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.
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.
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…
Yours truly, the “mzungu” kid. No shoes most of the time. Though the rocks were sharp. Weren’t we skinny…
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.
Sis and bro, ready to jump into the water. Checked for jelly fish first. West Africa, c. 1961.
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?)
“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!
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.
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.
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?)
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?) 😉