Travels in Africa

Fred and Donanne Hunter

Author: donanne (page 2 of 9)

TRAVELS IN AFRICA: BURKINA FASO, The Burkinabe woman in Ouagadougou, 1970

Perhaps it’s appropriate on our travels in Africa to pause for a moment to meet some of the people. Here’s an African I keep thinking about:

Sometimes a man catches sight of a woman, maybe only fleetingly, just a shared glance, not even a word exchanged. And the woman makes a captive of him. Months, even years go by, then unbidden she’s moving around inside his head. She’ll tiptoe through his memory. She becomes a kind of friend. He finds that he’s rather pleased when he stumbles upon her in his thoughts.

For a long time I did not know that such women exist for some men. If I had, I would never have thought one could exist for me. I would never have expected to spot her in Ouagadougou, the strange-sounding capital city of the strange-sounding country of Burkina Faso in the strange-sounding region of the Sahel. Certainly not there!

But I did. The country was called Upper Volta then and having stumbled on the entry in my daily diary for August 4, 1970, I see that I was on my way to interview a local politician called Joseph Ki-Zerbo at his home. He ate his lunch while I questioned him. The woman did not rate a mention in my diary. But while I have little recollection of Ki-Zerbo, my mind’s eye still has an image of her. It’s not that she excited my virility. She struck something different – and awakened in me a sense of what it was to be African.

I was in a downtown street. Not the main street because there were no cars. I was walking in the center of it. Sweating probably because it was shortly after noon and the sun was glaring overhead. All around me vibrated the cacophony of African life. Kids were playing. Trucks were honking. The air carried the laughter of market women.

Then something magical happened. Ahead of me I noticed a large, tall, amply rounded Ouaga woman dressed in a bodice and cloth. She wore a pink, diaphanous headcloth of some faux silk material, tied in a manner that was all the mode in town just then. The pink was perfect against the lustrous dark-chocolate of her skin and inside an over-garment of the same material she floated along. She was barefoot in sandals and she really did float. The heat did not oppress her even though I noticed on her brow beads of perspiration catching the light. Her hands waved delicately a little out from her sides.

As I drew parallel to her, I caught a sweet, womanly scent – not at all what I would have expected in that heat. She glanced at me. I nodded. She smiled. Smiled in a way that was like a shining in her face. She was a large, sweating woman, walking in the noontime sun. But she moved with absolute grace. She was serene; she was beautiful. She knew who she was. She was happy to be that person and was happy to have someone friendly walking beside her.

I think of her now and then. So many Americans want to be somebody else: a fashion model, a movie star, a CEO. This woman was happy to be who she was. Much to my surprise I’ll find her sometimes walking with me in the road. Whenever I nod at her, she smiles.

Burkinabe girl at a village outside Ouagadougou

Next post: Visiting an anthropologist in rural Kenya

This woman appears in Fred’s story “Doctor Kleckner” in the collection Africa, Africa! Fifteen Stories. Check out Africa, Africa! at

Fred’s novel “Joss The Ambassador’s Wife” has just been published!

A romantic mystery novel by Frederic Hunter
[Order it at in paper or e-book]

Synopsis: An American journalist based in South Africa, Tom Craig, journeys to the small country of Malawi, ostensibly to cover a string of murders purportedly committed by a leopard. In fact, he wants to reconnect with the newly appointed American ambassador’s wife, Jocelyn (Joss) Hazen. He had a passionate affair with her eight years before and has never quite gotten over it. That’s something he does not bother to mention to Maggie, a free-lance pilot with whom he’s living in Johannesburg.
What’s so special about Joss? Here’s how Tom describes her. “If Jocelyn is consummately beautiful, she is also consummately perverse, the most difficult, the most damnably vexing woman I have ever met. But she gets away with it.”
It will not be easy to be alone with Joss in a place where an American ambassador’s wife is a celebrity. Especially when, having suffered an accident, she’s in a fragile state. When they meet at a party, Tom realizes she doesn’t recognize him. But hold on! Is she really Joss? Or an impostor who resembles her?
Tom has to know. And if she’s an impostor, what happened to Joss?

Attention Santa Barbarans:
Fred will do a book reading and signing at Chaucer’s Bookstore Thursday, April 26, at 7:00 pm. Save the date!

Free sample complete Chapter One

Joss: The Ambassador’s Wife
by Frederic Hunter

Nebbadoon Press
Santa Barbara

© 2012 Frederic Hunter


Malawi is green and unspeakably beautiful. Its small mountains rise unexpectedly off the plains. Its sunsets grab the breath right out of your lungs. Its length stretches more than five hundred miles in the deep trough of Africa’s Rift Valley, but at no point is it more than one hundred miles wide. The country nestles against a long, narrow body of water, the southernmost of the Rift Valley lakes, achingly lovely, known in colonial times as Lake Nyasa, but more commonly now as Lake Malawi. On maps the country and the lake look like longtime lovers snuggling spoons in an embrace that never ends.

If that image seems tender, what is happening right now in Malawi is not: a string of twenty-plus murders. They will intrigue readers of mine in California who do not even know that Malawi exists. Foreign correspondents like to believe that they do serious journalism. But they know that a good murder story garners more readers than reports of diplomatic negotiations or summit meetings. And this murder story is a good one because the murders are committed by a leopard. Yes, a leopard. Or perhaps a leopard-man. That ambiguity makes the story worth a visit, especially since, afterwards, I am headed north to Kenya to do the wildlife situationers that my editors ask for every year or so.

A story that will fascinate readers is not my only reason for going to Malawi. Another reason is a woman: Jocelyn—known to me as Joss—the wife of the American ambassador.

On the flight up to Blantyre, Malawi’s commercial hub, I spend almost the entire trip thinking about Joss. I take out photos I’ve slipped into an envelope in my typewriter case. There is one, taken two years before, of the two of us standing before a bookstall on the Left Bank of the Seine. It was a turbulent time in Paris—students were rioting—and not only there. America appeared to be tearing itself apart. Opposition to the Vietnam War had caused Lyndon Johnson to declare that he would not run for re-election. Assassins had killed both Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy. But that was not our business. We were two people who wanted to shut out the world and be together. Joss succeeded in concocting some reason for a trip away from her family and we spent a week together, moving inside a cocoon of passionate self-absorption. That trip caused me trouble with my editors at the Big Guy—I have always thought of my paper as the Big Guy in California—because they did not want me on vacation just then and I went anyway. Looking at the photos—there were others of us when we were first together in East Africa—I have no regrets, even if we ended that week in Paris agreeing never to meet again.

I’ve also brought the latest of the family photos that Joss and Max send out at Christmas. Joss has scissored Max out of the pictures and so I see only her and Pepper, their daughter. These photos arrive folded into a note that never says more than “Miss you—Merry Christmas!” And if Joss seems never to change, Pepper, who looks to be a great, bright, grinning kid, gets a little bigger each year.

Putting the photos away, I wonder how I go about contacting Joss once I arrive in Blantyre. I muse about simply calling the ambassador’s residence. In my ruminatings, Joss answers the phone. The minute I hear her voice, I break into smiles. “Joss,” I say, “is that you?”

In my mind’s eye I see her shiny dark hair falling across the earpiece of the phone and her lips at the mouthpiece. She says, “Tommy! You in town?”

“When can I see you?”

“Darling, when we last said goodbye, you claimed you’d never—”

“A man can change his mind. I have to see you.”

“I heard you were living with someone in Joburg. Not burning the candle at both ends, are you?”

“I hear you’re living with an ambassador. Pretty pleased with yourself, huh?”

“You at the Mount Soche?” she asks. “I could probably slip away for an afternoon.”

So we set up something for tomorrow afternoon—which means a couple of hours of the best lovemaking I’ve ever had—and I think about how beautiful every part of her is. But she rings off; someone is coming who may overhear us. Part of the pleasure of this game we play is that it has to be clandestine, furtive, our passion a secret we share.

