An African childhood. Part 2*

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En route to the Islands of Los, off the coast of Conakry, Guinea, West Africa, c.1960. Far left, my mother. Centre, Mme Lips, with her braided hair down to her… I remember she had very long hair for the time. Far right, Dominique and Claude Millet, who much later, would be my host family in Paris.

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A Peugeot 203, like my father’s. A very sturdy car. Until the driver drove us all into the ditch, my mother, sister and I. I still remember the fall in slow motion. Ditch was on the left. I was sitting on the left, with my sister and mother, slowly falling on top of me. I had bruises for a week. No major harm though. Car was a total loss. Driver was fired. It’s a tough life.

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Outside the magical house, with Sis and my eldest brother Michel. (Michel became an engineer and worked on the entire French civilian nuclear programme) The faint shadow left on the horizon is the island of Kassa, part of the group of islands we went to on week-ends. Don’t think it was so easy to “sail” there. Since the new President of independent Guinea (won’t write his name again, too much blood on it) was a total paranoid, one had to file the names of all parties and exact number of boats going to the islands… Fear of spies…

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Yours truly, the “mzungu” kid. No shoes most of the time. Though the rocks were sharp. Weren’t we skinny…

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Left to right: my father, working on his tan… my other brother, Richard, (who later became a “brocanteur”, a sort of antiquarian at the flea market, nothing fancy,) the author of these lines and little sister, Gaëlle, blonde as wheat.

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Sis and bro, ready to jump into the water. Checked for jelly fish first. West Africa, c. 1961.

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A view of the house. c. 1961. Little Sis had broken her arm a few months back, at the Club. She was walking on top of a low wall, fell, started wailing. The other kids, including myself, thought: “just wailing”. After a while, one of the grown-ups stopped watching the tennis game to come see. Though we never noticed them, there was always a grown-up keeping an eye on the bunch of crazy kids. And scolding us eventually. I still remember that all grown-ups had authority on all kids. None of “don’t talk to my kid this way!”. And we abode (abided?) by that. Until the grown-up turned his/her heels.

Well, Sis had broken her arm. Since the only European Doctor left after Independence tended to be drunk after 10 AM and it was near 6PM when we arrived at his office, he botched the job. When another Doctor, in Dakar, Senegal, broke the cast after 6 weeks, the arm had set askew. He had to break her arm again… Under ether anaesthesia… No anaesthesiologist, vital signs monitoring… Tough times.

The end result was not so good for me. Sis kept a cast for nearly 3 months overall and used to club me with the darn cast, despite my repeated protests to my mother. “No Dear, you cannot hit your sister back. She has a broken arm.” (You’re telling me?)

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“Can we go swim now? I’ve done my homework.” Note, this was the day-to-day skimpy attire. We just put a shirt and sandals in the afternoon to go to the Club.

A word on the Club(s): when we arrived, in 1959, just after Independence there were max 100 “Europeans” left, French, Greek, Lebanese, (the latter two ran trade across Africa), a handful Italians, American diplomats. Americans counted as Europeans. And two clubs. The Tennis club, and the Boat Club. Both clubs were at war. For years. Stupid. If you were a member of the Tennis Club, you couldn’t belong to the Boat Club and vice-versa. My father, a Tennis AND Boat man, started diplomatic manoeuvres to end the feud. And was elected the First President of both Clubs. Tennis AND boating. Yeah!

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Island of Roume, West Africa. c. 1963. My mother didn’t like Tennis too much, but she loved skiing. And taught us. Monoski. I started at 7, my sister at 6. Kids had to wear a life west. “But why, Mom? If you don’t use one?” “Because I say so.” She did eventually fall in deep water. Our friend Claude Millet was alone driving the boat. He was extremely short-sighted. When he realized my mother was not trailing, he circled back for 20 minutes. Couldn’t find her. New rule was immediately put in place. A second was to ride the boat at all times. To watch the skier.

As an afterthought, the grown-ups were extremely practical. Can’t foresee every thing, but new rules will be enforced immediately based on learning. Like when we almost lost a boat on the way back to the Club. But that, “best-beloved”, is another story.

