(Note: I wrote this in 2015, intending for it to be presented in some form on a radio program. That didn’t happen, but it did appear on the website whitebiocentrism.com. It’s more an attempt to educate than entertain, to provide a snapshot of everyday life in post-colonial Africa, based on what I saw. As such, it’s somewhat different in style to the other travel stories on this page, but there are enough anecdotes to make it fun reading. Away from the famous game parks, which see a steady stream of foreign tourists, comparatively few travelers venture into the African hinterland, far fewer than I encountered throughout Asia and South America. That’s because, on the whole, traveling through Africa is much more difficult and unpredictable than anywhere else in the world. It’s still very much an adventurer’s continent.)
What is daily life in Africa like? What do black Africans think of white people? What could you expect if you spent five months traveling by basic means around seventeen countries in sub-Saharan Africa? I’m one of only a very few racially conscious whites who has traveled widely, and at ground level, around the Dark Continent, and it’s my pleasure to share my observations with listeners of this program.
I’ll begin with an overview. Back in the 1970s and 1980s, three or four travel companies, based in England, specialized in what was called overlanding. Using either Land Rovers or sturdy military-type trucks seating about fifteen, they operated tours, or better said, expeditions, lasting from one to three months across many African countries. This involved camping in the bush every night and preparing meals from canned and packaged provisions supplemented by whatever fresh food could be found in local markets.
Because of the endless problems of extended travel on such a volatile continent, these companies either folded or drastically cut back on their operations about twenty-five years ago; some countries that I visited are now completely off the map .
I booked my first overland trip in 1981. Setting out from Tunisia in two Land Rovers and crossing the Sahara Desert in the neighboring Arab country of Algeria, Niger was my first look at black Africa, and then it was on to Burkina Faso (then called Upper Volta), Togo and Ghana. The following year I booked a two-month segment of a three-month journey, visiting Kenya, Tanzania, Rwanda, the Congo (known as Zaire then), the Central African Republic, Cameroon and Nigeria. This trip began on a high note, but a month later, in the Congolese city of Kisangani, known in colonial days as Stanleyville – in the very heart of the Heart of Darkness – the rigors of crossing Africa had taken their toll. Some people had stomach problems, personality conflicts were flaring left and right, and we were exhausted from pulling guard duty in two-hour shifts through the night to prevent thieves from slitting and reaching into tents and stripping the truck bare. Worse, the trip leader and a young British fellow had contracted malaria. Everything was falling apart.
Learning that a ferry was scheduled to sail down the Congo River the following day, two companions and I deserted the group and struck out on our own. (The ferry was actually a floating African city of three connected barges maneuvered by a pusher boat, bound for the capital of Kinshasa, 1100 miles away; when it got stuck on a sandbar, with no sign after fifteen hours that it would be freed, we again deserted.) This was to be the most perilous adventure of my life, particularly getting through the Congo, the most primitive and regressive country on earth, and even by African standards in a special category. We also made it through the aforementioned countries, with a side trip by motorized dugout canoe to N’Djamena, the capital of Chad, which at the time was taking a breather after three years of civil war.
In 1988 I flew to Johannesburg with my former wife and we traveled for two months more comfortably, staying in cheap hotels, campgrounds with facilities, and a few private homes to which we were invited. In South Africa, Namibia and Lesotho we got around by rental car, while in Botswana and Zimbabwe we mostly hitchhiked and cadged lifts from white drivers. So while I can’t say that I understand the African mind as intimately as those intrepid whites who have lived among them in the bush, I can say, having met and spoken to many of these people, having read voraciously about all aspects of Africa, and having traveled far and wide around the continent for a cumulative total of five months, that I have a clear perspective.
I should first say that Africa is a huge place consisting of many countries, the borders of which were drawn by the former colonial powers, mainly France and Great Britain, and correspond only loosely to tribal boundaries, tribalism being the most powerful force on the continent.
All these countries have their own character, in the same sense that distinguishes the nations of Europe, and even within each country conditions often vary greatly. Thus, it is absurd to make sweeping generalizations, such as writing off Africa as a continent of filth, disease, savagery and so forth. There is certainly plenty of truth in those characterizations, but there’s also much about Africa that’s beautiful, magical and even amusing. The good and the bad are often intertwined with each other.