Once this fantasy passes, I know our meeting can be nothing so simple. Joss is now the newly arrived American ambassador’s wife. Everywhere she goes in Blantyre, her identity will be known. No slipping into a hotel for an afternoon of love. I wonder if this predicament amuses Maxwell Hazen. Joss, so it is said, has had many lovers. As has Max. They make each other aware of these indiscretions. Private misbehavior seems to provide them a way to keep in touch. Joss has told me that she and Max argue ferociously about these affairs. The unique aspect of our involvement, Joss assures me, is that our off-and-on affair is a secret we’ve kept to ourselves. Joss swears she has let Max know nothing about it. That means we have a singular attachment, a special love. Despite my journalist’s skepticism, I hope this is true. But in a place like Blantyre, the American ambassador and his wife have a kind of celebrity status. I wonder how they’re bearing the scrutiny. It will be a matter of crucial importance to Max, now that he has achieved an ambassadorship, that their reputations not be tarnished. So Joss cannot come to the hotel to see me. I’ll have to find some way to gain access to the residence.

By great good luck I have a pal in Malawi to help me with tips and contacts. The first thing I do, once I’ve rented a Land Cruiser at the airport and checked into the Mount Soche Hotel, is to seek out a run-down section of Blantyre. Here the Land Cruiser jounces over potholes. Urchins and bystanders watch the vehicle pass, the urchins wondering if they will ever ride in so fine a chariot. I park on a commercial street full of shops run by East Asians, where buildings, some wood, some stucco, badly need paint. There are decaying office blocks with dark hallways and the stairwells smelling always of piss and rooms with dirty windows sparsely furnished where little work is done. I lock the vehicle and check all the doors. I greet the urchins, some who hang back, others who approach me for handouts, and give two of the biggest of them coins and instructions to keep my property safe. Then I head toward a storefront over which hangs a sign: BLANTYRE STAR Your Eye on Malawi – Subscribe Today.

The dimly lit newsroom contains half a dozen desks. Most are piled with newspapers. There are two phones and three ancient typewriters. Two men work at layout sheets. They wave in greeting as I enter. I make my way to the dark back of the room where an African sits at a stool pulled up to a desk in a slouch I know well. He hunts-and-pecks at a standard-model typewriter. I sneak up and cork him on the shoulder. “All lies!” I tell him.

He turns to look at me, then brings a hand up to protect his eyes. “Oh, the whiteness! The whiteness! It hurts my eyes to look at you, my friend.” He stands to cork me with the hand not shielding his eyes and we clasp our right hands, grab each other’s thumbs and give one another friendly shoves.

This man is Bakili with whom I worked for a time on Nairobi’s Daily Nation—and for African wages. In those days Bakili hoped to parlay his presence in Nairobi into some kind of overseas training in America, Britain, or even Germany. We often ate dinner together—there was a curry place called the Three Bells where the food was good and cheap—and Bakili would try out on me his stratagems for going overseas. As a young man with a job and some money, Bakili was a magnet for girls. He introduced me to those who were daring enough to be seen with an American paleface. We would go on excursions in a beat-up Volkswagen bug I rented from a place called Odd Jobs in Muindi Mbingu Street. We took girls out to watch animals at the Nairobi Game Park and up to Lake Nakuru to see the flamingoes, to visit Karen Blixen’s house at Ngong, to watch the planes take off and land at Embakasi. One weekend we rented a small house in Mombasa and took two nurses-in-training down to the Indian Ocean coast. Since neither girl wanted to be stuck all weekend with the white guy, in the middle of the night they switched beds. Bakili and I had three joyful nights going to bed holding onto one nurse and waking up holding onto the other.

Alas! all of Bakili’s overseas plans failed. Eventually his father called him home, wanting him present at Malawi’s independence celebrations. In addition, he announced it was time for Bakili to marry and perpetuate the clan. Furthermore, his father said, he had found just the woman for him. So Bakili left Nairobi. He married the woman his father had chosen. She lives up-country—there is a lot of up-country in Malawi—tending his farm and raising their two children while he holds down a money-economy job in Blantyre.

Bakili gazes at me and shakes his head. “You hear there’s a leopard-man on the loose,” he accuses, “and you run up here to write that we are savages.”

“But you are savages!” I tell him. “To show you what a generous albino I am, I’ll buy you dinner.”

“To pick my brain!”

“That takes ten seconds.”

I take him out for a quick beer and ask his assessment of the stories I may pursue. Bakili reports on President Hastings Kamuzu Banda’s plottings to become president for life and hints that the leopard-man killings are a reaction to his putting a stranglehold on access to the presidency. “This,” he says, “is not the way the so-called democratic forms we inherited from the Brits are supposed to work.”

When I urge him to tell me more, he laughs. “Would I deprive you of the opportunity to ply your trade, to chat up bigwigs in interviews? Not a chance of it.” He does, however, give me the name of an African anthropologist who teaches at the country’s best secondary school. Despite the risk in talking to me, this man may be able to provide an anthropological perspective on the leopard-man killings.

When I ask about possible American government aid to the President’s project to move the national capital from the south to Lilongwe in the Central Province, Bakili, who is no admirer of Banda, claims a national capital at Lilongwe is simply the latest scheme to put money into the old man’s pockets. He checks to see if anyone overhears our conversation. Even when no one seems to, he lowers his voice when he says the word “Kamuzu.”

I ask if the new American ambassador is pushing the development scheme. Bakili’s info—from what sources I have no idea—is that the American dollars are designed to wean Malawi from the orbit of South Africa’s apartheid regime while keeping it firmly anti-communist. “My hunch,” he says, “is that American capital is positioning itself to take over the South African mines if there’s a race war down there.”

Then he grins at me. “Feed me dinner some other night,” he says. “There’s a party tonight at my place. Want a girl while you’re here?”

“I might if your taste in women were bett—”

“My taste in women,” he interrupts, “is superb.” When I shake my head at this, he says, “I have a town wife now as well as the one up-country. You’ll see my taste in women.”

“Insatiable!” I exclaim. “That’s what your taste in women is.” We laugh together and he tells me he has to get back. Believe it or not, he’s on deadline. He writes down the name of the anthropologist and his address on a sheet in the notebook he always carries, tears it out and gives it to me.

I ask him, “How’s the new American ambassador?”

“Manipulates the”—he lowers his voice—“dictator like a puppet.” He adds in a normal tone, “He doesn’t talk to folks like me.”

“And his wife,” I ask. “What’s she like?”

“They keep her under wraps. The kid, too. They think we’ll contaminate them.” He grins and shoves me in the chest. “I am ready to party! See you tonight! Bring a bottle.”

If anyone might know that I’ve had a relationship with the new American ambassador’s wife, it would be Bakili. Because I met Joss on the terrace of Nairobi’s Norfolk Hotel, a place where we used to drink at night after work. But she walked into my life after Bakili returned to Malawi.

The Norfolk is a famous hostlery from the colonial days, just across the road from what is now the University of Nairobi. Wild tales hold that colonials used to ride their horses onto the bar terrace and even into the dining room. But when I was at the Daily Nation, the clientele was generally young professionals, maybe some students and professors and the predictable clusters of tourists. That particular night in 1962, eight years ago, we were drinking and munching the hamburgers that were necessary to lure tourists. We were a mixed group of riff-raff: some African students, playing at doing homework, two of us from the Nation and a couple of Brits, born in Kenya, one bearded, the clean-shaven one with an African girlfriend. Out of nowhere a slim young woman in a tee shirt and shorts, backpack and hiking boots, entered the terrace from the road. She stood looking around. Her black hair was cut short then and she wore no make-up, not even lipstick. She glanced around the terrace, swung the pack off her back and, grabbing it, walked over to us. “Mind if I join you?” she asked. “You’re the only crowd out here who looks as disreputable as I do.”

“What do you say, chaps?” asked the bearded Brit. “Do we really look as disreputable as all that?” But he quickly stood—as did I and the other Kenya-born Brit—because of course we wanted this plainly beautiful woman to glorify our table. We opened up space and reached for chairs. Since I was closest to her, I took the backpack, grabbed her wrist and ushered her into a chair beside me.

“Glad to have you join us,” I told her. “I’m Tom.”

She said, “You’re an American. I can hear it in your voice.”

“I am,” I said. “But I’ve been here long enough to feel Kenyan.”

She put her hand on my arm and smiled and leaned forward to kiss my cheek. The others applauded. “Kiss us all, lassie!” cried the bearded Brit.

“She only kisses fellow-countrymen,” I shouted as we sat down. I signaled a waiter and ordered a beer and a burger for her.

She leaned close to me. “I’ve been in West Africa, speaking French,” she told me. “I haven’t heard American English in I-don’t-know-how-long.” She reached out her hand and we shook. “I’m Jocelyn,” she said. “Joss.”