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Judy Abrams from the American Embassy, and Marcel d’Orso, as Ulysses, backstage during the production of “La guerre de Troie n’aura pas lieu” (The war of Troy will not take place”), written by Jean Giraudoux in 1935. Just before WWII.

There was no TV, blessed times. There was one Government channel broadcasting propaganda in Black & white a few hours a day… scratch that. So the grown-ups put on plays. With due previous authorisation from the Government, 3 copies of the play, names of the amateur actors, etc. You ever lived in tyranny? I have. Though we did save our… skin. We were lucky. Not all our friends were.

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Judy Abrams. A good friend. My mother later mentioned Judy hit on her all the time. Hmm… Those plays were fun. My father was the improvised Director, and my mother made all the costumes and décor. The helmets are made of Papier-mâché. We kids went to the rehearsals, with a stack of comics, but after a while, we knew many of the lines, much to the grown-ups’ surprise.

Pâris: Tu es lâche, ton haleine est fétide, et tu n’as aucun talent. (You’re a coward, your breath stinks, and you have no talent)

Demokos: Tu veux une gifle? (You want a slap on the face?)

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L. to r. Hélène of Troy (Giséle), Hector (Claude Millet, Péchiney manager) And Cassandra (forgot who she was). I liked Cassandra’s character a lot then – and now. She told the truth of what would happen. I was a bit put off though that she should eventually be killed for telling the truth… I was 9 or 10 then. Killed for telling the truth? Something was not right. Still isn’t, is it?

Those were our days in West Africa in the very early sixties. Thanks for visiting. To be continued…

*This story is part of The mzungu chronicles:

*Mzungu, plural: wazungu. Mzungu is a Bantu (Swahili) word used throughout 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.  They thought Europeans were a tad crazy. 🙂 Mimi na Mzungu. I am a Mzungu, a wanderer. (Maybe a bit crazy?) 😉

 

163 thoughts on “An African childhood. Part 2*

      • Slipping away is understandable and fine. 🙂 Present things take priority. Same here. Local issues in Latin America take a lot of my attention. But since I have the material for a thread of “African childhood”… Might as well use it.
        Take good care of yourself Tish. 😉

      • Thinking of Guinea I expect you know Camara Laye’s poetic account of his growing up there in the 1930s-40s. His people were Malinke, his father a goldsmith: ‘L’enfant noir’. I’ve just read it in English translation The Dark Child. As to issues in Latin America – how mortally sick I am of regime-changing-resource-grabbing-interfering-capitalist nations that add insult to extreme injury by claiming to be democracies. but turn functioning sovereign states into hell-holes (as in Libya, once, according to UN reports, the most economically and socially successful African state).

      • L’enfant noir? Wow. Of course I read it. Still in my library. 🙂 Might pull it back to re-read it. A lovely book as I recall.
        And Latin America? Living here for the past 30 years, I’m sorry to say that much of the damage is done by Latin Americans themselves. Sure, there are foreign interests like elsewhere, but believe me: There are severe internal problems. Lack of higher education is one. And that is voluntary. A shame, really. But I confess: I’ve just about had enough, and am working on ways to maybe “go back” to Europe, at least a few months a year. Or definitely if things get worse…
        Cheers.

      • Just pulled it off the shelf and moved it to the TBR shelf. 🙂
        Yes, it is. Lovely. 6 or 7 hours difference does make it a tad hard to coincide. It should be dinner for you now. And I’m on my way to pick my grandson at school. His first year at the French school. He does understand most of what I tell him in French but only speaks in Spanish. He’s learning the traditional songs now. Alouette, gentille alouette… 🙂
        (What’s for dinner? A nice warm soup?)
        Bonne soirée mon amie Tish.

      • Chicken curry! Chakula mzuri sana – which is probably awful kitchen kiswahili and in every sense. Warmest greetings from very damp and gloomy Angleterre. I think it’s marvellous for children to grow up experiencing more than one language. A big round of applause for gentille Alouette.

