chief paratroop officer, which he proffered to every translator, and which I unexpectedly passed thanks to my rather slow reactions. Ethiopia tikdem*. After thirty degrees of Moscow‘s frost, the 35 degrees Addis Ababa‘s heat provided, for the moment, a pleasant contrast. The country of thirteen months of sunshine, as the Italians named it, fully corresponded to this definition. After the rainy season the fragrant nature abounded the capital and filled it with exotic plants and flowers that charmed and excited the curious eye of a visitor. Situated over two thousand meters (6,560 feet) above sea level on the high mountain plateau, heavily planted with eucalyptus trees, the major construction and fuel material for its inhabitants, Addis Ababa excited and pleased us all with its wide and green streets, ancient churches and modern administrative buildings. The capital, Addis Ababa, was founded at the end of XIX century by the Emperor Menilek II, a famous unifier, reformer and modernizer of Ethiopia, well known for his victory over the Italian expeditionary corps of general Barratieri in the battle of Adwa. The Emperor was considered to be a smart politician who was able to take advantage of temporary disagreements among leading European states, and maintain the independence of the country in the era of the European ―Scramble for Africa.‖ Being the head of state of the only Christian country in the north of Africa, surrounded by Muslim countries, he considerably extended the boundaries of his empire to the south and the Arabic east, having incorporated Harar to his territories. Menilek the II was fond of innovations and architecture. With the assistance of the Swiss adviser and craftsman Alfred Ilg, he erected several palaces on the slopes of Mountain Wuchacha and the summit of Entoto Mountain, a choice determined by strategic considerations. An interesting innovation, for the first time in Africa, was the installation at the palace of piped water and fountains, which created considerable excitement at that time. A contemporary Amharic poet declared: ―We have seen wonders in Addis Ababa Water worships Emperor Menilek O Menilek what more wisdom will you bring? You already make water soar into the air!” Menilek, it is said, himself participated in the construction of the church of Maryam, when on occasion, he traveled with his consort, Queen Taytu, to Mount Managasha. There he helped to prepare massive square roof beams which were then carried dozens of kilometres to Entoto Mountain by groups of four or five soldiers. It was at this church of Maryam that Menilek was crowned Emperor of Ethiopia in November 1889, and an effigy of the old monarch can still be seen on its walls.
Ethiopia first of all (Amharic)
The Office of the Soviet Chief Military Adviser (CMA) was not located in the centre of the capital, as the Ethiopian side had initially suggested when the Soviet advisers first arrived in the country, and where, rather ironically, under Haile Selassie‘s rule the American Military Mission used to be. Another place, more remote from the centre and rather worse furnished, was selected on the outskirts of the city as being more adequate. The first CMA general Plyhin refused to accept such a generous offer of the Provisional Military Government of Ethiopia, arguing that our advisers are not the sort of pretentious people (as the Americans?) and can live and work just as well in much more modest conditions. The considerate and flexible local side was slightly surprised with such a response from the general, and in future did their best to satisfy the modest tastes of new advisers and meet their needs, providing them with minimum substandard housing, inadequate transport and scrappy uniforms. Some time later, after experiencing the consequences of such ―modest‖ supply and provision tactics f basic everyday items by their hosts, some advisers got infuriated and indignant at the first CMA‘s policy towards his subordinates, which ignored their vital interests and lacked necessary care and respect. After placing us in a hotel located right next to the offices of the CMA, the distribution officer informed us that we will complete all formalities within a week and then will be sent to our respective groups. He issued us a small advance in byrrs*, Makarov pistols and added that a more serious weapon would be received later when we reach our destination units. Then the time arrived for the next surprise, prepared this time by the well-informed staff of the CMA, which caused unanimous shock among newly arrived advisors and specialists: You can use your weapons only when killed (!) or wounded. Never open fire first. You’ll be severely punished, if you do. We are working here unofficially, and there is no legal agreement or document, which can protect you in case you break the law. So obey the instructions and follow the orders of the CMA and the M of D or you’ll be sent back to your units or even further to Siberia or the Soviet Far East.
The Chief Security Officer added even more fear to our somewhat confused minds, alongside our new appreciation of our real value and significance. He confidently, and confidentially, let us know that the going price, on the local market that day, for taking out a Soviet adviser was $30,000 and for a Cuban one – $10,000. This was the sum paid by the special services of our omnipresent opponents for the head or capture of those providing counsel to the National Army. As for the market price for translators, he did not possess any serious information on that market segment so far. Then we listened to the very short lectures about the country‘s history, culture and traditions, but most interesting and important appeared to be the instructions of docteur en chef militaire - chief military doctor. He categorically prohibited us to eat raw meat with
barbara* – the main local delicacy, and to swim in local rivers and lakes full of dangerous bacteria and silent hungry crocodiles. He, however, insisted on regular weekly consumption of 200 grams of locally made gin to fight all internal infections and diseases, which might come with the food. The previous experience of Israeli, American and British military advisers in this country evidenced gin‘s positive effect, and that was the only encouraging news during that long lasting day. The first close acquaintance with the parachute brigade advisers was a pleasant surprise to me. Ideally, I pictured them tall, powerfully built with well-developed muscles: combatants as they were featured in the prime Soviet war movies. Three of them stood out, and to some extent could match the movie ideal, three majors–an adviser to the third battalion commander, a reconnaissance adviser, and a physical training and hand-to-hand combat adviser, who was at first sight yielding height and weight to the former two, but did not succumb in strength and speed, as it became evident later. The other five were hard to distinguish amongst other advisers. Only after a more focused stare could you discover the difference: they were full of energy, hidden readiness and alertness, and a plain but cheery nature. Their ability to adapt quickly to a new situation, and their amazing street awareness was another astounding feature. They immediately occupied the best places in the hotel and obtained mosquito nets from somewhere, the mere existence of which hardly anyone among the newcomers knew about. The first day of the our arrival the commander of the group treated me to karkade tea made from Sudanese red rose – an excellent antidote to heat and high pressure, and advised where I could buy it at a reasonable price in Addis Ababa. A new surprise awaited us during the third day of our stay, and it took the form of the Chief Translator, the boss of all translators in the country. He coordinated the process of the distribution of translators to the various adviser‘s groups in operational commands, divisions and brigades in all parts of Ethiopia. He was also supposed to protect our rights in conflict situations with advisers, situations that were not rare here. He tried to make us realize and understand that there existed an invisible professional hierarchy among translators, which consisted of four major categories. The first elite category included those astergwamys which were the responsibility of the Soviet Embassy or who were responsible to Moscow and who, as a rule, preferred to chose and decide themselves where to serve and in what group of advisers to work. The second category comprised the professional translators of Amharic who were the best in their profession and worked with top brass– CMA, Adviser to the Chief of Staff of National Army, the Adviser to the Main Political Department and Advisers to Commanders in Operational Commands. Those translators, who to some extent possessed the precious skills and talents of a musician, singer, poet and/or sportsman, preferred to belong to the privileged third category. The remaining translators who arrived here, not quite adequately equipped according to the previous three criteria, and who negligently uninsuring themselves by an absence of any particular
Local pepper (Amharic)
marketable extramural talents or qualities, comprised the overwhelming majority and enjoyed the membership of the last – the forth and residual category. The third category translators gained their prominence among other categories for the possession, and proper utilization of, their keen and artistic world perception and the ability to assume a timely and appropriately opportunistic true patriotic stance. Fast and easily, they recognized the critical importance of frequent political events held by the office of the CMA, and they learned to benefit from their potential in maneuvering around the complicated non-peaceful situation in an alien country. Every year the Chief Translator tried to make a scheduled rotation of translators–sending new traducteurs to divisions and replacing those who had already served there one year or more. When he made attempts to send office musicians, young and valuable singers or poets to the front, the latter immediately appealed to an influential person– Chief Commissar, general Korzakov, Adviser to the Head of the Main Political Department of the National Army. They sincerely complained over the politically incorrect actions of the translators‘ boss: - He is not fully able to perceive the importance of political events and our contribution as artists, and he underappreciates our previous amateur artistic work done for the Office of CMA. - He is also trying to disrupt rather important political celebrations by sending us as a replacement of others to the North. It became customary, that general Korzakov requested the Chief translator to find other proper candidates for rotation, and the lieutenant-colonel did not dare to refuse the polite request of the two-star general. The request was granted, and less talented translators and operators are compelled to eat stale bread with dry milk and local black macaroni in the sandy mountains of the Northern front or hot desert of the Eastern front for two years or more. And the political celebration in the central Office of the Chief Military Adviser happily went on at an appropriately high artistic level. This time we were approaching celebrations of the Soviet Army Day at the end of February, and the International Women‘s Day in the beginning of March and, following the established tradition, I was sent to the north instead of the noted bass guitarist, who became an integral—indeed indispensable—part of any holiday concert. I travelled with the newly formed group of seven other translators, entrusted with similar honorable assignments to leave Addis Ababa for Asmara, including Yuri Gromov, a translator from Alexandria. Instead of going to Holetta, the training centre thirty kilometres north of the capital, where future lieutenants of government forces were trained, Yuri was entitled to replace the first category astergwamy Egor Honushkin from Moscow, who, upon arrival to Addis Ababa was mistakenly ordered to fly to Asmara and then to the acting division in Algena. To fly and translate there in the semi desert sandy mountains Egor had no wish whatsoever, and so he decided to make a call to his people at the Embassy. Egor did his best to make clear that:
Climbing high mountains makes me dizzy and causes unpleasant nausea, and I can’t stand the mountain semi-desert climate. Besides, the main offensive of government troops against National Front of Liberation of Eritrea (NFLE) will be unleashed there, in Algena so please, exert some pressure or do something to reverse this unjust decision.
The CMA received an angry call from the Embassy, and the general hurried to bring his immediate excuses to the people at the Embassy for this unfortunate misunderstanding. He instantly summoned the chief of translators for a severe reprimand and he was strictly ordered to correct such a malentendu intolerable *. Three advisers to parachute battalions, and the reconnaissance specialist from the airborne advisers‘ group, were also sent with several other advisers to different divisions in the Northern front, the remaining six parachutists were hastily leaving the capital for Debre Zeit, trying to escape the vigilant eye of the office operatives and thus avoid the intricacies of Kei Kokeb campaign. Much preferable seemed to them to start the training of new battalions at the Airborne School. Hennady Vasylyovych, chief of the group of advisers to the brigade, was not very surprised that a big part of his group was leaving for the North. He tried somehow to intervene in the process and reminded the chief translator that the school was launching an intensive training of new recruits, which it can‘t do it without specialists or translators. The boss of interpreters reassured him saying that he assumed that in three, maximum four, months the Kei Kokeb operation will be terminated successfully and the Airborne School would receive its people back. This was based on the same depth of knowledge that confidently informs us that all wars will be over by Christmas.
Unpardonable mistake (French)
Better leave Asmara for the sandy mountains
A moderate and welcome Asmara climate has not changed much from that time when, at the end of the XIX, century the British traveler A.W. Wylde remarked, describing it: ― a more charming climate could not be found, for it was never too hot and never too cold. Frosts were nearly unknown and it was impossible to find a better area for farming”. In the end of the XX century, however, the local peasants could hardly dream of farming around Asmara. Instead of growing vegetables and juicy fruits the vast fertile valleys and mountain slopes around the city were planted with hidden mines, which served to protect avenues of approach of enemy groups to the city. Each side set its own sectors of mines as the city changed hands several times after the revolution of 1974. It was not always safe to farm and garden for peasants on their lands close to their homes either: the opposition used to maintain random fire from mortars and artillery trying to keep the government troops alert and awake. They continued the procedure at night: several crews of Grad P launchers mounted their weapon on camel back and circulated around the city conducting fire from different directions on the city and government troop positions, making it almost impossible to detect these moving targets. During one of the night shellings a curious mortar mine pierced through the roof of beer factory and fell into the beer tank with brewing Melotti beer. Next, behind the wall the production of Gordon gin was underway, and the cisterns with gin were stored ready for delivery and sale. A real threat of destruction of two favorite drinks of Soviet advisers, specialists and translators appeared, and it could lead, according to expert‘s opinion, to unpredictable consequences: conflict escalation, full scale offensive of government forces and possible termination of the Northern campaign. It was impossible to imagine bars and cafes in Asmara without sweet gin or cold beer – the value of city life lost its true sense. The more so, people in the mountain divisions would not hold and last more than a fortnight without the necessary treatment by a minimum dose of gin as preventive medical and disinfection measure. Happily for all, the mine in the beer tank did not dare escalate the situation and to explode this time, and the production of beer and gin successfully continued. The tension in the North Operational Command and advisers groups in mountain divisions was finally gone when they learned that the mine has been safely extracted from beer tank and exploded in a safe place. Still, such neat enemy targeting was viewed as attempt to hamper the self-esteem and professional honor of the Northern front advisers, and could not pass unattended - they took it as a personal offence and were looking for a chance to pay back. In Asmara, where we arrived by the transport AN-12 plane in mid February, something grandiosely vague and unclear was in progress. The Canyo, the northern part of the city, where the office of Northern Operational Command was located, was overcrowded with numerous groups of advisers and specialists that continued to arrive.
They were expediently summoned for the time of the operation to help with advice and reinforce the advisers groups working in mountain divisions and brigades. The hotel was filled, and the newcomers received mattresses and blankets to sleep on the floor of sergeant‘s club. There the advisers lived for about a month before departure to the mountains. Part of the advisers had to live and sleep in the offices where they worked. The canteen hardly managed to feed people in three shifts and profitably used the situation: logistic supply officers provided bad quality and cheap food making good money. After similar food several advisers had to address a doctor with serious stomach complaints, and were hospitalized. The office operators, however, did not want to believe that they were really ill, and accused them of attempting to desert the operation. Ill people swallowed antibiotics and were forced to leave for the mountains, without diagnosing the true cause and nature of their disease, preferring to escape the anger and wrath of the stringent Office of the CMA. After three weeks of risky dining in the office canteen, and simultaneous speedy and nervous preparation for the offensive I lost over eight kilos of my precious weight. It was impossible to eat the first and second course, only cabbage salad and bread were digestible but often short in supply. Only now I began to appreciate and value how tastefully my wife cooked at home. I felt ashamed that I used to be capricious, choosy and constantly complaining and even refused to eat at times. Now I filled my letters with a big nostalgia for home-made food and expressed my sincere regret over my earlier underestimation of this critically important fact. The Chief military adviser had been for a month already in Asmara, heading the implementation of the Kei Kokeb operation, planning and coordinating the details with the local side. Taking advantage of a year of repose and not engaging in active hostilities the government forces managed to refill its losses and create almost a three times advantage in manpower on the main direction of attack. Despite the fact, that the separatists were able to capture about a dozen new fully armed tanks in previous skirmishes and proved very skillful in applying them, the government troops now possessed about a hundred of them and felt overconfident. They were also using the brand new jet shell launchers BM-21, heavy howitzers, ZU-23 that their opponents did not have, and the newest Soviet small arms. Some advisers complained that their units back in the USSR were equipped much worse than the local troops, and had not yet received the new models of grenade launchers used here. The ground forces were to be supported with rockets, fire and bombs from the air by MIG 21 and MIG 23 fighter-bombers as well as assault helicopters with Ethiopian crews. The heavy bombing raids were accomplished with transport AN-12 planes with mixed Soviet-Ethiopian pilot crews. The aviation advisers did not fully trust the experience of local pilots after they landed new AN-12 plane on the nearby maize field missing a bit the airstrip.
The preponderance of government forces in manpower and materiel was more than significant but the top generals – both advisers and local side proved incapable of using it properly during this operation. The growing folie de grandeur* of the architects of the Kei Kokeb campaign did not allow them to take into account some critical factors: well entrenched defense positions, long enemy experience of guerrilla war in the mountains, and the combat morale and combat skills of separatist forces. It proved to be much higher than their opponent‘s, and their strategy and tactics of combat more flexible and effective. New advisers that came from other operational commands or just were freshly shipped from the Soviet Union had little or no idea about what was really going on here in the North. Local advisers were resentful of their presence and complained that the new people served more as extra burden and hindrance than the assistance in form of counsels. Moreover, they required more expenses, living quarters and interfered in the planning process. On the eve of departure to acting divisions in the mountains, the tension and nervousness among many newcomers tended to grow noticeably, especially among those who just arrived from home. Some of them came here just to have a small rest in this exotic country, certain among them paid a good sum to distribution officers at the Ministry of Defense in order to come here, and avoid flying to Afghanistan, and did not expect such a turn of events. The tension mounted to its critical point and started to evolve into conflicts. Several long submachine gun rounds of fire at hotel at night woke everyone and made them grab their weapons, close windows and prepare for defense. The fear was that it was the attack of guerrillas but surprisingly the trouble maker turned out to be a newly arrived lieutenant junior grade who fired into the air as an answer to the offence of his rival in cards. The same week he unperturbedly flew back home and rumor asserted that the lieutenant actually achieved what he wanted, and maybe he was luckier that his colleagues who remained here. After almost a month of stressful residence in the office of North Operational Command and continuous tactical and language training, expensive but scanty food, and night shelling of Asmara, a vague but persistent desire appeared to change the setting and join the mountain events without waiting orders from above. Farther from the mysterious, meaningfully silent and arrogant top office commanders, their constant remarks, X-ray stares during inspections into the semi desert mountains which had more space, less supervisors, and where you could breathe freely. Mai Amida Enfin, a helicopter was flying to Aff-Abet and colonel Kim and I started loading mattresses, blankets, and field rations – black roughly ground local coffee, tea, halettes,
Delusions of grandeur (French))
black rough macaroni and dry Danish milk Klim - the humanitarian aid of the European Community to the developing country, which the Army was the first to receive. Besides, we have purchased at own expense some cabbage, potato, onion and garlic and following the lieutenant colonel‘s advice filled our flasks with two liters of local gin. He has spent half a year already here in the North and knew well enough the genuine high aspirations of brigade advisers in the sandy mountains. Lieutenant colonel Kim, Korean by origin, whose parents lived in Kazakhstan, was an exotic and unique rarity for the Soviet Army especially here in this campaign among the advisers to government forces in the Ethiopian mountains. Ethiopians were very surprised seeing him among us and asked what is he doing here. They took him for Chinese and preferred to call him China. In the group of advisers to the 21 infantry brigade everyone knew his story. He was admitted to the Academy named after Frunze as a reward for his merits during the military border conflict with China. He was the only one from his company who remained alive after Chinese troops unexpectedly attacked their border positions and seized them. For three weeks Boris was hiding in the rear of Chinese troops trying to escape and find friendly forces, which he eventually did having captured a prisoner on his way back. For this heroic deed he was awarded the Order of Combat Red Banner and received the right to study at the most prestigious Academy. I was assigned to translate his advice during this mountain campaign and he was supposed to make his contribution to the offensive of the 21 infantry brigade, which by that time had successfully advanced and its forward units were stationed already at 30 kilometers from Nakfa – the capital settlement of separatist movement. The Russian jeep with major Bavshin arrived to Aff-Abet only by sunset and we could head for Mai Amida at last. The major was three hours late because the UAZ engine died from overheating and restarted only closer to the evening when the temperature fell below 30 degrees C. The Jeep received numerous wounds that meant that it often used to be an active participant of severe skirmishes and fire exchanges – the front windshield preserved several holes left after machine gun fire, the right side bore the scars from hand grenade explosion and holes from bullets. Many scratches decorated the capote and made it look combat like and brave. Only the third gear was operational, and it started without a key by a mere connection of wires. We started to drive at night with the headlights off not to attract extra attention. This territory was occupied by the enemy two months earlier and his assault groups continued to operate actively in the rear of government attacking forces. Con mas miedo que verguenza* we discovered that two liters of gin was evidently far from sufficient for the five exhausted and bushed by mountain hardships advisers and translators of the 21 infantry brigade which for a month already were compelled to live without fruits and vegetables and eat dry rations – black macaroni and Bulgarian canned sardines. We guessed it from their hungry looks and questions early the next morning when they caught us still sleeping in our tent and demandingly inquired if we kept something for reserve.
