Krys Crawford came upon Travels in Africa while checking the internet for photos of Léopoldville (now Kinshasa). We exchanged emails and she turned out to have a fascinating tale of that turbulent town, seen from the special vantage point of a teenager. Here’s the first part of her story:
I was born in England in November 1944. My father, Andrew Guzowski, was a Polish submarine commander. Out at sea when Hitler invaded Poland, he went to England. There he and fellow Polish sailors fought the war under the auspices of the British in borrowed British sea vessels, while flying a skull & crossbones flag.
While based in Malta, he met and married my mother, a young concert pianist. In 1947 my father came to the U.S. and began to earn money to bring the family over. By 1950, my mother, two brothers and I finally arrived in New York from Malta. My father worked for Radio Free Europe, Voice of America, and finally USIS and the Foreign Service. We lived first in New York, then Arlington VA.
In 1962, just after my high school graduation (the only one in my family to have a complete American education through high school), my family boarded a plane for London with the eventual destination of Léopoldville, Congo. I had four brothers by then.
Leaving National (now Reagan) Airport on the Fourth of July, we saw fireworks as we ascended. It was pretty spectacular! After short stays in London and Brussels, we boarded a Sabena plane for Léopoldville, arriving on July 9. In those days, government employees were able to fly first class. The food was amazing, and we were given gifts of carry-on bags, scarves and perfume. It was lovely.
Arriving in Léopoldville was quite a surprise. It was early evening, getting quite dark. Being so close to the equator, the days and nights were fairly equal. The heaviness of the air and the odor of jungle rot permeated everything. Unable to see where we were driving was disconcerting. Arriving at our house was strange. The power was off, but we met our night watchman, a local Congolese standing guard with a machete! Our baggage had not arrived. We only had our clothes and whatever was in our carry-on luggage. Welcome to Africa! None of us slept too soundly that night.
Fortunately, the next day, fellow Americans arrived to help us adjust to our new life. The house was huge and beautiful, with large verandas, and a very large yard in Djelo Binza on the outskirts of the city. There was a fantastic view of the Congo River and also of the Stanley Monument. There were lush green forests nearby. We would often see women walking there, carrying large bowls of fruits and vegetables on their heads. They would come and sell to the homes around.
The sunsets from our balconies were spectacular! Every evening, just before sunset, thousands of bats would fly out from under the eaves of all the homes and darken the skies briefly. An amazing sight!
We had five servants: houseboy, cook, laundry boy, the aforementioned watchman, and a ‘mama’ for my baby brother. (One of them had filed his teeth to sharp points.) They spoke a mixture of Lingala and a type of ‘pigeon’ French. Communication for us was mostly a mixture of single words and hand gestures. With people to do all our menial work, we were left to enjoy and entertain ourselves. My mother’s life was suddenly much easier. Other than sunbathing, I was bored!
We arrived two years after the tumultuous birth of the independent Congo. A tour of Léo showed a once beautiful city slowly falling into disrepair. We saw abandoned cars, litter in the streets, stores with aisles of empty shelves, and restaurants adjusting meager menus to available local food. It did not look too hopeful to me! A lonely place for a seventeen-year-old girl who, a few months previous, had been planning to go to college and had left her friends and high school beau. When UN peacekeeping forces arrived shortly after we did and with the departure of most Belgians, local people seemed hopeful that a new government would eventually mean a better life.
Several days after arriving, I went to dinner with my parents at the local zoo. (There was a restaurant there!). There was a dawn-to-dusk curfew that applied to young people under eighteen. (Don’t ask for details. It was the Congo.) Because I was a probable curfew breaker, Congolese military police approached and asked for our passports. Since I was under age, these African policemen proposed to take me to the police station and detain me! My mother was frantic. My father tried madly to contact someone at the embassy. And I was petrified! The Congolese police insisted. We all went to the police station. Fortunately, someone from the embassy came to our rescue and all was well. But no more ‘out in public’ after dark for me. NOT EVER!
After we had been in the Congo about a month, one of the four Marines stationed at the Embassy made a request of my parents. He asked for permission to introduce me to a young colleague who wanted to meet me. So, after the aspirant young man met my parents and was ‘properly’ introduced, I was presented to L/Cpl Bob Crawford.
Our first date was at the Marine house. I quickly discovered that it was ‘party central’ for embassy employees. There was a fully stocked bar and also a place where we could see American movies. There I first saw Splendor in the Grass, Breakfast at Tiffany’s and West Side Story, movies on huge reels projected onto a large white sheet.
Most of the time Bob and I spent together was walking around Léo, going to little restaurants, swimming at a local pool, taking the ferry to Brazzaville, and generally exploring our new world. Since young Americans in the 18 to 21 range were rare in Léo, we expanded our horizons and had a small group of friends of various nationalities. Thankfully! They all added to the richness of our experience.
As we got to know each other, Bob became my best friend and eventually my husband – as he still is to this day.
Next post: Krys reflects on the lasting benefits of exposure to Africa.