      • Chicken curry. Hmmm. What a delight. (I think we will do some tomorrow. There’s a jar of plum chutney to finish…)
        Made me think of the Sunday curry at the Norfolk. Took my wife and little daughters there when we went to Kenya in ’88. Where you in Nairobi already?

      • Eggs Benedict? Hmm. Another scene to conjure with. I insist, only a handful of wazungu can know about the Norfolk…
        Thanks for the curry tip. We made our own sunday curry, complete with bananas and plum chutney. Chakula mzuri sana indeed.
        Kitchen Swahili? Probably. (Which is a funny expression, we say “Latin de cuisine” in French. Did you take Latin?

      • I thought you might have. Many of my English friends have. So did I, basically don’t remember more than Rosa, rosae, rosam, etc… (But it’s useful in deciphering Romance languages. I look for the radical)
        Bonne semaine Tish.

  1. Hello Brian. Wonderful and grand. I love you have the pictures and the memories from your childhood. So many of us lose the past either through time or that nothing was kept of that time of our daily lives. Hugs

    • Thank you Scottie. I’m lucky to have an iron-clad memory and the material to support it. Must have close to 40,000 photos of the family history. All digitized now. (That took forever).
      Thanks for the visit and comment.
      How’s your health? Better or at least under control?

      • Hello Brian. All stable right now. They are trying to help with the pain. But all is pretty good right now. The temps are nice and we have been opening up the windows all day. I could stand to win the lottery, but other than that I wont complain. I hope all is well with you and that you are enjoying life. Best wishes. Hugs

    • Thank you Paul. It is. A slice of History. I saw the end of an old world, and the beginning of a new one with Independence. We then went to Holland. (Brrr. Ghastly winter) and fortunately back to Africa on the East side. Kenya. After your uncle. 😉

    • Thank you Gigi. Glad you liked it. I actually once read in a blog: “how to survive a perfect childhood?”. 🙂 Not too hard actually.
      More coming soon. Got plenty material.
      Bye now.

      • I’m so happy to hear that. I’m so looking forward to the next post. What a life you led. I was playing baseball in the street, using the sewer covers for bases. We played in the alley, on back porch stairs, and in the park. Hardly the same thing.

      • 🙂 Oh, but it is. We couldn’t play ball because there was no street to play in. 😉 Fortunately every child has enough magic and imagination in them to create that world of magic. Sewers for bases? That is great. And the winters in Chicago? I think I saw my first snow when I was 10 or 12. (In Yosemite…)
        And the next post is actually ready. I’m now trying to do posts in advance, but as you may have noticed, I like to switch subjects.
        Be good Gigi.

      • She has not ( refused to) do any medical check so don’t have a clue. Hope this is not a time bomb.
        Meanwhile I am stuck at home as all roads from where I live to the city and to the nearby town ( where I can get my supplies) are all closed by rioters. This is indeed an ending world, at least, for Hong Kong, if not also for other places.

      • Let’s hope for the best as far as your wife is concerned. 🙂 I think she is a strong woman. She will ok.
        The riots? I have shut off the news completely. Situation here is bad too in a different way. Murders, massacres… 😦 But the riots in HK? This is getting very serious, right? I saw one of your posts that the road to your walk was blocked? Hopefully, there will be a solution. Stay safe.

      • She’s gone off this morning (just now) to a hotel downtown near to where there will be a group fasting ( no food at all) for 6 days! I must say I am scared. My place is too far and all roads to town are/ will be blocked.
        Bro, you stay safe too 🙂

      • She will stay in the downtown hotel for 6 nights, fasting with her classmates, after which she will come back, hopefully safely. Meanwhile, I think I can only pray.

      • Can’t really “like” that. Yes, I can join in hoping she will come home safely. And you can’t even go on your soothing morning walk if all roads are blocked. Well, I do hope those road blocks will be lifted so you can gain strength in your morning.

      • I am not so worried about the blockages, petro bombs etc on her way home; I am more concerned about her fasting the Taosim way for 6 continuous days without any food, only water.

      • Thursday. What I am worried is that six days without any food could be detrimental to health; for instance, an imbalance of electrolyte or other problems etc.