With more fear than shame (Spanish)
The group was using only boiled water for cooking that they procured from the truck with a water tank used by the brigade. The baked bread once a week was provided by the brigade in exchange for the field ration flour and macaroni. Everyone present had to prepare food for the entire group according to the established tradition and schedule. Originally colonel Kim taught me how to do it – clean and boil potato first, add some cabbage, vegetables and sardines in the end. The most difficult was to guess the timing of adding new ingredients and their right proportions. The 21st mountain infantry brigade was successfully continuing its offensive for the second month already and its forward units in coordination with the division forces were closing the circle around Nakfa. Colonel Nikolai Dmytryevich, brigade commander from the Ural military district, adviser to the brigade commander, lieutenant commander Maconnyn, was very pleased with his actions and the brigades victories and once said that the brigade commander should be promoted and awarded with a high combat award. Thanks to his advice, and consilio et animis* of the brigade commander, his troops were successfully advancing five –seven kilometers a day suffering minor losses. It was considered a significant achievement under the conditions of semi desert mountains. The third day after our arrival at Mai Amida, the local advisers group in a hurry loaded tents, food, water and some ammunition into a Ural truck and a new jeep to leave for the forward positions to join the major forces of the brigade, which were to launch a new big attack on Nakfa. Colonel Kim and I remained in the camp to protect the group‘s luggage, documents and tents with the help of two boxes of RGD-5 grenades, two AKM with numerous magazines and the already illustrious veteran jeep. The precautionary instructions were to choose the right direction for flight in case of a guerrilla attack as the camp security company could not be relied upon and could flee as soon as the assault started. The company might also have people working for the separatists which was not a rare case in these places, so we should better rely more on our own strength and fast legs. The advice was to withdraw not in the direction of Aff Abet to the advisers‘ operational headquarters of the sector, where the road of retreat would undoubtedly be guarded and cut, but on the separatists side towards Nakfa where the probability to get through was slightly higher. The first night in the camp after the group‘s fast departure I was able to go to sleep only at dawn. The diesel power station went silent at 10 pm after working for half an hour and the dark and dangerous African night settled down around the tent located in the near proximity to the mountains. It is the time when after intolerable and exhausting daytime heat everything wakes up in the mountains and starts to move, make noise and sets the scene for hunting by local separatists. It was very stuffy, the door of the tent was completely opened, and I was lying dressed without shoes near the entrance to the tent, as ordered. I could not even dream about sleeping and was lazily repelling endless attacks by
Wisdom and courage (Latin)
mosquitoes. Most of them easily penetrated under mosquito net to find my body there. At about three a.m. I suddenly had a feeling that somebody has emerged in the door of the tent. Absolute quietness, the colonel is soundly sleeping, snoring slightly, my flashlight is on the chair next to the bed, my pistol is under the mattress set on safety, and I am lying half asleep wrapped in a mosquito net. If I make any movements, I‘d produce noise and will have low chances to make the move first. So, I had to lie still, hide my head, make as if I am sleeping, and wait for the blow because it seemed unreasonable for the intruder to fire in this situation. The more so, if he or they came here planning to make some money by taking prisoners of some Soviet advisers. The very disturbing thing was that I felt the visitor approaching but could not see him in the pitch darkness. The most awful and unexpected happened then – I heard him crawling under my bed. I could distinctly hear his breathing and the noise of the body as it settled heavily and noisily on my AKM, which I previously placed on the macaroni bag. Setting an ambush in the tent? Waiting for the others to come and help him? After about three minutes of dead silence I could not stand the tension any longer and made up my mind to execute plan of action that I thought over several times earlier. Having released myself from the mosquito net as fast as I could, I jumped from the bed, grabbed the Makarov from under the mattress, put off the safe and charged it and ran out of the tent. Shockingly, no one followed me. It was lighter in the street, the Moon and the stars lit the place but the long shadow of the mountain made the ground less visible, and I could not see the intruder under my bed. There was no one outside as far as I could see. Then I made another fearless move – I rushed inside the tent, grabbed the searchlight from the chair and retreated back to colonel‘s bed. He continued to sleep silently. I switched on the searchlight and directed it under the bed parallel with the barrel of my pistol. I could not believe my eyes – a big dog was lying there breathing heavily with his tongue outstretched from the heat. A nice place has he chosen for his night‘s sleep! I tried to laugh but could not – I was too tense and nervous. For some time I stood outside the tent trying to regain my senses and quiet down before going to bed again. Well then, if this is the case, let the brave troublemaker protect my morning sleep as a compensation for causing my first worst night‘s fear. For more than three weeks while the main group of advisers stayed with the main brigade forces near Nakfa, giving advice on how to execute better vanna taklyallya matkat*, colonel Boris Kim et moi were diligently learning how to make a delicious meal on a fire made of tree branches and wooden logs, from black macaroni, stale bread, a little potato and a few cans of fish. Italian marmalade from the rations, fruits and vegetables were finished within first five days. The Colonel proved to be more skillful in this endeavor, as he had more experience, and his cooking turned out to be better and more
General assault on the main direction (Amharic)
agreeable to the taste. Having plenty of free time, he voluntarily agreed to cook most of the time. Preparing of strong coffee, milk and black tea was my duty. With the assistance of a mechanic who, for some unknown reason, remained here in the camp and did not follow the attacking brigade, I managed to start up the veteran jeep and eventually realize my long lasting dream to learn to drive properly. My driving license I received four years earlier in the Navy, but the only time when I was drove so far was when passing the driving test. It was an excellent opportunity to learn here in Mai Amida – the only transport means here was this jeep, there were almost no people visible in the camp during the daytime, they were mostly active at night. The only damage I could inflict only on myself – by hitting the mountain, a tree or riding into a bush. Chaque soir, when the 40 degrees C daytime heat subsided after traditional dinner at 6.00 p.m. we preferred to play chess in the shadow of stands of giant heath and acacia drinking black tea or strong coffee, and enjoying the view of a proud and high mountain ridge adjacent to the camp. Several times I had an ambitious urge to climb and conquer it but the obscure and unstable situation inside the camp and outside it kept me from doing it, so I made up my mind to concentrate my efforts completely on our chess duels. Unlike cooking, I was more experienced in this sphere and felt more confident. However, a military colonel, awarded with a combat order was not used to losing battles, even in the chess field, and was very disappointed when it happened. I have noticed already, that most military people do not like losing in chess, feel upset and take it very personally, but always treat the winner with due respect. Colonel Kim was not an exception from the general rule, and having no desire to upset him and spoil our good relations I always tried to lower the degree of my resistance and harmonize the total score or lose some series of games. That evening I was so worn out by the daytime heat that completely forgot about the necessity to balance the score of our games and the annoyed colonel went inside the tent for a break and to have a smoke. I stayed outside continuing to read ―Catch 22‖ which I purchased in Asmara book shop before departure to Mai Amida. At that very moment chaotic firing broke out in the direction of the road, leading to Nakfa – the direction where we planned to flight in case of crises. I noticed that four soldiers from the security company, who live opposite in a tent about a hundred meters from us, quickly walked toward the brigade headquarters, with submachine guns ready. - Separatists! – I cried rushing in the tent. What should we do? - Load the luggage of the group, grenades and ammunition on the jeep while I collect all our documents and get dressed. I quickly put on my uniform and boots without socks which I was incapable of putting on, as my hands were trembling, and shoved them in my pockets, to save precious time, and started to load suitcases and bags in the jeep. After that I helped the colonel with his bags and books. He ordered me to start the jeep and drive it closer to the entrance of the tent and start loading boxes with ammunition and grenades in the back of the car. I knew that the jeep often refused to start up quickly and it took sometimes about half an hour to make it run, but his time when I connected two wires it luckily started at once. I
rode closer to the tent and loaded two boxes with grenades and a box with AKM magazines and went back to take my NATO bag and AKM. I decided to take my hand grenades which kept ready on the chair near the bedside and tried put them into my pockets but could not – my new socks were in the way. I hastily took away the socks and put grenades first and then the socks. Now the socks could not enter. At this moment colonel told me to hurry and I had to hide them under my belt and get on the jeep. The firing continued – long and short rounds were fired with small intervals from the same direction but strangely enough from the same place - not approaching or departing. Colonel Boris stayed inside too long already, and did not join me in the jeep for several minutes. It made me nervous and suspicious, I could not wait any longer and leaving the motor working, I ran inside the tent. He was still sitting on the bed with his bag open, looking for something inside, and did not look as scared as he should be. He looked up and seeing my alarmed and frightened face, and two socks behind the belt next to the pistol, he burst into laugher. I stood there perplexed and frozen not understanding what was going on. - I forgot to warn you that the security company is having a scheduled exercise – target firing today after 6 p.m. - Really, I can‘t believe it. Why did you start all this then, and ordered to start jeep and load things? - It was a test; I was checking what you will do in case of crises – drive away alone or wait for me. You justified my hopes did not leave your commander alone. Good boy. For some time I stood motionless trying to ponder what has just happened. Tasting the aftermath of testing. A peculiar and unusual test I thought. No, it is rather a new lesson for me then a test – I still have to learn how to respect more my superiors and do not dare to win three games of chess in a row while playing against ye kytysta azage* . After three weeks of absence the group returned to the camp to have some rest, to refill food resources, and go back again. The Brigade commissar just returned from Asmara with new rations, vegetables, canned fish, and plenty of brandy and gin. After a heavy lunch with alcohol it was difficult to load 50 liters canisters with water, boxes with food and ammunition on the Ural truck in the midday heat. This time only colonel Boris remained in the camp, I was going with the group to bring back some radio equipment for repair and documents to be sent to sector command in Aff Abet. Previously consumed 200 grams of strong brandy helped me to endure easier the jolty ride for almost forty kilometers in the back of Ural truck along the stony and bumpy mountain roads to Nakfa. The brandy also made the time flow faster and helped to disregard the fear when the enemy greeted our convoy with fire from an ambush.
Direct commander (Amharic)
The front line of brigade offensive reached the mountain foot, through binoculars you could clearly see government troops climbing with great difficulty the mountain slopes. The Eritrean fighters were trying to stop them conducting fire from above – from well protected and deep trenches dug in rocky mountain soil. They had plenty of time to prepare and build very strong, well-positioned and deep defense lines, and they could easily withdraw to a second or third echelon of defense when forced to. We were as close as twenty kilometers from Nakfa, the forward artillery units of the government forces were observing the separatists capital through binoculars and conducted aimed fire from howitzers. Several government divisions had to stop their fast offensive not far from Nakfa, and now, having reached the high mountain ridge, leading to Nakfa, advanced very slowly with big losses trying to break through this echeloned and well protected line of defenses. Leading over thirty years of guerilla war first against the Emperors administration, and later against the Provisional Military Government of Mengistu Haile Maryam, the separatists employed time-tested tactics of hit and run warfare, and hiding safely in mountain strong holds. They had plenty of powerfully built underground shelters, where they hid during air raids and artillery fire; trenches and foxholes were reinforced with concrete and served as good protection from small-arms fire. Long lines of communication dug inside mountains, ensured easy maneuvering of troops and weapons. Soviet advisers were well aware that most of the top commanders of the Front for the Libartion of Eritrea received the best military training in the Moscow Academy in the 1970s when the Emperor Haile Sellasie was ruling the country. They turned out to be smart students and now were skillfully applying the defense tactics against government troops which were practically at a standstill for two weeks already. Nothing could break their resistance: neither constant BM-21 rocket shells, nor heavy artillery or howitzer shells. Air strikes were not frequent and did not last long, to make things worse MIG pilots several times bombed the positions of their own troops. Rumors were circulating about betrayal and that continued to demoralize the changing combat spirit of the government infantry. The government troops were unable to establish stable coordination and liaison between the infantry divisions and fighter aviation and sometimes unwelcome confrontation between them impeded the course of action. The Commander of the 23 infantry division did not manage to, or maybe did not want to, send his soldiers and save the pilot of shot down fighter bomber, and he was taken prisoner by the enemy which arrived first when the pilot landed between opposing armies. Some time later when this division was engaged in heavy combat and needed urgent assistance and support form the air, the Ethiopian pilots refused to take off and fly to rescue the 23 division, in revenge for their lost colleague. The heavy bombing of separatist positions was conducted by transport AN-12 planes which could carry more heavy bombs, and which, were piloted by mixed crews. During the campaign the air raids were not very frequent. They were scheduled several
times a day depending on the situation on the battlefield and separatist could easily guess their time of occurrence. However, a little later, when the Kei Kokeb operation ended in a complete failure, some captured separatist officers and soldiers confessed, that to their minds the opponent did not take advantage of the right moment in the course of operation, when they were psychologically down and were on the verge of capitulation. Another twothree days of regular air bombing and their patience and endurance would hold no longer. Especially, he stressed, the soldiers were mostly afraid not of powerful air bombs which exploded immediately upon touching the ground, but empty fuel barrels which pilots loaded and threw down without any instruction from above, on their own initiative, a sort of joke and pleasant surprise for the enemy. The empty barrels were slowly descending on the entrenched troops, revolved by air torrents, producing such an unbearable and menacingly whistling sound that many soldiers could not stand it, lost patience and control, and ran out of the trenches and covers, thus exposing themselves to open enemy‘s fire. But the most dreadful thing happened later – after reaching the ground the barrels/bombs did not explode, which made everybody think that these were some sort of delay action special bombs. So, everyone stayed inside the shelter, waiting for the bombs to explode, not daring to go out, and the fear and panic among defending troops grew. Some thought it to be chemical weapons, which government forces wanted to possess, but could not get hold of. For about a week I tried to be an inconspicuous small detail of the natural landscape of the Simien mountains near Nakfa, staying with the advisers of the 21 brigade in the rear of the attacking government troops. Just like several other groups of advisers, we were staying on the open plateau, between the mountains, most of the time sitting on the ground or lying on mattresses under the tree, a hundred meters from a battery of BM-21 launchers, close to the division headquarters tent, from where the control of the offensive in this sector was conducted. Most of the advisers must have been lucky as only one captain was slightly wounded in the palm despite the fact that the bullets and shells were frequent visitors in the rear and fully enjoyed the free movement right. The wounded captain unexpectedly became a hero, and many of his colleagues felt envious of his stroke of luck – he was promoted to a major within two months and received the Order of Combat Red Banner. Advisers to the 21st brigade were miraculously saved by their commander‘s professional sense. He woke us at 2 a.m. in the morning and told to leave quickly this place where we slept. We took our mattresses, moved about seventy meters aside and resettled there. About ten minutes later an artillery shell exploded very close to the place where we previously slept. Nikolai Dmytryevych took notice of the previous two shell explosions, and his calculations of the third one proved correct. After three months we were returning back to Asmara via Aff Abet. The situation in the front has radically changed for the worse – the offensive in all sectors of the Northern front was stopped, within a week government troops were thrown back the distance, which they previously conquered in a month of offensive. Lieutenant colonel
Maconnyn was severely wounded, and was unable to command the brigade any longer. The 21st brigade lost about half of its soldiers and officers attacking Nakfa‘s fortifications. Transport helicopters and planes continuously flew to Aff Abet, trying to evacuate numerous wounded and hit. We boarded a helicopter carrying badly wounded soldiers to Asmara. Poorly and unprofessionally bandaged they were groaning quietly lying motionless on the helicopter‘s cold bottom, unable to make any move, with silent tears and inexpressible pain in their young eyes, not quite conscious why this happened to them. It was distressing and sad to observe such a picture. We felt tormented with the inability to be of some help, unable to stop this senseless civil massacre. Communicating closely with Ethiopian soldiers and officers and observing their behavior, we were amazed and felt great respect for their resilience and vigor, which they displayed in the course of long mountain advances, silently and patiently carrying heavy combat loads, despite their small height and extreme thinness. They were undemanding and ate very little – a little injuira, raw meat with Barbara, dry bread with tea or coffee and were able to march and cover long distances in high mountains under exhausting heat. Most of Ethiopian soldiers and officers are famous and distinguished by their courage and bravery. The American army employed them in the Korean and Vietnam wars where they served up to the highest military ranks. Arab Emirates, Iraq, Kuwait and Iran hired them to serve as airplane security on their airlines. Terrorists and bandits knew that it was impossible to bribe an Ethiopian security guard. But here, now, the best of them were either injured in the mountain warfare or massively absorbed by the long lasting and senseless civil war.
The situation in the Northern Front has reached its critical point and completely went out of the control of the advisers of the Northern operational command and the commanders of the National army. The government offensive was halted in almost all sectors of the front, and separatists were surprisingly quickly regaining control over lost territories and positions. Government soldiers, worn out by the durable offensive and exhausted by continuous hostilities, were hastily retreating with big casualties, offering little resistance. They left behind heaps of ammunition, artillery pieces and even fully loaded tanks to the attacking enemy. Such a total defeat called for urgent measures to change the course of the Kei Kokeb campaign and designing new tactics. The CMA sent a SOS signal to the Ministry of Defense, and Moscow decided to send general Petrov.