I assumed she was a student. Possibly an anthropology grad student as I had been not long before. I felt a kinship with her. We stayed with the others for a couple of hours, talking and drinking. When the circle broke up, it was after midnight. As we left the terrace, the pack on her back again, she asked me, “Do you know a cheap place where I could stay? I can’t afford the tab here.

I was surprised. “You have no place to stay?” I asked.

She shook her head and grinned. And I grinned back at her.

In those days my lodgings were a single room at the back of an Asian store in Bazaar Street. I entered from the rear. The room had a washbasin in one corner and a small refrigerator in another. My clothes hung on nails and hangers beneath a shelf where I’d stacked underwear and books. The double bed was unmade and, as I brought Joss into the room and looked at it, I wondered how long it had been since I’d washed the sheets.

I’d gotten a straight-back chair—a towel was hanging over it to dry—and a cheap but sturdy wooden table I used as a desk. On it were a lamp and piles of reference books and newspapers next to my two most valuable possessions: my Olivetti portable typewriter and Grundig short-wave radio. Stacks of books stood like mini-Stonehenges on the floor throughout the room. The door was ajar to a small compartment attached to the room. It was almost large enough—but not quite—to house the toilet and the telephone-shower that were in it. There was a drain in the floor and I sometimes showered standing on the toilet. I always left the door open, hoping to dry the place out.

“Will I knock over books if I set this down?” Joss asked.

I took the backpack from her and set it on the chair. “Now you know what the room of a freelance journalist looks like.”

“I’ve always wondered,” she said.

“You’re welcome to stay.”

She looked at me gratefully. It was a kind of magical moment that went on and on without really taking any time at all. Then she kissed me, very fully. “Do you mind if I take a shower?” she asked.

“I may even have a second towel,” I said, pulling a dry towel from the shelf next to the underwear. Giving it to her, I took hold of her hand. I wanted to kiss her again. “I won’t be long,” she promised.

While she showered, I turned off the overhead light and got into bed, wondering what would happen. The lamp on the table was the only illumination. When she left the shower, she came into the room to dry off. I pretended to be asleep—she must have known I wasn’t—and narrowly opened my eyes to watch her polish her body. After a moment I sat up. “You’re incredibly beautiful,” I said. I watched her buff herself dry. She smiled at me, without a trace of self-consciousness. Then she folded the towel over the chair, turned off the lamp and came to bed. We kissed again and she asked, “Why are you wearing shorts?”

We were together for more than a month, making love with the frequency of honeymooners. I could not quite believe what was happening to me: that a woman of intelligence and loveliness would walk out of the night in a tie-dyed tee shirt, shorts and hiking boots and expand my existence, enhance my emotions, in a way I had never dreamed possible.

At the end of our time together we went camping on the Serengeti plains. That was like being Adam and Eve at the beginning of the world. Adam and Eve lived in the moment. They did not worry about the past or future and neither did we. I knew, of course, that Joss had a life – probably a grad student’s life – before she appeared on the Norfolk Hotel terrace that night. But I did not ask her about it. We lived with an immediacy that did not worry about tomorrow. I went to work during the days. I picked up free-lance stories when they floated by. At night I was with Joss. We did Nairobi and we made love. On the weekends we went camping.

Sometimes I would watch her. I would think she might be – or had been – three or four different women. I wondered if I would recognize any of them if I bumped into them on the road up ahead. Would I meet her at a party somewhere in the future and wonder who she was? If I came on to her and we connected again, would we realize we’d been lovers?

When we camped, we slept on plains so abundant with wildlife that we had no fear of being attacked by predators. Who would want to eat us when a juicy little Thompson’s gazelle was so easy to catch? We slept, wound about each other, in the same sleeping bag. We woke at dawn to watch zebras and gnus, gazelles and waterbuck, topi and kudu, Cape buffalo, lions and elephants come to a water hole to drink. When they had drunk their fill, we would wriggle out of our bag and bathe in the cool morning air, as naked and as unconscious of our nakedness, as the animals themselves.

Eventually I got a request from a paper for which I served as a stringer. It asked me to provide dispatches from southern Africa. This was an opportunity I longed for. It might lead to a staff position and end my hand-to-mouth existence as a stringer. One night while we were camping on an enormous plain dotted with kopjes, rock hillocks, I told Joss about it. Our campfire was the only man-made illumination for hundreds of square miles. Having eaten, we sat close to one another, our backs against a log, sipping wine, watching the stars. I said, “One of my papers wants some coverage from South Africa. I have to go down there for a while next week.”

“What is it?” she asked. “An audition?”

“Maybe.” I held my breath, then plunged ahead. “Want to come along?” She looked at me as if I were joking. “Why not?” I said.

For what seemed forever she did not speak. Finally she said, “You should know: I’m married.”

The words stunned me. I did not move. I sipped my wine and finally said, “Come anyway. I’m not prejudiced against married women.”

In the silence that followed I could not believe what we were discussing. She was married? I had been making love daily to another man’s wife? I had been feeling my emotions expanding, growing toward a possible commitment… And she was married! Finally I looked over at her. Joss said nothing, staring sadly into her glass of wine.

Finally I asked, “Does he know you’re here?”

Joss shook her head.

“Does he know you—?”

“He plays around all the time,” she said. “He knows I hate it. That’s why he does it.” Then she added, “And I do it to him because he hates it.”

I nodded. But I had never heard of such a relationship.

“It’s strange,” she said. “We love each other too much to divorce. And hate each other too much to be happy.”

I felt like railing at her, giving her hellfire-and-damnation. But in Kenya such things were not done by the people I knew. In Nairobi no one ever took a high moral tone with a friend.

“We think a baby will make a difference,” Joss said. “So that’s the plan.”

I smiled at this and looked at her a long moment. I put my arm about her and kissed her sweetly as if kissing her goodbye. In the morning we drove back to Nairobi and I got her a room at the Norfolk.

After leaving Bakili, I drive into the center of town and stop at the American Cultural Center to see the Public Affairs Officer, the Embassy’s public face. He’s Bill Sykes, a fellow Californian by origin, maybe forty-five, tall, with the ready smile of a man who wants to be liked. He invites me into his office and pours two cups of coffee from a burbling coffee maker. It sits on a bookshelf below one of several large National Parks posters with the logo “See America!” written across them. Scanning the posters, I realize that, beating around Africa for ten years, I’ve seen more of it than I have of my own country. Sykes hands me a cup of coffee. “Ever been to Malawi before?” he asks, gesturing to a chair and settling in behind his desk. “Can’t be much here to interest a newsman.”

“I’ll do a situationer,” I tell him, “and they’ll bury it next to ads for panty hose.”

“Can I make that sweeter?” Sykes asks. He opens his bottom desk drawer and pulls from it a bottle of whiskey. He sweetens both coffees. “The Assistant Secretary of State for Africa’s arriving in about ten days.”

“Lilongwe project?” I ask.

He nods. “Anything for you in that?”

I shrug, reluctant to tell him that while the Assistant Secretary’s visit is an-all-hands-to-battle-stations deal for him, it’s a yawner for my readers. I pass it off and Sykes shrugs. He replaces the bottle and relaxes into his desk chair, his feet on a drawer. “Any chance of my seeing the Ambassador today?” I ask.

“He’s tied up this afternoon,” Sykes tells me. I wonder if it’s true or if every interview has to be negotiated. Probably I should have set up the appointment from Joburg, but I didn’t want Joss to hear from her husband I was arriving.

Sykes asks, “Wandering Africa the way you do, you ever run into Hazen?”

“Once in Morocco. Rabat. You’re sure he couldn’t fit me in today?”

“A doctor’s seeing his daughter,” Sykes explains. “He wants to be there.”

“What’s wrong with his daughter?”

“Acute depression.”

I think: What? The kid I met a bit over two years ago in Morocco seemed well adjusted. In any case, children tend to adjust easily.

Sykes adds, “I guess the flight down here from Europe really got to her. She had to fly down unaccompanied. She’s been under a doctor’s care ever since. Malawi can do that to you.”

“The kid flew down here alone?”

“Hazen hated to have that happen. But there was no other choice.” Sykes continues, “The Hazens have really had a rough go. Mrs. Hazen was in an auto accident in Europe. She’s had extensive reconstructive surgery.”


