I wake up some mornings craving Africa. It's been almost twenty years since I left and I feel far removed now from a continent that I felt for a long time was part of me. Of course, Africa is an incredibly large and diverse place. My Africa might not be someone else's Africa. My Africa was (for three years) a relatively prosperous and stable Francophone country in western Africa and (for another three years) an Islamic country in northern Africa.
I fell in love with my west African country the moment I set foot there. Well, that's not exactly true. The moment I set foot in the airport of the port city, I was drenched in sweat within two minutes. The air was so humid and muggy that you could literally feel it's heaviness. Fortunately, the capital city where we were to live was more elevated and temperate. We had two seasons to cope with -- the dry season during which a fine red dust seemed to cover everything, and a wet season when there were heavy rainfalls every single day. There is nothing more soothing than falling asleep to the sound of a heavy pounding rain falling on a metal roof. Of course, on one occasion it wasn't quite so soothing, when a good portion of our roof blew off during the storm.
Another wonderful sound I remember was drums and chanting as I fell asleep one night soon after we arrived. I remember thinking how lovely it would be to fall asleep like that every night. But it was to be an isolated event in our neighborhood, the funeral (I learned later) of a prominent local politician.
I loved the internationalism of our community. My classmates were French and Belgian and Italian and African and Israeli and Greek and Dutch and German and Indian and lots of other nationalities. The British children all went home to the U.K. for boarding school at very young ages but we spent one Christmas eating mince pies with our British friends and they also hosted a lavish party to celebrate the wedding of Prince Charles and Princess Diana, which we listened to on the BBC. The Soviet and Chinese children were all at home because their home government would not allow intact nuclear families to live abroad lest they defect. But sometimes we were invited to the Chinese Embassy for lavish twelve course meals or to the Soviet Embassy to watch a film on wheat production in the Ukraine. We would sometimes see North Koreans from a distance, all, even the babies, wearing little pins bearing the image of their Dear Leader.
There was a very strong French presence in this country. In my American school, for some reason, we always used the French word "cahier" to refer to our notebooks, and we all had to take French language class. (I was thrilled to learn my first French sentence: "Le tracteur est rouge.") We read the French and Belgian comic book series Asterix, and Tintin. I also took horseback riding lessons at the local French horse club. My French riding instructor always reminded me a little of Napoleon. He would scream and wave his riding crop around if I wasn't doing well, which I usually wasn't. But it was hard to take him seriously because he would sometimes break into English and yell that I had to "CONTROL THE HORSEY!!!" I could never bring myself to tell him that "horsey" isn't actually the proper word.
I loved being tuned in to African politics and African music and African art and African sports (hurray World Cup and tennis player Yannick Noah!). In school, we read African literature, listened to African music, and ate African food. When a plague of locusts covered every available surface in our classroom, our teacher invited us to pop the locusts in our mouths and eat them just like the African children. Many people we knew had lived in other parts of Africa, so I grew to have a sense of what it was like in Mali and Mauritania and Niger and Zimbabwe and Sierra Leone. I knew all about the war going on in Chad, and I wondered what was going to happen in the wake of several coups in Ghana.
On one particular morning, I woke up to find myself in the middle of a coup attempt, in which Muslim and English-speaking factions united to try to take over the government from the Christian, French-speaking elite. The American community used CB radios to communicate since there was only very limited phone service, and that morning there was all sorts of yelling over the radio as people called in panicking and the Embassy Marine Guard issued instructions. There was also heavy shooting happening on the street outside our house. We happened to be among the very few Americans living in the area with the heaviest shooting. My dad was in Europe on business, so my mother and I spent the morning on the floor behind the bed in my parents' bedroom and away from the windows, as instructed by the Embassy Marine Guard.
Then suddenly, the Marine Guard were at our door to evacuate us to a safer location. We had to run sort of under cover by the marines to a van outside our gate. Then we had to sit on the floor of the van, while the marines drove us to the Ambassador's house. We were there for three days and three nights. We were among the first to arrive but eventually the entire American community of over a hundred people wound up there, except for some of the diplomats and Marines in the Embassy. We ate C-rations. There was only very limited running water so we couldn't shower, and I hadn't had time to bring a change of clothes or a toothbrush. One woman spent the whole time in the corner, hysterical and yelling, "WE'RE ALL GOING TO DIE!" At times she would quiet down to just muffled sobbing, and then she would start yelling again. Most of the other people were laid-back because they had all been through other coups and coup attempts in other African countries. Some kids were trying to scare people by popping balloons. My friends and I watched videos. (I remember watching "Class" starring Andrew McCarthy and Jacqueline Bisset and a mini-series called "Celebrity.")
There wasn't a lot of shooting near our new location, but at one point some trigger-happy youths in a jeep shot through the windows of one of the bedrooms. A bunch of us also crowded around the radio hoping to hear a mention of the coup on either the BBC or the Voice of America. Finally, there was one sentence about it after some lengthy report about a crisis in the Canadian salmon fishing industry. After three days, the coup was defeated and we were able to go home, feed our terrified dog, and take much-needed showers. We had to stay indoors for another three to four days as martial law was in effect.
Later that summer, we went back to the U.S. I hadn't set foot outside of Africa for three whole years, which is a very long time when you are between the ages of 10 and 13. It was weird to see things like guard rails and painted lines on the roads. The array of products to choose from in the grocery stores seemed bewildering. I wasn't used to having telephones and televisions and drinking water directly from the tap. And I couldn't figure out why so many people were wearing t-shirts that said "Michael." I knew who Michael Jackson was but I had no idea how staggeringly successful he was or that the t-shirts referred to him. That fall, we moved to a different country in Africa, an Islamic one, for another three year stint.
Now, all these years later, I take all the amenities of American life for granted and I am no longer as tuned in as I wish I were to current events in Africa. But I miss eating mangos for dessert every day. I miss bargaining for malachite jewelry and embroidered shirts at the market set up by Islamic traders from the north. I miss the sounds of African-accented French. I hope one day I can go back but I have no idea how or when.
UPDATED: Re-reading this, I am now questioning my own memory as to whether we rode on the floor of the marine's van during our evacuation from our home during the coup attempt. Presumably, the van would have been bullet proof, right? So maybe I am remembering it incorrectly, or maybe they wanted me on the floor because I was a kid and they didn't want me to see the shooting.