In the office of CMA everyone was awaiting with mounting fear the general‘s arrival, afraid of his just wrath for the lost campaign. The office staff was well aware of his firm and harsh character, dangerous temper, and extensive expertise in combat operations. Rumors have been circulating for some time already about his strict manners combined with unique professional qualities: he has made a quick professional career thanks to his knowledge and ability to apply it successfully. General Petrov was among the youngest generals and most respected in the Soviet army, only under the age of forty. He was often ordered to go and find solutions to complex military conflicts and situations like this one, that emerged in Eritrea resulting from the Kei Kokeb campaign. During Indo-Pakistan conflict owing to his recommendations the Indian troops managed to stop the enemy‘s offensive and launch a successful counteroffensive. Like many talented people, he had many enemies and opponents, that eventually destroyed his career. He often conflicted with conservative top generals of the Army when trying to advocate his point of view, which only displeased his seniors. Nevertheless, Moscow had to send him, as no one else was able to find a way out from the critical situation in the north of Ethiopia. Sergei Kornilov, translator to general Nazymko, adviser to the Chief of General Staff of the National army, with unconcealed pleasure and enthusiasm relayed to us, his colleagues, what a crushing ticking off the CMA and his office got from general Petrov: You have cultivated a poultry farm here, and marching like a cock in a national military outfit among hens, and completely forgot why you are here, concluded the general after listening to the latest situation report from the CMA. Following the personal order of CMA soldiers were growing and feeding
Necessary changes being made (Latin)
chicken, ducks, young oxen and pigs for office canteen and officers‘ café. The favorite business of the CMA was a regular morning checking of soldiers‘ barracks and evening promenade around the mini-farm and the inspection of the productive, blossoming and eye pleasing farming and poultry peaceful activities. - You have under your command the whole army of fat generals and colonels, specialists in operational tactics here. Was it hard to notice, for anyone of you, that you have been lured inside the trap, and are about to be encircled, the enemy would need about a week to do that. Let the local side issue order to divisions to recoil back to initial positions, entrench and prepare for lasting defense. So, the decision was to discontinue the campaign, retreat to initial positions, and start forming new divisions on the basis of those preserved, and to wait for newly trained soldiers and officers from training centers. General Petrov recommended not to engage in any active offensive operations for at least a year. The Chief adviser tried his best to prove that the reason behind the shameful failure of the Kei Kokeb operation was the formation of Ethiopian army. The old army system inherited from the Emperor was ineffective, because hired soldiers did not want to risk much and did not display much patriotism. He then suggested to reform it and to start building a new people‘s army by introducing compulsory military service for all young men, like in the SU. This new army would be brought up on the new traditions, people‘s traditions, and mobilized through a system of commissariats. The Kei Kokeb campaign slowly but surely started to transform into new campaign – reform of the drafting system of the national army, establishing commissariats and the introduction of general compulsory military service in the country. The CMA and his office believed that this new military policy would be able to raise the esprit de corps et esprit de combat des forces gouvernementales* En attendant*, when active hostilities halted, a real life – joyful and buoyant commenced in Asmara. The city opened its bars and cafes to greet Soviet advisers, specialists and translators, soldiers and officers of both government forces and separatists, hungry for a normal humane food and feeling the need in immodest entertainments - nostalgie de la boue. Representatives of division advisers groups hurried to Asmara warehouses and markets to receive rations and purchase food, and disappeared in the city for a week or two. Most of them tried not to register upon arrival to the office, in order to stay underground and unnoticed as long as possible, and not to face regular morning inspection by the duty officer. The advisers were hastily and hungrily looking for the long dreamed of compensation for the temps perdu, submerged and overindulged in city night life. Their cherished dreams mostly reached as high as the intensive drinking of gin, brandy or beer, and learning Amharic ordinal numerals and adverbs of time, as well as some ---courtesy language from local femmes, non deficiente crumena*. Happy and exhausted, they returned
* * *
Team spirit and combat spirit of the government forces (French) In the meantime (French) While the money holds out (Latin)
to the sandy mountains linguistically and culturally enriched, but not always purchasing everything planned in their group‘s shopping list. Very important thing here, it is useful to remark, was not to overdo. Here in the north, a special category of combat translators, mostly from Moscow and Leningrad, rarely from other cities of the SU, gained specific popularity in the local cafes and bars. They preferred to behave in the alien country like they used to at home. After activating their combat spirit with an adequate dose of brandy, whiskey, or gin they obeyed the alcohol and challenged in hand to hand combat the timid and frightened public in the bar. The challenge, in most cases, was accepted by policemen, who were urgently called on this occasion. According to police statistics, policemen, whose body weight could not match their opponents‘ (the weapons they were afraid to use) were more often beaten during such encounters, but the initiators more often than not were arrested. Some of the café fighters were lucky to be detained in police quarters for two-three days, some for a week, until they were released to the Asmara office uncuffed. The Asmara office immediately promoted ardent fighters for three months to a mountain division on a black macaroni diet, offering them an opportunity to change their attitude and pacify combat spirit. Three or four of them, happily not too many, possessed an unseen stubbornness, and even upon re-entry to the city after staying for three months in divisions, continued their habitual modus operandi. Some of them, returning drunk from a bar at night attacked the innocent Ethiopian soldiers, guarding their villas. It was way too much. And again, the familiar high mountain ridges greeted them back. This could repeat several times until their commanders lost patience and wrote a report to CMA and the chief translator who decided to send a stubborn fighter back home. On canyo I suddenly met the reconnaissance adviser of the parachute brigade who just arrived from Algena. We got into conversation, and Major Senin seemed to be also more confused than impressed by the events occurring in this strange war. Especially queer was a tank battle, the witness of which he happened to be in Algena. Five separatists‘ tanks and a company of women machine gunners, who were known for their unique bravery in this war, forced a dozen government tanks to turn back and retreat. Some of tank crewmen left their fully armed tanks with running engines and ran away on foot from the battlefield. The advisers, watching the course of battle, were shocked and could not understand what was happening. The answer came later when it became more than evident that some division commanders had more important personal plans which they were trying to achieve in this war. The major proposed to have lunch at the Lion hotel, which belonged to an old Italian, and where the food was cheap and delicious. We ordered beefsteaks with salad from fresh vegetables, two small bottles of red wine, produced here in Asmara according to Italian technology, and local coffee, which is considered the best and that‘s why the most expensive outside the country, but luckily not here, inside it. After three months of dry rations and macaroni, the lunch at a Lion hotel was a something out of this world. I felt the
former strength slowly pouring into me, and the long forgotten sense of good food returning again. I slowly became again homme moyen sensuel *. Kowashi, mitashi *. Having slept over two hours under a billiard table, where I luckily managed to find place for living and sleeping, I was woken up by somebody‘s kicking my NATO rucksack, which also served as my pillow. It was an old acquaintance of mine adviser to the chief of staff of 21st brigade lieutenant colonel Bavchyn. In Mai Amida he loved to boast of his exclusive privilege and right – he was the first and the only one so far out of more than ten thousand Soviet advisers in this country, to whom the CMA in person allowed to grow a beard. That‘s why he looked different, had an evident advantage over his colleague and many women, both local and non-local, adored him. He suggested visiting a bar and having some beer. The Colonel was going to receive rations from warehouses for his group, and the truck arrived to canyo to take him there through the center of the city. This way we could avoid the guards at the gates and leave the office unnoticed. I consented. The Ethiopian driver of a GAZ-66 dropped us off near a music boutique in Asmara center, and continued his way to the warehouses to receive field rations for the brigade and the advisers‘ group, colonel‘s request including. I was reserving some money to buy my first ever tape recorder and decided to have a look at the music choice at this location. I was amazed – all the best hits, which were almost impossible to purchase back in the USSR, were right here in abundance! We have not received our March pay, so I limited my choice to ABBA, two cassettes of Chellentano and one of Fausto Papetti orchestra music, which was calm and soothing. The shop owner, noticeably frightened by the appearance of two heavily armed white aliens in his shop, did not expect us to buy anything, was even more confused and surprised with my Papetti choice. Trying to be helpful he recommended a more suitable choice for young man‘s music – Silver Convention, Tina Turner, Michael Jackson or Depeche Mode. To which my answer was that at times I am more inclined to listen to quiet and melodic music after the loud music of local mountain events. Of course, it turned we went to a favorite estaminet* of the colonel. Staying here alone for nearly two years (his wife refused to come here and join him) he had ample time to study in detail the city debris and its special interest places, could speak Amharic well enough to feed his physical hunger to his taste. Several anchutkas (that‘s how the advisers called local girls) have instantly landed and made themselves comfortable on his knees and shoulders and requested gin or beer. He felt pity for them and could not refuse – this was their only income in this war city. To me, a rookie, his advice was to visit bars only in twos and with the men you knew well, that would not report to the office. Visiting bars after 10 pm was strictly forbidden, and the punishment was sending back to SU with possible change of place of service to the units stationed in Siberia or Far East. For professional
* * *
Average sensual man (French) Afraid, yet itching to peep (Japanese) Bar (French)
military, not for hired civilians, luckily for me. Besides, it was not safe to be in a bar alone. Often times the advisers encountered separatists behind one table, who frequently descended from mountains to visit their families, who lived and worked here in Asmara. They did not conceal who they were and openly proposed to switch sides and provide advice to us, as it used to be before 1974 revolution. We are fighting, they asserted, better than the government troops, and proved that in reality. Early next morning I was returning back to canyo alone with empty pockets but with all weapons and ammunition preserved. The last thing I clearly remembered from the previous night was that I ran out of money and had to pay for gin to a rather attractive waiter girl with my new notebook, personal pen and the last two badges. The other memory was the frightened face of the Ethiopian sentry at the gates who checked my documents, and wanted to know something. The Colonel was very glad to meet me again the next morning, having found me sleeping near the bar stand this time, the vacancy under the billiards table turned out to be occupied. Early in the morning when he did not find me in my habitual place under billiards, he thought that I was still in the city and would not be in time for morning check up, in which case the office would send a patrol to search for me, the consequences of which was not that pleasant. Surprisingly, he looked again fresh and cheerful, and I do not remember ever seeing him gloomy or in a bad mood despite the fact that he spent two full years without holidays with the 21st brigade in the mountains. He got into a recollection of an accident which happened to him about a year before, while we ordered beer at the office bar. Tired but satisfied he was returning from the night city to canyo around six in the morning at twilight. To his horror he suddenly noticed the Chief military adviser who was making a morning stroll near the entrance gates with a purpose or not, difficult to say. You never know what‘s on your commander‘s mind. It became too late to return back or hide – the general spotted his subordinate. Colonel can‘t explain even now how it occurred to him to take off his chemise and a shirt and change walking to a slow run, simultaneously making energetic exercises with his hands, transforming himself into sportsman making a morning run with gymnastics. The chief general looked rather surprised at seeing his adviser doing gymnastics, smiled, and then asked: - An habitual morning run, comrade lieutenant colonel? - Yes, comrade general! Reported heavily breathing colonel, continuing energetic moves. - That‘s commendable, you are doing just right using this beautiful early morning for sustaining yourself in a good physical shape unlike other your fellow advisers who took to visiting bars at night and wasting their money earned with such hard labor. But I was even more impressed with another story which happened here to a mysterious super reconnaissance officer of CMA‘s office. Some people thought that it occurred as a consequence of culture conflict, others – tried to explain it by ideological
reasons. Yet, it continued to perplex many and served as an effective learning tool and a clear message for new advisers and specialists who continued to arrive to this country.
Post coitum omne animal triste est*
The Chief military adviser repeatedly requested Moscow to send an intelligence reconnaissance specialist to enable his office to operate better with more reliable information. The reconnaissance system in the Northern front was organized extremely badly – the agent network did not work, most frequently local agents worked for and received payment from both sides, the information obtained was scarce and contradictory, and it was risky to use it. Reconnaissance advisers were not very enthusiastic about their work , and mostly relied on the local side‘s work using the scanty information provided by them. Instead, they preferred to spend most of their working time playing American billiards, bowling and betting for beer, or playing cards or gin with their colleagues from the office. The newly arrived reconnaissance officer turned out to be quite different, easily outworked and outshined his colleagues in a short time. He immediately submerged into work and was lost there from morning till morning, displaying an unseen persistence, rigor and efficiency for Asmara office. Later it became evident that he is also one of the best at playing American billiards, seldom loses in poker, drinks only whiskey and can play chess well. Despite his constant involvement in recon business, relentless work in the office, in addition to his numerous leisure activities he was seldom seen at the sergeants club in the bar, in the billiard room or in the canteen where all officers met during lunch. Everyone only spoke of him respectfully as of colorful commendable exemplar and only the most worthy were able to talk to him. Near his office strangely dressed local people started to appear and gather in twos or threes ever more often. Most probably they were new agents or scouts, and everyone was afraid of them and preferred to keep their distance from that place. But the higher commanders were satisfied with the results of his work – they received more diverse information and reconnaissance data that could facilitate their operations. Within a short time, the super scout managed to obtain the necessary information which allowed him to penetrate and occupy leading and lucrative positions in other spheres slightly remote from his military vocation – in trade, finance and investment activities. His new rules soon became buying new clothes of the latest fashion in the places of the city known only to him, and best quality food products at lowest price. Gold, silver, and platinum chains, rings and zodiac signs Italian traders sold him with big discounts, his purchased items of ivory looked the whitest and most finely carved. A Swiss Rollex watch with automatic wind-up was purchased at 340 birr, which equaled at local black market to $170. Quite a number of wives of the advisers of the Northern operational command have become obsessed with him and his unsurpassed ingenuity after having learned about his
After sexual intercourse every animal is sad (Latin)
spectacular achievements, but only a few of his lady fans were lucky to converse or interact with him. But there existed one thing in which he could not beat other officers and everyone easily guessed that – he had not perceived yet the fascination of local exotic women and had no victories on this front. Habitually, many advisers, who spent in mountain warfare two years or more and who no longer feared anything or anybody, liked to mention proudly in conversations with their colleagues, in passing, about pleasant moments of communing with local anchutkas. For the pleasure to gain new experience advisers customarily had to pay from ten to twenty birrs, depending on their communications skills and the level of knowledge of the Amharic language. The latter factor served as an unquestionable stimulus and highest motivation for the majority of Soviet advisers to study local language. Local intelligent girls instantly guessed and quickly learned to distinguish newcomers from those with some relevant experience. It has became a habit that newcomers always paid twice as much for the opportunity to study simple Amharic numerals from one to twenty and acquiring first valuable cultural lessons. In a little while the super scout negotiated this obstacle too, having applied just a tiny bit of his professional sagacity and satisfying another ambition on his way to a total glory. He deceived a not very young but still trustful women, and did not pay anything to her. The next morning, this not very young but still sincere and believing in human decency Ethiopian woman came to the office of CMA in Asmara and started to tell everybody she met there that certain sovietynia votaderavi amakari* was in a great hurry the day before and forgot to pay her for the jointly spent pleasant night. Now she came here to find him and to remind him of that. She was very sorry that she had to disturb and distract him from very important military affairs, but she needs money to buy food. The boy scout had to pay to the woman as charged, packed his top brand things and left the country immediately the very same week.
Soviet military adviser (Amharic)
Difficult road to Debre Zeit
The most duty-bound advisers and translators assigned to other operational commands, but brought against their will as a reinforcement to the Kei Kokeb campaign, were very eager to rejoin their respective groups, officially or not, motivated by a strong feeling of responsibility. The office of the Northern operational command had much stronger feelings in this respect did its best to retain these people under its command. To leave Asmara, in addition to your keen sense of duty you were expected to have at least some valid proof for it: a personal call or an official request letter from the chief of your group to CMA, or the authorization of the translators‘ boss. Both were practically impossible, as there was actually no communication with the capital, where the only one telephone set in the headquarters of the mission was always busy, and no one succeeded so far in getting a call through to Tewodros villa in Debre-Zeit, where the airborne advisers lived. So, new missionaries were habitually enjoying mild Asmara climate minimum for a year. Heureusement, on the eve of May celebrations a transport AN-12 was flying to Addis –Ababa from Asmara to bring fresh people to the north, and deliver indispensable delicacies from the USSR for the holiday celebrations – brown bread, Atlantic herring, vodka, champagne, canned salmon, red and black caviar, ham, apples and pears, which did not grow in Ethiopia. A big crowd was hopelessly trying to board the leaving plane, but only a few managed to add their names to the departure list, pretending to be heading for hospital treatment, or going to receive field rations to the warehouses in the capital. The chief translator looked grim and angry but forced an ironically meaningful smile meeting us, five translators, caught in the process of escaping the northern campaign. He was expecting only two, whom he allowed to return to the capital for May-day celebrations. He solemnly congratulated us with the freshly acquired experience of being present in mountain zone, and then inquired politely if we would be willing to prolong this valuable experience, if the situation in the north required from us. - We might be more useful in our groups where we are assigned, - we disagreed. They are running a training program and are in a great need of translators now. - Well, then, have a little rest, - he beamed and appreciatively nodded. - We‘ll see what can be arranged. After two days our rest was over, necessary arrangements were made and we again were heading back to Asmara. The chief translator turned out to be right - the situation demanded again our urgent intrusion. No one could replace us but we could replace others. A big holiday with a gala concert were approaching where our colleagues were performing - playing musical instruments, reciting loudly patriotic poems, singing rock and revolutionary songs, or dancing. The Chief military advisor issued a separate order for that occasion dispelling any doubts as to the legitimacy of the event and our roles in it, empowering us to replace the gala concert performers. The CMA‘s orders were not to
be disputed, and thanks to them I received another opportunity to taste Italian coffee and cappuccino, red grape wine with tuna sandwiches in comfortable Asmara cafes. The importance of being stupid. Before leaving for Asmara, we decided to attend a party held in the office café on the holiday eve with lots of concourses, dances and cold alcoholic and non-alcoholic drinks. A parachute reconnaissance specialist and two advisers to battalion commanders were also returning to the north, so we together decided to join the party. At the bar stand our company joined Oleh, my colleague with whom I made an acquaintance just a day before. He looked very distressed and grieved, and after two beers got a little drunk and started his sad monologue. I already knew part of his story, that he had served a year with the division advisers in Keren in the north, and now was promoted to a good position with military construction engineers stationed here in the capital. - I am risking here, working hard like a horse, loosing my already scarce hair, soon I will go completely bald, while there back home in Dnipropetrovsk, a tall and handsome family friend named Vasya is walking in my room, wearing my new jeans, and sleeping with my wife – he bitterly complained to us. All the money earned during the first year, economizing on everything including food and beer, he sent back home to his wife. Today he received a letter from her in which she informed him about her desire to divorce him. She had met, she said, the man she really loved very much, and he also, conveniently, adored her. They decided to marry soon, so when Oleh comes back he would have to look for a new place to live. Overcome with grief, he was about to cry, and trying to conceal his feelings from us he moved into a dark corner of the café to find seclusion there. I took a gin and tonic and joined the company of Peter Biletsky, who was considered an undisputed authority and guru in the translators‘ circles, famous for his previous adventures and useful advices to us young and restless beginners. At the end of the 1970s Peter served for three years with military advisers in Nigeria, and now behaved as a rich and well established man – he has bought an apartment in Odesa, was teaching English at Industrial Institute, and was about to defend his thesis in Theoretical English Phonetics, devoted to the analysis of palatalisation of Old English consonants. He had already consumed enough beer and was just loading me with what was on his mind: - I would not have come here for the whole world if only I‘d known what‘s going on here, - he complained. – In Nigeria it was a paradise compared to the situation here. My greedy nature would sometime bring me an unpleasant present. Just wanted to earn some dough to buy new wheels, to be in harmony with the new requirements of modern trends. - I ought to thank my parents that I have long legs and that they sent me to callisthenics school in Leningrad where I used to live and go to school. I started to run best during our memorable night escape, because I wanted to grab some of my things from the tent, but eventually I outran all advisers and was the first to reach the safe mountaintop. (At night separatists attacked his brigade headquarters in Algena and the advisers group was cut off from their brigade). All advisers were surprised at the speed with which I was fleeing, even though I was carrying most of my clothes, AKM, and rucksack in my hands.