As an example take Kenya, home of the bestial Mau Mau revolt in the 1950s, which due to its wonderful game parks and sound infrastructure, probably draws more white tourists than any other country in black Africa. Nairobi, the capital, was the starting point of my 1982 trip, the quiet airport where I landed to become a shooting gallery two months later during an attempted coup. From a distance Nairobi looks like a mid-sized American city; the downtown area is reasonably clean and attractive with restaurants, hotels and souvenir shops, as well as supermarkets and department stores. Nairobi is far better off than most African cities. However, Kenya in general and Nairobi in particular are neither the friendliest nor the safest places in Africa, and any reliable guidebook will warn you to avoid certain city districts during the day, and stay off the streets entirely at night. One scene in Nairobi stays with me: an armored truck pulled up to a bank to make a cash deposit. Four guards got out and positioned themselves on the sidewalk. Two held wooden clubs, the other two machetes.
A few days later, having begun my trans-Africa journey, we were camped on the Indian Ocean outside the coastal city of Mombassa. Despite warnings not to stray from the group, two women went for a walk on the beach and were mugged by two machete-wielding men. Fortunately, they were unharmed, but they did lose their cameras and a lot of cash. To the credit of the local authorities, two native policemen, accompanied by a dog, were assigned to search for the robbers. Women, police and dog piled into a jeep and scoured the area for several hours, but failed to find them.
To round out my memories of Kenya, after camping out one night in the Tsavo game park, we all agreed to skip the chore of making breakfast and ate instead at the nearby Kilaguni Lodge, a rustic structure full of character. We enjoyed a full English breakfast, served by humble African waiters in red jackets and bow ties, on a veranda that overlooked a waterhole where numerous animals were flocking to drink in the cool of morning in the shadow of Mount Kilimanjaro. It was one of the most sublime experiences of my life – truly Heaven on Earth.
The prevalence of violent crime against tourists in Kenya notwithstanding, most of the time I spent in Africa I felt quite safe. To be sure, there were some scary moments, but the only crime for which one needs to be constantly alert is petty theft. Actually, the great majority of black Africans are well-disposed towards white people, and the uncommon sight of whites traveling through the countryside is invariably met by friendly curiosity and big smiles. Throughout Africa there are no Al Sharptons, no affirmative action programs, and no Jewish media lies to agitate the natives. In fact, many, if not most, do not read newspapers, let alone watch television, electricity and plumbing being luxuries enjoyed by only a privileged few. For the majority, contact with whites has been limited to missionaries, doctors or Peace Corps types who have improved their lives in some way. In their simple minds they sense that most whites are good people, better than themselves, and they try to reciprocate. Several times I was the recipient of overflowing kindness from people who owned little more than the shabby clothes they were wearing.
No man ever did more to alleviate the suffering of primitive Africans than Albert Schweitzer, a German of many talents, who for many years of his long life ran a jungle clinic in the west African nation of Gabon. His book On The Edge Of The Primeval Forest, published in 1922, is unknown and unread in today’s politically correct America, yet it is fascinating to see how so little has changed in regard to white-black relations on the Dark Continent. Despite his misplaced altruism and religious delusions Schweitzer became an unabashed white supremacist, albeit a benevolent one, and among many other naughty things he wrote that the superiority of the white man is so obvious to the African native that it ceases to be taken into account. One notable fact about modern Africa, never mentioned in the controlled media, is the total dependence on white intelligence and technical expertise. The hospitals, utilities, schools, factories, hotels, airports and so forth – where they exist – are run almost exclusively by whites, and the blacks who work under them as subordinates or servants consider themselves very lucky. Not only is this situation not resented, it is universally accepted as perfectly natural. Indeed, it is completely understood by the great majority of African heads of state, and I believe that the natural friendliness of most negroes towards whites is augmented by the positive racial attitudes instilled by their leaders.
Of course, there are exceptions, and the one that immediately comes to mind is South Africa, which is ruled by a white-hating psychopath named Jacob Zuma, a former protege of Nelson Mandela. Like everyone who listens to this program, I deeply feel for the whites who have lost their country, particularly those whose family members have been butchered by savages egged on by Zuma and company. While I know that the number of white victims is very high, and that South Africa under black rule has rapidly deteriorated on every front, I must admit that I am confused about the actual situation there, and suspect that, while certain areas, particularly the outlying farm districts, are extremely dangerous for whites, other areas are relatively safe; I simply don’t know. I will say that when I was there in 1988 – a twilight period when Mandela was still in prison and whites still ruled, although the apartheid system was being dismantled – I did not feel in danger at any time, though neither was the atmosphere relaxed. Having already traveled and read a great deal about Africa, including several suppressed books on South Africa, I never for a moment took American news reports of what was happening there seriously, nor was I surprised to learn that the vast majority of the black population were either indifferent or supportive of the white regime, and that no more than ten percent identified with Mandela and his communist African National Congress. Furthermore, I was told by an Afrikaner that among the Zulus, the country’s most populous tribe, Mandela, a Xhosa, was universally detested. In fact, I had read earlier that a strong bond exists between the Zulus, many of whom see themselves as a warrior master race, and the Afrikaners, who formerly, but tragically no longer, were the embodiment of strength, determination and wise statecraft, qualities to which most black Africans are magnetically attracted.
