The gardens sloped down the small hill to the grey waters of the West African sea. The Colonel’s house was perched on top of the hill, a white, ordinary two-storey affair overlooking the ocean. The house had no particular charm, but the gardens were another matter. Trees everywhere for shade from the African sun: palm trees for palm wine; mango trees, with their wide trunk and branches, perfect for children to climb, if you avoided the sticky sap and the giant magnan ants that seemed to favour mango trees. They are called driver ants in English or Siafu in Swahili, in East Africa. Magnan in West Africa. Nasty buggers. With a mean bite.
There were Flamboyant trees, an acacia-like tree with bright orange or red flowers all blooming that day. Banyan trees with their large shiny leaves; frangipanier or plumeria trees and their white and yellow flowers with a heady perfume.
The gardens were arranged in terraces, with narrow dirt paths swiveling down to the sea. All sorts of flowers grew in the shade or the sun-lit spots, hibiscus, Bougainvillea, impatient, reds, whites, yellows, blues…
Today was a great day. The “baptism” of the Colonel’s first son. The Colonel… I shall call him Colonel Boubacar, pronounced Bubacar. I remembered him many, many years later when a friend challenged me to identify a French novel by its opening line:
“C’était à Megara, faubourg de Cathage, dans les jardins d’Hamilcar.”
(“It was in Megara, a suburb of Carthage, in the gardens of Hamilcar.”)
By mere luck, I recognized Salammbô, by Flaubert, though I hadn’t read it. Still haven’t. It’s on my shelves. Will get to it one day. Hamilcar was a General in Carthage, Bubacar is a fit name for the Colonel. He was a tall, gentle man with a high forehead, a small moustache and a wide smile. He’d served in the French Army during WWII. After Independence from the French he’d been promoted to Colonel and appointed Deputy Chief of Staff. His wife, whom I will call Asmatou (pronounced Asmatu) was a handsome tall woman from Saint-Louis in the North of Senegal. As such she was a Peul or Fula or Fulani, a member of tribe that stretches across many countries in West Africa from Senegal to Guinea to Gambia to Mali to Burkina to Niger. Peul women are renowned for their beauty and elegance. Asmatou was no exception, she held her head high on a long slender neck.
Colonel Bubacar and Asmatou were good friends with my parents, at a time, the early years of Independence, when friendship between blacks and whites, Africans and Europeans was neither common nor easy. But friends they were. Asmatou was a midwife. I distinctly remember when she invited my mother and us kids over to the only hospital in the capital city. The hospital she worked at. I do recall very clearly the misery, the once-white walls, black with grime from the ground to about three of four feet up, where the patients’ relations would squat on the ground, their back against the wall, waiting for a cure or the inevitable end. Some beds held several patients, there was no medical equipment to speak of.
My mother was appalled. She asked Asmatou how they could possibly do anything for the patients. Asmatou replied with a wan smile:
“We do what we can. There are no medicines to speak of. And only a handful of doctors.”
“Let me speak with the (French) Ambassador”, my mother said. Asmatou smiled again and said:
“The Ambassador is a good man, but as you know, De Gaulle and our President are not exactly on speaking terms.”
Now, on that day, in the gardens of Colonel Bubacar, all was joy and happiness. Musicians played the Kora, a 21 string instrument built from half a large calabash covered with cow skin for resonance, and a long hardwood neck. I can still recognize the sound of a Kora with my eyes closed. They also played balafon, a wooden xylophone of West Africa. And drums. Of all kinds.
The griots, traditional story tellers and singers, sang the praise of the father and mother. And the ancestors of both families, back ten or more generations.
The ceremony is called Indé or Nguentel among the Fula of Senegal. A name-giving and presentation of the baby to society, it involves inviting dozens, hundreds of relatives, friends and allies. My mother, my little sister and I were the only Europeans invited. A mark of esteem I guess. We were obviously dressed “to the nines” for the occasion. My little sister wearing her only dress. She was six or seven. I was eight or nine and wearing shorts and my – only – starched white cotton short-sleeved shirt. And shoes that were killing my feet. Sis’ and I normally ran around all day barefoot and swimming-trunks clad.
The festivities are normally organized a week after the baby’s birth and take a long time. Verses of the Quran are recited, there is music, the baby’s head is shaved, more music is played. A Marabout, a moslem holy man in West Africa, whispers the baby’s name in both his ears, and then makes it public for all the attendants who applaud. And over and over again the musicians and the griots sing the praise of the families.