Now, after four months of staying here I completely lost touch with Oxford pronunciation to which I devoted my best efforts at the University. If I start to speak phonetically irreproachable English, no one seems to understand me, so somehow for the sake of correct translation and communication between advisers and Ethiopians I have to speak plain English with no phonetics. But, I learned here a very practical thing that I would not have any other place. And that is the merit of a stupid face. If you do not want any extra trouble and to work peacefully, always bear a stupid expression on your face. Stupid people always cause pity and sympathy especially here in the military environment where the whole bunch of overambitious advisers try to take advantage of you and build up their career. It is not that easy as you may think, much more difficult than making a clever face, which I always tried to do before I came here. With a stupid expression on your face you enjoy a special status of untouchability, evoke pity and mercy, and some even try to help and educate you. If you carry on showing yourself off as smart and intelligent here, the aggressive medium would soon cut off your horns and destroy your wits. So, the Kei Kokeb campaign was not in vain, it enriched me with a new life philosophy, - he instructively concluded and ordered another sandwich.
En attandant, the airborne group won nearly all attractions and concourses including rope pulling. When the party approached its end, the battalion adviser conceded to the numerous requests of ladies and broke three bricks, one after another with just one hand. This caused a standing ovation of all those present in the café, and the parachutists became the centre of attention. In the meantime, I invited to a dance une chouette blondine, and she did not refuse. Mais, the glorious victories of parachutists, unwelcome newcomers on this life festival, nearly on all fronts of entertainment could not but cause the jealous reaction of local captains whom they dared to outshine and deprive of the leadership laurels. They turned out to be some crewmembers of the CMA‘s personal plane. Friendly relations with the Chief himself gave them a free hand and they behaved everywhere as they pleased. They were accustomed to respect wherever they went and everyone treated them with concealed fear. Their chief approached our group and started to talk rather loudly not very pleasantly and completely irrelevant to what was going on. The response of the parachutists was only slight surprise on their faces. But he was not satisfied with the expression of their faces - vultus est index animi*, and having promised something really menacing, left us alone. The next morning, surprisingly, the same crew was flying us to Asmara, and I was unexpectedly summoned to the captain‘s cabin. Not daring to instigate conflict with tough parachutists, our new opponents decided to choose the weakest rival in their view a traducteur. There I was put under crossfire by two crewmembers, which threatened to
The face is the index of the soul (or mind) (Lat.)
arrange my returning home to see my forest garrison in a short time if I continue to behave so challengingly. - You are here only several months but behave like an authority, be more modest and submissive, show some respect others really deserve. And next time do not dare dance with our wives. I listened very attentively, nodding with appreciation and smiling, as my mother used to teach me. Their advices sounded useful and reasonable, but the tone of conversation and the connotations made me more convinced than before that we did everything right. Major Kolya Ilchenkiv, adviser to the parachute battalion commander, happened to be with me in the same training group assigned to teach tactics and engineer training to the new infantry reinforcements arrived from the Eastern front. Back in the USSR, the major had never taught through a translator and so had little idea how it is done. He told me a strange incident that happened to him. A translator from Leningrad, whose first language was Swedish and the second Amharic, unexpectedly announced to him that he refused to translate what the Ethiopian officer was saying. - Amharic is my second language, I do not understand his speech. If you think it is easy to translate, try it yourself and you‘ll see –he advised the major. - But you are a translator and it‘s your job, - objected Kolya - Yes, but I did not have enough practice, and he speaks with some local dialect, he is not an Amhara but some other nationality- replied the ―corsair‖. This name was instantly labelled on him as soon as he arrived in Asmara. The major was slightly embarrassed and had to talk to Ethiopian officers himself. During the three months that he previously spent advising in Keren he learned some working phases and logistic terms that helped him out of the situation now. Corsair‘s presence in Asmara was a result of sheer misunderstanding. In the course of Kei Kokeb campaign every one caught hanging loose by surprise in the central office was immediately sent to Asmara. He tried to make a phone call to the embassy for help trying to skip the events but his protégé was out of the capital at that moment. His appearance really corresponded to his nom de guerre – tall, powerfully built, modern moustache and brave looks beneficially singled him out from the background of his colleagues and advisers. His hobby, as Kolya warned me, was to borrow money and never to return it. The major was right, hardly we got acquainted at billiards table, the corsair asked me if I could lend him some 5-10 birrs, until we received our April pay. For the sake of experiment I gave him 50 cents, just to test the major‘s assumption. Really, it tuned out to be one more statistical evidence proving this hypothetical assumption. His wife worked at the Aeroflot office in Addis-Ababa, and earned more than he did, which could not but affect the status of their relations. After working for another year in Addis-Abeba, he did not any more like staying in this country, broke the contract and left, leaving his wife earning money alone in Addis-Ababa. After two months of providing engineer and tactics lessons to two infantry battalions, arrived here from the border with Somalia, the advisory group commenced their
field training on the outskirts of Asmara. Soon, a slight chance appeared to rejoin our relative groups. The eastern battalion was urgently sent to Molibso where the enemy threatened to break the defence lines again, and we were left with nothing on hand for a short time. The Asmara office lost us from its view being occupied with other groups. Having unofficially arrived in the capital by an Ethiopian plane (the local side did not require any payments or permissions for advisers to board their military planes), all four of us stealthily and noiselessly were trying now to leave Addis-Ababa. I learned that translator‘s boss was absorbed in his work, gathering material from the local newspaper ―Ethiopian Herald‖ to do the analysis of semantics and pragmatics of text interview in the modern English press. I preferred not to interfere in his research activities and bother him again with my unofficial arrival report. Air defence advisers, who lived in the capital but worked in Debre Zeit, took me there in their jeep one morning, driving as usual from their concealed weapons‘ positions to the city outskirts. Later, it turned out that my decision not to report to chief translator was right – non sans bon raison. Debre Zeit – Sweet Resting Place Here, among high and green mountain hills, the biggest national military air base was located, where Soviet advisers trained pilots and aviation technicians. The base was originally built and periodically modernized by the British and later American advisers when the Emperor Haile Sellasie ruled the country. The parachute school, where soldiers of the airborne brigade learned how to rig and pack parachutes, jump, and underwent special training, was located very close, just behind the fence. Such location was strategically correct and economically cost efficient as the parachutists were always close to their planes. Not very far, just behind the mountain, the air defence launchers were hiding among trees and bushes near the hills, providing base protection from air attacks. It was an ideal place for rigorous training and simultaneous peaceful rest with a subtropical climate and the delights of nature. The view from near by mountains presented an exotic spectacle of soft orange flamboyants and mauve jacaranda trees amidst elegant villas set back from wide and leafy streets. Numerous mountain hills planted with eucalyptus trees and cactus, offering its sweet thirst-killing but thorny fruits, lemon trees, giant heath, and huge baobabs, sitting on their heels, presented a special decorum. Among them, a series of crater-lakes that speak of great volcanic outpouring millions of years back, suggested to amateurs fishing, with a wide choice what to catch and serve for dinner – big and fat carp, barbus, Nile perch, catfish or tilapia. We were overwhelmed with the abundance of fruits and vegetables – big sized papaya, huge lemons and tangerines reaching ten centimetres in diameter could be cheaply purchased at state farms and cooperatives and gathered right from the trees of your choice. Malheureusement, our peaceful and euphoric state of mind, and the pleasing and agreeable rest after the training sessions and jungle operations was constantly interrupted and harassed by the unsurpassable passion of the general, commander of Dedre Zeit air base and garrison to be an unchallenged authority and the sovereign of his parish. He was an aging general technician, and did not have that benevolence and generosity that pilots 119
conquerors of the sky, are universally known for. The airborne group, including translators, he immediately entered on his black list and threatened to resettle them from Tewodros villa as soon as a suitable moment for this appeared. The first serious blunder and unpleasant accident happened when major Nougaev, the best painter, singer and driver of the airborne group nearly drove his UAZ-69 inside the garrison café, having broken the café fence and smashing the window panes after hitting the wall. The jeep‘s brakes failed him, he complained afterwards. Later, two people from our group did not salute the general because they were not officially introduced and did not know what he looked like. Parachute advisers turned out to be poor psychologists and could not recognize the chief commander by his face; they should have known that the face is the index of the mind (and bearer‘s occupied position). All Soviet advisers wore local military uniform without insignia and you could hardly guess that you are standing in front of the commander of the garrison and biggest air base in the country. The last straw that broke the general‘s patience was the content of a conversation between the chief of our group and the general. Meeting him at the entrance to the café, the general demanded strictly: Comrade colonel, when do you think the people of your group are going to repair the broken fence and install the windowpanes? In a few days, comrade general - replied the adviser. - And I am not a colonel, but still a major. Aha, to make things worse you are still a major! – the general was triumphant. In that case you have only one day to repair the damage and two weeks to find new lodging and leave Tewodros villa for some other part of the city out of my sight.
Since then the relations with the general grew more tense and the group would have been sent to some other city district had it not been for the volleyball tournament. Here it was the religion, passion and most preferred activity in which everyone, not having any other worthy pursuits, tried to demonstrate his amateur skills and win. After 6 p.m. when the exhausting African heat subsided and the sun was setting down closer to the horizon, most men and several women filled the volleyball ground determined to beat numerous opponents, and thus win a right to stay on and challenge the following team. The general, being an ardent supporter of air base team would not for the world miss the pleasure to see our loss to the pilots. The situation, however, dictated its own course of events: we did not lose but the general could not see it – he was urgently summoned for a month to Asmara. The parachute group occupied the third and part of the second floor of Tewodros villa, in the rest of the rooms lived aviation and two air defence advisers. I shared an apartment with colonel Hlazov, who was teaching at the Air Force Academy. The Colonel had a tape recorder and I brought from Asmara the tapes I mentioned earlier with songs of ABBA, Chelentano and Fausto Papetti orchestra music, so we quickly combined our resources and
after lunch during siesta were enjoying music. The colonel liked most of all the new ABBA‘s hit Head over heels, and requested me to turn it on again and again. - Well, these capitalist exploiters decay very beautifully, as I can see. Here in poor Ethiopia you can buy nearly everything and back in the most powerful and greatest Soviet Union it is impossible to buy anything. I can imagine how the shops in the West or in the US look like. Rotten capitalism as our commissars say. I would not mind to rot with them as beautifully as they do. Easy and simple in communication, lieutenant-colonel Hlazov quickly made friends with parachutists. He turned out to be in the first wave of tank assault group that invaded Czechoslovakia in 1968, and served then as a reconnaissance communication officer. Now he was teaching the use of electric equipment on AN-12 transport planes to aviation technicians and was constantly complaining to his audience, speaking with disappointment: - I am doing my best and trying to explain the electric equipment of the plane and drawing complex schemas on the blackboard under this intolerable heat, but they do not listen to what I say and continue talking about one thing: ganzeb, ganzeb* . Well then, I‘ll show them another currency when we meet during final exam in the end of the semester. He agreed to join our system of common cuisine and pay fifty birrs a month to our bank for purchasing vegetables, fruits, and meat and to cook two – three times a month when his turn come. Cooking for twelve men turned out to be another unexpected challenge for me. To prepare a delicious meal for eleven physically very strong and constantly hungry parachutists spoiled by Caucasian, Baltic, Slavic and field cuisine initially seemed next to impossible, as I could not boast of having any special culinary inclination, to say the least of talent or accomplishments. My cooking skills were developing slowly, and after only two months I felt somewhat happier when no one any longer feared to taste my cooking produces, and the old artillerist even praised it. Colonel Hlazov was considered a veteran amongst all of us as he had stayed in Debre Zeit for two years already and was approaching the end of his contract. He now behaved easily and relaxed, ignored all imposed restrictions and enjoyed his last days in Africa. He took us to his favourite bars where he showed us how to find easy avenues of approach and to establish reliable communication with local girls. Having placed two of them on his knees, he ordered them gin and beer, the girls had to prove their affection to the adviser by embracing and caressing him. - Always ask for their medical certificate before going any further than embracing them – was his first instruction. – I had to consult a doctor in private several times originally when I started to explore deeper this source of doubtful pleasure. And remember that while you are entertaining with your chosen ones you are also doing something more important which you‘ll never guess or even imagine. On the one
Money, money (Amharic)
hand, you might have a good time and may possibly be designing new human material for this country. On the other hand, you are being used, but not paid, by bar owners as an assessor or, let us say, a measuring device with the help of which a selection process is organized in the entertaining business network here. As a former scout, I have long noticed that the girls I spent once time with, soon disappear from the bar and sometimes the city. I found out that most of them were sold or promoted to the best cafes and restaurants here and even in the capital. So, you must always remember your personal responsibility in what you do here. His wife was afraid of the hot local climate, difficult living conditions with mosquitoes, malaria, and bad water, civil war and so refused to come here. Thus, the colonel when felt lonely, often visited bars, and became a specialist in local bar life. With another story he tried to guard us from other multiple concealed dangers in local entertainment. A certain smart colonel, a specialist in air navigation equipment had his own way of doing these things. He took home a girl he felt much affection for, washed her in his bathroom with strong Soviet washing powder before taking her to his clean and neat bedroom. In about three days the sensitive girls‘ skin was covered with blisters as a result of powder‘s irritating action and the frightened girl complained to local police. So, the adviser had to pay to the girl as much as the doctor prescribed to heal the skin and hastily leave the country. Cependant, heavy and uncompromising card fighting continued in the group almost every evening till late into the night. Those who lost were to buy red Italian wine, more often though local gin or brandy (at the winner‘s choice), for the dinner of the next day. It might sound strange but not many volunteered to loose and therefore separate conspiracy groupings composed of two players started to form around the table to ensure their own success. Having noticed such a tendency, colonel Hlazov suggested to me once, to combine our efforts to increase our chances of success. I rejected the idea initially, but after losing several games in a row, eventually agreed. For the whole week we sustained our victories easily beating our opponents and secretly supporting each other‘s game. D’autre cote, however, the game lost its original inner sense and attractiveness - risk and unpredictability, as you could influence its final result in most cases, so I decided to play alone. The more so, because a growing feeling of remorse was filling me for cheating my group of advisers, to whom I was translating, irrespective of the fact whether they did the same thing to me or not. Que le monde est petit! In Debre Zeit I suddenly ran into my colleague Misha Novyk who was a year senior to me at our faculty of Romano-Germanic Languages in Kharkiv University, and who after three years of translating in Angola in Namibian training centres was now interpreting lectures to local pilots and technicians at the air base. As a former wrestler (at the University he was known as a classic style wrestler and achieved a Candidate of Master of Sports rank), Misha quickly earned the respect of military aviation advisers (military respect strong people) and had the reputation of a secure and well-to-do man. He wore a (for these places), light-grey French suit of the latest fashion, despite the
intolerable daytime heat, and was driving with pride a very prestigious white Volkswagen beetle car, provided by the local side to the advisers. It turned out that our instructor in military translation at the University, major Mitsuk worked here as a senior translator for nearly two years and had to leave about a year before. An unpleasant accident happened to the major. One Saturday night he celebrated in a local bar a reunion party with a colleague translator, whom he unexpectedly met at the air base. His friend‘s transport airplane made unscheduled landing on its way to Antananarivo. When, in Madagascar, heavily charged, with spirits, the translators were returning home from a bar late at night, several armed robbers followed them and attacked from behind. After knocking them a with carbine butt the robbers stole money and documents and disappeared. The blow to the head turned out to be a serious one and the major was sent back home for treatment. I remembered well the major and his sessions in military translation, even though he taught for only a short period in our group A, when our prime teacher colonel Famishev was absent. He had a perfect American accent, and during a mock interrogation of a dummy English-speaking pilot, taken prisoner, whose role the major was playing, during the translation session we failed to understand a lot he was murmuring, and extracted little useful information from him. He often switched to military slang, with which we, third year students were not familiar yet. We could not get much from him after continuous threatening, persuading, promising and in the end of interrogation forcefully threatening him with vodka. In the 1970s, during the Israeli Egyptian conflict, when still a military cadet, he received a combat order to shield with his body a young general, for whom he was translating, when an artillery shell exploded nearby. He was hospitalised for a long time after a serious leg wound, and was visibly limping still. Airborne brigade or parachute infantry brigade? It was critically important to clearly understand the difference in translation of these two terms, at first sight, identical because each of them signified a different concept of training and employment of airborne troops in the country. Now I fully realized the value of a knowledge of a foreign language and of correct translation, and started to believe the stories that in the old times wars were often started because of bad translators and mistranslation. The adviser to the brigade commander was insisting on the necessity to train airborne troops in Debre Zeit exclusively for airborne operations in order to use the surprise and speed factor to effect, and the factor of superior combat skills. If you use them as infantry these factors are neglected and lost. The second major advice was to form a division on the basis of the existing brigade, and this was dictated, to a significant degree, by the reluctance of advisers to be always on the move with the brigade or its battalions, but to be continuously stationed in Debre Zeit and train incoming recruits. A question of preparation of helicopter borne units at this moment of time was thought of as technically unfeasible, as the helicopters were in a very short supply.