Again, I do not fully understand what is taking place today in South Africa, which even in the best of times, given the plethora of tribes and races, and not only white and black, was unsustainable. Then there was, and I suppose still is, the longstanding antagonism between the two major white groups, the Boers of Dutch background and those of British descent. In fact, the only white liberals I ever met on the entire continent were of this latter group, their minds poisoned by the Jewish media centered in Johannesburg, the New York City of Africa. I could not believe some of the things I heard these people say about the situation in their country, which were indistinguishable from what one would expect of a trendy American social studies teacher. I could not believe that on such a primordial, unforgiving continent where the strong live and the weak die, where right next door in Zimbabwe, white farmers were being murdered and dispossessed, presaging what would come in South Africa under black rule – not to mention the bloody insurrections against the Portuguese the previous decade in neighboring Mozambique and nearby Angola – I could not believe that whites could express shame over how blacks in their country were treated, and how things needed to change. What these same sorry whites are saying now, twenty-seven years later – if they’re still alive, that is – I have no idea.
Six years earlier, in fact, while I was still in Africa nearing the end of my 1982 trip, the driver of a company called Encounter Overland, similar to the one I had signed up with, came upon a log in the road in Zimbabwe which forced him to stop. The log had been placed there by rebels who abducted six white men from the group. They were never heard from again. Years later their skeletons were found in a shallow grave. The thought that it could’ve been me, especially in the Congo, haunts me to this day.
Although it is true that the murderers were caught and hanged on the orders of Robert Mugabe, the racist prince of darkness who today at the age of 91 still rules over Zimbabwe, I had no illusions about this being a safe country. Nevertheless, after assessing the risks, I decided to go there and with my wife hitched a ride with a white South African couple and their two daughters, aged about ten and twelve, who were on a brief camping vacation. We had our own tent and sleeping bags and at their invitation decided to join them for a few days. Again, I was speechless as this woman lectured her daughters on social justice, racial harmony, and all that other good liberal stuff. For my own part I had a sense of foreboding as we drove along the eerily quiet road, which so unlike the African countryside appeared to be uninhabited, knowing that in this region Mugabe’s Shona soldiers had slaughtered some 20,000 of the Matabele tribe. As we rounded each curve I wondered, “Is this it? Are we going to come upon a log in the road?” Whether it was sound intuition, or just my overheated imagination, this was one of the seven or eight days out of five months that Africa filled me with mortal fear. Nor did this feeling subside when we reached a campground in a small game park that was deserted, except for a black caretaker who ignored us. Too many terrible things had recently happened in this country. But as it turned out, the only trouble we had late that afternoon was with a troop of vervet monkeys that conducted a hit and run raid on some food we had left unattended. And as I settled into my sleeping bag that night, my thoughts shifted from dangerous people to dangerous animals.
Aside from the many species of antelope and a few other mild-mannered ungulates, most African wildlife, not just the predators, can be as dangerous as cancer under the wrong circumstances. Few people know that hippos kill more people, usually from thoughtless intrusion by boat or canoe, than any other species, and by the most conservative estimate, seven people a day are taken and eaten by crocodiles in modern Africa. If you sleep outside in any of the many game parks scattered through the south and east, you will always hear animal sounds in the night that awaken a primeval memory of the days when killer apes descended from the trees and evolved into men. Whether or not that’s fanciful nonsense on my part, there is something both exhilarating and frightening about being in the midst of so many animals. In passing, I’ll mention two unpleasant encounters I had at other times – one with an elephant, the other with a baboon. But on this night in Zimbabwe, the occasional honking of hippos in a river a safe distance from my tent was more pacifying than threatening, and the far-off, rising call of a hyena at three in the morning – that most bewitching of African sounds – was nothing to worry about.
As it turned out, we didn’t have a single problem during our five days in Zimbabwe. The drive with our South African family to the large city of Bulawayo was uneventful, as was our stay in Bulawayo itself. From there we made a delightful excursion by train, pulled by an antique steam engine, to Victoria Falls, truly one of the world’s most magnificent spectacles, before turning south into Botswana. Despite some famous adventures in that country’s Okavango River delta and superb Chobe game park, this vague feeling of racial unease, of intangible danger beneath the tranquil surface – a feeling totally absent from the west African countries I visited – lingered. Though sparsely populated, Botswana did not impress me as a friendly country.