      • The whole Taosim fasting is taken out of the medical regime. There will be medical follow up if it results in a problem. Yes, still two more days to go, which are the most challenging 🙂

      • My bro, thanks very much for the kind thoughts which is much appreciated. I have been counting hours. There are still 30 hours before she will finish her group fasting.
        For the situation in HK, I hope we are seeing the light at the end of the tunnel. Some 1000 students have surrendered to the police after a siege of several days. Many of them are not students of the Uni. 200+ are brain washed minors ( less than 18 years old) and some are brutal thugs!

      • Well the countdown is reaching a close.
        About the “students”? Many are idealists, and if you don’t have ideals when you’re young you never will. 🙂 But the world over, “thugs”, anarchists, are taking advantage of good-intentioned movements to wage violence and brutality. True in HK, in France, in Latin America right now, and God knows where else.
        And most politicians the world over (even democratically elected) haven’t got a clue. One example among many: Angela Merkel? She has done good for Germany. But she is incapable of surrendering power. Now? She is stalling everything. Both in Germany and Europe. She should retire after a job well done and give way to younger generations. But Power is the most addictive drug.

      • The students here can only believe in one narrow ideology which may not be applicable to HK or China. Over 1000 students were “arrested”at the Poly U in the last few days. when the Police just surround the campus without entering. They have burnt and blocked some of the major transport arteries – one Cross Harbor Tunnel and one main north south trunk road.
        While in Greece, the guide mentioned two Greek words – Democracy and Tragedy. HK already ranked no.3 worldwide in Democracy. Now all we see is tragedy. These guys are brain washed and choose to believe in their own channels of communication. The cost of making good runs to billions. They vandalised / burnt/ destroyed even their campus and some major rail station. Meanwhile Senate and House of Representattive have passed a bill basically to sanction HK, just waiting for T to sign. We don’t have confidence at all for the next generation to govern HK.

      • One of the problems with the young (and we were young too…) is their vulnerability to propaganda. easy targets.
        Here in Mexico, my wife is a researcher at the number one public University, the UNAM. a few days ago, students did a peaceful protest on one point or the other, then as they retired, others, with black masks attacked the library. Destroyed a lot of books and material. The Campus Police is not armed (thank God) and just watched. Helpless…

      • We have no campus police and our Police are very restrained. What the young rioters want is to disband the police! There is a lot of propaganda accusing the Police – including brutality and deaths etc which are totally untrue. At least two Unis here have been manufacturing a few thousand petrol bombs. Many of them in black masks harassed their principals who did not dare to speak up. These rioters set fire on everything in their sight, vandalized many restaurants, their own campus and rail stations – even those near to the own campus. They want to cripple HK physically and financially.

      • Their destruction is worse than those in Paris. Paris have soldiers, including flying soldiers , to deal with them. We don’t have soldiers here. It is non sensicle to destroy their own campus and stations. One station has to be almost re-built! The Senate / House of Representative have passed the so called HK Democracy Bill; these guys only want to sanction HK.

      • Nihilism was popular around the turn of the 20th century. Nothing new under the sun. I seem to remember a University occupied recently in Paris. Damages add up to millions. We are entering a period of no-sense.

      • In our case, the physical damages add up to billions. Can’t understand why they have to destroy their own campuses and mass transit stations. They have no sense; it is sad to see that they have some support – they are good in putting up many fake news and attract foreign ( US, UK ) attention.

      • We just taked to my sister-in-law in Bogotá, Colombia. There was a march one or 2 days ago. Went peacefully until black masked “protesters” came and destroyed ten stations of the main transport system in the city. Now they have curfew at 9PM, and “dry law”, no liquor can be bought anywhere… A world thing Bro…

      • We started off with “peaceful”rallies and when the rallies ended, they turned into riots. The are fully cladded in black with full gears so that you can’t recognize them. The Govt want to introduce a law forbidding masks in public gatherings and the High Court just ruled that it is not constitutional – how ironical. We suspect that the court are really on the side of the rioters. Have you heard 20 days social social service for burning a national flag?