The situation in the north of the country, however, dictated another logic and constantly interfered in the already designed course of training. Most of the trained parachute units were sent to the north to stay there constantly. The last two-well trained parachute companies, which made ten jumps each and passed a jungle survival course, were immediately demanded by the Northern operational command. Not very far sighted northern commanders preferred to use paratroopers not for air assaults, but as infantry units, assigning them to the hardest missions. Colonel Tesfaye regretfully informed us that only two platoons remained from the two companies after six months of fighting, and they differed now from other infantry only by the airborne uniform, AKM with a detachable butt, and special boots with thick soles, specially designed for comfortable landing during jumps. The opponent‘s soldiers considered this uniform to be the best trophy and were well aware how difficult it is to get it. The airborne school was hastily recruiting new soldiers for three new battalions: some future company commanders and platoon leaders went around the southern and central parts of the country inviting and proposing to young men to serve in the most prestigious units. The new group of advisers arrived just in time to continue the training process. Two specialists in parachute rigging had already commenced teaching how to pack parachutes and prepare equipment for dropping from planes. Battalion advisers returned from the north and conducted classes in tactics and engineer training. This part of advisory activities was translated by Ihor, translator from Moscow, who worked more than a year in the brigade and did not have any trouble with terminology translation. My share of the translation work included commando, artillery and physical training specialists. The Commissar, used us both, at his whim. Sometimes, when we were both busy, he sought help from captain Yshenu, the brigade‘s commissar, who studied in Moscow party school and could understand Russian. From time to time the commissar organized two to three hours of lectures to all three battalions, and talked about the aggressive nature of imperialism and the importance of political work in the army both in peaceful and non-peaceful time. My English translation of the lecture was further rendered into Amharic by captain Yshenu – the majority of Ethiopian soldiers were very weak in English. I loved such a scheme of work for there was plenty of time for rest and thinking things over. Yshenu made a creative, almost poetic translation of my words, expanding and emotionally enriching their content, stressing the significance of the ideas propagated by the adviser-commissar, very respected by him. Another pleasure was to translate for the old artillery adviser. Lieutenant-colonel Dmytro Ivanovych had only two years before retiring, and this pupil of Mars came here to earn something for his son‘s marriage and have a little rest from the exhausting service in Kaunas (Lithuania) where his airborne division was stationed. He was speaking slowly and explaining the design of the outdated M-81 mortar, stressing that the hardest task will be for the soldier who will have to carry the mortar base plate of about twenty kilos of weight, when in the high mountains. The good news was that artillerymen statistically belonged to the category with the highest degree of survival. The only difficulty during translation was that many Ethiopian soldiers, representing more than a
hundred nationalities and tribes, sometimes had difficulty in understanding Amharic, the state language, not to speak of English. To ease the process I choose from among the soldiers another translator from English into Amharic, and sometimes other auxiliary interpreters to render the artillery instructions into Semitic and Kushitic languages of Semito- Hamitic language family. My most unusual translation experience happened to be with the instructor in physical training. The classes took place at 3.00 pm in the peak of African heat when all reasonable living beings preferred to sleep or nap in a shadow. During the first three days major Belozerski used me as mock-up and a still living teaching aid. In addition to translating his instructions I had to play the role of an enemy attacking him with a stick, knife or AKM with bayonet, or a that of a sentry whom he attacked and demonstrated to the audience how to quickly and noiselessly choke him. The soldiers were excited and applauded every time he demonstrated it, asked to show again and again how to do it. In two days I had enough and I revolted internally, and the third day externally against such an impolite treatment. - You are hampering our international image and losing authority when you are doing this with me, I declared to the major. – Better use soldiers as a mock-up. I have to have time to concentrate on translation. To my surprise, the major did not object and the following days when he was teaching how to disarm an armed opponent he was using other soldiers for demonstration. By the end of the course of training, having clearly distinguished and established the status of my intermediary role in this training process, I could afford hiding in the shadow of bushes and watching from there the instructor and companies exercising. In the open sun when it was hard even to move, the major displayed unusual stamina practicing for two - three long hours. The most complex exercise was disarming your opponent every soldier in turn tried to hit the major with an open bayonet attached to an AKM, and was disarmed and thrown to the ground. The instructor had to do it several times with every soldier of the battalion. The difficulty and the danger was that these were young and energetic African warriors who sometimes forgot that this was an exercise and could attack seriously. But thanks to the major‘s skills and experience everything finished without visible accidents. The most serious counterpart incident happened to befall Hennady Vasyliovych, chief of the party. After working with him for five months the Soviet advisor met with the Ethiopian parachute brigade commander only three times. Colonel Tesfaye, first National Hero of Socialist Ethiopia and a member of Provisional Military Government was constantly busy and on the move. He became a National Hero after the airborne assault on Nakfa in 1978, when helicopters landed a parachute company under his command near the settlement, and unsuccessfully tried to capture the command post of separatists. The latter greatly outnumbered the assaulting government troops; the more so since the command post was reliably fortified and protected. It was a period of fierce fighting, the parachutists had to withdraw to avoid encirclement, and only nine soldiers made it through, having evacuated on stretchers captain Tesfaye, wounded in the head. For this operation the Revolutionary government awarded captain Tesfaye with a title of National Hero, and the
five soldiers who saved him were sent to the airborne school in Russia. They returned as lieutenants in four years. Colonel Tesfaye did not like Soviet advisers and did not conceal it. He had had parachute training in the USA, studied tactics for some time in Britain and knew his métier quite well. What could newly arrived people teach him? In the course of negotiations with his adviser he openly ignored his remarks and did his best to drive the conversation to a deadlock. To achieve this the colonel masterfully used complex military terms and English phraseology expressions, trying to mislead the new translator and blame him for disrupting the negotiations. At times, he succeeded, and negotiations ended with no result. There were some terms unfamiliar to me, and I tried my best and made a descriptive or vague translation. I did not have any problems with the phraseology translation though. Luckily, my diploma paper at the university was devoted to the ways of translating idioms. The main point of argument appeared to be the provision of advisers with transport, gas and a uniform that according to the contract, the local side was supposed to provide. - We are a poor country, and can‘t afford to provide aliens with a new UAZ-69 or even the fifth wheel for it, - he remarked smiling in response to the adviser‘s request for a new jeep. The brigade commander had two vehicles: a new Land rover and a new Russian jeep. - We can‘t go from Debre Zeit to Sheshemane with bare tyres. Besides, there are eleven of us and one jeep is not enough! – the advisor was losing his temper. The only thing that the major obtained after these difficult negotiations was a token for thirty litters of gas for his old jeep with the bare tyres. Their dispute was peacefully solved in two weeks when colonel Tesfaye visited the air borne school in Debre Zeit to see how the new advisers ran the training process of freshly recruited battalions. Best painter, singer, and driver of the group Volodya Nougaev, chief of staff of the advising group, in the open daylight changed the new spare wheel from the colonel‘s jeep for the advisers‘ worn-out one, having previously dressed it in a covercase. The sentry, who was assigned to protect the brigade commanders jeep, was helping the adviser to change the spare wheel, not understanding why he was doing it. What language they were communicating in remains a mystery even now. The sentry could not speak Russian, that‘s a fact, and Volodya could speak and sing songs only in Russian, foreign languages were not his hobby. Seeing for the first time how I made written translation of recommendations in English, he suddenly stopped for a moment, stared suspiciously at my writing and English letters, and then said with admiration: - Well, I never, how can you do it. I will never learn write like that. I thought you could only speak it. After this incident he treated all translators with respect and awe. Major Nougaev originally was from Irkutsk, but Ethiopians, for some unknown reason, took him for a Cuban, and therefore feared and esteemed him a lot. They were mistaken, for he was half Russian, half one of Chighiz Khan‘s soldiers‘ offsprings. Local bar and café owners were afraid of Cuban soldiers because they did not always pay the bill, as their salaries were very low and they could not afford to, so they showed their weapons as a final argument and proof of absence of money.
But you rarely met any Cuban soldier in Dedre Zeit at this time. Their tank and mechanized infantry brigades were stationed on the border with Somalia on the eastern front, fulfilling international duties and protecting this young country from foreign aggression. The Cuban leader refused to engage his troops in combat activities in the north, explaining that they were an internal affair, and they are unwilling to interfere in a country‘s civil war. Colonel Tesfaye fixed an appointment at 5.30 pm at the Ministry of Defence, when the heat had subsided and business life in the capital was re-activated. After the season of heavy rains, the new crop and harvesting time came and with it a new season of armed raids and robberies in the southern and the eastern provinces of the country. As for the troubled northern and central parts, the separatists had ample time to prepare and were ready for the regular seasonal activities and major offensives. They were stealthily descending from mountain strongholds in order to replenish their food and ammunition supplies, having previously spread rumours about their strength, and so causing fear and panic among the local population. In the semi-desert and mountainous areas they followed and attacked government cargo and military convoys moving from the port of Assab to the capital, or to the garrisons of Central Operational Command - COC. It was necessary to discuss the details of speedy training for three battalions after they finished their parachute jumps in Debre Zeit. The situation demanded their presence in the south and the centre of the country. The Colonel and his adviser decided to give another two months to continue tactical, engineer and fire training in the south near Lake Awassa, where the parachutists would under go a survival course at the same time. Colonel Tesfaye was visibly satisfied with the results of the new recruitment campaign – all new soldiers had a minimum of eight classes of secondary education, they passed tests in reading, writing, counting and their IQ corresponded to the required standard. Their height did matter much, and most of the soldiers were of middle height or even lower but turned out to be surprisingly durable, undemanding and with a stubborn combat spirit. Par contrecoup, our next destination was the southern provinces of Sidamo and Kaffa. This famous place was largely populated by one of Ethiopia‘s most remarkable and industrious peoples – Guraghe, who represented a mixed community of Muslims and Christians. The basis of their economy is the false banana tree, known throughout the country as ensete. Interestingly, ensete‘s cycle of growth determines the rhythm and special nature of the Guraghe lifestyle, providing both their staple foodstuff and the materials from which their homes are constructed. The local proverb teaches: ―Where ensete grows there is no hunger‖. Local farmers were living much better than people in other regions of Ethiopia. They grew and successfully traded cash crops –khat a (mild stimulant), tobacco, eucalyptus trees for firewood, and coffee. The coffee of Kaffa province, the home of Ethiopian coffee, and indeed, the first home of all the coffee in the world. Nominis umbra*. For many centuries after its discovery a practice of eating not drinking coffee persisted in the remoter regions of Kaffa and Sidamo to this day.
The shadow of a name (Latin)
Further to the west, closer to the Sudanese border, rich deposits of gold had been recently discovered, and the government was slowly organising its extraction and building mines. Unusual paradox, but Sudan, which did not have any gold mines on its territory was exporting as much gold as Ethiopia. The same holds true for coffee. Magnas inter opes inops*. Overjoyed and enthusiastic brigade advisers were driving south, farther from the hectic central office, deep into the African jungles where wild nature dominates and flourishes: ten-meter long Nile crocodiles bathing in the sun, numerous hippos refreshing themselves in lakes and swampy areas, and none of them, no matter how big, gives you any orders. In the National Park savannah, where we were heading, herds of dun-colored hartebeest, giraffes, elephants, gerenuk, oryx, and zebras were peacefully grazing, guarded only by giant termite hills, low trees and bushes, completely unaware of the military newcomers descending form the north. Only prudent lion prides were getting ready for the new invaders, and they retreated further south to the border with Kenya, closer to the safe mountain areas. The rich nature of Sidamo and Kaffa provinces arranged fascinating meetings for us with rare specimens of wild African fauna, whose habitat was only here, and about the mere existence of which we could hardly guess.
Poor amid great riches (Horace)
Jungle survival course in Awasa
Legends as to the actual discovery of coffee are numerous, but perhaps the most attractive is that of the ―dancing goats‘. Kaldi, a young Ethiopian goatherd from Kaffa, was surprised that his goats, normally lazy and sleepy, became suddenly invigorated and began to prance about excitedly after chewing certain berries. He tried the berries himself and found them stimulating—they produced a mood of merriness akin to intoxication after consuming large enough quantities. The legend has that a monk from one of the numerous monasteries nearby found Kaldi in this happy state and decided to try berries too. That night during a long session of payer the monk discovered that he remained wide-awake with his mind more active and acute than it normally was on such occasions. He passed on the coffee secret to the brothers of his order, and soon all the monks in Ethiopia were chewing the berries, prying long hours without the troublesome interference of sleep. For many centuries after its discovery, coffee was eaten; its berries were either taken whole or crushed and mixed with ghee (clarified butter). It was not until the XIII century that the practice of brewing the hot drink from roasted beans was introduced. The drink was taken from here to Yemen in the XIV century, where it acquired its Arabic name qahweh, soon converted to kahveh in Turkish, caffe in Italian, café in French and koffie in Dutch. It was the Dutch who took the seedling from Yemen to Indonesia towards the end of XVII century. French and British traders completed the process, establishing plantations all over the world. In modern Ethiopia the practice of preparing coffee has taken on the trappings of the ritual in which the aroma of coffee mingles with heady scent of incense. The elaborate process starts with pounding off the beans, roasting them on a slightly concave iron plate over a shallow charcoal brazier, adding cloves and other spices. Then coffee is brewed in pots of hot water and poured out into tiny china cups. On one occasion, I had a chance to fully appreciate its real value and the positive effect it produced on the quality of my translation. I was substituting a translator, who unexpectedly fell ill, and had to translate general Kocatuk‘s negotiations with his Ethiopian counterpart, general Ghirma, Chief of Logistic Supply of the National Army. I was a little nervous as the logistic terminology was a new field for me, and it was the highest level I ever worked before–Deputy Minister. While waiting at the reception at the Ministry of National Defense, we were treated to the habitual ritual of coffee serving. To my great amazement and great joy my subsequent translation went very smoothly and easily after two cups of such coffee. Its élan vital stimulated the translation process and made it a real pleasure not experienced before, despite the new logistic sphere of translation. On our way from Debre Zeit to Awasa we made a stop for a lunch at Nazareth. The ancient and charming city, completely lost in the greenery of palms, acacia, and eucalyptus trees, impressed me by with its ancient churches: the pride of its inhabitants. Regretfully, we had only half an hour to enjoy an usually peaceful atmosphere filled with grandeur and mystery.