I am stunned. An image of her face swims into my mind. Such a beauty! I wonder how reconstructive surgery has altered her face. Then out of nowhere my mind sees the image of a car wreck I came upon in southern France some years ago: a small sports car mangled beside a road lined with poplars. I see the body I saw then: a young man lying beside the car, face cut, bloody. Oh, Joss!

Then I hear Sykes saying, “We all admire the way Hazen attends to her. But it’s put the kid in a tailspin.” I ask about the care she’s getting. “An African doctor’s treating her,” says Sykes.

“Mrs. Hazen’s under the care of an African doctor?”

“No, the child. He’s a guy who trained in the States.” My expression telegraphs what I’m thinking. Sykes shrugs as if he agrees. “Hazen says we oughtn’t to be out here if we scorn the people we serve,” Sykes explains. “Well, maybe. But if she were my kid, I’d get her the hell of out here.” Then he adds, “But I’m not bucking to be Secretary of State. That’s off the record, of course.”

Sykes walks me to the Land Cruiser and I ask what my chances are of seeing the President. “Let us handle that for you,” he says. That’s a surprise. Usually I set that sort of thing up directly with the President’s office. Why would I go through Hazen? That way I’m beholden to him. Sykes explains, “Hazen can probably get you in. You won’t see the President otherwise.”

Well, well, I think. I wonder if I believe that.

“Old Kamuzu admires the fact that Hazen really knows Africa,” Sykes says. “He understands that they’re good for each other. If Malawi progresses so will Hazen. And vice versa. So the President trusts him.”

“And to see the President,” I ask, “I have to see Hazen first? Is that the game?”

“Hazen’s walking on eggs,” Sykes says. “He wants to do good—as well as make good. This Lilongwe involvement is just being finalized. First American money in ages. President doesn’t want any bad press.”

I have the feeling that Sykes is offering me a deal that I don’t think I like. He and I take each other’s measure.

“If we got you in to see Kamuzu,” says Sykes, “would you do a piece on U.S. money helping Malawi? Africa moving forward? That sort of thing?”

I shrug. There’s no use telling him I don’t work that way—because I may have to. “The leopard-man murders will get a lot more play in my paper,” I tell him.

“How about laying off that? It just reinforces stereotypes about Africa.”

“You know, you won’t get positive foreign press out of here as long as a leopard-man keeps killing government ministers.”

Sykes nods ruefully. “Then maybe no coverage is the best kind,” he says. “Malawi needs that Lilongwe project.” Then he promises to set up something with Hazen and says he’ll call the hotel.

He watches me drive off. I turn the corner and pull off the road. I lean against the steering wheel and put my head in my hands. I ask, Joss, Joss! My beauty! What in God’s name has happened to you?


The deep Sahara looks like this.

Or this.

Or this.

This is what they call the “rien de rien,” the nothing of nothingness.

Do you really want to go to Timbuktu?

It’s out here in the deep Sahara.

Do you really want to discover its secrets? Unlock its mysteries?

If you do, you won’t be alone. Donanne and I wanted to go there – and did – in 1970. The town-life pictures that follow are from that time. Since I had neglected to cross the Sahara when covering Africa for The Christian Science Monitor, Donanne and I took a look at it in 2001. The desert photos are from that trip.

Two hundred years ago hundreds of young romantics wanted to visit Timbuktu. It was a fabled city of gold. No one in Europe knew where it was: out there somewhere in the Sahara. To be the first European to find the place? That would bring you instant fame, riches probably and the eternal gratitude of your countrymen since there was an intense rivalry among European nations to be the first to find it, the first to establish trade relations with it. Finding it was bound to be difficult. Tuaregs guarded the desert. They haunted the caravan routes.

And Mohammedans – as they were called then – were thought to kill all infidels. Sometimes they did.

Here, by the way, is what Timbuktu looked like in 1970. The young lady carries a bottle on her head. Cool, hunh?

Despite the challenges two centuries ago, plenty of people rose to meet them. Scores of them set off: explorers, restless adventurers dressed in disguise, unknowns hungry for fame, officers eager for glory and wealth. Eccentrics and fools went, too. There was even an unrequited lover, a wealthy Dutch woman who assembled a party and marched into the sea of sand.

They started off pluckily. They gathered information, recruited guides, many of them unreliable, some treacherous. Then they slogged into the Sahara’s inferno. They fought off thirst, trusted mirages, survived on unfamiliar food, trudged past the bones of failed caravans. They crossed country that looked like this…

and tore open the veil of mystery with which the desert covers itself. With only two or three exceptions, they were never seen again.

You’ll be better off than they were. You’ll survive.

But you will almost certainly not unlock the secrets of Timbuktu. Within a matter of hours, however, you’ll discover facts which decades of valiant effort failed to unmask. In a sense the main fact which eluded detection was this: man’s enormous capacity for self-deception, for disregarding information contrary to what he wishes to believe.

Before the New World’s discovery, Africa was Europe’s prime supplier of gold. It came from somewhere in or beyond the Sahara. Most knowledgeable Europeans thought its source was a city of fabulous wealth, the seat of a university, a center of sophistication and Muslim culture, the hub of caravan traffic. Timbuktu!

The most determined of its explorers was Major Gordon Laing, a Scot fired with ambition to be the first white man to enter Timbuktu. Major Laing had led some inland explorations while serving in Sierra Leone, and the idea of Timbuktu obsessed him. He persistently sought permission for the journey. He prepared himself for its rigors by sleeping on the floor and writing with his left hand. As things turned out, the latter exercise was not a bad idea.

Major Laing arrived in Tripoli to undertake the Timbuktu mission in May, 1825. By early July he had asked the British consul’s daughter to marry him. She accepted but her father denied him. As a result Laing and the horrified consul broke off speaking relations; the suitor camped outside the city. Ultimately the consul granted the couple permission to marry. But since he doubted his authority to perform legal marriages, he insisted that the major pledge – in writing – that he would not consummate the marriage until he returned from Timbuktu. The major agreed. (We hope he had the sense to break the agreement. Probably he didn’t.)

Two days after the ceremony he marched into the desert.

Circling around a local civil war, Laing got to Ghadames. He spent days negotiating the onward journey with guides who demanded more money. He received inquisitive stares, doctored local inhabitants, was pestered for handouts, hungered for mail and burned with love for his bride.

He pushed on. He reached an oasis called In Salah. There he was such a curiosity that he had to nail up his door. He also feared for his life. Besides being a Christian among Muslims, he was also thought to be the leader of an earlier expedition which had shot and wounded a local resident.

After weeks at In Salah the Laing party joined a larger caravan and re-entered the desert. News of the major’s presumed wealth preceded the caravan as it ventured nervously through country known for civil wars, feuds and marauders. Ultimately Tuaregs followed the expedition for five days. Before dawn on the sixth day they attacked the explorer’s party. Laing sustained multiple wounds, the loss of several subordinates and the theft of virtually all his funds.

The caravan continued, leaving the wounded leader to follow as best he could. Some 400 miles later he reached the village of Sidi el Muktar. There the village chief befriended the explorer, fed and sheltered him. He advised him not to enter Timbuktu due to local unrest.

Laing was determined to go on. Before he could do so, a plague struck the village. It killed the chief and all surviving members of the Timbuktu mission except Laing himself.

Finally the chief’s son agreed to take the scarred and impoverished explorer to his destination – in exchange for all his possessions. The major entered the fabled city thirteen months after he left Tripoli. The only surviving account of his findings and impressions is a short letter – written with his left hand. It tells almost nothing.

Due to personal danger, Laing is thought to have sent his journal back to Tripoli by messenger. Speculation exists that it fell into the hands of the French consul in Tripoli, who destroyed or suppressed it for reasons of nationalistic pride. The major himself joined a small caravan headed for Morocco. Three nights out the caravan’s leader murdered him.

The es-Saheli Mosque at Timbuktu, 1970

At the time of this treachery, an enterprising young Frenchman named René Caillié was preparing himself to enter Timbuktu in disguise. He had lived among Arabs, had studied their Koran and their customs, and spoke some of their language. He had also concocted an improbable story: that he was an Arab carried away to France as an infant who now wished to return to his home in Egypt.

