by Lucian Heichler
The author retired as a minister-counselor in the American Foreign Service in 1986 after a career spanning thirty-two years. He was posted to seven diplomatic missions abroad, aside from serving in Washington. In addition to the post in Africa described below, he served in Kinshasa.—Ed.
Near the end of my long tour of duty as a political officer in Berlin, I shocked my employer, the U. S. Department of State, by asking for a crash course in economics and assignment to a Third World country. The Department was as usual in desperate need of economic officers and unaccustomed to seeing otherwise sane Foreign Service officers volunteer for hardship posts. Personnel enthusiastically granted both my wishes and secretly earmarked me for psychiatric examination and rapid promotion.
While laboring in the vineyards of Adam Smith and John Maynard Keynes late in 1965, I received my assignment to the American Embassy in Lusaka, Zambia, as the post’s economic and commercial officer. My family and I were promptly caught up in the romance of East Africa, savoring exotic names like Lusaka, Bulewayo, the Copper Belt and the Great African Rift Valley. Getting all excited about life and work in Zambia, we read everything we could lay our hands on about life in that country, formerly the southern half of the British Colony of Rhodesia. We studied the Lusaka “post report” (more about post reports later) and took the children to see “Born Free” to get them accustomed to the sight of Joy Adamson walking Elsa the lioness in the streets of Lusaka.
Careers in the Foreign Service are distinguished mainly by the operation of Murphy’s Law and the steady drumbeat of the unexpected. About three weeks before our scheduled departure for Lusaka, the personnel officer of the Bureau of African Affairs summoned me to his office. Somewhat apologetically, he explained that our ambassador in Zambia had requested that his very competent economic officer2 stay on for another year. This necessitated breaking my assignment to succeed him. As good fortune would have it, however, American Embassy Yaoundé was in desperate need of a new economic officer, the incumbent having resigned in order to take over his family’s shipping business in New Orleans. Would I be prepared to go to Yaoundé?
Without a moment’s hesitation, I replied (as expected) that I would be happy to serve wherever the Service had need of me. My interlocutor then talked to me for a good half hour more about my new job. I hung on his every word and tried to make appropriate noises in. response. The moment I was free to go, I tore down to the Department’s library to consult an atlas and find out where in the world this Yaoundé might be.
Good-bye, English-speaking, reasonably cool and dry East Africa! Yaoundé, I learned, was the small, inland, hot and rain-forest-surrounded capital of the Federal Republic of Cameroon, a nation situated on the West Coast of the African Continent, sandwiched in between Nigeria and Gabon—in other words, in the arm pit of Africa, as the local wits liked to put it.
Without pausing for breath, my family and I shifted gears and read everything we could find about Cameroon—the German Colony of Kamerun until 1916, French and British League of Nations Mandates of the Cameroons until independence and reunification in the early 1960s—from Gerald Durrell’s charming The Bafut Beagles3 to the embassy’s post report on life and work in Yaoundé. For the gullible, this document made very depressing reading.
The production of post reports is a standing requirement for all American missions abroad. Subject to revision every few years, these documents are intended to give newly assigned personnel and official visitors a maximum of useful information about condition at post—what to expect, what to bring, what to do and not to do, etc. In theory, this combination of travel guide, etiquette book, and much more, is enormously helpful to the newcomer. In reality, post reports rank with the most imaginative forms of creative writing this side of science fiction. The reasons are not difficult to fathom.Since 1789, if not earlier, the Department of State has tried without noticeable success to persuade Congress and the American public that Foreign Service people do not live like King Louis XIV at the expense of the American taxpayer. Furthermore, and more specifically, it must be borne in mind that service at so-called “hardship” posts is rewarded by salary differentials as high as twenty-five percent of base pay, and often by cost-of-living and other allowances, to compensate for health hazards, danger, or high local prices. Naturally enough, embassies and consulates the world over compete in producing the gloomiest, most alarming post reports in order to preserve and if possible to increase their post budgets, differentials, and allowances.