After a five-hour ride in an overcrowded jeep–eight men had to squeeze in with their luggage, weapons, and supplies of food, instead of standard six—a terrible headache started to bother me, when we arrived at Awasa lake. Soldiers had already prepared a tent for us with iron beds covered with mosquito nets. The tent was placed twenty meters from Awasa Lake, between the lake and the jungle. The kitchen was in the shadow of trees, which made this place cool, even during daytime heat. I hurried to choose the bed further from the tent entrance, remembering well my Mai Amida night‘s adventures. I laid down and closed my eyes, trying to sooth the mounting headache. Never had I experienced such a killing headache and enervating weakness like this. Meanwhile, a duty bound and energetic commander accompanied by an incessantly talking commissar desired to discuss, immediately, the training schedule with our local counterparts. For seven advisers they brought only one translator, and now, at a time when I could hardly move, never mind contemplate translating, they urgently needed my services. A crisis situation was emerging. When I refused to follow them saying that I am very sick and unable to translate, the commander got furious. He decided that I was dissembling, and trying to skip my duties. I asked them to postpone a meting for an hour or two, by what time I might feel better. Still angry and suspicious they, nevertheless, mulled over it for some time, and then grudgingly consented. In an hour I was able to walk, talk even, but not to translate adequately. After greeting the Ethiopian colonel Tesfaye, I asked him if they had any medicine for headache. He ordered a soldier to bring freshly prepared, roughly ground coffee. In about five minutes I had resumed my normal state of mind almost completely, and I was able to do the translation. Observing my dramatically changed condition, colonel Tesfaye calmed me by saying that he also experienced headaches when traveling from highlands to jungles and valleys, and in this case coffee was the best healing drink. We were impressed and charmed by the abundance, variety, and exotic nature of the flora and fauna around the lake–everything around us was singing, barking, whistling, flying, swimming, crawling, trembling or simply moving. I had an instant feeling that we are only a tiny part of all this mighty realm of Nature, and I thought that though there are eight of us armed with the newest weapons, we should be wise carefully to learn to subordinate ourselves to this dominating power of the Nature, if we wished to remain much longer its small integral and breathing component. Five years back when soldiers started to build a training camp for parachute brigade here and clear the jungles, they had to kill eight pythons that attacked them within a week. At seeing people moving near the jungles on the bank of the lake, the pythons swam out of the water and attacked soldiers taking them for a new pray. One soldier saved himself only after cutting the python with his knife in two pieces. At night hyenas liked to approach our tent, the most curious of them peeped inside, others stood outside and howled like sirens. On several occasions they tried to steal our leftovers from the casserole that served as our breakfast. The three local soldiers, guarding our night‘s sleep had difficulty explaining to us why they did not chase away or shoot them. It turns out that Ethiopian traditional tales teach people that it is not allowed to offend, or worse, to shoot and kill hyena. They possess a very good memory and are known
as revengeful animals. If you shoot, and still worse kill, any of them, other members of the clan will continuously pursue the killer, his family and even his home cattle and poultry. Naturam expellas furca, tamen usque recurret*. On two occasions colonel Tesfaye took us in his brand new Land Rover to jungle exercises. He showed us with pride how his soldiers were setting night ambushes for passing transport and also capturing prisoners. This exercise was designed by an old and experienced Ethiopian instructor, trained by American advisers about ten years back, who remained the only qualified brigade specialist in jungle training. To our big surprise, the colonel turned out to be a reckless and relentless driver. Driving over narrow road through bushes with headlights on, he would suddenly increase his speed to sixty-seventy kilometers per hour (45 mph) when a hyena, or a group of them, happened to be on the road, and he started to chase them. The chase continued with ever greater speed until the frightened animals were wise enough to leave the road and hide in the jungle bushes. Two times were had to stop and chase away big anteaters that were dining near termites and blocked the road. The old warrior Tesfaye had the right feeling and guessed exactly where the parachutists organized the ambush place. So, he had the lights off, trying to mislead the ambushers, but allowed the transport to be captured and the training exercise successfully completed. Pabulum animi*. Returning with a company of men from a firing range, situated about two kilometers deep in the jungle, I noticed that soldiers were picking up branches of a certain bush and I got curious: why? They make toothbrushes out of it, it turned out. I have long noticed that most of Ethiopians could boast of having strong white teeth, even though not many used toothbrushes and toothpaste. But most of them used such sticks for cleaning after meals. I decided to choose some twigs, carefully crafted a stick, and started to rub my teeth as the soldiers did. At seeing me doing this, colonel Tesfaye looked surprised and inquired why I was doing this. I explained correctly, he smiled and borrowed a small twig for himself. Piece de resistance, ce jour la, was an Egyptian goose, baked in clay soil mixed with volcanic ash from the nearby volcano and served for dinner. Major Kolya Nouzhni, zealous hunter that he was, could not resist the temptation when a pair of Egyptian geese landed twenty meters from the tent and started to graze, loudly honking in front of the major‘s nose. Not in his life ever seeing wild geese daring to approach a military man so close back at home in USSR‘s Tula forests, the major was astounded by such an arrogant and reckless goose behavior, so he pulled out a Makarov pistol and shot one from a five meter distance. The sound of a shot frightened the other goose and she flew away. After this noble dinner, when we all enjoyed the red violet sunset over the dark green of the African jungle, the major told us a story how he missed his plane for Afghanistan. During the coup, the first regiment of his division took part in the first attack on Kabul and participated in capturing the Presidential palace. As a result of poor communication among assaulting groups, dozens of parachutists were shot by friendly
assaulting units, who were dressed in Afghani uniform and fired at each other, when they met in the palace corridors. Many were saved only thanks to wearing flak jackets. His regiment was in the second wave, and was on stand–by near the airfield waiting for an order to board IL-76 transport planes to fly to Kabul. After six hours of waiting, the battalion commander had sufficient time to find out that there was not a single resourceful officer under his command, who had had the foresight to bring essential vodka onto the plane, and he thought it a bad omen and a major mistake. So, Kolya volunteered to go fast by renting a local UAZ-69 truck to procure some booze to celebrate such electrifying victories upon arrival. Grande nao, gran cuidado*. When he returned with three bottles, his battalion had already boarded the plane that was rolling for its take off. As a party member he received a severe reprimand for his daring deed, and his promotion to a major was delayed for another year. His instructive story was suddenly interrupted by colonel Tesfaye, who appeared with two armed soldiers. The colonel was furious. - I learned that you have done a very bad thing here today, - he said to the commander. - Me? Who? – asked the frightened major. - Not you personally, but somebody from your group. Today, you have killed a goose, and this is forbidden. We are on the territory of National Park, where any hunting and killing animals is prohibited by law and punished by two years of prison. - We are sorry, we did not know that hunting is not allowed here. - Sure, you did not! Hard to believe. Well, I think, for the first time we will forgive you this violation, as maybe, you were unaware that hunting is not allowed here. But do not try to do it again. I also wanted to inform you that today I am leaving for Addis Ababa to proceed with the formation of a new division, and my replacement–colonel Mungetu is coming here tomorrow to take over my command. Hennady Vasyliovych sighed with relief. The office instructed him that Soviet advisers could hunt only when they got authorization from the governor of the province or the brigade commander. The governor was very far away, and the opinion of the brigade commander we had all just heard. The successful hunter and cause of this brouhaha, Kolya Nouzhni, insisted that when he was firing there was no one around to be seen. It meant that the jungles keep a constant eye on us. The next evening we had to diner par coer*. Lieutenant colonel Mungetu–a very energetic man, of short stature, speaking excellent English, noticeably limping on his left leg, appeared to be rather relaxed in communication and was not very ceremonial in establishing relations with us. He had been fighting for a long time on the Eastern front against Somalia. Later, he organized a peoples‘ militia on the south and west of the country attempting to protect local population from bandit raids. Mungetu had just arrived from Gondar where he was introducing compulsory military service into the province with Soviet advisers, and created the first-ever commissariat in Ethiopia. As a former paratrooper trained as a soldier for a year in Israel, he has been temporarily assigned again to the airborne brigade. This man was really a big part of the quickly changing history of this country, and evoked natural awe and respect at first sight. Very few of his comrades in arms had made it through after almost twenty years of the constant combat crusades his country had
experienced, assisted by periodically changing advisers from East or West. We were overwhelmed by his story, which he told us during our first meeting. When we met him for the second time that afternoon, he shared his views on the role of foreign advisers and training, and related what the brigade actually expected from us: - I was trained to jump with parachutes by Israeli military advisers, worked for a long time with British and American advisers when Emperor Haile Sellasie was governing this country. So, you can see, that I have quite an experience of working with different advisers, including Soviets in Gondar. If we try to compare their role, and the results of their advisory behavior, we obtain the following picture. When Americans were here, the top officers preferred to stay in the capital and drink brandy, gin or whiskey and their sergeants did all the training. The Italians spent most of the time in bars with our women, but when you came–you have exhausted our paper resources having flooded the whole country with your written advice, that is of little interest to us—at a time when the brigade currently badly needs weapons, the better new model of AKM–47 for paratroopers, BMDs*, several GAZ-66 and Urals trucks. Also we need new parachutes and the latest models of mortars. We have long been asking for chemical weapons, with the help of which we could have chased away the separatists from their air shelters and fortifications in the mountains, and would have finished with them within several weeks. But you are hesitant and too afraid to provide these for us. Maybe you could influence your superiors and make them change their minds? The adviser kept silent for some time being astonished by such an aggressive monologue, which he did not expect and was not ready for. Having regained his confidence, he started explaining that most of the requests were not in his competence, but as for submachine guns, mortars, and parachutes he would have to address a specialist in armaments in the office. Not satisfied with his reply, colonel Mungetu asked advisers to find lieutenants Alebachu and Ghisesse and arrange tactics and engineer training-courses for their battalions. At that very moment the engineer specialist remembered that he forgot his sunglasses and training plan in the tent, left us and headed for the tent. - What’s the matter? – inquired the Ethiopian colonel. Why is he leaving? - Our colonels will not be running after your lieutenants to coordinate training schedule in tactics - replied the adviser to fourth battalion commander and he also walked away. - Ok, ok, - colonel Mungetu was quick, trying to avoid the sudden conflict. - I’ll send them to your tent. In the meantime the jungles slowly but surely started to intimidate us and interfere into training process on land, in water and under water. Still sleepy, washing my face early in
the morning I suddenly noticed within a meter distance from my leg about half a meter of a body of brightly hued snake, the head with the rest of the body was safely hidden in the grass. The good thing is that a sleepy man has a sleepy reaction, and I very slowly and noiselessly backed off. When I returned back with a stick it was already gone. Later, watching the post-Soviet novelty of the Discovery channel, I learned that it was rather a dangerous species, but as it turned out, very humane to me. Even in the times of Cold War, the western culture and civilization influenced the cultural values, and left some imprint on the esthetic tastes of Soviet people, including the main strike force of their Army: the airborne troops. Three officers had served in a regiment which was stationed near Kaunas in Lithuania. All three could speak Lithuanian, and major Belozerski, the physical training advisor, got excited about and learned how to make statues, effigies, human and animal heads and other objects of art from tree trunks, twigs or stumps. His passion for the beautiful became an obsession and he always tried to reform and reshape everything to his cultural taste that happened to be along his way. This time he had found a tree trunk on the bank of the lake and brought down there by a severe thunderstorm the day before, which incidentally at the same time washed our tent down into the lake. In an hour the tree trunk was transformed into a sitting women, with fascinating upturned breasts, a slightly bent posture with hands on her knees. He attached to it a head, manufacturing it from a polished volcanic stone, aging millions of years. There were plenty of them around the place, still remaining as a result of volcanic activity during Earth formation. His model looked like the figure of a woman, raising up to greet you. We were all amazed! The major could really notice beauty in a common looking object, concealed from others, and bring it to perfection. But the commander did not like the profile of a women, made of a tree trunk, be placed near the entrance to the tent because of security reasons. The tree would attract all sorts of insects and animals from surrounding bushes and grass, and those he feared the most. This is the African jungle. As a commander, this time he proved his qualification and turned out to be right. Once after long afternoon siesta, Dmytro Ivanovych, an aging artilleryman, stepped out of the tent, and seeing with his sleepy eyes the virtual woman‘ profile, had a nostalgic desire to touch the appealing wooden breasts, which he had not experienced in real life for more than a month. I frutti proibiti sono I piu dolci—forbidden fruits are the sweetest, but sometimes the bitterest. His tender touch was so passionate and stirring that it made women‘s body shiver, her stone head, millions years old, move and fall down and painfully hit the adviser‘s balding head. Furious, he pushed back the trunk, it overturned and exposed a snake nest underneath with several small and angry inhabitants, luckily without their mother. We ran out of the tent, frightened by his yelling for help, drove away with tree branches the small intruders back to the jungle, and transported the trunk further from the tent. The commander was seriously frightened this time, remembering bad experiences of similar unpleasant meetings in the Caucasus. Himself alone, he dug out a half-meter deep ditch around the tent, and asked the soldiers to fill it with water from the lake to obstruct the penetration into the tent of curious jungle invaders.
Entretemps, parachute battalions started a survival course in the jungle, organized by the only Imperial army instructor left in brigade. The course turned out to be effective and proved so many times in the numerous jungle skirmishes that followed. Soviet advisers were not involved in it, neither were they to be seen in the marching drill training. The system of march drill was thoroughly introduced by the British-trained instructors, and it still remained active and continued to astonish me and other advisers with its uniqueness, simplicity and naturalness. Commanders of parachute companies and battalions were marching and saluting the brigade commander with refined skill that could be compared to the marching skills of guards of the Buckingham Palace. Brigade soldiers were taken deep in the jungle and left there alone without food and water. Their assignment was to find and rejoin their respective units in the designated areas of the jungle, and then return to the brigade location within a week. Taking advantage of such an opportunity, our superiors—commander, commissar and two more advisers of higher rank, suddenly remembered that very urgent matters were awaiting for them in the capital, and hastily left the remaining group for nearly a month. There were four of us remaining in the tent between the lake and jungle, at the jungle‘s mercy, without salt, sugar, any means of transportation and little money. The Diesel-power station that periodically had provided light before, was no longer operational, and no kerosene was left for the lamp. Happily, we had chess and cards—during daytime playing chess, in the evening – playing cards before sunset. The lake provided us with abundant fish – tilapia, barbus and silurus sometimes let themselves be caught even without bait on a fishing hook. From local goatherds we exchanged our last sports badges, pens and notebooks for young corn, oranges, and bananas; tea and rough coffee, cooked in big fortyliter tanks we used to procure from the brigade field kitchen. Une fois après le diner, we were sitting at the kitchen table in the jungle shadow, wisely and economically extending the process of digesting the scarce food, at the same time improving the skills of tooth cleaning with wooden sticks. This exercise required skillful and moderate application of force. It started with a special treatment of the raw material— the end of the stick was made flat, to serve as a brush, by chewing it and only then could you proceed to massage and clean the teeth. It was Sunday afternoon, and noisy groups of local people were returning from Awasa market. To protect their families and purchases, some local people were armed with long spears, bows and arrows, some had old Italian rifles and carbines, and the well dressed were armed with colts and AKs. Suddenly, we all sprang up, as if following some internal command, first feeling and seeing the movement of previously unseen faunal species. Two huge ash dark birds, looking like visitors from prehistoric period, proudly and with dignity, were marching between the plantation of sorghum and young maize, quietly communicating in their ancient language. They looked like pterosaurs, which had mistakenly left their Mesozoic era and were now appearing here in Sidamo province, from a young corn plantation before our eyes. They looked like black ravens of immense size—
their thick legs were almost a meter long, and the shape of the beak resembled that of a pelican. Something ancient and mysterious was concealed in the solemn stroll of these two endemic birds. As if mesmerized, driven by an inexplicable feeling of perplexity, we silently and slowly followed them, accompanied by three soldiers—our guards, who left their hiding places, driven by the bird‘s majestic force. Paying no attention to us, the birds marched for some time in front, leading us, and then disappeared in the plantation of young maize. Later, Ethiopian officers commenting the event asserted that we were lucky. These birds show themselves to people very rarely, and those who met them were fortunate. They are considered as being sacred in this country, living and walking only in pairs, no one has yet seen them walking alone. Local people believe that anyone, who manages to pass between these two birds will become rich and happy. Un coup de hasard*. A Future ruthless general and the residence of princess Zauditte We were able to last only for a little over three weeks on boiled fish, tea, coffee and stale bread. Our commanders continued to be immersed in their ―important business‖ in the capital, and we could hardly count on them ever returning. Having collected our last twenty byrrs, the three advisers sent me, as the only bearer of three local languages – English, Amharic and Oromo (I knew several words in Oromo language) to the Southern Operational Command. Its headquarters was located twelve kilometers to the west along the perimeter of lake Awasa. I started early in the morning attempting to avoid the exhausting midday heat. It was an unforgettable and thrilling journey between the shore of the lake and the jungles. Lake Awasa, the smallest link in the Rift Valley chain, but also the prettiest, with reed-lined shores and many swampy bays: favorable place for herds of hippopotami, and a paradise for birds. From time to time I had to bypass flocks of pelicans, Egyptian geese, wild ducks, while trying not to disturb their morning slumber. Storks and herons were wading watchfully in the shallows on their long angular legs. Kingfishers, crakes, cormorants and darters added to the colorful morning spectacle. African fish eagles were demonstrating their skill, graciously catching from the water surface a hapless tilapia or barbus. I had to maneuver carefully trying not to go deep into the jungle in order to avoid unwelcome meetings with predators or local tribes, who had the habit of hunting here. I ran into a big herd of hippos not far from Awasa town. Their pink baby hippos, looking like small piglets stood out on the background of green swampy grass, and could be seen from a far distance. I carefully bypassed their location, remembering the story that had already reached our side of the lake: a local hippo tried to bite into two pieces a bicycle driver together with his bicycle, when the latter drove into a peacefully grazing male hippo at night. Luckily, the headquarters of the Southern Command were situated very close to the town entrance. Extremely tired, I settled down heavily on the bench when found myself in the garden in front of the headquarters office, and closed my eyes, trying to have a little rest after an exciting two-hour march.
- Why are you sitting here, why do you not get up and salute your superior? You think, if you are in Africa, it is not necessary to observe military saluting rules? – Thus sounded somebody’s voice, when I was already almost sweetly sleeping. I reopened my eyes, raised my head and saw a graciously treading young looking adviser in a neatly ironed uniform. - Some sort of an idiot, - I thought. The unofficial custom among advisers was to salute only generals, if you know them by face, as no one had any insignia on their uniform. - Are you a general? – still sleepy I asked a stupid but natural question. - Not yet, but in two months I am expecting to receive the rank of a general. I am the commander of this garrison. Now I was completely awake and stood up at last, much to the joy of the future general. The most dangerous and unlikable category among the military ranks. On his way to the career peak he will crush you and will not even notice it, will make you plough all African jungles just to have his own way and receive the desired rank. - Sorry, comrade colonel. I walked for twelve kilometers from the location of parachute brigade, sat down for a little rest and nearly fell asleep. That is why I did not notice you. - Well, to make things worse, you are not from our garrison. Why is your brigade here, and what are you doing here, anyway? – The future general got suspicious. - We are training battalions on the lakeshore to the east from here. I am here to purchase some salt, sugar, and products, send mail and make a call to report about the situation in our group to Addis Ababa, if possible. - You would not be able to make it, we have no communication at the moment. But you still did not answer my question – why did not you salute me? You must always salute your superiors, even here in Africa, it is Army, you know. - Yes, I agree, but I am a civilian translator, - I tried to make things more complicated, primarily for myself. - Aha, to crown it all you are a translator! – The colonel detected my weak point at last. – That explains everything. Why, then, should I waste my precious time and efforts on the hoodlums like you? - My colleagues translators have a hard time working for him, - I thought, silently saluted the garrison commander, and left the garden not asking his permission to do so. I once heard some adviser remark that not always the best specialists are sent as advisers abroad. Sometimes it is a way to get rid of very zealous and annoying specialists. Otherwise, there will be no one left to work at home. Though very tired, I decided to finish shopping and leave the place: the sooner the better. Now I began to realize that was luckier with my advisers‘ group than other translators. We cook in turn, clean our tent in turn, and the atmosphere in the group was
not so intimidating for members with a lower rank. The big problem though is the frequent disputes, which mostly occur between the commander and the commissar. The subject of their dispute is who is the best specialist and knows better the military profession. The commander was a graduate of the most prestigious Frunze Academy, the commissar graduated from the Higher Party School in Moscow, and in addition to that, participated in the seizure of civil aerodrome during the invasion in Czechoslovakia. Often times they staged fierce oral disputes that gradually grew into full scale wars. The major topic of their squabble was who, according to latest military doctrine, and in the light of the modern political concept of competition of two political systems, possessed more advanced knowledge of the tactics of airborne troop applications in the local jungle and mountains. (To tell the truth, none of them was a good specialist in jungle warfare). Sometimes, the tension in their relations reached the highest point and stayed airborne for a month. Much of the time there was no coordination or normal communication among them, and consequently inside the group. Such uncompromising opposition and rivalry at the top brought sufferings to the rank and file members of the elite airborne group below. The more so because, as a consequence, they suffered tangible material losses. The commander in the course of sustained quarrels smoked a lot, and constantly asked for cigarettes from his subordinates, who did not dare refuse him when he was in a furious state. The eloquent and argumentative speech of the political commissar demanded, in turn, a lot of energy, and so he started to consume a disproportionate amount of the group‘s scarce food supplies. Having found themselves in straitened circumstances, other group members suffered the moral and material losses silently for quite a long time, until they found the only plausible way out—to act as peacemakers. Some of them started to interfere in the course of these hot polemics at the top, trying to cool down the opponents‘ enthusiasms, and find some resolution to the conflict and so re-establish peace. Blessed are the peacemakers. It was very dangerous to take anybody‘s side during the dispute: everyone realized that and always preserved respectable neutrality. But no one in the group tried to offend or intimidate a translator, who had the lowest grade of lieutenant (at that time I was lieutenant in the reserve, but sometimes preferred to present myself to the local side as a captain, in order to be compatible with higher standards and status). A translator could help or not help in a working situation or with the translation in everyday matters. I tried to maintain good working and friendly relations with all advisers in the group. Under these uncertain conditions mitis sapientia* taught us that there is no other way to deal with it. Adviser to the second battalion, captain Bystrov, for the third day running was conducting classes in engineering near the foot of the mountain and close to the lake. He patiently explained as he showed the soldiers the parallel and consecutive ways of connecting TNT explosives to the arming device. For demonstration he produced several explosions near the lake, having safely hidden the soldiers at a safe distance. The captain was about to change the subject and start explaining how to set mines, when we heard shouts and shots from the soldiers protecting the training zone from passers-by. It turned out that a huge and terrifying python was attacking soldiers from the lake.
