Fred and Donanne Hunter returned to Africa on July 20, 1969, the night Americans landed on the moon. They were together this time. Formerly a USIS officer in the Congo, Fred was arriving as the Africa Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor. Donanne had finished her secondary education in South Africa as the daughter of the American Consul in Port Elizabeth. Their return was the first time either had ventured into West Africa. Here’s an account of their reactions:
Out over the Atlantic Ocean the plane moved through the night sky in the light of a brilliant moon, approaching the coast of Africa. Four years earlier I had flown out of Nairobi after two years in the Congo, unsure if I would ever return to the continent. Now, surprisingly, I was returning as a tyro foreign correspondent, emphasis on the tyro.
The pilot announced our descent into Dakar. Then he added: “We have great news! Americans have just landed on the moon!” Donanne and I joined the spontaneous applause. As Americans we could not help feeling proud.
As we crossed the tarmac, the moon shone above us, glowing white in the shape of a melon slice. What were the men up there doing? How did they feel?
“Ce soir,” I told the driver who taxied us to the airport hotel, “il y a des hommes sur la lune.” I pointed to the moon above us. “Vous en avez entendu?”
“Oui, m’sieur,” he answered, humoring me. “Vous voulez engager mon taxi pour demain? Je suis à votre disposition.” But we declined his offer to hire his taxi the next day.
From the balcony of our hotel room the next morning we watched sun-sparkled Atlantic rollers lapping at the shore of Africa. But even as they sent balmy air and salty pungency toward us, I was feeling frantic pangs of inadequacy. It was my first day as an Africa Correspondent in Africa. I had perhaps had ideas of becoming a latter day Ibn Batutta, that great Muslim traveler, a Maghreb Berber, who had traveled the Mediterranean world and even as far as China in the 14th century while Europe still lay in the long sleep of the Middle Ages. I had learned about him while taking a masters degree in African Studies at UCLA. Now, big foreign correspondent, I did not have the slightest idea of how to go about scratching up some copy.
I felt trapped in the luxury beach hotel out by the airport. It seemed impossible to chase down any news there. The hotel news kiosk was inexplicably closed. The American Embassy had declared a holiday. The room clerk had not listened to his radio that morning and could tell me nothing. I craned my body far out over the balcony of our room, trying to catch breeze-blown bits of news in French from a radio playing somewhere below us.
I asked myself: What am I doing in this job?
Nothing seemed to work in Africa. That, of course, was its charm! And Donanne, daughter of Foreign Service people, loved that aspect of it. But it was hardly something an Africa Correspondent could report.
We took an ancient bus into Dakar. It stopped often. Out at the airport there had been plenty of seats, but soon it grew crowded. The passengers laughed and yakked; babies cried. Passengers pressed against one another. No one seemed to respect that which Americans hold so dear: private space. Packing the aisle, passengers began to block the flow of air from the windows. The temperature rose in the bus; the heat released the odors of humanity.
The bus took us through Ouakam, a shantytown of wood and metal scrap, a home to peasants seeking urban survival and a better life, people who had fled servitude to a drought-plagued land. It was a place of the odors of decaying garbage, of cook fires and sweating bodies. Ouakam overwhelmed me: with its laughter, its color, with its communality, its vitality, its open-air sociability – and with its crowding, poverty and dirtiness. The smells, the heat, the closeness in the bus: all these afflicted me. Overload shut down my senses. My head swam. What, I wondered, was wrong with me? I had come to report on Africa and I was woozy with culture shock. Meanwhile, more like Ibn Batutta than I was Donanne grinned, drinking in the sensations, loving them.
Leaving the bus at last, we walked around the center of Dakar, a city of tall buildings and noisy hubbub. Despite the veneer of French culture from its colonial past, it pulsated with Africanness. I was glad to witness that again. My head stopped swirling. I did some man-in-the-street interviews, got people’s reactions to a man being on the moon. We made arrangements to move the next day to a hotel in the center of town.
Later, standing again on the balcony of our room, I felt better about Africa, better about me. Below me I watched a woman walking in the hotel garden. She moved in clouds of cloth, within a yellow-patterned fabric wrapped about her waist. Above that a pink bodice floated. And above that a blue bandanna of satiny sheen, elaborately tied, ensconced her head. Slowly, sinuously, the woman drifted along, moving with that matter-of-fact African grace.
Observing her, I realized that she was walking into the copy of the first Africa-datelined story I would write. She would lead my American readers across the long bridge they would have to cross to understand who she was. It was that long span from America’s ready acceptance of modern technology and astronauts on the moon into traditional Africa where the skills set involved living in a city on nothing a day and finding joy in it, where news of the moon landing was being met with skepticism.
“Allah will not allow men to walk on the moon,” people had told me in Dakar. “The moon is sacred. Allah will place in the sky a facsimile of the moon. It will deceive the Americans.”
They were saying: “The moon is hot. It will burn up any men who try to land on it.”
They were saying, “These American astronauts are demons! They deny the existence of God!” They were saying, “Men on the moon? It is a white man’s lie. Haven’t they always lied to us?”
I wrote the piece and filed it. That made me a working correspondent.
And looking at the moon, I couldn’t help thinking: Wouldn’t Ibn Batutta have loved to take that trip!
Next post: Our first house in Kenya. Donanne describes a colonial kitchen.