In 1966 I had not yet grasped this fairly obvious ploy. Hence, I found the Yaoundé post report deeply alarming: the climate was extremely hot, humid, oppressive, debilitating, and generally unhealthy; the water was unfit to drink unless boiled and filtered; strange tropical diseases abounded, along with loathsome insects, numerous species of poisonous snakes and other reptiles. My children would probably die quite soon of asthma or worse (as it happened, my oldest daughter did suffer from asthma). Life in the capital was a total drag, with nothing to do and nowhere to go. Undaunted, we continued our preparations for a two-year tour of duty in Yaoundé. We spoke no French, the official language of Cameroon; I alone of all my family managed to squeeze in two weeks of language training at the Foreign Service Institute before leaving Washington.
Yaoundé in 1966 was a very small town with one paved street and little to buy in the few shops which catered to European needs (all over the Third World, Americans are honorary Europeans). The small embassy had no commissary. I was advised to include in my household effects shipment a two-year supply of just about everything except perishables: all manner of canned goods, clothing, shoes for four growing children and vast quantities of what were coyly referred to as “paper products”.
I had to take out a credit union loan before spending an entire day at a wholesale distributor’s warehouse in Northeast Washington, ordering more than $2,000 worth of “survival kit.” The logistics were formidable. It is not easy to anticipate the needs of a family of six for two years. On certain items we overstocked a little: Five years later, we still possessed most of a case of Kikkoman Soy Sauce and about ninety rolls of toilet paper. But we also learned to economize in certain ways. Our Yaoundé habit of carefully smoothing out, sometimes even ironing, and reusing gift-wrapping paper persisted for years after we had left Africa.
My wife took the four children out to buy them sneakers. She bought fifty pairs in assorted sizes, trying to estimate how fast those eight feet would grow between 1966 and 1968. The shoe salesman thought he had died and gone to Heaven. My wife hastened to explain—as she did with everyone within earshot those days—that we were on our way to Africa. This got so bad that the children began to pretend that they belonged to another customer whenever she did that.
At last we sailed, in July 1966, on the U.S.S. Constitution. The ship was on a so-called “sun lane cruise,” and so we enjoyed a superb vacation, port-hopping around the entire Mediterranean Sea for a week before we had to get off and face reality. As we were scheduled to fly to Africa from Marseilles, we left the ship at Cannes, the last port of call before the Constitution headed back through the Straits of Gibraltar and the Atlantic. To transport us from Cannes to Marseille-Marignane Airport, I had sent a cable from Genoa to the Cannes office of a very large and well-known car rental company, asking them to reserve a large station wagon, big enough to cart a family of six and sixteen pieces of luggage across Provence.
After the somewhat traumatic experience of getting ourselves and all our earthly goods off the ship and onto the pier at Cannes, I walked into town to look for the rental car office. “Non, Monsieur,” they had not gotten my telegram. “Non, Monsieur,” they did not have a station wagon that large—”ça n’existe pas.” “Mais, Monsieur,“—why not rent two voitures instead? Faute de mieux, I took them, one small Ford Taunus sedan and one even smaller Renault. My wife was far from pleased that, true to its well-known advertising slogan of those days, the rental car firm had managed to put her in the driver’s seat, but there was no help for it—we both had to drive. We divided up children and baggage and set off in tandem across the lovely, rugged countryside, my Renault in the lead. Soon I had reason to regret that I had not taken the time to be instructed in the mysteries of that little French car. That I never did find the horn button was not too serious. However, that I could not figure out how to put the car into reverse proved embarrassing and potentially hazardous.
I discovered the problem a couple of hours down the chaussée when we pulled off the road to coordinate lunch plans. Once back behind the wheel, I saw that I had pulled up fairly close to a tree—and I could not back up. There was nothing for it but to get out and push the car back a few feet so that I could drive away. At the next service station someone finally found the fiendishly hidden little button in the gear shift lever which had to be depressed before one could engage the reverse gear. We ate lunch at a sidewalk cafe in beautiful Aix-en-Provence and finally arrived at the airport about an hour before the scheduled midnight departure of our Air Afrique flight to Douala, Cameroon.