But there is nothing intangible about the Congo, by which I mean the enormous country in the dead center of Africa that once was the Belgian Congo (from 1971 to 1997 it went by the nonsense name of Zaire), as distinguished from the much smaller neighboring country, also called the Congo, which was formerly administered by the French. Alone among African nations, the Congo exploded into a prolonged period of chaos and savagery immediately upon being granted independence by Belgium in 1960. It is a searing story, and for those unfamiliar with it, excellent books like Mike Hoare’s Congo Mercenary and David Reed’s 111 Days In Stanleyville recount a small part of it. Amid wholesale rape, murder, cannibalism and tribal war, over ninety-five percent of the 100,000 Europeans living in the Congo fled, never to return, a few thousand were butchered, and that is why, in both a metaphorical and literal sense, the Congo has reverted to the jungle. Whereas throughout Africa children in roadside villages would cheer and wave at the unusual sight of a group of whites passing through, in the Congo it was much more common to see children chanting and twirling their fingers at us, apparently calling down a curse, or a boy of eight or nine drawing a finger across his throat, or an adolescent making a lewd gesture towards one of the women. I covered a thousand miles in the Congo, but never saw one filling station, and outside of Kisangani, not a single hotel or restaurant. There are almost no traces of what the Belgians left behind, including roads. Throughout black Africa, except in isolated areas, roads do exist, some paved, some hard earth, here and there in states of disrepair, but with a little luck and a lot of patience you can get from A to B by “bush taxi” – African slang for anything on wheels.
In the Congo, however, which is larger than France in both area and population, the tracks – I can’t call them “roads” – alternate between marginally passable dirt stretches, long segments knifed with ruts, and ribbons of mud. If you stand in one spot from dawn to dusk, one, at most two dilapidated trucks stuffed with natives, cargo and livestock will pass, so you better work out a price with the driver and wedge yourself in. This is how my two companions and I made our way across the country, three times having had to abandon the vehicles when they got stuck in axle-deep mud, leaving us no choice but to walk through the jungle. In bits and pieces we walked about thirty miles. At every village we walked through, people flipped out at the sight of us; a few times one or two boys followed us, screaming in French, “Give me a gift! Give me a pen!”, then throwing rocks at us when they got nothing, before turning back.
This daily dose of raw racism was something I encountered nowhere else in Africa, except in a very few isolated incidents. I have no explanation for it; I can only tell you what I experienced. I also felt it on some of our truck rides, where our fellow passengers eyed us with sullen hatred. Yet on some rides they were relaxed and friendly; there was no consistency. On the last stretch from Boyabo to the border town of Zongo, they were very kind indeed, insisting that we get the best seat, with our feet dangling over the cab. I will never forget inching our way those last twenty miles in the darkness, our driver negotiating a series of horrible ruts, the insanely overloaded truck twisting and groaning, our boys singing softly, their voices rising in a crescendo of alarm when it seemed the truck would tip over, then resuming their singing with a bit of relieved laughter when it righted itself.
I doubt there are a thousand whites in the Congo. The majority who remain are missionaries. Most nights on our own we ended up in a small town where there was a mission, and were given a spare room to sleep in, usually on the floor. These people, of various European nationalities, were very nice to us. Even though they are sad specimens who have wasted their lives, as they themselves seem to know, one can’t help but admire their courage for staying in the Congo. I didn’t know if they had been there in the early sixties, when hundreds of missionaries were murdered, and I did not ask. They drink a lot. It became a commonplace to hear them mocking Africa, its people, and themselves while pouring another glass of whiskey. Many of them will tell you that they love the people they look after, in a resigned kind of way, as one loves a pet or a small child. They can’t leave; psychologically, Africa has consumed them and they would never feel at home in Europe. They’re probably still there in their jungle outposts, their only contact with the outside world the small planes that touch down on grass airstrips with essential supplies, including plenty of beer, wine and liquor. Electricity is provided a few hours each day by generators. If there was running water, they didn’t tell us about it, but we were at least able to fill our canteens with safe drinking water before moving on.
(Update, April 5, 2022: I just came across an excellent YouTube channel featuring the world’s worst roads, four of which are about the Congo. I’ve only watched one so far, which was filmed just three years ago. Watching this brought back priceless memories of what I’ve written about directly above, especially those rides in battered trucks packed to the gills, and impassable stretches of mud. It also shows the everyday lives of people struggling to survive but making do, without any immediate crisis like outright starvation or civil war. This is the real Congo that I saw, and more generally, the real Africa. Kudos to the European film crew who made this documentary for their superb camera work, and for taking big risks under harrowing conditions.)