In March, 1826, he converted his savings into gold, silk handkerchiefs, knives, beads, and tobacco and started inland – on foot – along the Rio Nunez in present-day Guinea. At the end of thirteen months, five of them spent in an African village recovering from an illness, Caillié reached his destination.

“I looked around and found that the sight before me did not answer my expectations,” he wrote. “The city presented, at first view, nothing but a mass of ill-looking houses built of earth.”

Caillié stayed in Timbuktu for two weeks. He gathered information, then joined a caravan headed for Morocco. He was particularly anxious not to return west, fearing accusations that he had never reached Timbuktu.

The journey across the desert took almost three months. Spinning pillars of whirlwinded sand attacked the column of 1,400 camels. Thirst and mirages tormented Caillié. Suspecting he was a Christian, members of the caravan taunted and threw stones at him.

He survived the crossing only to find that a Frenchman disguised as a Muslim could expect little help even from his country’s diplomats.

The French consul in Rabat, a Jewish merchant, offered him no help. He begged for food and slept in a cemetery. The consul in Tangier repeatedly refused him entry, on one occasion shouting: “Turn out this dog of a beggar!” Ultimately he relented, however, and arranged passage for Caillié to France. There he was greeted as a hero.

Barth stayed in this house in Agadez. The plaque beside the
door commemorates the event.

Twenty-five years later Timbuktu received a six-month visit from Heinrich Barth, a German who spent five years exploring the central Sudan. Barth brought eminent qualifications to his role of explorer; he was inquisitive, imperturbable, somewhat humorless, a scholar, an Arabist, an authority on the desert, and a physical culture buff.

In Timbuktu Barth located the Tarikh es Sudan, a 17th-century history of the Songhai people. He quoted extensively from it in his five-volume report on his explorations.

Barth found that Timbuktu and its commerce had declined since the height of the Songhai Empire. The major cause had been the conquest of Songhai in 1591 by a Moroccan force of 5,000 cavalry and 2,000 infantry. These troops made a four-month trek across the desert, defeated the Songhai warriors, who had never seen firearms, and caused permanent disruption of trade. Thus, 200 years after the invasion Timbuktu was no longer the golden city of European legends – if in fact it ever had been.

It is still there for you to visit. You needn’t slog across desert wastes to reach it. And you won’t suffer the explorers’ hardships when you get there.

You’ll find it a dusty, baked-yellow town on the edge of the desert, a small place of broad vistas and narrow alleyways, a place which clings to its secrets, a place which is both the end of the world and the center of one. To reach it you’ll have flown over enormous sand-hued plains, an endless wasteland through which the broad, flat Niger inches slowly, like an unmotivated snake about to nap in the sun. Some travelers reach it by boats, not unlike this one.  I do not advise such a trip. It’s several days from Mopti and the benches have no backs.

The sun will shine relentlessly. With seeming hammer blows it will chisel your dark shadow into the ground. Heat will thicken the air; you will move through it as if through endless layers of invisible curtain. They will part for you reluctantly.

You’ll find the hotel rude or luxurious, depending on your expectations, depending on your experience of Africa and where you’ve been before. Your room will be dark, the heat even thicker than outside, the walls of a rough-finished mud-cement. Your bed will be hard. Like the market in Bamako your pillow and towels will smell of spices; the scents may enthrall you or make you retch. With luck you will happen to get the electric fan. Its cord may still lack a plug. A little ingenuity will solve that problem, enabling you to sleep in a warm wind.

The bathroom through the open archway will be basic, but private. The toilet may need a seat. The shower will offer water at a single temperature: available. Best not to drink it.

When thirst hits, you’ll sit out on the terrace, under a sagging and ripped stretch of canvas and try to slake the longing with African beer or tiny quarter-pint tins of chilled Algerian grapefruit juice. You quaff them in utter stillness. Your eyes will fall on the green oasis to the left, on the water hole to the right. Tuaregs will bring their camels to drink there, then shed their clothes and bathe.

At night a dark, diminished heat will surround you. You will dine on the terrace. Naked light bulbs will attract insects; these in turn will lure frogs up out of the oasis to feed. They will croak as music squeaks from a phonograph and, miraculously, the waiters will not step on them.

Your bread will taste of sand, your couscous will taste of sand, your pudding will taste of sand, your tea will taste of sand. You will never forgive yourself if you left your toothbrush behind.

During school vacations your companions will be Peace Corpsmen. They will complain about the cost of the lodging and drone an endless monotony of African tales. Like war stories in a barracks they will drive you from the hotel, out for a pre-bed stroll through the town. In the marketplace the soccer games – sometimes played with oranges – will still be in progress. You will wander to the main square, stare at the stars, gaze at the Beau Geste fort and return. You will not enter the tangle of alleyways; you might not find your way out.

By daylight you will wander through them, visit the covered market, see where Laing and Caillié stayed, sip mint tea with a qadi, and inspect the es-Saheli mosque designed by a Spanish architect of the mid-1300s.

Children will pester you for sweets, for coins, and attention. You will photograph them and notice that some are light-skinned and well-clothed while their playmates are black and naked. You will also remark that some people live in well-built houses of stone while others live in tents, that dark-skinned men trudge back and forth with animal skins full of water while light-skinned men talk business in the twilight.

You will wonder how these people relate to each other, ask yourself if slavery still exists here as it did in 1960. You will see that Timbuktu really is a world of subtle, highly structured and hidden relationships. And you will suspect correctly that it will not yield up its secrets to a transient like you.

Even so, a certain moment will come. There will be no sound. Colors will sparkle with absolute clarity. The air will lay cool on your skin. Your nostrils will carry a memory of spices. In that moment you will watch some silent, age-old movement: women carrying water, Tuaregs leading camels, children playing. And in that moment Timbuktu will put its hold on you.

You will wonder: Was it worth the effort to come? Laing asked himself that. So did Caillié and Barth.

You will know how to answer when you’ve been there.

Note: On Monday, April 2, 2012, the New York Times reported “Tuareg rebels overran the ancient desert crossroads of Timbuktu over the weekend.” These rebels are now said to control the vast, empty north of Mali. Army officers recently overthrew the elected Malian government as a result of military reverses. These developments are consequences of the downfall of the Ghadafi regime in Libya.

Next post: One of those women a man never forgets.


Sunday at one of the sunken churches at Lalibela

Donanne and I flew north from Kenya to do some reporting in Ethiopia about its ancient cities: Lalibela, Gondar, Axum. When we flew over Haile Selassie’s kingdom, the gorges below us dwarfed that of the Grand Canyon. An explorer of Ethiopia – James Bruce, I believe – wrote that he had been told the country was tableland. This was true, he discovered, but the table was upside down. Venturing into the ancient kingdom meant climbing up and down the legs.

On the plateaus above some of the canyons, farmers had carefully laid out fields; they were green with crops. But the fields were edged with chasms. You could not help wondering how farmers ever got their produce to market. Perhaps they were subsistence farmers and ate what they grew.

Ancient palaces at Gondar, Ethiopia, here and below

We stopped first in Gondar, a city of ancient palaces. Before the 16th century the rulers of Ethiopia and their followers moved around the realm, living in temporary royal camps, feeding off the surplus crops of farmers who, for that reason, did not need to worry about marketing their produce. By the mid-1500s they began regularly to spend the rainy season near Lake Tana. In 1635 Emperor Fasilides founded Gondar which was nearby. Palaces were built there over the next century, scenic and quite unexpected by the traveler.

There was no story there for me, but I made the mistake – you only make it once – of wising off to an airport guard. He was searching my luggage for small arms. Donanne and I were both whisked away, sequestered, body-searched and separated. Separated concerned me. Donanne was searched again, but we made our flight. And then discovered that a similar plane had been hijacked the week before, putting Ethiopian security services on high alert. As I say, you make that mistake only once.

Our flight to Lalibela – sheep and goats flew with us in the baggage compartment – landed in a wide opening at the end of a canyon, a wash through which water would surge if rainfall were ever torrential. But it was dry now. The sun had baked the canyon walls a parched yellow. It sucked the moisture from our skin. We breathed dust. A man sat beneath a tree at one side of the runway. His donkey grazed nearby. Goats pulled at grass further along. Close by a jeep awaited debarking passengers. Lalibela itself was a good ways off.

We jounced the miles to it and got settled at the Seven Olives Hotel, a single-story structure, maybe five rooms.