Despite all our reading, looking at pictures and studying maps, we found Equatorial West Africa more difficult to visualize than other parts of the world which we had never seen. The cities, villages and rain forests of the region defied our efforts to envisage them. East Africa was much easier—for who has not admired pictures of the great savannahs and game preserves of the Rift Valley? And North Africa—the Maghreb—was something else entirely: Arabic Muslim culture distinguished by soaring minarets and bustling souks. But West-Central Africa—what would that be really like?
At midnight our Air Afrique jet thundered down the runway at Marseille-Marignane Airport and climbed into the black sky, heading south across the Mediterranean Sea. Looking down, I saw the lights of the French coast recede, then the occasional winking lights of ships at sea, and, much later, the lights of the North African shore. But then I was amazed by the nearly total darkness below which contrasted so sharply with night flights over North America or Western Europe. Except for a very occasional, very faint glimmer below, there was no sign of civilization; under the steady hum of our jet engines, the vast continent seemed to lie in timeless sleep.
Dawn began to gray as we began our descent into Douala, the largest city and principal port of Cameroon—and one of the hottest, rainiest, most humid places on Earth. The aircraft’s approach did not take us over any part of the city; all I could make out in the early dawn light were black and evil-looking mangrove swamps with steam rising from them. For an anxious newcomer to Africa at five o’clock in the morning, it was an awesome spectacle. “So that’s what it’s like,” I thought, and felt a little queasy.
Moments later we were on the tarmac. When the aircraft door was opened, the cool, conditioned air of the interior promptly surrendered to the wettest, hottest, smelliest miasma I had experienced since a stopover on Guam Island twenty years earlier, on my way home from Japan. My wife and daughters had all taken care to have their hair done before we left our ship at Cannes the day before. As they descended the gangway, their coiffures descended even faster; all the conditioner, hair spray and whatever promptly dissolved and streamed down their tresses. With an air of wonder my youngest daughter observed, “Look Mommy, it’s raining from the ground up!”
It was then about 5:30 am. Our connecting flight to Yaoundé, the nation’s land-locked capital, was scheduled to depart at eight. My heart went out to the poor junior officer whom the American consul in Douala had dispatched at this ungodly hour to meet us, ease our way through immigration and customs and entertain us until he could finally pack us off to Yaoundé. He led us upstairs to the airport “restaurant” (quotation marks well-advised) where we spent the next several hours in valiant attempts to make conversation around a bare and very dirty table, sipping stale coffee, and battling the legions of flies breakfasting on the sticky rings left by many generations of beer glasses.
Air Afrique then flew us to Yaoundé in an old, propeller-driven DC-4 which lumbered across an unbroken green carpet of tropical rain forest until we neared the city. Yaoundé lies in rather a pretty setting of lush hills, the most prominent of which is called Mont Fébé. The scene was somehow reminiscent of a strange, exotic dream and seemed thousands of miles removed from the real world. A band was playing as we came down the ramp: four very old African men dressed in pieces of what seemed to be equally old uniforms, blowing valiantly on silvered trumpets and horns. Having recently spent six years on assignment in Berlin, I could not believe my ears: These ancient Cameroonians were actually playing German marches and Berlin folk tunes! As we learned later, this band was well known and beloved and frequently hired for social occasions in Yaoundé. Its members were relics of Cameroon’s time as a German colony more than fifty years earlier, and they spoke only German, with a Rhineland accent, in addition, of course, to their own tribal language.