The diabolical tracks in the Congo, on which it is normally impossible to exceed twenty miles per hour when not crawling, nevertheless are safer than the roads of every other country I visited. That’s because nearly all African drivers have a death wish; one frequently sees rusting roadside wrecks, which the authorities never bother to remove. Accidents with multiple fatalities are a daily occurrence throughout Africa, and the greatest hazard of independent travel on the continent. Getting around by bush taxi is always dangerous, uncomfortable and exasperating. Aside from reckless driving, the vehicles are always ridiculously overloaded, breakdowns are common, and at his whim the driver might stop twenty minutes here, a half-hour there to see acquaintances or visit a brothel. Traveling with the natives provided another insight, unseen when we were in the overland truck: It’s one thing to know, as everyone does, that Africa is a disease-ridden continent; it’s another to see the consequences. It was the rare ride that a child or two, sometimes an adult, did not vomit, and if you’re a few inches away without a clean change of clothes, as I once was, you’ll be most unhappy with the results.
Yes, diseases abound in Africa, but by taking common sense precautions, as one should do anywhere in the Third World, the risks are substantially reduced. I should also state here that I believe AIDS and Ebola were created in American laboratories by depraved scientists and brought to Africa to test their effects on human beings considered expendable – a subject for another time. The one endemic disease that scared me more than all the others combined was malaria. There is a shockingly low awareness among adventurous travelers, not to mention the public at large, of just how widespread and lethal malaria is in the tropical, impoverished regions of this planet, with Africa having by far the highest incidence. Except at high altitudes and in the far south, where the disease tends to be spotty and seasonal, malaria is absolutely rife throughout sub-Saharan Africa. It takes just one bite from an infected mosquito, and doubt persists as to how effective the various preventive medications are. I don’t know of any reliable statistics, but my educated guess is that about fifteen percent of travelers to Africa come down with malaria, and of these ten percent succumb to it. Every thirty seconds a black African, usually a child, dies of malaria. It is and always has been Nature’s ruthless way, with a helping hand from periodic famine and tribal war, of keeping the population in check.
With pleasure I recall the many hours, while on my first two trips, of simply driving through the African countryside, and getting at least a quick glimpse and a feel for everyday life which, as everywhere, is so much different than in the cities. I remember the crowds that would gather around when we stopped at a village market, hoping to buy some eggs or fresh meat, how friendly they would be but still having to watch them closely, not daring to look away for even a moment, lest they steal whatever was not welded to the truck; I remember the little pickaninnies cavorting naked in streams or pools by the roadside, flashing big smiles and shouting and waving as we drove by; I remember welll that archetypical rural African scene: two women, in front of a thatched roof hut, with babies strapped to their backs, working like pistons in an engine as they pounded manioc, the starchy root that fills empty bellies all over Africa, into a soft texture with mortar and pestle. Once, in Rwanda, during a “loo” stop as the British call it – men to one side and women to the other – there were four women walking in the road a hundred yards away, carrying their things in enamel basins balanced on their heads, as is the custom. At the sight of fifteen whites getting out of a truck, they panicked and fled into the surrounding bush in all directions. It was hilarious. Maybe they thought we were out capturing slaves.
In addition to the features of overland travel I’ve mentioned, there are checkpoints and border crossings to deal with. Everywhere on the roads of black Africa, generally spaced five to ten miles apart, are checkpoints. One suddenly comes upon a rope stretched across the road and the sight of two or three armed soldiers or militarized police, still known in the former French colonies as gendarmes. Anything can happen here, but for the most part we were treated better than the locals – just a few questions, sometimes a brief delay as they requested passports and entered the details in a logbook. In Kenya, we were always waved right through, the economy being heavily dependent on happy white tourists, while the locals were ordered to pull over and wait. Thankfully, we came across only a few of these in the Congo, where I had the impression that these guys were under no central control and simply roamed around and set up wherever they felt like it; to my relief, however, they only bothered us for food, cigarettes, and cadeaux – the word for “gift” you hear all over francophone Africa. (Any cadeau will do.) Togo was the one checkpoint nightmare country. Every checkpoint in this small country took some form of harassment. At one, the gendarme ordered our driver to undo the tarpaulin that covered our bags on the roof of the Land Rover. Then he climbed to the top, chose a few bags at random, and threw them into the road, demanding that the owners take all their things out to be inspected. Finding nothing incriminating, he then told our driver he had committed an infraction by allowing the loosened tarpaulin to cover the license plate. I found this idiocy quite unnerving – remember, these were purple-black negroes with guns – and it would have gone further, had he not told us to leave because he had to assist his partner who had gotten into a shouting match with a local driver, who was also being bullied over something stupid. I was very happy to get out of this country, which otherwise was pleasantly laid back.
