Fred Hunter returned to the States after four years of living in Nairobi. Had he been too long in Africa? Here’s why he wondered:
In the early 1960s when I served as a USIS officer in the Congo, showing films to village audiences in the bush, a tale was told to explain primitive peoples. It concerned an expatriate information team trying to spread the gospel of insect control.
The team propounded a simple message: “Get rid of mosquitoes!” Seeking to use the most convincing possible communication means, team members showed films to barefoot, late-evening audiences in remote clearings in the bush. The films explained why mosquitoes were to be taken seriously. To emphasize the point, they included gigantic, screen-filling close-ups of the insects.
Such close-ups, it was assumed, would drive the message home. Even primitive peoples would begin to glimpse why the information teams showed such concern about mosquitoes – and cockroaches, ticks and tsetse flies.
“Of course, you must do something about such mosquitoes,” primitive audience members would compassionately counsel team members after seeing the films. “We would feel just as you do,” they would add with dignity, “if our mosquitoes were as large as those you have brought for us to see. Fortunately, ours are very small. They do not cause us any great worry.”
Back in Léopoldville – as the capital Kinshasa was called then – we expatriates would tell and retell such tales. “Really, how quaint they are!” the more charitable of us would say. “No wonder they never invented the wheel.”
We would shake our heads and laugh, sitting in air-conditioned, comfortably furnished homes or standing on the terraces of high-rise apartments overlooking a city that was in Africa but not really of it – just as our plans for modernization were also in Africa, but only to a small extent of it.
Now that I am removed from the cultural egocentricity and well-intentioned technological arrogance of that era, I am certain that Africans sat outside huts, deep in the bush, squealing with mounting, high-pitched laughter at the thought of white expatriates who had managed things so badly that their mosquitoes grew large enough to crawl into bed with them. Perhaps they concocted proverbs about the white man’s mosquitoes and added them to the lore of animal behavior they use to express ideas indirectly.
Near the end of my stint as The Monitor’s Africa correspondent, the time came for me to return on a hurried trip back to the States. A play of mine – The Hemingway Play – written before I joined The Monitor (and generously sent around by my twin brother) had been selected for presentation at the Eugene O’Neill Playwrights Conference. The ten or so playwrights involved assembled for a pre-conference weekend in May in Waterford, Connecticut, and I needed to be with them. Aspirant playwrights vied for a chance to attend the conference and watch their works performed as staged-readings by professional actors. New father or not, it was important enough for me to pay my own way to Connecticut from Nairobi.
Before the conference took place, I stopped in Boston. In the morning before beginning the day’s appointments I turned on the television set, an instrument whose knobs I found somewhat baffling (despite earlier experience with such sets). We did not have television in Nairobi.
I listened to someone reading the news. Then a cheery voice told me: “With summer almost here, you’ll want to be prepared. Here’s something for you!”
An air-conditioning commercial began. Standing beside a plaque bearing the product’s name, an announcer warned me against the dreadful summer heat of Massachusetts. He stressed: “You’re going to want the very best in air-conditioning!”
The image on the screen suddenly changed. Now it showed the same announcer standing beside an air-conditioner the size of a small house. Astonished, I stared at the screen. “Who’d buy something as big as that?” I asked myself. “Where would you put it?” Then, to my greater astonishment, the announcer opened a door in the side of the unit and – wow! – he jumped inside it. I furrowed my brow and peered at the set.
Finally it occurred to me that the air-conditioner shown on the screen was not life-size. It was a mock-up. The announcer was playing Tom Thumb. He was running about inside an air-conditioner that actually stood less than two feet high. When the announcer popped back out of the machine, this realization was confirmed. He almost landed on top of a horse-sized cat cooling itself before the unit.
Suddenly I was assailed by cultural embarrassment. I had lived in Africa for four years and had lost the habit of watching television. When I went to the conference, hoping that coming from Africa would endow me with cachet, could I hide the extent to which I was, in fact, a cultural primitive? I was certain that none of the other playwrights would have misunderstood the language, the techniques and the lifestyle of that commercial. Could I hide the fact that I returned to America thinking African?
Travels in Africa is going on hiatus. We’ve offered weekly posts for two years. Now it’s time to go traveling. TIA will return in November. The newspapering is long past. Now we will be in Africa as tourists. See you then!
Btw, books as Christmas gifts? Consider JOSS The Ambassador’s Wife or ABE AND MOLLY: The Lincoln Courtship. Look them over at www.FredericHunter.com.