- Alligator, alligator! – they cried to us trying to stop it with a random bursts of fire. Soldiers called the numerous pythons living in the lake ―alligators‖ and believed that they dominated the territory surrounding the lake. We ran close to the lakeshore to observe a most impressive scene: three thick semicircles of a python‘s body were arched over the water surface about fifty meters from the shore. Water sprayed like a fountain around the semicircles, the distance between each being about two meters. The creature‘s small head was constantly moving, while slowly approaching the shore and scanning the landscape. Do not look into a python‘s eyes in the wild, he will instantly mesmerize you. Having asked the permission from the Ethiopian officer to open fire, I made three shots from Makarov pistol – all bullets landed about seven meters from where we stood. The soldiers must have also looked into his eyes, as the python continued to advance despite their random fire of nearly a platoon of soldiers. The major had problems with eyes and was wearing glasses and that must have saved him from python‘s magic and seductive gaze. He stood on his knee, aimed with two hands and made four consecutive shots with small pauses. After the second and the fourth shot the python‘s body shivered – the bullets hit the target. His head quickly raised itself two meter high above the water surface, and stayed motionless for some time trying to understand what had happened. Then it slowly it disappeared; hiding three semicircles of its body – the python dived underwater having decided to avoid the outnumbering enemy with long and painful stingers. To our great surprise the soldiers looked rather disappointed. - ―It is a pity that you did not kill it; it has such a tasty meat. It is a long time we last tried python.‖ - ―But it is difficult to kill him with a pistol, - objected the captain.‖ - ―You should have used the TNT explosive, it would have thrown his body to the surface.‖ We did not think of that, as were even afraid to fire at it, remembering that hunting is not allowed for us here. For the second month we could not wash properly because of the lack of hot water. Doctors did not recommend that we swim in Awasa lake, saying that Canadian scientists have found some dangerous bacteria that could penetrate through scratches and bring on infections. Captain Yshenu felt for us after seeing in what miserable conditions we found ourselves, and he tried to be helpful in some way. He proposed to drive us to a volcanic geyser so that we could have a hot bath there. He told us with pride that this artesian water was famous for its healing effects on human skin. We were to drive deep inside the jungle to find it, and he advised us not to forget the weapons in case we met some wondering tribe which, it could happen, did not understand English or Russian. Besides, herds of baboons presented another danger. They sometimes attacked people if they were alone and not armed. Piscem nature docere*. Driving to the source of the hot springs, the commissar succumbed to the commander‘s plead and started complaining to captain Yshenu about how inhospitable colonel Tesfaye was.
- ―Why is he treating us this way? He completely ignores our legitimate requests, does not give talons (purchase slips) for petrol, refuses to talk about providing a jeep for us and avoids meeting with the commander. He is a future division commander, and must be more compromising and complacent with the people who provide him with precious advice‖ the commissar said. - ―Could you somehow influence him and make him change his attitude to us?‖ - he requested. Captain Yshenu smiled knowingly, and replied that he personally would be of any help which he was able to afford, but to try and influence the decision of the colonel is completely impossible. - ―It is dangerous,‖ - he continued and enlightened us with the Ethiopian parable about a small and a big fish. A big fish is stronger than a small fish and can always eat it, that is why a small fish should be afraid of a big fish. The colonel is a big fish, and I – a captain— am a small fish and should swim slowly, cautiously and prudently staying very close to a big fish. Or swim quickly when there is no big fish around and avoiding meeting face to face with a big fish. You should never swim faster than, or ahead of, a big fish. She may get angry and eat a small fish. The impression was that Nature itself had created this charming place for the southern residence of princess Zauditte, the daughter of the last Emperor Haile Sellasie. A spacious one story building erected on a small hill was the culmination of the natural landscape composed of a mountain chain, dense jungles and adjoining flat savannah. The erstwhile princess‘s residence was located about a mile away from the sleeping volcano, and was surrounded with rare specimens of exotic fruit and decorative trees, that had not been taken care of since revolution broke out. Near the entrance, in the center of the green lawn a merry fountain was still spraying water about a meter high. A beautiful view was opening to savannah that ended in unsurpassable jungles leading to Kenya, near the horizon line. A tiny paradise! Local people still remembered that princess Zauditte loved to swim in the swimming pool filled with hot water and then refresh in the ice cold water of a wide spring speedily descending the mountain. A special pleasure was to expose yourself to geyser water falling from the height of about four meters and heavily massaging your body - dulce quad utile. The water, at about forty degrees, passed through a dozen differently sized tubes that produced a water massage of your body with varying intensity. This delightful water fall of volcanic origin was a place of adulation not only of well-todo local people but also representatives of foreign missions, businesses and embassies based in Ethiopia – a fact that we did not know when visiting the place for the first time. We arrived early on a Sunday morning, when there was not a soul near the volcano‘s lower slopes. After a vigorous, but pleasant, water rubdown, we were able to wash our linen and clothes in hot water, for the first time in two months, and leave it to dry out on the grass in the vicinity of the waterfall, never suspecting that it had the capacity to cause a small but serious international scandal in the jungle. A little tired after the massage and swimming pool we retreated in the shadow of forest and settled back there for a snooze.
Diplomats, business people and missionaries, who fashionably, arrived only at the hour of noon, found out that the access to the waterfall was obstructed by numerous men‘s clothes and underwear of unknown geographical or ethnic origin. They got angry and immediately called the guards and administration at this affront. Hearing some noise and commotion, we descended hurriedly to the waterfall to see that the cause of the hullabaloo was our clothes, towels, and linen, spread in the embrace of the sun near the cascade. Having quickly collected our well-washed linen from international public observation, we backed off to the safe shadow of leafy glades. Everyone was baffled by the event, but most of all the commissar–his set of wide red pants, emblazond with green dots of varying size, became the center of attention and attracted the majority of women attached to the diplomatic corps, and some of the business ladies drawn to the show. Bien connu embarras de richesses. Suddenly, we heard yet again wild cries and yells, of joy or fear, it was hard for us to distinguish, that made us return once more to the scene of our erstwhile embarrassment. This time the cause was a group of Colobus monkeys – a rare specimen of indigenous mountain monkeys who had made their appearance beside the waterfall. Colobus monkeys, remarkable for their long and precious wool, have suffered a lot from their curiosity and natural communicability. Trusting people, and seeking contact with them, they often end up as hunting trophies because of their striking and unusual white and black fur. Exotic carpets from their fur could be often seen exhibited as ―national‖ souvenirs at local markets. This particular Sunday morning, they too had decided to visit the geyser waterfall, communicate with people and boast of their wonderful fur. They came just in time to observe a small international gathering, and had to wait until people left. Unfortunately, they came a little late for the unofficial exhibition of underwear of Soviet military advisers and specialists of the early 80s of the XXth century. The Colobus monkeys also missed the main attraction of the exhibition – the military underwear set of a brigade commissar. Later in the afternoon, we set for the restaurant, which occupied a small part of the princess‘s residence. Not being able to afford a delicious substantial meal, since that appeared too expensive for our budget, we settled ourselves on the open terrace of the residence and ordered the best coffee. Enjoying its superb taste we admired the imperial view of savannah, on one side, and jungles and peaks on the other. The architect of the princess‘s residence, who decided to build it at this place, must have been a romantic in love with Nature and possessed of a rare perception of Zeitgeist*. The harmony present in the air here was palpable and enlightening. We had quite a nice repos that restored our strength, even though we stayed but a short time at the residence. Than we set to explore the magnificent garden just behind the residence; a little neglected, but still preserving an abundance of rare trees and flowering bushes, above which clouds of papillons charmantes – charming butterflies were soaring. Big and beautiful oranges bedecking the trees, to our great disappointment, turned out to be extremely sour – the result of absence of necessary gardening and cultivation. Major Belozerski was the first to discover that, and the sour taste of the oranges made him envy
his best friends – the artillery man and the engineer, who were away at the moment, having a good time in Addis-Ababa. He decided to bring a memorable present for them that would teach them not to leave their best friends alone in the jungle for a long time. They still remained in the capital with our monthly salaries, drinking cheap and cold beer in bars, and not thinking about us. Colonel Mungetu has long requested the advisers to train his young soldiers how to swim and cross rivers and lakes with expediency, in order to make them universally welltrained soldiers: the best in Africa. He told us about the plans of the Ministry of Defense to organize a big training center for parachutists here in Awasa, or in Arba Minch, where it would also be possible to train paratroopers from other African countries. At 3.00 p.m., despite the forty degrees midday heat (it is hottest after the noon hour when the high rays of the sun have had time to bake the land—for it is the land that heats the air, not the rays of the sun), when the only human desire is to nap or sleep in a safe shadow, two platoons of soldiers listened instead, to a short introductory course on land relating to how best to utilize the most efficacious means to negotiate water barriers. Then the members of the involuntary audience had to choose fitting means, according to their taste – tree trunks, tree branches, wooden planks, or two rafts, and started to swim and navigate slowly along the lakeshore. The adviser was giving instructions to them, and guiding their actions while standing in the water about twenty meters from the shore. I refused to enter the water, citing our doctors who did not recommend swimming in local lakes, and was shouting the translation loudly to the wandering soldiers. Never before had I happened to translate in such a situation: the advisor was standing in the lake almost completely underwater and crying the instructions over twenty meters to me firmly implanted on the lakeshore. I, in turn, was relaying the received and translated message even louder and further at a distance of about fifty meters over his head to the swimming parachutists. It was very droll and unusual. The soldiers were, nevertheless, very slowly navigating through quiet water, and it looked like they were going to fall asleep on their chosen mode of flotation right in the lake, fatigued by the immense heat. All of a sudden a huge spout of water sprang into the air only ten meters from them, and flew high above water‘s surface. Everyone was terrified and froze rigid for a moment, the feeling was that a powerful NATO submarine would surface soon, or at least a big whale. No, it was a huge hippo with a bright rosy neck (actually one of the most dangerous animals in all of Africa). She had covered quite a distance under water and decided, at that moment, to surface near us so as to inhale and replenish her lungs with fresh air. The parachutists instantly reacted – rowing with unimaginable speed to the shore, most of them leaving the ―expedient means‖ of flotation far behind. The hippo, though, paid no attention to our exercise, and slowly submerged again, only to surface again, five minutes later, near the right lakeshore, where his favorite grazing field, with young maize, was located. He must have got hungry in this heat and decided to have dinner earlier that day. Thanks to his great appetite, and consequent lack of interest in us, we successfully fulfilled the objective of our training exercise – the soldiers reached the shore breaking all records, and in what amounted to nearly a combat situation. The parachutists have also
understood the importance of having good swimming skills with or without the ―expedient means.‖ At last, the absent high-profile members of our group decided to descended from Entoto Mountain in Addis-Ababa and rejoin us at Awasa Lake. Though they brought with them long-awaited sugar, money, and letters from our families, we did not relinquish the idea to take revenge on them and implement our ruse – mas vale tarde que nunca. This was accomplished in a very simple way: we all knew well their political and diet philosophy: carpe diem*. During lunch we placed, in the most conspicuous place, the plate with the big and seductive oranges from the exotic garden of princess Zauditte, and praised their ―unusual‖ taste. With regret, we added, that these four remaining oranges were, sadly, not for them but we were reserving them as a special treat for ―later.‖ After lunch, the usual siesta time came, and we all settled down for a little sleep, leaving the oranges half covered with a towel on the table. The engineer and commander acted silently but synchronically. Having assured themselves that the rest of us were sound asleep, they masterfully grabbed an orange each, and quickly slipped out of the tent, to devour the trophy in a secure place. In a minute we heard a distinct and sincere curse and coughing and we could not help laughing. They seemed not to like the taste of the oranges, which meant that our ruse worked. Parva leves capiunt animas* . * You may drive out Nature with a pitchfork, but she will always come back ( Horace) * Food for thought * Great ship, great anxiety * Go without diner (French)_ * Air assault vehicle * A stroke of luck * Ripe wisdom (Latin) * To teach a fish how to swim * The spirit of the age * Enjoy the present day * Little minds are caught with trifles (Ovid)
Mit dem Wissen wachst der Zweifel*
Only after seven months of residing in the country and waiting in the endless queues, did the office of CMA let the brigade advisers settle into the apartments of the five story living complexes called ―the green house:‖ some ten years back, it seems, its walls were painted in a light green color, but not any more. The house was conveniently located in the center of Addis Ababa, near the hotel ―Africa‖, half a mile from the National Bank and the Ministry of Defense. Overflowing with an uncommon feeling of joy, perhaps, indeed, for the first time in several months, we hurried to move in. Hardly had we been there but several days, after reuniting with our families, that had just arrived from the SU, when the trumpet sounded importunately again, heralding the strict order of the Chief Adviser to leave immediately for Shashamene and join the brigade. The office of the CMA took a special pleasure in catching its advisers by surprise and bringing them frequent unpleasant news. - ―An international duty is calling you again; stand up and rise to match the importance of your mission,‖ - they habitually encouraged us, while sending us further away from the capital. Some of us got furious, others felt frustrated and took it as a deliberate mockery. The current situation did not require our presence in the brigade, nor did the brigade commander wish, in any high degree, to see us. He had agreed with his adviser to resume classes in October, when all three battalions finally would resettle in Shashamene. One battalion was on the move to Gamo Gofa province, planning to chase down local bandit gangs and to protect peasants‘ cattle and harvests from seasonal robbers, who appeared like mushrooms during the harvesting time. The battalion was returning from Illubabor province, where the parachutists staged a successful operation, surrounded and captured in the jungles about sixty Sudanese and local brigands and thieves. Local peasants complained that the bandits attacked them and confiscated their coffee, sorghum, and khat (a mildly narcotic leaf), and general house property. The bandits also started to raid gold mines in search of gold and, in the process, destroyed the state gold mines and mining equipment. Trapped in the skillfully prepared ambush in the jungle by the parachutists, near the town of Gore, nearly half of the intruders were forced to throw down their arms and give up: the other half was killed trying to escape the trap. The brigade lost one soldier and several men were injured. The other two battalions were on a relaxed schedule of training and conducted only marching and drill training after the survival course. Nobody expected us in the brigade at the beginning of September, a month ahead of the agreed schedule, but the office forced the group to go nevertheless. Cultivating the cense of international duty was a dominant aspect of the ―political work‖ and activities, entrusted to the Chief Political Department of the Military Mission in
With knowledge grows doubt (German)
Ethiopia: similar to other African countries who proclaimed their intention to build socialism. The motive was jointly convenient for both the top brass of the Soviet Army and the political leadership of the country. The former could justify any strict order, rules or restrictions introduced for advisers and specialists by the necessity to fulfill the ―duty‖; the latter made it a state policy along with international assistance, and tried to nurture and promulgate this convenient sentiment among people, justifying any action the political leaders wished to undertake. When this fashionable policy reached the level of military advisers and specialists, for them it meant a strict order: an adviser should always follow his local advisee, both in training, on the move, or in combat situations. Who invented such an instruction, that an adviser must not leave their Ethiopian counterpart alone for more than a week – the Chief Military Adviser, the Ministry of Defense or even higher, no one knew. But this unofficial order, never seen by anyone written on paper, was religiously observed, and severe punishment followed if it were not obeyed. The American advisers preferred to stay inside cities and towns and seldom received orders to travel beyond the city limits, but no one in our office thought it a proper example to follow. For the CMA it did not seem a weighty argument, and in his view his advisers must be better and go further than their American counterparts. The concept of international duty assumed principles he valued higher than the honor, health, and security of his subordinates. The opinion of the local side did not matter much for the CMA and Chief Commissar: they just disregarded it and followed their own way. For Ethiopian commanders it meant an extra burden and more responsibility – they had to provide advisers with lodging and ensure their protection. If they failed in the matter of the safety of their advisers, in most cases the punishment was a death penalty. A la mode, the adviser to the fourth parachute battalion commander received an order to leave immediately for Molibso: an order that completely ignored the request of the local side not to send any advisers there. Absolutely in vain, major Slowutski tried to prove to the Deputy Chief of Staff that it was politically incorrect and tactically wrong to send advisers to acting units to the North, when the local side was opposing it. ―You are damaging the international credence of your own state and the image of the Army by sending specialists to the front against the will of Ethiopian side, not to mention that you are risking their lives without any necessity,‖ the major argued. ―If this is your position and you continue talking like this we will quickly send you back home. Go and serve there, if you are unable to understand our foreign policy,‖ - threatened the Deputy chief of staff. – ―We will not have any problem finding your replacement.‖ ―Do not try to threaten me with going home. I will gladly go to be further from you and this office,‖ - retorted the major. But, instead, the Headquarters sent the major with the fourth parachute battalion to Molibso, where separatist formations had broken the government defenses again, and threatened to encircle two infantry divisions. The fourth parachute battalion was urgently
called to rescue the situation and the adviser had to join it. The parachutists appeared very surprised to see the adviser joining them in the trenches near Molibso, and were completely confused: why he was there? He did not have any right to participate in the operation nor to open fire. So what use was he? In the meantime, the life of military mission in Addis Ababa‘s garrison was in its fullest swing. In those rare moments, when we managed to steal some short time from frequent re-dislocations of brigade battalions throughout the young country, and join our families, our tired and exhausted minds were bombarded with unbelievable local news about numerous fancy accomplishments of the office heroes in the capital. Completely embarrassed, we got almost oblivious about our own assignments and concerns and became filled with awesome amazement intermixed with a feeling that you could hardly call respect. The Head of Personnel Department, who was also the best friend of the Chief Military Adviser, received the highest combat award any adviser could ever dream of in the alien country – the order of Combat Red Banner. He had fearfully spent two years in the central office and periodically paid brief, though much-publicized (in CMA‘s office circles), visits to divisions in the north and the east, accompanying the CMA on his personal plane. Being positioned in the ―near proximity‖ to the source of awards, at times he took personal responsibility for initiating new award procedures. Not quite that lucky, it appeared, were two lieutenant-colonels and one young captain, who were awarded with accusation in severe crime - amor sceleratus habendi* when they made a night tour of Addis Ababa‘s bars a la sourdine. They were immediately sent back to the USSR as a sort of punishment, having stayed in Ethiopia only two months. The same severe indictment faced a young and good-hearted soldier, who was guarding the entrance gates to the military mission. Under conditions of heavy tropical rain he let into the barracks a young Ethiopian girl, he felt pity for, who was soaked through and shivering from the cold, and he did his best to cheer her up and warm her. - Amor magnus doctor est*, - used to say the super vigilant security officers and prepared the documents sending all the innamorato home, and loading the personnel administrators with extra work to find replacements. The chief of their service, whom the best painter, singer, and driver of the airborne group, Volodya Nougaev metaphorically nicknamed ―hush-hush‖, was a candidate for a high combat award for saving a human‘s life. His widely known policy was to teach his subordinates by example rather than by precept. Driving south to the town Chencha in Gamo Gofa province, hurrying to observe the breathtaking views over the precipitous slopes that tumble down to the platinum waters of lake Abaya, and surrounded by the thick green forests of the fertile lowlands, he drove, after losing control of the car, into a deep roadside ditch at full speed, and found a big tropical tree right there,. The newly repaired and shining Toyota Cabriolet was smashed to pieces again.