As with checkpoints, so with borders; you just never know what’s in store for you in Africa. Most border crossings are routine, but sometimes the personality of the official on duty comes into play, and you may have to cough up a mysterious fee (read bribe) or a cadeau or two to be allowed in. At the Nigerian border, a smarmy official shook our hands and welcomed the three of us into the country, then in the next breath informed us that the border was closed because of “the Chad refugee problem”; yet at the next post, not far to the south, we got in without any problem and without any mention of Chadian refugees, none of whom we saw. The same thing had happened earlier when we were with the group, trying to enter the Congo from Rwanda; it was no go at Goma, no reason given, but after a day and a half of tortuous driving on a back road, they let us in at Bukavu. The Tanzania-Rwanda border, a rickety bridge over the Kagera River, stays in my mind as a stark example of how the savagery of Africa, always bubbling beneath the surface, is so easily hidden. That border was the sleepiest one I’ve ever crossed – so sleepy on a Sunday morning on the Rwanda side that no one was there: we gave a boy some pocket change to go find an official so we could get entry stamps in our passport (which were always examined when leaving a country).
In twenty minutes he showed up on his motor scooter, barely awake. Some years later, a news photograph taken at that exact spot, showed countless mutilated bodies clogging the river – Tutsis butchered by their eternal tribal enemies the Hutus. Although, as fantastic as it sounds, whites are regarded as tribeless neutrals and, outside the Congo, would probably be left alone even during these genocidal bloodbaths, you really don’t want to be in the wrong place at the wrong time anywhere in Africa. Odds are that you won’t, and I’m happy to say that my luck never ran out.
In the great majority of countries, English or French, depending on the former colonial power, is an official language, along with the predominant tribal tongue. One or the other is spoken fluently by all officials and educated people, and fairly well even by semi-educated people. Before leaving home I dusted off my high school French, which came in very handy, so communication was never a problem. In fact, many Africans love to engage visiting whites in conversation – “exchanging ideas” as they like to say. Several asked me for my home address, so we could continue to exchange ideas, but this can have unpleasant consequences. Although I felt rotten about doing it, I always gave a fake address. Parenthetically, there is no postal service in most of rural Africa; it’s just too primitive.
I think the French have done the best job in transitioning their former colonies to independence. Of the five countries I visited that once were part of the French colonial empire, I encountered not a hint of anti-white sentiment. Behind the scenes, it seems that France still calls most of the shots, and in many ways these countries still function as colonies. For example, there was and still is an economic federation uniting about a dozen of these countries, the common currency known as the CFA franc. Each country had its own individually designed banknotes, but they were interchangeable and the value of the CFA franc was directly pegged to the value of the French franc, as it is to the Euro today. Furthermore, the French military, which still has bases scattered throughout the region, has often intervened to quell savagery when it has gotten out of hand – although lately I’ve begun to question this assumption.
The veneer of French culture in this part of the world always enchanted me, and here I’d like to share a microcosm of the African experience focusing on Bangui, the capital city of the Central African Republic. Of the seventeen sub-Saharan countries I visited, the C.A.R. was perhaps the most non-descript and uninteresting, and Bangui a typical African urban hellhole. It was, however, a most heavenly hellhole, in fact an African Disneyland. My first sight of Bangui, you see, was from the opposite bank of the Ubangi River, just after we had been stamped out of the Congo, and the sight of a radio tower and a few modern buildings rising from the leafy bluffs across the river, filled me with rapture. Civilization at last! – or at least the appearance of it.
Three years earlier the French had landed paratroops in Bangui to overthrow the barbaric regime of Jean-Bedel Bokassa, one of Africa’s more clownish though lesser-known tyrants. Since there’s always a temptation to embellish when it comes to creatures like Bokassa, I will not comment on allegations that he kept choice cuts of his political rivals in his freezer, or that he ordered his soldiers to gouge out the eyes of schoolchildren who refused to wear badges with his portrait. What we know for certain is that in an obscenely lavish ceremony in 1977, he had himself crowned emperor for life in emulation of his hero Napoleon.