Colonel Bubacar was attending other guests. We were sitting next to Asmatou who wore an African “Boubou”, a long colourful flowing wide-sleeved robe, traditional in West Africa. She had on large gold earrings and a necklace. A dozen gold bracelets clanged on her long and slender wrists. Gold in West Africa is a rich yellow. A soft 24 carat that makes the gold tender. She gave my mother a bracelet once. The bracelet is still around, delicate, bends easily.
This was probably before the shaving of the baby’s head, because I remember his hair. He was plump and cute and fast asleep on his mother’s lap. What caught our attention was the fact that the baby was honey brown, not black. And his black hair was more curly than kinky. Never one to miss the opportunity to put her foot in her mouth – and not care – my mother asked Asmatou about the baby’s colour and hair. Asmatou smiled, curling a lock of her son’s black hair around her long, slender fingers. She said:
“The hair gets kinkier pretty soon, and as for the colour, that’s how we are born, just brown. It’s the African sun that makes us black.”
My mother said nothing, waiting for more. Asmatou went on:
“As a matter of fact, I don’t know how you European women do.”
“How so?” my mother asked. Asmatou answered:
“You don’t know what your babies will look like. Will they be blonde like your daughter? Or will they have brown, or black, curly or straight hair? Will they have blue eyes?” She looked at my sister. “Or green, like you or your son? Will their skin be pale or light brown? Will they have a short or a long nose? You don’t know. It must be frightening to spend nine months not knowing what your baby looks like.”
Asmatou smiled again, stroking the baby’s head and added:
“Me? I always knew exactly what my baby would look like, all nine months. And he was born exactly as I dreamed of him: honey brown, with black, curly hair. And beautiful.”
The two women smiled at each other. I still remember this conversation to the word. I’d learned something that day.
We last saw Colonel Bubacar a few years later, in Amsterdam. We’d been transferred to Holland. The change from Africa was brutal, weatherwise. Though the worse was to wear shoes all day. And adjust to the weather. On the up side, I discovered – at ten – the freedom of riding a bike everywhere. No adults of chauffeur (chauffeur? I know, I’m such a snob) to necessarily drive you everywhere. Every day in Holland, under rain, snow or sleet, I would take my bike, give an estimated hour of return – always stick to the negotiated time and you will be fine – and ride your pony, and ride. I mean, ride your bike and ride.
Colonel Bubacar was on a trade mission to Holland. Of course he’d rung my parents, and come for tea to our flat by the canal. He was escorted by a young and faintly aggressive captain, whom I shall call Diallo. The Colonel was his usual good-humoured self, but when the Captain went to wash his hands, Bubacar told my mother:
“Watch what you say with the Captain. He is not to be trusted. The President has stuck him on me like a shadow. I know he reports ever word I say. And more. True or not. Especially not true.”
Obviously, later that night, at the restaurant where my parents had invited the Colonel and his shadow, my mother could not resist engaging a debate on Africa. Debate that she lost, for the Captain, unpleasant as he was, was also a sharp man. But that, “best beloved”, is another story.
Two or three years later, we were back in Africa, on the East side, in Kenya. We learned from a common friend, that Colonel Bubacar had been arrested, falsely charged and executed by the President, along with many other Cabinet members. The first of an endless series of massive arrests and executions. Asmatou, the Colonel’s wife, had managed to flee the country to Senegal with the baby boy.
This story is dedicated to the memory of our friend, Colonel Kaman Diaby, murdered in 1969 by the then ruler of Guinea whose name I will not write (I’d rather spit on the ground), and to Kaman’s wife, Aïssatou, my mother’s friend. If Aïssatou is still alive, she must now be a very old lady. The baby boy must now be over fifty, with children of his own. He most likely does not remember his father. I do.
I would like to thank my Graduate school friend Amadou Sy, a Peul from Senegal, with whom I have kept in touch over the years and who’s freshened up my memory with the details of the baptism ceremony in Senegal, Guinea and many other places in West Africa.
This is a work of non-fiction. A true story as seen trough the eyes of the child that I was. Some details may vary from actual reality, but the images of the little baby are quite clear in my mind’s eye, as are the words of his mother and father.
Conakry, Guinea, West Africa. C.1962-1963. At one of the countless cocktail parties held in those days. L. to r. Colonel Kaman Diaby. Claude Millet, the local manager of Péchiney, then a world leader in the extraction of bauxite, an aluminium ore, of which Guinea, one of the poorest nations on earth, holds half of the world’s reserves. My father, Cyril, local manager for Air France, is on the right.