      • No I haven’t heard. But social service would be a waste of time. The prohibition of wearing mask in public has been raised in France too. And technically it is illegal. (The basis for prohibiting the full islamic veil in public in France, but again there, many judges lean to the left and don’t enforce it…)

      • By the time you read this, it will be Thursday. I’m sure there’s an “afterwards” programme to start eating again. With caution, but EAT! All the best Bro.

      • No, Thursday today. As you say, there is a program for getting back to full meal. I am hoping she will find a taxi home after the group fasting – as this requires crossing the harbor and back to the New territories which some taxi drivers refuse to drive.

      • She’s home and will start on congee this morning. She told me stories of how her classmates have been cured of cancer through practicing this special type of QiGong and fasting 🙂

      • I am also very glad that she ‘s now home. Many thanks for your kind thoughts. Just come back from my morning walk. The weather is fine and the walk becomes a part of my life; when I am not travelling. Thanks again, Bro

      • For the first two days, she is on watery congee, then on normal congee before she starts to see normally. Will take her to a good restaurant ; we booked a good restaurant to celebrate our wedding anniversary 14/11 but was forced to cancel because the roads near home were all blocked by rioters! We live near a Uni which still has several thousand petrol bombs made ready when the rioters evacuated.

      • Now I see why your area is so affected by the riots. A shame. Well, there will be other opportunities to go to a good restaurant. (The thought of good Chinese food makes my mouth water…)

      • She’s on proper congee today. I just wonder how people can survive with no food, only mineral water for 6 days ( plus 12 hours before and after). All this time she has been doing Qigong in a group. Of course, they believe it is good for health and some classmates believe it kills cancer cells too.

      • Lots of petrol bombs, arrows, catapults, road blocks. Many places / roads / tunnel booths are blocked or set on fire. We all know that there are foreign backing behind it.

      • The funding and training ( bomb making, archery, catapulting, propaganda making) of the rioters definitely come from overseas.
        Meanwhile Soros and others are trying to bring down the market!!

  2. Your tours are fascinating Brian. It’s lovely looking back at such an amazing life journey. The photos are captivating, such a beautiful family and region of the world not to mention the adventures. Thank you for letting me tag along. 🌹

    • Always a pleasure to have you on board Coeur de Feu. 🙂
      As I look back at those pictures and moments… of practically History now, I wonder when and what went wrong along the way?
      Be safe.

  3. Lovely photos and so many wonderful memories to cherish in years to come, it looks like you had an plenty of adventures in your childhood! Thanks for sharing and have a lovely weekend, Aiva.

  4. I love seeing people’s photos of their childhood, so thoroughly enjoyed your post. (Did you get your own back on your sister, when her arm was okay?)

  5. Now, that’s some growing up. Love how you kids took part in the plays’ rehearsals and the fact that the grown-ups did plays! I’ll say that, there’s some innate eclecticism amongst the Gauls, I’ve always been convinced of that. Who turns up with a EU-plated Ural sidecar, driven from Europe, in Kyrgyzstan? A French couple, bien sur! Who does plays as a mean to pass the time? But it can’t be anyone but the French. Thanks for sharing these memories, Brian.

    • You might be right, Fabrizio. The leader for the plays was our friend Claude, a former colonial administrator in the French Congo, then a director at Péchiney. Then all followed suit, and Air France manager (Dad & Mom), A British Petroleum manager who’d fought in WWII, American and French diplomats, Greek traders… Not sure this spirit is still around. Let’s hope it resurfaces. (As an aside, maybe that’s why so many French – and Italians? – live in London now?)
      Buona notte.

  6. Cher Mzungu – The expression of defiance that you wore as a child is priceless. The gift of growing up in a wild place. 🙂 All of life is an adventure, n’est-il point?

    • Il est. 🙂
      Now, defiance? I can see the picture you mean? Some might call it haughtiness? 😉
      You might be right. Whatever it was, I try to be faithful to that little boy. 🙂
      Bon Dimanche. (I hope you’re not snowed in yet?)

      • I’d say you’ve succeeded in your faithfulness, Jeune Monsieur. 😉

        Some snow here, but not too bad. One can’t live in these parts and hate winter.