Foremost on my mind, however, after two weeks of subsisting on little more than bananas, canned sardines and warm water, was eating in a real restaurant and drinking cold beer. Other luxuries awaited us. There was a campground of sorts, desperate for business, three miles from the downtown area, where they actually had showers, flush toilets, and cots with mosquito nets. I was so filthy and exhausted from my African journey that I didn’t want to even think about leaving this place. But my fondest memory is the patisserie run by two pretty French girls in the city center, where one could sit down to a café au lait and an exquisite pastry. I loved this little touch of Paris in this squalid African backwater. And the three of us welcomed the opportunity to get out of each other’s hair for four days. I began each morning at the patisserie, followed by a rendezvous with the two familiar street vendors selling coconut slices and hard-boiled eggs. I even discovered a recent English language issue of Time magazine for sale on the street. No king ever had it so good.
All I really wanted to do was rest, so I spent much of my time at the campground, which was a five minute walk from kilometer cinq, where the collective taxi from town stopped to pick up or drop off passengers. It was a slummy area, but just as I’d had a sixth sense of fear in Zimbabwe, here I felt safe. I even took a few walks in the darkness, past silent vendors with kerosene lamps cooking deep-fried dough, and others with small wooden boxes holding loose cigarettes, ballpoint pens and such. I walked past a derelict in rags, his genitals exposed, past a young mother threatening her crying child with the burning end of a stick, past others living out their nasty, brutish and short lives – and I was not afraid, as I’d certainly be in the black area of any American city at night.
The campground was guarded by a leathery man with a bow and arrow and six German Shepherds (!) and run by a friendly local named Dominique, who offered to prepare meals at a reasonable price. On the second day I took him up on his offer, deciding to treat myself to a well-deserved steak dinner. Dominique said he’d have it ready by six o’clock. At six he said he’d have it ready by seven. At seven he said he was sorry, but there was no meat in the market that day. African efficiency for you.
Apparently, our guard was a part timer because one day a deranged man with a military camouflage t-shirt and black beret came in. He sat down next to me and started talking gibberish. Dominique came over and told me to ignore him. The man told him, surprisingly in English, “Crawl back into your hole.” Dominique was obviously scared of him – I was uncomfortable myself – and went away, only to return with a bible which he held opened in his left hand, his right hand extended. The man got up and began clawing the air, imitating, it seemed, a leopard sizing up his prey and waiting for the moment to pounce. Dominique rigidly held his bible, his right palm facing outward, and the two of them advanced and retreated, advanced and retreated. This was the real Africa I’d only read about, the Africa of witchcraft and superstition with the veil now lifted, and it was both fascinating and frightening to watch. I thought the thing might end in murder and that I’d somehow be involved. This went on for close to five minutes, never a word spoken, then suddenly, as if outcursed, the leopard-man turned on his heel and jauntily walked out the door, and Dominique returned to his amiable self.
There was no internet in 1982, of course, so I went to the telecommunications building and with some difficulty placed a call to my anxious mother to assure her I was alive and well. I spent many hours at the campground writing letters and postcards. There were some interesting stamps for sale at the gritty post office. One celebrated Spain’s victory in the World Cup match earlier that year, another the recent wedding of Prince Charles and Princess Diana. Yet another, if you can believe it, commemorated Charles Lindbergh’s solo flight across the Atlantic. The two I used, however, were somewhat more apropos. One showed Bokassa’s jewel-encrusted crown upside-down, impaled by a bayonet, the other his statue, which he had erected in Bangui, being yanked off its pedestal by a rope tied around his neck. On both were the words, in French: “Fall of the Empire. The Republic Restored.” I asked Dominique about the Bokassa years, and he assured me that the population lived in daily terror, and that things were so much better now. Unfortunately, the republic was fated to be restored over and over since I was there, and in the last ten years or so, right up to the present hour, the C.A.R., Bangui in particular, not to mention a huge swath of the Congo, has been wracked by so much violence, anarchy and suffering, that travel has become out of the question. When I check out the latest photos on the internet, I can scarcely believe that I ever set foot in these places.
I spent my last day in Bangui at the campground writing letters, an ice-cold Mocaf Lager – elephant head on the label – within reach. I’d lost about fifteen pounds and was feeling rundown. The campground was close to the country’s only international airport, and every hour or so a jet screamed overhead. How sweet it was knowing that I could buy a one-way ticket on Air France and tomorrow fly out of this remote, godforsaken country. This was the place to do it, and I was certainly tempted; I’d had enough of Africa. But I already had a ticket for a flight, two weeks away, from Kano, Nigeria’s second largest city, to London, and I still had enough energy to push on. But it was a wistful, almost a spiritual feeling, each time I saw and heard a jet climb into the sky – the lifeline to Europe, to my Western civilization that had never seemed so precious.