As we filed into the small and rather dilapidated airport building, I had another shock: a considerable number of people from the American Embassy had come out to meet us. I was even more thunderstruck to discover that the welcoming party was headed by none other than the ambassador himself. I was then still a junior officer; my assignment to Yaoundé was as a second secretary of embassy, and I had no reason to expect such honors; in Berlin I had considered myself fortunate if I was met at the airport by a driver from the motor pool. But I understood soon enough. To put it charitably, there was little to do for amusement in Yaoundé—the post report had been accurate on that score. A favored form of entertainment was to troop out to the airport on the pretext of seeing someone off, seeing someone else arrive, or just go there with no pretext at all, to sit on the veranda which faced the single runway, drink beer, and watch the ancient Air Cameroun and Air Afrique DC-4s and DC-6s land and take off. It was especially gratifying to see their engines belching fire as they screeched down the runway.
Our tour of duty in Central Africa began most pleasantly that warm July morning in 1966. We were dead tired but excited to have reached our destination at last. It was especially nice to find ourselves invited to lunch at the home of the embassy’s counselor for administration. Luncheon (the more informal word “lunch” does not do it justice) began with gin and tonic served on the veranda overlooking a lush and lovely garden. A middle-aged “boy”4 of pleasant and dignified mien then brought out a fabulous first course of large, succulent Cameroonian avocado stuffed with crab meat, followed by his specialty, stuffed peppers. His name was Jeannot; a few months later we were living in the same house and he was in our employ, and we never grew tired of his stuffed peppers and rice.
This is really nice, I thought, leaning back in my chair and studying the strange-looking lawn (pure, unadulterated crab grass, clipped short and, in the absence of “real” grass, not so bad-looking). We spent a couple of hours being “briefed” most helpfully about housing, schools, domestic help, shopping and all the rest. After the rather imminent departure of our hosts from Cameroon this lovely villa where we had enjoyed our first meal would become our home; meanwhile we would occupy temporary housing.
I have not seen Yaoundé in thirty years and assume that it has changed and grown considerably. In 1966 it was a small, quiet town with a single paved street, a few shops, a couple of small hotels and French restaurants. The ministries of the government occupied two-story buildings surrounded by wide verandas, built by the German colonial power before World War I. The small diplomatic corps (there were only thirteen embassies) lived in a part of town called Plateau Bastos, after a factory there which made “Bastos” cigarettes, a brand popular not only in Central Africa but also in France and Belgium. The most prominent feature of the expatriate community was the imposing three-story Soviet Embassy. As Yaoundé lacked street names and house numbers, the Soviet Embassy building served as principal reference point on all the improvised maps we drew to direct guests to our houses.
Our first (temporary) house faced a picture-post-card African village of small huts and tall palm trees—a truly exotic and beautiful sight, especially on nights when a huge full moon shone down upon it as the only source of illumination. Our house was built on several levels. Always keen on his privacy, our son chose a bedroom on the lower level; he and I went down there early on our first evening to get him settled. This set the scene for our first, totally unnerving encounter with what I consider to be one of nature’s true horrors—the great African flying cockroach. I would rather have faced murderous Kenyan Mau Mau or crazed Congolese Simbas than two-inch long flying cockroaches. I understand that there are strange people called entomologists who find such creatures interesting and even endearing, but I will never understand them. For me, giant cockroaches are what the rats were for Winston Smith in Room 101 of George Orwell’s 1984—the ultimate, unendurable horror. Before I knew what was happening, several of the beasts had landed on my back, and I started screaming uncontrollably at my poor and equally terrified 11-year-old son, “Get them off me! Get them off me!” Upstairs, my wife and daughters—not realizing that the situation as actually much more serious—thought we were being attacked by naked savages from the neighboring village. Our son never did sleep downstairs in that house.
There was much to learn about survival in Yaoundé—shopping, for example. The town had a single, small, smelly, shabby and poorly stocked branch of Printania, a French supermarket chain. To enter the store it was necessary to run a gauntlet of begging lepers, piteously crying, “Cadeau, cadeau!” (literally, a present, but used here to mean a handout). Across Yaoundé’s main street from Printania there were a few grocery and butcher shops run by Greeks or Lebanese—Cameroon’s ersatz lower-middle class.5 Meat, imported from France, was of good quality but inordinately expensive. Dirt cheap and truly wonderful, on the other hand, was the fruit grown in the countryside around Yaoundé—the afore-mentioned avocados, the ripe bananas, plantains, mangos and papaya. All vegetables and especially salad greens had to be soaked in permanganate laundry detergent before they were considered safe to eat; it did little to improve the flavor. And all drinking water had to be boiled for ten minutes and then run through a filter provided by the embassy.