We had come to Lalibela to see African cathedrals built about the same time as the great Gothic cathedrals of Europe, in the 12th and 13th centuries. But these Ethiopian churches were remarkably different for the Gothic cathedrals soar upward, over the surrounding countryside. The structures in Lalibela do not soar at all. In fact, they are hardly visible on the horizon.

Still, a visitor to Lalibela feels a similar reverence for the dedication and workmanship that gave– No, not “rise.” For in Lalibela the impulses, religious and architectural, gave “rise” to nothing. The churches were not built at all. Rather workmen carved them, hewed them out of granite rock.

As we walked along the path, the ground ahead of us suddenly fell away. At our feet, across a trench of perhaps fifteen yards, we saw a church. We descended to the terraceway outside the church and entered. A dozen churches existed at the site.

Cut out of solid rock, the interiors of the churches were dark – despite the windows carved into the walls. Some of these had cross motifs. We had visited European cathedrals. The craftsmanship and deep devotion that created them awed us. We felt the same awe here – and asked the same questions: Why? How? How long?

We visited one church after the other. Coptic priests tended them, light-colored woolen cloths draped about their bodies. They reckoned time by the Julian calendar. The year might have been 1470. They seemed receptacles of tradition, purveyors of superstition. They watched us; we nodded.

Coptic priests seemed to live in the 13th century

In the late afternoon we had tea on the terrace of the Seven Olives. We watched shadows inch up the canyon walls and had dinner with three Americans, Department of the Army civilians stationed in Korea.

The next morning we went back to the churches. It was Sunday. Worshippers wrapped in white cloths walked at the edges of the trenches. They filled the terraces outside the churches. They propelled our imaginations back through time, to New Testament days. It seemed perfectly plausible that Jesus had healed and preached to people that looked and thought very much like these.

Sunday at one of the sunken churches in Lalibela

Next post:  The nitty-gritty mysteries of Timbuktu

TRAVELS IN AFRICA: GHANA, Enstoolment of the Asantehene, Part Two, 1970

Fred Hunter traveled eagerly to Ghana to cover what might be one of the last great tribal rituals in Africa, the enstoolment of the Asantehene, the king of the Ashanti. Donanne went with him. In Accra he received warnings against going to Kumasi where the ceremony would take place. Strange things might happen. Their flight to Kumasi was cancelled. Maybe the next morning, the day of the ceremony. They persevered. Fred’s report:

Enstoolment? Whuzzzat? The kings of England are enthroned. The kings of the Ashanti are enstooled. The Golden Stool – which, legend says, descended from the sky in the 17th century – symbolizes kingship. The English kings, those rubes, actually place their posteriors on the English throne. The Asantehenes do NOT place theirs on the Golden Stool. It has been hidden for at least 175 years to prevent the brutish British from stealing the gold.

We caught the morning flight to Kumasi. It arrived late. A mad chase through a town full of celebrants into the city centre. There I checked in with the information officer and got us into our hotel. Then out to Pampaso for the ceremonies. An absolute crush of people there: the heat of their bodies, the smell of their joy and their sweat, the taste of anticipation in the air, the sound of drumming so insistent that everyone moved to its rhythm. Hundreds of men awaited the new king, dancing, swaying, moving their arms. Most were wrapped in swirls of fabric, often kente cloth, their chests naked, many with headdresses – peaked hats adorned with gold, ringed with emblems fastened to them – some with necklaces and regalia of gold, others blowing into the tapered ends of cow horns. Many wore bracelets and anklets of gold, others of cowrie shells. Many of them held gilded staffs crowned with carved figures or emblems that resembled the famous gold-weights.

Opoku Ware II, the new Asantehene, arrived. He wore traditional cloth, rather like a toga, and a wristwatch on his arm. Attendants eager for the honor bore him on a palanquin, a splendid cloth-draped litter, carried shoulder high, sheltered by an enormous umbrella. Attendants waved large raffia fans to cool him. Escorting the new king were middle-aged courtiers, carrying gilded staffs and enormous twirling umbrellas of brocade skirted with red flannel, some of them ten feet tall. Frenzied chanting and shouting greeted him. An Ashanti chief stepped forward to meet the king and “gave” him, as the Ashantis say, to the Amanhene, a select group of chiefs. They were assembled in a small closed building attended by ritual functionaries.

The retinue of retainers arrives

Outside the building, chiefs and their retinues waited in tense excitement. Porters of ritual regalia – staffs, swords and gilded symbols of chieftaincy – laughed and chatted and raised their arms in gestures of allegiance, watching carefully those who entered and left the small building.

Suddenly the Asantehene himself burst from it.

The man himself! The Asantehene!

Aprede drums struck up. Holding a sword and shield, the Asantehene danced in a tight circle of men. They shouted, swirled and danced with him. From a collection of individual bodies the crowd fused into a single mass of dancing flesh. It surged forth, jumping, pushing. A Rolls Royce awaited the new king. He danced toward it. Eventually he reached it. As an attendant wiped sweat from his neck, the new Asantehene entered the car’s sanctuary and drove off.

We returned to the hotel for showers and a lunch of orange juice. Donanne began to feel unwell and wondered if she should stay at the hotel. But she would come with me. In the hotel lobby we ran into Mary whom we had met at church in Accra. She was bright, young and English, working in Sierra Leone with Volunteer Service Overseas, an English version of the Peace Corps. She had driven up with one of the Ghanaian church members, a family man whom we had also met.

As we had orange juice together, she asked, “Would you mind terribly if I spent tonight in your room?”

The request surprised me. “Actually Donanne’s not feeling all that well.”

“I could sleep on the floor.”

“You have no place to stay?”

“Well— I could stay in the room of Mr.–” She mentioned the name of the church member. “But if I do that,” she said, “he’ll expect me to sleep with him.”

I laughed, puzzled. “But we all know each other from church.”

“Really, he will,” she said. She began to laugh, too.

I recalled my conversation the night before with my journalist colleague about the CSM stringer’s several wives. “You’re in Africa, right?” he had asked.

“I suppose you could,” I said, wondering if D were up to having a guest. “Why don’t you check with us later? We’ve got to get out to the enstoolment.”

Blow those horns! The man is here!

As expected, an even larger crowd swelled the sports stadium. Down on the playing field Ashanti chiefs were assembling for a durbar or reception of the new king. They arrived borne on palanquins, dancing from their seated positions – heads swaying, shoulders moving, hands brandishing swords and ancient pistols. Drums, trumpets and chants heralded their arrival. The giant umbrellas sheltered the chiefs from an overcast sky. Everyone seemed to be wearing kente cloth and carrying gold regalia.

At last the Asantehene himself appeared. He had donned his traditional battle dress. After inspecting bodyguards and greeting dignitaries, he demonstrated his ability to lead the Ashanti in war. He was to do this by firing a rifle into the air three times. On each occasion more than 100 men at arms were to answer his shot with salvos from ancient muzzle-loading rifles.

By this time Donanne really was feeling unwell. We found a taxi in which several Ghanaians were sitting. We entered the cab and I asked the driver to take us immediately to the hotel; I would pay double the price. The men already in the cab looked annoyed. But if they did not understand our need to return quickly, they understood a taximan’s following the money.

Once we got Donanne settled in the hotel – a nap might prove restorative – I hurried back to the sports stadium. I arrived in time to see the Asantehene walk about greeting his chiefs. As he moved, drums and twirling umbrellas followed him.

Crowds rushed onto the playing field to dance alongside him. I watched a colleague, a Life/Time photographer, dive into the crowd to get pictures of the participants’ excitement. All in a day’s work for him, I supposed, but I wondered if he’d get trampled.

Returning to the hotel, I found D feeling better. We had some dinner and I left again to go to the Asantehene’s palace for the final ceremonies. There, outside the palace walls, in the early morning hours, the Ashanti stalwarts cried out: “Long live the King of Ashanti! May the Asantehene’s reign be happy, long and prosperous!” And there this possibly final paroxysm of African tribal assertion ended.

We slept late. We had breakfast with Mary who had found a place to stay. Returning to the room I wrote a “color piece” about the previous day’s events, the first of three stories I wrote about the enstoolment. (My editors in Boston must have concluded that ethnic splendor deranged me!) I finished just in time for us to race to the airport for the plane back to Accra.