When people ask me what was my favorite African country, I don’t hesitate in saying Cameroon, which we reached the day after leaving Bangui. As I have said, most Africans like white people, but in Cameroon, where the quality of life seemed better than elsewhere in Africa, the warmth was exceptional. We worked our way, with some criminally insane driving performances, to the predominantly Islamic north, arriving in Maroua, the last town of any size, by chance on the festive day marking the end of Ramadan. That day stands out as one of my very best travel memories, mixing as we did with thousands of people – tribal dignitaries on their caparisoned horses, boys and men in their finest robes, girls and women in their most vivid dresses. It was a joyful gathering, a kaleidoscopic sea of color that even the whites living in the region had come to see, and we were warmly greeted at every turn. To add to it, we met a pleasant lady from Pennsylvania, a Baptist missionary married to a Frenchman, who invited us to her bungalow on the outskirts of town for dinner and a night’s lodging. As the crowd began to disperse, we made our way along a dry riverbed, past innumerable piles of human excrement, a depressing reminder that, as much as the people of Cameroon had won my affection, and would continue to in the days ahead, this was still Africa. We got another reminder from our hosts that evening when they told us that a week ago, on the stretch of road we would be tackling next, twelve natives were killed when the vehicle they were riding in overturned.
Lagos, the capital of Nigeria, was said to be the most overcrowded and unlivable city in Africa. I never made it there but Kano, with a population over three million, was bad enough. After two months and eight African countries, I could not wait to get on that airplane and return to normalcy, but there were two more days to kill. We met an Englishman who held a supervisory position in Nigeria’s thriving oil industry which, of course, has benefited only a very few Nigerians. He invited us that evening to a party at the Flying Club, a British expatriate outfit based close to where we were staying.
Not all whites living and working in black Africa are cynical racists, but most of them are. Earlier that day I had gone into a bank to change some dollars into naira, the local currency, and was assisted by a cheerful man who introduced himself as the branch manager. I mentioned this, over gin and tonics, to Alex and his friends. “Oh, we know all about the branch managers,” he said. “They’re the ones who go swinging through the trees.” “The best way to deal the ones who think they’re smart,” his friend added, “is to give them their own desk, give them an important-sounding title, and put them where they can do the least harm.” They made these remarks within earshot of a meek native servant walking around with a plate of hors d’oeuvres. On one level funny, yes, but on another level degrading to both races. The evening went on like this, and it struck me that in their own way, they were as pathetic as the missionaries who were wasting their lives in Africa. Years later I read the novel Burmese Days by George Orwell, who wrote from personal experience, having served in Asia as an imperial police officer, and it reminded me so much of the Flying Club: the same women-starved men who had gone abroad to make their fortunes, the same contempt and verbal abuse of the natives, the same social gatherings doused in alcohol, the same frustrating, petty, pointless, dead-end existence in an insufferably hot, humid and alien land.
I feel truly blessed to have traveled all over Africa, to have seen and learned firsthand many things that I otherwise would have spent my life guessing about, or at best gleaned from obscure books. I hope I have succeeded in enlightening you, so that the next time you stand in front of a globe and contemplate that dark, brooding continent, it will no longer seem so mysterious. At 61 I still travel when I can, but I’m virtually certain I’ll never again visit Africa, simply because it scares me in too many ways. Foremost is not my fear of lions, nor violent crime, nor sudden political unrest, but my fear of malaria.
What I’ve said about the African negro might sound sentimental to some, but I am a realist. I readily admit that I have a soft spot in my heart for black Africans, and am fond of most of them. The great majority are harmless, and have no malice at all towards whites. Quite the contrary. I’d really like to see them lift themselves by their bootstraps and improve their lives, but I also know they’re not capable. The missionaries and Peace Corps types will tell you, for example, that they explain to them that many ailments can be avoided simply by boiling their drinking water. Yet they won’t do it; or they’ll do it for a week or two, then go back to their old way of drinking directly from bacteria-infested swamps. The solution, very simply, is to let them be, let them work out their own destiny. If there’s one thing that whites should have learned by now, it’s that trying to help them, or using them as cheap laborers, or exploiting their land for its natural resources, spells disaster in the long run. Except for the far south, with its temperate climate and suitability for total geographic separation, Africa is not a healthy place for whites to live, much less perpetuate themselves. If, by some superhuman force, the best of Africa’s white natives are able to reclaim what they lost, let them and all future white generations learn from past mistakes; let them, and for that matter whites everywhere, carve out a land where they are totally and permanently separated from the dark races.