We became quite accustomed to storing our drinking water in old bottles in the refrigerator. As square bottles afforded the most economical use of shelf space, our containers of choice were quart-size Beefeater gin bottles. A Sunday School lesson about the miracle Jesus performed at the Wedding of Cana prompted the missionary kindergarten teacher to ask her charges to tell the class what their families did about drinking water. Whereupon our five-year-old regaled her teacher and the missionary children by proudly exclaiming, “We keep our water in old gin bottles!”
After a mishap following one of our cocktail parties, we switched to whisky bottles. The children were accustomed to rising early and fixing their own breakfast, including preparation of the only orange drink available—”Tang”—mixed with water from the fridge. On this particular and memorable morning, however, they unwittingly used a full bottle of Beefeater’s, left in the refrigerator the night before by one of the house boys. Having thus reinvented Screwdrivers, the children staggered happily off to school, leaving a note sternly warning us not to drink the “orange juice”.
From the day of our arrival in Yaoundé, our embassy colleagues insisted that life without servants was impossible and unheard-of; we must hire at least three house boys right away—a cook, a gardener, and an all-round servant who would clean, do laundry, make beds, serve and do all the rest. The embassy provided “guards” to protect the house at night. I have placed quotation marks around the word guards in order to convey derision. Our “guardiens” in Yaoundé—just like, later, our “sentinels” in Kinshasa—were a joke. Feeble old men armed with bits of medieval weaponry, they slept the sleep of the just in our driveway, stoned to the eyeballs on marijuana. Our main concern was not to run over them with the car when we returned home from some evening function. I doubt whether they would even have noticed.
Stories about the exploits of house boys were without number; swapping these tales in an endless endeavor to outdo one another provided the main form of social exchange on Yaoundé’s diplomatic parquet. Soon, we had quite a few stories of our own to contribute. There was our first cook, Adamou, a proud and fierce Muslim Fulani from northern Cameroon—an excellent cook with memorable French dishes in his repertoire, but also a man who loved to argue about anything and everything, mostly what he considered to be the inadequacy of his pay (which was at least standard if not generous). Adamou delighted in putting me in the uncomfortable position of having to say “no,” especially in the curious matter of his wife’s bride price.
Adam had been married for quite a number of years and had several children. But to hear him tell it, he had been too poor to pay the customary bride price when he got married, and now his father-in-law was threatening to take away his wife unless he paid up. The sum was considerable by African or, for that matter, American standards. Naturally Adam wanted me to lend him the money, to be repaid over several lifetimes. Just as naturally, I refused, and this caused recurring tension and much loud banging of pots and pans in our kitchen.
Then there was shining Venant, a pleasant and handsome man who worked hard and well, and whose only weakness, if one could call it that, seemed to be his devotion to personal grooming. Venant literally glistened with cleanliness. Eventually we discovered why. After his afternoon shower Venant liked to anoint himself—all over—with oil. Wesson’s Salad Oil, that is. When the two-year supply we had brought to Cameroon with us began to dwindle alarmingly, we had to insist that Venant find another source of ointment.
Young John came from English-speaking West Cameroon—a great relief to us when out French was still very fragile. However, John’s English was mostly pidgin, not much more understandable to us than Venant’s French. John was a nice kid, probably still in his teens, whose great weakness was baking bread. He baked every single day, great quantities of alarmingly heavy loaves, consuming staggering quantities of the British self-rising flour we imported from Lagos, Nigeria. John also killed mice in the kitchen with awesome skill and speed, using for that purpose the very same trusty machete with which he sawed through our daily bread. And he also did the laundry, reducing my fourteen-year-old daughter’s dresses to sizes which fit only our five-year-old.