77 thoughts on “The Colonel’s gardens. An African childhood.”
And a very fine and touching account, too, Brian.
Thank you Tish. As you know Africa has its dark side…
Dear Sir, I trust you will very soon understand how much your story has touched me. I’m the then baby boy who never knew his father and who’s missed all his life this father figure who’s always been praised by whomever mentioned his name. My mother Aïssatou became a doctor and never remarried, she just turned 80, three days after I turned 50 last month. She retired in Dakar in 1999 after a career with WHO. Thank you for sharing these memories that I can only imagine. Kind regards
Mon cher Lamine, c’est moi qui suis profondément ému. (Navré pour le délai de réponse, unforeseen circumstances and all that). Je répondrai en détail à ce mail. A très bientôt.
Wonderful writing! Spellbinding images!
Thank you Coeur de Feu. You’re only too kind. 🙂
(The garden photos are actually form our garden. I don’t have pictures of the Colonel’s gardens) (All there is is stored in my memory) 😉
Such a wonder post, I enjoyed this very much!
Such a wonderful, intriguing,sad story!Thank you for sharing this.The world can be a wonderful place,like that garden,but also horrible,like the executions of innocent people!
Yes, it is both. And for all my love for Africa, I have to accept that the horrible many times outweighs the Beauty. Thanks for visiting.
What great detail. I feel like I was there.
Thank you Jenny, it means the story works if it takes you there. 😉
They always do.
Merci. 🙂 Those are the comments that help to keep on writing. 🙂
(I haven’t had time to write much lately. Need to organize myself differently) 🙂
(Did you manage to sneak out the other day?)
I did yes. Ran some errands. It was nice. It’s been rain rain rain so no walks. Getting cabin fever.
Rain sucks. I can take the cold, even the snow, but rain does give cabin fever. You can’t even take the baby around the block in a cart or a kanguru. Darn.
Not comfortably. Friends go to the mall to get out and get a walk. I suppose I could do that.
Yeah, if there is no other choice. But a Mall? Sounds like another (larger) cabin. 😉
Loved reading this!
Lovely post. I especially liked the last photo and the caption of who was who. I must say, your father looks every inch a Cyril. Elegant and ram rod straight. He must have been charming, too.
Thank you Janet. “Every inch a Cyril”. Yes. 🙂 (He did have his difficult moments) And his charm.
Hope all is well with you, and thank you for reading this story.
Beautiful post and well written too!
Thank you. 🙂
It’s fascinating how you vividly recall those details from younger years.Sad that some stories need to end that way, I hope the wife and the son are doing good and yes probably has his own children. Peace for the Colonel…I hope justice found its way for those years that had passed.
I am blessed (or cursed) with an almost eidetic memory. I remember maybe 75-80% of what I see, hear, live? Sometimes it is a bit too much. 🙂 But then somebody has to remember. Unfortunately, justice has not come to that little country in Africa. Not one single democratically elected government in 50+ years. Maybe one day. Thanks for reading.
there’s a book in this account – with the main character bearing the name you could not make up even if you wanted to – Colonel Bubacar…his destiny tragic though. His ‘shadow’ called Diallo is an interesting character too. Thank you for sharing
Thank YOU! 🙂
(And yes, this is part of a larger book that I plan to write, in bits and pieces) If you liked that story, there is another one here:
Immensely readable. Your father is a striking figure n this photo. Bogie, eat your heart out!
Thank you on both counts. As for the latter, I have yet to post a photo of him in a white tuxedo… (Coming soon on Equinoxio)
All well in Paris, despite the growing political madness?
Another rich story. These stories are fabulous.
Thank you Trisha. Count that one for your next issue.
Ya read the mails about dropbox comedy? It said error 404
Yep. Like I just said, my computer crashed. Working on retrieving the files.
Been longing for your stories but this one has a sad ending casting a shadow on the wisdom within.
A child’s memories are true, unstained by the sins of adulthood, but they are mere parts of the whole unspoken truth. There’s always more than meets the eye.
May the Colonel rest in peace and may Peace find its way forever in the hearts and minds of every human being on this Earth…
May it be so. Though I have my serious doubts… 🙂
They say hope never dies. Maybe in a couple thousand years or so… 🙄
You really are an optimist. Be good, my friend.
Such a vivid memory you have. I love reading about cultural rituals, so this was a real treat.