Accursed love of possessing Love is a great teacher
―All of a sudden, a small bright-eyed Ethiopian boy appeared on the road, crying with prolific tears. I had to turn off the road trying to save him, but failed in my driving and found myself in the road ditch,‖ - was his justification of this accident. The Office of the Chief Military Adviser took a decision to find the providential and blessed boy, and sent an urgent secret message to the Southern Operational Command to start searching at once for the mislaid important witness. He was to testify about the daring deed and the courage of the high-ranking security officer before the authorities could award his savior with high government decoration. But the Southern Operational command could not find the boy in the thick jungles of Gamo Gofa province, and the question of the government award remained an elusive chimera for the hero-driver. The most arrogant, relaxed (idle?), and self-important among other expatriates were certain important representatives of the Embassy, who exercised control over all missions and activities. The Ambassador himself was a very close friend of the General Secretary (of the Communist Party of the USSR): a fact he made sure that every soul in the mission was well aware of on a regular basis, and felt himself overconfident in his post. For military advisers, it was strategically important to establish and maintain good relations with Embassy people – it made it possible to exchange military uniform, issued to them by the local side every six months, for scarce goods: vodka, herring, brown bread, or some sort of lucrative service. The luckiest in obtaining these, as usual, turned out to be the higher ranks whose wives were most often provided with some sort of employment. Only after Ambassador‘s telephone authorization, the CMA‘s wife received, at last, the position of a medical nurse at the Red Cross Hospital, the job she always wanted. It turned out that the grandson of the famous WW II marshal Zhoukov was the chief translator at the air defense group of advisers. He had graduated from the Moscow Institute of Military Translators and already risen to the rank of major. No one would have learned about this fact, but for his young and bold wife. He behaved rather modestly and confessed that he is really a relative to the marshal, only when officially asked during party meeting. I met him once when he was passing our green house with the group of air defense advisers. Modest looking, he had a solidly built stature, was about twenty-seven years of age. The major had a noticeable resemblance to his famous grandfather. His wife, a modern business lady, like all her entrepreneurial friends following the latest trends of the time, had been looking for some additional job for quite a long time already. But to get a vacancy you had to be able to beat the tough competition among the wives of top-ranking officers. ―What‘s the matter?‖ – She got indignant when the Red Cross Hospital administration refused to employ her because she did not have any medical education. ―Well, I can see now, that you are looking for a big trouble from Moscow. No vacancies here for a granddaughter of marshal Zhoukov!?‖ The hospital administration was afraid of big troubles from Moscow and
found her part-time secretarial work. CMA issued an unusual instruction prohibiting all missions to visit Langano lake and radon water in Sodor. It was a new turn of events as the situation in those places was actually quiet. Soon, however, the reason became evident. The Ambassador‘s personal driver, in the absence of his master, traveled to Langano Lake and, after a heavy dose of vodka, he swam too far from the lake shore and could not make it back to safety. The decision that immediately followed the accident compelled all Soviet missions stay inside the capital. Meanwhile, after the rainy season, the separatist formations, having conducted their own mobilization in Eritrea, restocked their units with new recruits, regrouped and launched a new offensive on the Molibso and Algena fronts. This time they were better armed: more than twenty tanks captured from government troops during the Kei Kokeb campaign were employed in the main direction of the attack. Separatist commanders used the tanks masterfully, and managed to penetrate government troops‘ defense lines at several points. This successful advance was further developed and consolidated by the companies of women machine gunners who followed the tank assault, and whom the government soldiers feared the most, and seldom were able to repulse. Trying to stop the fast advance of the enemy, the generals of the Northern operational command ordered the parachute battalion to occupy positions at the narrow passage between mountains, entrench, and not let the enemy through. For more than a month the parachute battalion was preventing the advance of separatist troops into the open valley – a strategic place from which it was possible to launch a large-scale offensive. This stubborn resistance delayed the advance, and the frustrated rebel commanders decided to finish the defenders by focusing most of their mortar and artillery fire power on their positions. After two days of intensive shelling, their troops, supported by three tanks started the decisive attack. The parachutists ran out of ammunition and needed reinforcement – nearly every third soldier was lost in the course of previous battles, but the Molibso front Ethiopian commanders were not in a great hurry to support their paratroopers. They did not belong to any of the acting infantry divisions, they came here to reinforce infantry divisions, and their destiny was a matter of indifference to division commanders. Soviet advisers tried to convince the local generals to send reinforcements to the battalion, or order them to retreat, but they ignored this advice and refused to take any action. By the end of the third day, the attacking forces had reached our battalion positions: in some places their attack terminated in hand-to-hand fighting. The battalion adviser, major Slowutski, observed the events from the 3d division command post, and he finally managed, jointly with other advisers, to make the division commander issue a command to retreat, in order to save the remnants of the battalion. But by that time it was post bellum auxilium*. Less than a company of men managed to withdraw, and they were unable to evacuate the heavily wounded, only those who could walk reached the new safe positions.
Assistance offered too late
The advisers watched with pain how enemy‘s soldiers were killing the heavily wounded parachutists, aiming in the open parts of their bodies, trying to preserve their airborne uniform – the possession of which became their special fanaberia. It was painful to listen to this drama, which the major told us when he returned from Molibso; more painful to realize that the young warriors we knew, trained and made friends with have passed away. The fourth bedjatulia voradge shaleka - parachute infantry battalion existed no more. Apathy and despair was driving out any desire to participate in the events of the war. In the course of a sudden night attack of separatists in Algena, a translator and two advisers – a lieutenant-colonel and a captain— were taken prisoner, together with the Ethiopian brigade‘s commanders. It was a newly formed infantry brigade, recently sent to Algena front, and the advisers had recently arrived from the USSR and had had no time to learn and adapt to the new situation. More experienced advisers usually avoided such crisis situations having learned to foresee the course of events and managing to flee in good time, taking with them the Ethiopian units‘ commanders. Having kept the advisers as prisoners for about three months, the separatists exchanged them for their combatants-in-arms, captured earlier by government forces. The office of the CMA did not trust such kinds of exchange, and got very suspicious. Moscow immediately sent its best security officer to interrogate the unexpectedly released prisoners. When I learned some details of the interrogation, I was in shock and became very frightened. The news stripped us of any remaining hope, and was killing any belief in the humane nature of the existing regime we were there to advise. The smart security colonel was methodically and scrupulously interrogating every ex-prisoner, doing each separately and for long hours. - ―How could you, Soviet officer, allow such situation to happen and be captured? Why did not you offer any resistance and fire back? How did you allow yourself to be taken prisoner and why, after all, did you not shoot yourself at the last moment, in order to avoid such a shame?!‖ In the interim, a new commander was assigned to the parachute brigade – lieutenant-colonel Groumme. Colonel Mungetu had left to go back to Gondar to continue his work in the organization of Commissariats. The new commander was from the Oromo people, as were almost a half of the National Army, second only in number to the dominant Amhara people. He was a reserved and modest officer who did not like to speak much. A real combat commander, who was several times severely injured in skirmishes with Somali troops and separatists, and who had recently left hospital after receiving a shoulder wound on the eastern front. He listened quietly with some interest to what the adviser had to say to him about the training that the brigade currently needed, and agreed to continue battalion training: tactics in defense and offence.
―Only let‘s wait three weeks,‖ he added. I have just assumed this new position and need some time to better understand the situation in the brigade.‖ So, all the advisers had three weeks to hang around in Shashamene, with the exception of Commissar, who agreed to deliver two lectures on the necessity of partypolitical work in the National Army. Somehow, to kill the time, we cut the high grass, thus clearing out a ground for playing volleyball, installed two poles and connected their summits with a rope, as the brigade did not happen to possess a volleyball net either. When there was no actual tropical downpour, we staged spectacular games, challenging battalion teams, made up of officers and soldiers. Colonel Groumme watched the game for the first time and instantly liked it. He, then, frequently joined the team of advisers, allowing his subordinates to take initiatives and make decisions individually, at the same time encouraging and reprimanding his soldiers for good or bad moves. Success attended both teams in turn. Our longer experience in the game was neutralized by the enthusiasm, vigor and hot temper of the young parachutists. Our best players - advisers to battalion commanders - scored the most, and the Commissar enjoyed his favorable role of the game inspirer—boosting the spirit of competition, and raising tension of the game by wild yelling and combat appeals. Such a pleasant time, naturally, could not last long. In three weeks the Brigade received an order to be put under the control of the Central Operational Command. A new grand offensive was underway in the Wollo and Tigray provinces along a wide sector of the front. Again, three mechanized infantry divisions badly needed the services of two parachute battalions. Again not in the form of air assault, but in the form of a long arduous march-and-search operation. On our way to the northern city of Makalle, where our brigade was eventually heading, we obtained a two-day stop in the capital, where I was unexpectedly invited to take part in the elections of a new Komsorg – leader of Komsomol (Soviet Youth Movement) members, which happened to be scheduled at the time. The election meeting opened with a presentation by the new Chief Translator, a major, recently arrived from Minsk (now in the Belarus Republic). Artem Blashov , the youngest communist in the mission, who was a rather successful career-maker and translator, nicknamed by his colleagues ―the man- presidium‖, was chairing the meeting. Mother Nature awarded Artem with an impressive appearance and the qualities of a natural leader. Having married a pretty and sincere student, fortuitously also the daughter of a well-positioned party functionary, the new Komsomol leader secured himself a fancy position at the Political Department. This position ensured him continuous invitations to all sorts of meetings and gatherings, both party and civic. He was not obligated very often to take the floor and deliver eloquent speeches stressing the importance of the current political situation, or demonstrate his oratorial skills. His presentable looks, single-mindedness, and businesslike posture took care of that and secured him a long-lasting place in the honorary presidium. Like a bouquet of flowers, an integral part of the decorations, placed in the most conspicuous place to accentuate the importance of political banquet or assembly—there he was. Always.
Many of the present translators, gathered at the meeting, had spent a year or more in the northern mountains, or in the eastern desert; had experienced one or several local diseases, and had had to spend months in the hospital to recover. After all these hardships they earned the privilege to serve in the capital, for which, incidentally, they still had to put up a real fight with ―the Office.‖ This important entitlement, protecting our health and rights, was achieved only after almost six years of tedious and strenuous struggle with political and administrative offices. Now we expected to elect a candidate who had been part of, and understood, this struggle. But, to our great surprise and bewilderment, the Party representative from the Embassy, who attended the elections of a new Komsomol leader, proposed instead the candidature of one Pavel Skakoff, who worked at the Political Department in the Office. Pavel had been in the country less than a month, and hardly anyone knew anything about him at all. His candidacy was very much against our desire and determination to elect a worthy and experienced person, tried and tested by mountain and desert: a new leader whom the translators could trust. Now came the turn of the Embassy boss to be surprised, when only three men – including him and Artem Blashov voted for his candidate: Pavel Skakoff. We, instead, proposed and elected by a majority vote our candidate – Valeriy Koshchiy, who spent a year and half in Algena, was ill with malaria and several times, and had been hospitalized with other tropical diseases. Everyone had been surprised with this rare gift of Pavel Skakoff. In about eight years after these events, Pavel proved once again his unique abilities - we learned that he was occupying an important post in Brussels representing economic interests of the country this time. At the end of the meeting the Chief translator reminded us again, that we ought to learn how to apply correctly and wisely our weapons. Only in extreme cases, and not like in the accident about which the Extraordinary and Penitentiary Ambassador was the first to learn. The incident happened with two of our colleagues – the first, not yet married, had lived and worked in the capital for two years already. Another had just arrived in Addis Ababa with his wife, and had to travel to the north with the advisers‘ group, servicing BM21 launchers. A typical love triangle emerged affected, no doubt in true Somerset Maugham traditions, by the hot and sultry conditions of the African climate: the husband goes north; meanwhile cavaliere servante* hurries to his dame to bring happiness and soothe her through her loss. Was ist das Leben ohne Liebesglanz*. It lasted for nearly half a year but, as they used to say in the old Rome: Nec amor nec tussis celatur *, and one day the jealous husband returned, in the best tradition of many a novel and film, a day earlier than he was expected. Having opened the door with his key, he saw the scene you may alltoo-easily imagine in this case, but he decided not to act according to established literary and dramatic practice—but not without considerable panache. Having detached the
* * *
A lady‘s man What is life without the light of love (Shiller) Neither love nor a cough can be hidden
grenade from his belt, he threw it in the bed without pulling out the ring. Caballero, even though without the northern experience and despite the disorienting effect of being in flagrante delecto, managed to throw the grenade clear out the window. Then, the husband pulled out his Makarov pistol and fired in the still warm pillow between the amant et amante . Caballero, ever resourceful under stress, found his own pistol and aiming it at the attacker admonished him to be reasonable and calm down. The angry husband stopped firing at least, then thought a little, and so wisdom took an upper hand over emotion and he hid his weapon. His wife received an adequate portion of beating on the cheek, again in true melodramatic style, and the tension slowly subsided. After musing over the situation for some time, they decided not to wash the dirty linen in the public - it could harm them all. But, unfortunately, the shooting woke up the Ethiopian sentry, who was safely and soundly sleeping in his cabin under the window. When he opened his eyes he saw the F-1 grenade still spinning on the floor of his cabin— though had the wit to notice it was not armed. He decided that the house with its precious stock of Soviet advisers must be under attack, and immediately telephoned to get help. His commanders raised the alarm and immediately informed the Soviet Embassy about the immediate threat of armed attack. In an hour a truck with soldiers arrived to support the sentry, and a little later people arrived from the Embassy. By the early morning the situation had become all-too-clear, and the Ambassador hurried to express his view, and embarrassment, to the Chief Military Adviser with respect to the behavior of his subordinates. The next week all three members of the love triangle boarded the plane home to resolve the next round on home turf. The dry season began. New adventures awaited the advisers to the parachute brigade, this time in the provinces of Wollo and Tigray, where the brigade was conducting offensive operations against infiltrations of separatist formations. The whole year the Central Operational Command had been getting ready for this crucial operation, and widely declared its intention ―once and for all, to clear the territory completely of enemy infiltrations and groupings‖. It reminded one of the preparations for a fox hunt, when crowds of hunters with dogs and horns are trying to trap and hunt down the poor animals, most of whom had hidden safely from the pursuers, long before, in their lairs. Mucho ruido, pocas nueces*. The CMA ordered captain Bystrov and major Nouzhni, the advisers of parachute battalions, after landing at Magdalena, to advance north with the brigade battalions, detect and pursue separatists in the area. The commander and other advisers would be taken by plane to Makalle, and would move south to meet their team, along with other infantry brigades, stationed at Makalle garrison. A forlorn hope. Less than two hundred kilometers northwest from Makalle lie the remnants of the ancient city of Axum. The city, which originated as the capital of a powerful state several centuries before the birth of Christ, conducted profitable trade with ancient Greece, Egypt and, even, Asia. With its fleets capable of reaching Ceylon (Sri
Much noise, few nuts
Lanka), Axum later became the most important power between the Roman and Persian Empires. Exactly here, as the historians believe, Ethiopia‘s remarkable civilization was born and nurtured. Modern visitors to the city are struck with great age of Axum‘s structural antiquities and the remarkable quality and advanced design that went into them, indicating a level of culture and technology virtually unsurpassed in the ancient world. Because of its wealth and artifacts, Axum has long been and continues to be a site of major historical and archeological interest. The ancient city‘s atmosphere of mystery and impenetrable secrets remains part of its charm and attraction for visitors. Historians, however, recall with fascination that Axum, the cradle of Ethiopian Christendom, also played an important role in the evolution of the world‘s other great monotheistic religion- Islam – the role that is best symbolized today in the easy tolerance that exists between Ethiopian Christians and Ethiopian Muslims, the latter constituting about forty percent of the country‘s population. According to Muslim belief, early in his career in AD 615, when the followers of Prophet Mohammed were persecuted in Arabia, he pointed towards the Axumite realm and said to his disciples: ―Yonder lies a country wherein no one is wronged: a land of righteousness. Depart thither; and remain until it pleaseth the Lord to open your way before you‖. Many of Prophet‘s followers, led by his cousin Jafar bin Abi Talib, therefore, made their way to Axum. Their persecutors soon followed them to the Axumite capital where they asked the then ruler, King Armah, to return them to Arabia. After talking to Jafar, the King refused to give away the refugees and declared: ―If you to offer me a mountain of gold I would not give up these people who have taken refuge with me‖. One of the refugees was Umm Habibah who later married the Prophet. King Armah himself performed the betrothal ceremony and gave Umm Habibah a dowry of 400 dinars of gold. On returning to Arabia she told Mohammed of the beauty of the great Ethiopian cathedral of St. Mary at Axum, and of the wonderful pictures on its walls. The Prophet never visited Axum, but was full of admiration for its people. On learning of Armah‘s death he prayed for him, and commanded his followers to ―leave the Abyssinians in peace‖ – a command that, in subsequent centuries, they did not always obey. Mohammed, like the early refugees, was deeply influenced by this Axumite interlude. It is significant that the Qoran contains a number of words borrowed from Ge‘ez, or old Ethiopic language, such as mashaf, a book, hawari, an apostle, and injil, revelation. A passionate desire intensified by a long-cherished interest in the place was making me restless and over agitated. I was very close to the fabled city, the image of which had been created in my mind by reading a long before, and now there was a chance to compare it to my imaginings after a long time. However, I could not go there alone, as this would be disobeying orders, and taking unforeseen though, I felt, somewhat justified, risks. Nothing was left for me to do but to admit the impossibility of approaching and seeing the place first-hand - the circumstances were not right yet, and I had to enjoy again the sharp and familiar taste of disappointment.