Not that things were much different with the crew we took on board two years later in Kinshasa, Zaire. Ignace, the general factotum, was hired on the strength of his claim that he could cook breakfast. (Camille, our excellent cook, came at noon and worked through supper, putting up more or less cheerfully with having all four of our children underfoot in the kitchen as he worked.) Ignace adhered to an unvarying routine: He arrived about seven, fried my egg, set it aside, made orange juice, toast and coffee; at seven thirty, upon hearing my foot steps in the hall, Ignace refried the egg. All my efforts to persuade Ignace to do things differently foundered on his standard response to any request or admonition: “Oui, Patron.” And so for two years in Zaire, I ate tire patches for breakfast. Ignace further endeared himself to us with his equally standard battle cry whenever anything went wrong in his vicinity,”Pas ma faute!” (not my fault!).
Our permanent Yaoundé home—the villa where we had lunched on our first day—was a spacious and charming house, but it also had some inexplicable features. For instance, the back wall of the house, facing the direction whence came the violent thunder showers which struck several times a day during the rainy season had pretty open work, presumably for better ventilation. Thus, every afternoon during rainy season great quantities of water blew in and cascaded down the stairs into the living room until finally I was able to persuade the embassy administrative section to glass in that side of the house. Another source of joy to me during rainy season was our fairly steep dirt road—in fact, laterite, a form of clay which when wet is more slippery than greased ice. The rains came right after lunch, when I had to get back to the office. I would get into the car and try to head up the dripping laterite road towards town and the chancery. The car would then promptly skid sideways and gradually slide toward the bottom of the hill where I would eventually get enough purchase to coax the car back up the hill and onto level ground.
My favorite recollection of our lovely garden concerns the cows. Every few days a large herd of emaciated, hump-backed Zebu cattle, driven about 800 miles south from Chad to the Yaoundé slaughter house, would wander along our road, turn in at the open garden gate, and munch contentedly on our flowers and shrubs before allowing the cowherds to drive them back out into the street to resume their mournful journey.
Amusements in Yaoundé had to be self-generated. Since the entertainment value of house boy stories had obvious limits, we put on amateur theatricals. We participated in two major stage productions (Our Town and Carousel) and held monthly play readings. The only Soviet diplomat allowed out by himself—obviously the KGB rezident—chose to join the cast of Carousel and attended rehearsals faithfully—always without his score. His apparent objective was to collect as many copies as possible to send home to Moscow. As a member of the chorus, he had only one line. Given his Russian accent, it was inevitable that soon he acquired the nickname “Mr. Kvityashovin”. His real name I have long since forgotten.
The lead in Our Town went to green-eyed Barbara Greenberg, pretty wife of our young Peace Corps doctor. I was sufficiently smitten that for the next play reading I chose Christopher Fry’s wildly romantic The Lady’s not for Burning, just to watch those green eyes in the title role.
END NOTES1. With apologies to Isak Dinesen.
2. This was Herman J. (“Hank”) Cohen, later Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs, and competent indeed.
3. Zoologist Gerald Durrell was the brother of the better-known Lawrence Durrell of Alexandria Quartet fame. Set in Cameroon, The Bafut Beagles brought instant fame to the Fon of Bafut, an African noble who was still living among his hundreds of wives and kinsmen during our years in that country. An introduction to that worthy was accomplished by the simple expedient of taking a bottle or two of gin on a visit to his compound. One of my embassy colleagues did this, and reported back that the Fon was much incensed at Durrell for having depicted him as a drunk.
4. A benighted anglicism on which the French colonials continued to insist, long after Anglophone Africa had adopted the less unfortunate term “steward”.
5. Third World countries like Cameroon had no native middle class to speak of when they emerged from colonial rule. The essential role of such a class was played by foreigners. In Cameroon these were mainly Levantines; in Zaire—our next post —Indians and Pakistanis served as the shopkeepers, repairmen, and the like. The next rung up the economic ladder was usually occupied by natives of the former colonial power— Frenchmen in Cameroon, Belgians in Zaire.