The enstoolment welcoming committee

We had dinner with Jeannie at the Black Pot, a new restaurant enjoying a vogue. In her Ghanaian way she was scornful of the place and its local cuisine. “What did you pay for this dinner?” she demanded. I refused to tell her; I was certain she would chastise me for allowing myself to be bilked. We finished up the evening at Dan’s Milk Bar where once again Jeannie had coffee ice cream.

Next post: The sunken churches of Ethiopia

TRAVELS IN AFRICA, GHANA, 1970: West Africa Wins Again

Fred Hunter had to get to Kumasi to cover what might be the last great ritual of traditional Africa, the enstoolment of the Asantehene. But, as they say, West Africa Wins Again. Which means don’t count on anything happening until it happens. West Africa did not disappoint.

Attendants await the Asantehene

Enstoolment preparations made, there were other stories to write. With our Ghanaian friend Jeannie, whose house we used as a mail drop when we were in West Africa, Donanne and I went to Koforidua. There the three of us toured a cocoa plantation. Cocoa, the source of chocolate, was one of Ghana’s main exports. I thought I should know what cocoa pods and their seeds looked like. We drove on to Akosombo, had lunch and inspected the country’s premier development project, the earthen dam athwart the Volta River.

Returning to Accra, we went to Dan’s Milk Bar to feast on ice cream. Donanne and I had hot fudge sundaes. Jeannie was partial to the coffee ice cream.

The day before we expected to go to Kumasi we had lunch at the home of the tall, slender and very good-looking Ghanaian journalist who acted as a Monitor stringer. I envied the fact that he had published a novel in London. His wife was a dancer. She moved with grace; her skin had a burnished quality and a café au lait color. Also at lunch was the stringer’s son, perhaps ten years old. He was very dark, so richly dark that I wondered how the mixed-race dancer could have borne a son his color. We ate African and tossed around ideas about the enstoolment. I asked if ritual murder still went on. The stringer laughed. “Impossible to know,” he said. “When you come back from Kumasi, maybe you can tell me.”

The next day at the airport after we waited several hours, our flight was canceled. The most important of enstoolment ceremonies would take place early the next afternoon. “If I don’t get to Kumasi tomorrow,” I told a journalist colleague who lived in Accra, “I’ll have some explaining to do.”

“I guess I’ll drive up,” he told me.

“I’ll take a chance on the plane,” I replied. The airlines people had assured me that the flight would take off early the next day.

“Good luck, chappie,” he said.

I told him about lunching with the stringer and his family.

“They have no children,” he said. “That boy’s the kid of one of your man’s wives up country.” The journalist laughed at the expression of surprise on my face. “I believe he has two wives up there. They tend farms for him.”

“Oh,” I said.

The journalist corked my shoulder. “You’re in Africa, right?”

“Last time I checked.”

“Better check again.”

Going back to the house I kept pondering: Three wives! I’d thought that the stringer and I were very much the same sort of person. But he had three wives.  (As things turn out, the stringer and I later emailed about this matter and my journalist colleague was apparently misinformed.  The stringer maintains that he never had multiple wives.)

Despite all the warnings, the bafflements and the uncertainties of getting there, we were determined to see Opoku Ware II enstooled. Would we actually get there?

Next post: The great tribal rite takes place! Opoku Ware enstooled!

TRAVELS IN AFRICA: GHANA, Enstoolment of the Asantehene 1970

In June, 1970, Fred and Donanne Hunter headed to Ghana to cover what might be the last great exhibition of tribal ritual in Africa: the enstoolment of the Ashantehene.

Ashanti elders await the Ashantehene

Enstoolment! One of the great tribal celebrations of traditional Africa, perhaps the last of its kind. The king of the Ashanti people, known as the Asantehene, reigns from a golden stool. According to tradition, the stool floated out of the sky one fine 17th century day covered in pure gold and landed on the lap of the first Asantehene, who unified the Ashanti people. Asantehenes are not “enthroned;” with great ceremony they are “enstooled.” I wanted to observe the enstoolment, a living relic of the time of tribal kingdoms.

Getting to Ghana was not easy. But the enstoolment was not to be missed. And it was hard not to feel affection for Ghana.

Expecting to spend several weeks in Accra, we made inquiries and got invited to a dinner party at the home of a US embassy officer. The talk at the dinner party was the gossip in the streets about the coming enstoolment. “When an Asantehene dies, you know,” one of the Ghanaian guests told me, “ritual murderers stalk the streets of Kumasi.”

What? This was not the sort of thing The Christian Science Monitor usually published, but it would certainly give color to my reportage. By now I had gotten books on the Ashanti Empire. I knew that it had flourished for a century and a half, starting about 1700, due to its trade with European merchants in gold and slaves. I had begun to line up interviews with historians and sociologists at the University of Ghana in Legon. But the idea of ritual murder had escaped me.

“There’s an Ashanti tradition of human sacrifice,” another guest added. “The Ashantis say the Asantehene never dies. Instead he ‘goes to his village.’”

“What that means,” a Ghanaian explained, “is that he passes from this life through a door to another one. It’s ordered just like the one he’s known here.”

“In the new life he’ll remain a chief,” someone else said. “He’ll still need servants to attend him.”

“Also his favorite wife,” a woman put in. “He shouldn’t enter ‘his’ village and his ancestors’ without his favorite wife, right? Or without servants. Or without a retinue to show off his power and prestige.”

“In the old days sub-chiefs had quotas of people to kill to fill out the dead Asantehene’s retinue,” another person explained. “They preferred, of course, not to kill their own people–”

“Good of them, huh?” someone interjected

“– so they usually sacrificed slaves. Or went out raiding to get them. Sometimes they killed strangers who happened to be passing through Kumasi.”

“Don’t go into any dark alleys while you’re up there,” a Ghanaian advised with a smile.

In covering the continent I had read and thought a great deal about African chieftaincy. While chiefs had not ruled all Africans in the days before colonialism, the institution of rule by elders, many of them chiefs, had been well nigh universal.

Now I read specifically about the Ashanti. In 1884, I discovered, the disputed succession to the Golden Stool of Asantehene Prempeh I provoked four years of intermittent strife. It threatened the cohesion of the Ashanti Empire, already under siege from British political agents. In 1931 the strife was only latent.

This year – 1970 – no succession rivalry had occurred at all. According to ancient tradition succession to the Golden Stool passed through the Oyoko matriclan. Why? Because Ashantis contended that one never knows if a chief has sired his own sons. But there can be little doubt about who a child’s mother is. So the Asantehene succeeds through the female line. This year a 51-year-old, British-trained barrister J. Matthew Poku, Ghana’s ambassador-designate to Italy, was nominated and elected. He chose the kingly name Opoku Ware II; it would serve as a reminder of the glories of the king who had ruled Ashanti from 1720 to 1750. During that time the Ashanti empire had reached its maximum glory.

Elders in traditional regalia: gold hats and cloths

In the colonial era the British had made Ashanti a Crown Colony. Now the nation-state Ghana had absorbed it. Clearly the institution of African chieftaincy was in decline. But the substance of chieftaincy seemed to persist. Once they came to power, most of the new African leaders, although ostensibly elected according to Western norms, took on the autocratic trappings of chiefs. That seemed to explain why the continent had failed to develop politically beyond one-party states. Single party rule displayed outward forms of democracy – periodic elections, for example. But what persisted inside those forms very much resembled chieftaincy.

Next post: On to Ashantiland. Complications ensue.

TRAVELS IN AFRICA: GHANA, 1970, Arrival in Ghana

Fred and Donanne Hunter flew north from South Africa in order to cover the enstoolment of the Asantahene on Ghana. A passport problem landed them in Paris. Finally grit succeeded in getting them back to West Africa.

Enstoolment welcoming committee

Enstoolment here we come! We flew into Ghana from Paris. Despite itself, Accra was a place you had to love. Vital laughing people filled its streets. So did snarled traffic and the insistent blaring of horns. On every corner stood buildings splotched with scabs of flaking paint, caused by the city’s nearness to the ocean. The pungent perfume of sea salt floated on the sea breezes; so did odors of cook fires, decay and uncollected garbage.

Expecting to spend several weeks in Accra, we made inquiries. Two waifs, we went to a dinner party at the home of an embassy officer. There we met not only the American Ambassador and his wife and several influential Ghanaian couples. We also dined with a Texaco executive; he offered to rent us an unoccupied house “out by the airport.” We jumped at the offer. We were tired of hotels. A house would be just the place to prepare for our trip inland to Kumasi.