      • Merci mon amie. So many people betray the kid they were, right? 😉
        I understand your point. Actually I don’t mind snow. I mind rain. Paris. (Anger), Brussels, Amsterdam (where I spent 3 winters in between 2 African assignments, a weird contrast)
        Bonne semaine
        Biz

    • Yes. Part of what life was in those days. Hazards of the job I would say.
      The drunkard Doctor was actually a very nice man. 🙂
      And the re-breaking of the arm was done under ether sedation, (Which was a major risk!) she probably hurt for a couple of days and then went back at clubbing me with singular joy. 😉

  7. Always enjoy your narratives of experience Brian and your threads are also a pleasure to read…I’m playing the believing game…we somehow will re-emerge and do better…HK I read…Protestors are now trying to leave the PolyU campus as riot police fire a constant stream of tear gas at them…scary…no words…but enjoy your grandchildren ☺️🙂🙃 smiles Hedy

    • Abend Hedy. 🙂 Thank you for supporting the believing game. (I do have a hard time lately, but it’s people like you who inspire me to “turn around” and maybe believe Hope will return.)
      Have a great week.
      B.
      (It’s also a pleasure to compose those threads and see how they “work” for others… dankje wel)

  8. What a lovely memoir.You grew up in a very interesting & exotic place,
    I grew up in the Canadian Prairies. Pretty great there, but for a lot of small minds.

    • Canada brings me images of Jack London or grey Owl. There is magic there I’m sure…
      I did grow up in weird and exotic places. I was thinking of you when I put this post together. You would have gotten along with my mother. She designed all the costumes for the plays. (Also designed her coktail dresses in the 50’s, took the drawings to the Indian tailor.) And I wondered where all her costume sketches have gone. I have lots of her work, but not the costumes sketches. They probably got lost in one move or the other…
      Cheers.

    • Pleasure Lisa. 🙂 As a child I thought it was a “normal” childhood. After all I shared it with many other children, expat brats, some of whom I still see. Normal for us. But then I realized, starting College in Paris, that it wasn’t. And stopped telling. 😉
      Glad you like those stories.
      (BTB your own personal experience of sailing round the world ain’t exactly “normal”, is it?)
      (very old friends of ours are prepping their new boat to start a similar trip as yours next summer)

  9. Magical! You nailed it again!
    Being a kid is much more fun than being an adult.
    As kids, we seek those who enjoy the same games and define fun the same way we do. As we get a bit older and our childhoods are robbed – all childhoods are robbed or broken; it is usually a sudden, violent transformation – we seek out those who relate to our transition. As teenagers, we rebel and we attempt to create a new reality. As adults, we come to the realization that we have been trying to recapture the simplicity of the purest form of love – happy love. We look for someone who can pull us out of the darkness of adulthood and ignite the simple, childish joys of life… 🙂
    We never stop looking for the treasure box! Have a great week! D.

    • The treasure box… Very well put, Doina. Still looking for it actually. last I heard it’s in France… (Why did I roam the world to find it!?) 😉
      Now are all childhoods robbed or broken? Most, yes, but I’m not sure all were. Going to Paris at 16 to study was a shock. (And I had had years of prior summer training in France). 🙂 But you get over it. Learn the local illusions. Play the game. Then move. Learn other rules, other games. (And keep the kid inside alive…)
      Mnay many thanks for your visit and comment. Always a pleasure. (More instalments of the African childhood to come)
      Au revoir

  10. A great story Brian, and wonderful that you still have so many of the original photos – a real snapshot of times past. I hope your sister has apologised after the bashing you took from her arm cast?

    • A pleasure my dear. Oh yes, her arm was fine after the second cast was taken off. No sequels whatsoever. Maybe the most minute, almost microscopic bent in one of her bones. Not visible. I used to tell her it was her fault for bashing me on the head. 😉

      • LOL indeed. I think it’s part of the indispensable socialization process. Need to learn how to fight in the big bad world. And it’s safer (and more controlled) within the family… I’m sure “y’all” have good memories of that now at family reunions… 🙂

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