I grew up in Africa. West and East. I was born in what my family called India, Pakistan after the Partition, but I left at too young an age to really remember. See here for my earlier days in Karachi:
Africa is where I was raised. First in Conakry, Guinea, in West Africa then in Kenya, East Africa. Above: little sister and yours truly, dressed in our traditional Breton costumes, on our way to a costume party, Conakry. c.1961.
Conakry, West Africa, 1960, near the Air France office. My father is left with a visitor from Paris headquarters. That immense tall tree is called a Fromager in French. The same trees can be found in the Lacandon forest or the Amazon, they’re called ceibas. I believe the English name is kapok. A leper used to beg for money, sitting under the tree. His fingers were gone. He had no nose. Just an empty, triangular hole.
Patrice Lumumba, left, was the first Prime Minister of the newly independent, former Belgian Congo. He was visiting Sékou Touré, right, the first President of former French Guinea. c. 1960? We arrived in Autumn 1959. I was 5. I still remember my first African birthday in December. Magic and adventure. This particular photo is quite a symbol of what happened to Africa after Independence. Lumumba was assassinated shortly after, in ’61, by political rivals. Sékou Touré stayed in power until his death in 1984. He imprisoned and killed close to 50,000 of the people of Guinea, including many friends of ours. See “The Colonel’s gardens”:
A symbol, I said, of Africa’s fate in the 60 years since Independence. Except for a handful of countries, Africa, “my” Africa, has known nothing but assassinations, military coups, massacres, even genocide in Rwanda, famine and poverty.
At the orphanage, Conakry, West Africa. c. 1961. I’ve posted that picture before. With my white socks and fascination for the baby elephants, while little sister is hiding behind my mother. Sis loathed elephants. Scared to death. Fortunately, at that time, Sékou Touré had not yet gone raving mad, and life in Africa was safe and easy.
My mother had a “4 chevaux” car like the one above. “4 horsepowers”. By today’s standards a miniature car in which she would pack us children to go to the club or to visit friends. We often found snakes under the car. Always proceed with caution in Africa. One of our cats, Têtu, liked to sleep on top of the tyre near the engine, because it was warm. Was he cold in Africa? That always ended up in a severe detergent bath for the engine oil-covered cat. Cats don’t like baths.
Karen Blixen wrote: “I had a farm in Africa”. One of the best opening sentences ever. We had a house in Africa, right by the African sea. No fancy beach, except for 10 square feet of grey sand at low tide, mostly black rocks and the open sea. Conakry, c. 1962.
Fishing boats passed by. Dolphins by the dozen. We were home-schooled, so I learned at a very early age to do my homework as fast as possible, report completion of duties to my mother and go swimming, or fishing or take our small inflatable boat out. We played pirates all day. The sea was our set.
The house was small by today’s standards. Two bedrooms, one bathroom and a living room. The dining table was outside by the sea. Yet a true palace in my mind’s eye. Those chairs now fetch a handsome price on the vintage market.
No respectable house then was complete without a bar. Very 50’s-60’s. I still have the portraits my mother had made of us. They have traveled a wee bit since they were hanging on those African walls.
Little Sister. c. 1960. Every Sunday we would go the islands of Loos. A few miles off the coast of Conakry. In the first months we would sail in a wooden contraption of a boat the French call “pinasse”. The boat belonged to Péchiney, a French mining company whose Director was a friend of ours. A loud engine with this unique sound – and smell – of sea engines. Slow too. Plenty of time to read the adventures of Tintin, drop anchor in the high sea and waddle by 15 meters of water, or take a nap, before reaching the islands. (Robert L. Stevenson was my hero). Later on, most expats would buy a small motorboat.
Péchiney was the company in charge of mining Bauxite, the main source of aluminium. Guinea has the world’s largest reserves of bauxite, above Australia. And yet, Guinea is one of the poorest countries in the world.
Yours truly, en route for the islands. I was about 6-7 maybe? There were no life vests. We knew how to swim. 🙂 (Already posted that one I think)
Breakfast at the “dining” table during the high tides of the Equinox. Those tides are the reason for the name of this blog. During Equinox, as the sea rose, the high tides covered the black rocks outside and reached up to the terrace, only a foot under the dining table. Sometimes a storm would start and send waves crashing on the table. We ate inside.
Homework done, Mom. 🙂 The water was not always “ideal”. Some jellyfish on occasions.
Portuguese man-of-war. Extremely venomous, can kill fish, even humans. This “jellyfish” floats on the surface with the bluish “thang” that looks like a plastic bag working as a “sail”. The tentacles can be 30 ft long. So you can get stung (stang?) even at quite a distance. I got stung once, don’t know whether by this or another jellyfish species. Had a question-mark scar on my tummy for years. We found this one at low tide in the rocks. Put it in a bucket with gloves. My dad’s job. That’s what Dads are for. Do the dangerous stuff.
Catch of the day on the island. My father’s left, Sis right. The barracudas would be served at lunch, grilled on charcoal in a hole on the beach. Roume island, West Africa, c.1962.
*Mzungu. Plural: wazungu. It is a Bantu (Swahili) word used in East Africa from Uganda to Kenya to Tanzania to Zambia and in the great lakes region, from Rwanda, Burundi, to Congo Kinshasa. It means “white man”, or woman. The origin of the name dates back to the 18th century, when European explorers came to East Africa searching for the source of the Nile, the gold mines of Solomon, or the Mountains of the moon, what have you. It literally means traveller or wanderer. Africans then could not understand why Europeans could not stay in place, why they had to move all the time. Mimi na Mzungu. I am a Mzungu, a wanderer.
To be continued…
Cover photo: Little sister at the house by the sea. c.1962-63. (Haven’t said that in a while, but obviously all photos on this blog are mine, (C) and all that, except for the Lumumba picture.)