The Texaco house turned out to be a Victorian era structure. It had broad screened porches with wide eaves and room enough for us to spread out. I could pace while I wrote dispatches and Donanne need not sit quietly in the same room, as she had to do in hotels, or take refuge in the lobby. A houseman lived in a small accommodation behind the house and, strangely, a seemingly endless procession of local people crossed the rear of the property on a path there. Our first night in the house we went to bed with a definite feeling of contentment.

We awoke knowing that we were about to die. It was pitch dark. Where were we? In bed somewhere. We were both sitting up, our hands on each others’ arms. A monster the color of night was bearing down on us. It came at us with a roar. Could we scramble under the bed? The roar was so incredible that the house began to shake. It grew louder. Help!!! Louder! LOUDER!! It came on fast and heavy, like a something that would flatten us. Like a jet-powered steamroller of noise.

It passed over us. We hugged each other. Holy Hannah! What the hell was that? We laughed. How close were we to the airport?

The Lufthansa jet – the one that had brought us back to Africa – flew south every morning at 4:30 a.m. We never got used to the roar. But we discovered the reason Africans traipsed through the back of the yard. Behind the row of trees that edged the property stood a fence. Beyond it was the end of the runway.

We got ready to go to Kumasi.

Next post: First some background on the enstoolment process.

TRAVELS IN AFRICA: PARIS: Trying to Get to Ghana, 1970

In June, 1970, Fred and Donanne Hunter headed to Ghana to cover what might be the last great exhibition of tribal ritual in Africa: the enstoolment of the Asantehene.

What we hoped to see in Ghana

Donanne and I had been in South Africa to cover the election. Now we started north from Johannesburg to witness an event of signal importance in Ghana. This was the accession of the new king of the Ashanti people, called the Asantehene, to the tribal throne, the Golden Stool. The ceremonies surrounding the “enstoolment” might be the last great exhibition of tribal ritual in Africa. I did not want to miss it.

We flew into Lusaka, Zambia – but not directly. That was because most of black Africa had no relations with white-ruled South Africa. Malawi did. And so a brief lay-over in Blantyre, Malawi, was required to remove from us the taint of having been in South Africa. From Lusaka we took a UTA flight to Douala in Cameroon, expecting to spend several weeks in that country and Nigeria. From there we would go on to Ghana and to Kumasi, the capital of the Ashanti.

But problems awaited us in Douala. We were refused entry into Cameroon. Why? Because we had South African visas and entry stamps in our passports. In other words, what worked in Zambia, a state neighboring South Africa, did not work in far-away Cameroon. We were not permitted to telephone our embassy. Our passports were taken from us; so were the air tickets that Lufthansa in Johannesburg had written for us. While our luggage was retrieved from the baggage claim, we were guarded by police in the transit lounge. When the UTA flight was ready to leave for Paris, we were escorted across the tarmac to it. We were given our Lufthansa tickets from which the sections for onward travel to Lagos and Accra had been removed. A new section had been written sending us to Paris.

We arrived there at night. A thunderstorm had just broken over the city. The Service d’Accueil told us of a room with shower in the Latin Quarter. We took it. We taxied through pelting rain to the hotel. The room was on the sixth floor (no elevator). Yes, it had a shower. Complete with appropriate curtain. Smack in the middle of the room. Where was the toilet? The men’s was down the hall. The women’s was on the floor below.

At the American Embassy we obtained a second set of passports. We got new visas at the Ghanaian Embassy. We spent six days trying to return to West Africa. Why six days? Because I was damned if I was going to pay new fares to get us back there.

At the UTA ticket office I was told that the fault was Lufthansa’s; after all, we were flying on Lufthansa tickets. At Lufthansa I was told the fault was UTA’s; after all, we had been pulled off their flight. For days I bounced back and forth between the two tickets offices. Finally a Lufthansa supervisor said an unequivocal no. He turned his back and walked away. I was so pissed I vaulted the ticket counter and went after him. He ran upstairs. I pursued him. He turned to face me in his office, uncertain what I might do. I insisted that in issuing our tickets Lufthansa Joburg should have known we could not enter Cameroon coming from South Africa. He said nothing. Therefore, Lufthansa had a responsibility to return us to West Africa. He looked at me. I was taller than him; I was clearly intemperate. If Lufthansa returned us to Accra, he stammered… Yes? Yes? Would I agree to make no claim against the airline? Of course! Ya wohl! We could go!

Next post: Arrival in Ghana

TRAVELS IN AFRICA: Victoria Falls, 1970

In the spring of 1970, The Christian Science Monitor’s travel page ran a series of articles called “Going Places.” Fred Hunter, the Africa Correspondent, was in the neighborhood of Victoria Falls. The travel editor asked for a report. Here it is:

There is really only one way to see Victoria Falls: drenched and with droplets of water hanging from your eyebrows. So take a bathing suit. And wear it.

Forget the plastic raincoat. Leave the collapsible umbrella. Skip those mackintoshes on rent at your hotel. None of them will do you a bit of good. Leave the binoculars in their case. Keep the camera where it’s dry. Buy your slides at the curio kiosk. And if you must take your wallet and travelers checks, wrap them up in plastic. Take your bathing suit and wear it. You’re going to get wet.

Visitors to the falls walk along a cliff edge directly across from the cataracts. The view dazzles their eyes. The roar pounds their ears as the yellow Zambezi plunges into the narrow gorge. The gorge hurls back an upspray of mist, and it in turn falls back onto the cliff edge as rain. Heavy, tropical rain.

So wear your bathing suit.

Of course, you may feel conspicuous. You may wonder: “What will people think?” But I can answer that. They will think: “Now why didn’t I do that?”

At least that’s what my wife and I thought as four bathing suited hikers came our way. We envied them. We had eschewed the plastic raincoats, you see. We had left the umbrella behind. We had disdained to rent mackintoshes – and we were sopping.

The hikers drew near, stepping lightly in the rain. We ploshed through it – squush, squush, squush – our shoes overflowing at every step. They greeted us with grins. We smiled back, wet-puppedly, teeth-grittingly. They passed and went on down the trail. We watched the water splash off them while we continued to absorb it.

“Now why didn’t we think of that?” Donanne asked. She slapped at her ankles, imagining that she was Katharine Hepburn tugging leeches off her legs in “The African Queen.”

“Yes, why didn’t we?” I took off my polo shirt and wrung it out.

“Why are you doing that?” she asked through the rain.

“I don’t know,” I said. There was no logical explanation. When I put the shirt back on, it hung down to my knees.

“I’m not sure that was a good idea,” she said.

We squushed – plosh, plosh, plosh. “Do you think Dr. Livingstone got wet when he found the falls?” Donanne asked.

“I’m sure of it. He and his Scotch tweeds got drenched!”

“At least we have wash ‘n’ wear things.”

It was important to believe that the intervening years had wrought some progress. Still, we didn’t have wash ‘n’ wear travelers checks or wash ‘n’ wear shoes.

We walked out to an overlook, made what children might call “pretend binoculars” with our hands and peered into the mist. We heard and felt the falls. And now and then wind cleared the spray enough for us to see them.

As we stood there, another object joined us. It looked at first like a filled plastic laundry bag stumbling around on two thin legs. It turned out to be a lumpy little lady completely encased in plastic. She pulled open the hood of her raincoat, stared first at the mist and then at us as if we were apparitions.

“How sensible of you not to bother with rainwear,” she finally said. She joined us in scrutinizing the spray.

“Here I’ve come all this way,” she told us, “and you know how I feel? As if I’m slogging around my shower bath all caught up in the curtain.” She pulled back the hood, wiped rain from her face and made “pretend binoculars” just as we did.

“You know what I’m going to do next time?” she asked. “I’m going to bring a bathing costume. And I’m going to wear it!”

And next time so are we.

Photo: Atop Victoria Falls on the Zambian side of the Zambesi

Donanne and I returned to Victoria Falls in early January, 2002. It’s interesting to see the difference in water levels between early January and mid-March, the time of our 1970 visit, when Victoria Falls truly looks like “the smoke that thunders.”

The Zambian side of the Falls in January, 2002. Note the hikers.

Note difference in water flow between high and low water.

Next post: To Ghana for one of the last great tribal rites of the 20th century.

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