Sometimes travels in Africa involve visitors coming to you – even in remote Coquilhatville in the northwestern Congo. Often you’re surprised at who turns up. Three examples in the next two posts:
The first visitors appeared while I was still living at the Hotel Ancion. Into the Oasis restaurant dining room walked four men, obviously American: black trousers, black shoes, white sox. Hmm. The waiter told me they’d been drinking whiskey in the bar. That ruled out missionaries.
I went over to say hello. They were four US Air Force men, two officers, two EMs, crewing General Mobutu’s plane. [This was months before Mobutu became the Congo’s President.] When Mobutu had visited President Kennedy, he asked for a private plane. The US offered him a DC-3. Naturally he wanted something grander, but those could not land on short airstrips. The Congo lacked pilots and crew. So Uncle Sam provided two sets. First time such a thing had ever been done, said the crew, still a bit overwhelmed by the assignment.
While the plane itself was worth about $100,000, the interior had been remodeled for almost twice that much. I saw it the next day. The interior was sumptuous and loaded down with gifts: elephant tusks, hides, sacks of flour, boa constrictor skins.
That day I helped the crew arrange a black market exchange of dollars for Congolese francs. The exchange rate in Coq was 400 Congolese francs per dollar in check form. (In Léo 365 to 1 for cash, 350 to 1 for check; 280 to 1 in Brazzaville dealing through a bank.) I’d never changed money in Coq, but presented myself and the major at the back of a Portuguese store where the family lived. As the money and check crossed hands, we talked about the noonday heat. The merchant said it was the hottest spell he’d experienced in 18 years in the Equateur. He sat unshaven in an undershirt, beads of sweat glinting in the light on his arms.
Once refueled with bush-cheap Congolese francs the major and his pals flew off in what may have been the world’s best decorated DC-3, carrying uniquely African cargo. I returned to the tranquility of trying to open what may have been the world’s least likely American Cultural Center.
The next visit occurred weeks later after Tom Madison arrived in Coq. Tom was not happy with being rushed – on direct transfer from Manila – to a remote Congo post, staffed by the officer who’d opened it (me) and two Congolese employees, a librarian and a films man. Eager for his wife to arrive – she was finishing a university degree in the Philippines – Tom could not see how this assignment advanced his career. He grumbled about Coq. Why had the Agency decided that Congo branch posts required two officers?
Two USIS officers in Coq meant that I could travel into the bush. I went off to show movies. During my absence the American Ambassador to the Central African Republic, posted in Bangui north of us, had come through Coq. He had flown in en route to Léopoldville with his wife, the senior USIS man and his wife; there they would attend regional meetings to confer with G. Mennen (Soapy) Williams, the US Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs. A storm forced them to spend the night at Coq. A Congolese Sureté official at the Coq airport had cited Ambassador Tony Ross over some infraction.
At the Hotel Ancion they had happened on Madison who was living there while the house we’d found for him and his wife was made ready. Madison heard about the disagreement at the airport. Ross shrugged it off as minor. Probably it was minor. That was how colonial officials treated Africans in the old days. African officials now benefited from the example. Tom needed to show that he had taken command in Coq. So, despite his lack of experience with Africans, he rushed off to Governor Engulu to demand both a written apology from him and a public one from the Sureté official. Relating the story to me, Tom seemed pleased with himself. I wondered if humiliating an official and demanding a favor from the Governor advanced our program goals. But I said nothing. Tom seemed to want people in Léo to know that he was on top of things in his new post.
Then suddenly Ambassador Ross, PAO Welch and their wives were back in Coq, bushed from a heavy schedule of meetings and parties in Léo. Once more bad weather forced them to spend the night. Only this time the Ancion was full. An entourage of French diplomats had bought out the hotel.
Where could the Ross party stay? Chez moi! Where else?
There was an available upstairs bedroom in the house I had rented from Thérèse and Jules André. The Ambassador and his wife could stay there while the Welches slept in the living room. The living room offered air-conditioning; the bedroom did not. The Ambassador wanted air-conditioning. So as not to force the Welches upstairs (where I slept happily every night), the Ambassador decided they would all sleep, barracks style, in the living room. I borrowed three beds and enough sheets from the Disciples of Christ Congo Mission. We wrestled an extra bed down from upstairs.
We went to dinner at the Hacienda Restaurant, the town’s only eatery now that the Oasis had closed. The host charmed us, impressed at feeding an Ambassador. Quite graciously Mrs. Ross told him, “Every town has its charms.” A sentiment made true for an evening by diplomatic visitors from Bangui.
Next post: The Big USIS Boss from Washington arrives at the center and Fred and Tom Madison cannot refrain from speaking their minds, not a good idea to a Boss who has materialized out of the sky.