Merci Julie. I do wonder at times whether that memory of mine isn’t more of a curse. I do remember the visual details, and the music. The technicalities were provided by my old friend Amadou. I particularly love the “whispering the name first in both baby’s ears”. Very neat.
Such a beautiful story, Brian. Your memories are precious.
Thank you. Though sometimes I wonder of what use Memory is, since everyone seems to have forgotten the evil that lies in us, and all seem to be ready to go at each other’s throat again. 😦
Oh you are so right about that 😦
A wonderful, tragic story Brian. Sadly, all too common an occurrence in plenty of places around the world, even today. I wonder what happened to the wife and child.
Yes, that story has happened countless times in modern times. About them, the last we heard was that they were safe in Senegal, but then my parents lost contact. And the name is too common to easily track on Internet. I can hope they’re ok.
So, so, SO beautiful. Sad, but beautiful.
Yes, both. And the epilogue makes it even more so. Beautiful. (I will post the Epilogue to the story soon) ❤
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I loved this story. Especially since my great-grandson is newly born, a child of Philipino mother, Amerasian grandson (Causician father and Korean grandmother, and a straight Causcian grandfather & great-grandmother.) And yet beloved.
Glad you liked the story. And congrats on the new great-grandson. (OMG! Time doth fly)
Brian, what a beautiful garden, the photos are remarkable. A lovely story, so many memories and some quite sad. ~ Mia
Thank you. The Colonel’s garden is re-invented. Described as best as I could based on my memories. I do see it clearly in my mind’s eye. The photos (author’s license) are from our then garden in Africa. I don’t have photos of the Colonel’s gardens. 😉
And about the sadness, Africa was so beautiful, but is so tragic at the same time… Glad you liked the story.
Thank you for a lovely reply, you’re most welcome. It’s interesting what we are able to visualize so clearly from our childhood memories. The garden photos are still spectacular. 😉
Haha! That garden was a near-jungle, the theatre of many a playing explorers or pirates. Also had snakes. Brrr.
Great adventures, the kind we commit to memory. I don’t know about the snakes, best beware. 🙂
Absolutely. I have learned to be very respectful and mindful of snakes. 😉
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Your story is very well-done and affecting.
Thank you Liz. It’s a story I’ve carried along for a long time. Easy to write despite the sadness. To me it is a(nother) symbol of what has happened to Africa in the 60 years since Independence.
There is an “epilogue” though you might want to read:
Pingback: An African childhood*. Part 3 | Equinoxio
How lightly we unwittingly tread in a world so deadly where the machinations of others is so given to creed that blood must be spilled.
Well put my friend. In just so few words. Alas, blood will be spilled again. Such is human nature.
Yes, I sadly agree, egoism is locked and loaded.
Silenced by this chilling tale.
Oh. You hadn’t read it yet? It is the dark side of my African childhood. Violence and murder. There is an epilogue though. Quite a wild one. If you got vack to that post the epilogue should be referenced below. Otherwise i’ll try to copy the link when I get home.
Dark indeed. Send a copy of the link with the epilogue.
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Quite a poignant tale.
I have just come across the name of Colonel Diaby while uploading several newsreels on Guinea at my YouTube channel.
Many innocents were unfortunately sacrificed on the altar of power by Ahmad Sekou Toure including Diallo Telli, the founding Secretary General of the Organisation of African Unity.
It is. A sad story. The astonishing thing is that this post got to to the little boy and his family. I wonder what kind of a miracle made that possible.
Touré was a mass murderer.
Telli’s son, Thierno, was a friend of mine. We studied at the same school in Ethiopia. He passed away recently. Sadly.
I’ll go to your blog, but may I ask what your interest is in Guinea? Makinde doesn’t sound like a Guinean name.
Happy New Year (And thank you for your visit and comment)
The “miracle” of the Internet and the thirst for information from the most determined to the most random of “searches” enables all sorts of discoveries.
My name is of Nigerian (Yoruba) origin. I have a general interest in history and through a process of accident and design transformed my YouTube channel into a repository of African history. Although alot of items uploaded are of Nigerian and Ghanaian interest, all other African histories feature including Guinea.
Happy New Year.
Adeyinka sounded possibly Nigerian. Been to Lagos only once, not too familiar with the subtelties of the names there as I am in West Africa.
I will do my best to visit.
Best wishes too.
An interesting blog you have. I tried to comment on Jerry Rawlings, but it got “complicated”… Better luck next time. Cheers.
My essay on Rawlings is not complete, so I’ve just set out a (slightly lengthy) synopsis.