An African* childhood, part 3

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The magic house, Conakry, Guinea, West Africa, c.1962. I’m sitting on the table, pondering the day’s next play. Little Sis walks down the stairs with her cast on her arm. Keep a safe distance lest she clubs you. The house may be long gone, the African village at the back has been replaced by rows and rows of concrete buildings, the dirt road is now a 4 way lane. But on Google Earth one sees there are still houses on the coast lines, some with a swimming pool. Silly. Why a pool when you have the open sea all for yourself? I Google Earthed a few years ago. Haven’t wanted to since. I guess one could probably Google Street. What for? There’s another, fancy house instead of “mine”? Who cares? Let the magic remain.

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On the beach on the island of Roume. We generally went on Sundays for the whole day. Permits duly filed with the “Secret police”. (I joke you not). Maybe we were trafficking weapons to retrieve on the island and overthrow the newly independent government! L. to r. Marielle d’Orso, her parents, Suzy and Marcel d’Orso, and last, Marcelle Grimaldi. The d’Orso were childhood friends of my father at the Suez Canal in Egypt. Their parents and my grandfather were employees of the Canal. (Servants of the Empire from generation to generation) Marcel was the BP manager in Guinea, and delighted to re-unite with my father by pure chance.

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Lunch. After the grown-ups and kids skied, some of the boats went trail-fishing between the islands. And brought back lunch. Just fish, grilled on charcoal in a hole on the beach. At the beginning of every dry season, the “officers” of the Boat Club sailed to the island, met with the chief of the village of fishermen who lived on another beach to the West of the island, and negotiated the yearly rent for 10 or 20 “concessions” above the beach under the palm trees. After much haggling and palm wine drinking a price was agreed and rent was paid. The villagers changed the palm-thatched divisions between each “concession”, scrubbed the wooden tables and benches, and voilà, we had our “private” place for 2 or 3 families for the entire dry season.

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Avel mor II. After the first year when the only access to the islands was in the small wooden craft shown in previous posts, most families started buying their own outboard boats, first in aluminium, one hull, not too safe, then in fiber-glass double, unsinkable, hulls. There were outboard engines with magical names. Johnson, Evinrude. No Japanese engines yet. Avel mor means “Wind (of the) Sea” in Breton.

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“Saleté de pétunia”, by Courteline (1858-1929) featuring, Godefroy, Madame Pisvert, sitting at the front of the “bus”, and the “Public opinion”. Courteline was a fun playwright of the late 19th early 20th. The young man to the left, Godefroy, holds a pot of Pétunias, in a bus.

Godefroy. To himself. “What do I look like? With this vase of Pétunia?!”

The Public Opinion: “This young man walks proudly in the path of virtue, the flower he holds on his knees, of his chaste soul is the symbol…”

The grown-ups put up five or six short Courteline plays. Direction by my father again, costumes by my mother. I think she sub-contracted some of the sewing. The entire production was lots of fun.

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With my father, on Governor’s beach, on the other side of the island. Since that side was exposed to open sea, we rarely swam there, too much undercurrent. The walk across the island was fun tough, as we passed an old 15th or 16th century Portuguese fort dating back to the Portuguese settlements in Africa. For us, it was a pirate’s fort. Obviously.

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What’s the programme? Treasure hunt? Fishing? Swimming? Taking the inflatable boat out? Hmmm. Tough choice. Conakry, West Africa, c.1962.

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Yours truly, waterskiing. Roume island. I was 9 or 10? I hope those posts are not read as bragging. It was just normal life to us. 🙂 I did have my lifejacket on. After umpteen turns, I generally refused to drop the ski rope. You know: one more turn! And another. So after a while, my father had to kill the engine near the beach. My mother kept that ski rope (a perfect rope, two handles, much better than a single handle) all her life. Just in case she might ski again. I still have the rope in the family treasure chest. 🙂

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Seldom did we stay the night on the island. I jest you not, the “secret police” was a pain, one had to justify the purpose, grease hands, what have you. But when we did, we left the Boat Club on Saturday, spent the night on the beach, on small canvas foldable beds, not on the sand, there were lots of iguanas at night. And precious starry nights, with the crash of waves on the sand.

Tables were well laid. Plates and forks on the mantle. Salads and pasta had been prepared at home. Ballantine bottles were at the ready for the grown-ups. The oil-lamps were lit. My father is holding the dinner, a medium sized but heavy tuna fish.

Sitting, l. to r. are Laure Arnaud, wife of a French diplomat, and Bill Attwood, US Ambassador to Guinea . Bill was born in 1919, went to Princeton and served in WWII. A journalist and editor at Look magazine, Bill was a speechwriter for Adlai Stevenson. After Stevenson lost the primary, Bill joined Kennedy’s campaign and was eventually appointed Ambassador to Guinea in ’61. Found this picture of Bill Attwood with JFK and other ambassadors (source: JFK Library)

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Attwood is at the far right. Those were the days when the Oval office held a higher class of people. Bill was fluent in French, and had a simple mission as all newly appointed ambassadors to former French Africa: 1) Kick out the remaining French interests in Africa so the US could move in. Remember Guinea had, and still has the world’s largest reserves of bauxite the mineral for aluminium. 2) Contain the Russian influence in Africa. The Cold War was raging on every corner of the globe.

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Bill Attwood (sitting in the front) brought JFK’s brother-in-law Sargent Shriver (standing left) to Conakry. (Source: Guinée 4 ans d’indépendance et de révolution) He later brought another high-ranking personality on a secret mission. (But that, best beloved is another story). 🙂

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“It was in Megara, suburb of Carthago, in the gardens of Hamilcar”. Salammbô, Flaubert.

This was to be the last production in Guinea and the islands. Our friend Claude Millet was a great fan of Flaubert and the grown-ups organised a massive costume party on the island, based on the novel Salammbô. The event was called “Opération Mégara”. We were all dressed at the “Antique”, Phoenicians, Greeks, Romans. Anything BC. An live cow was ferried to the island, then stuffed with chickens, in turn stuffed with… whatever, and put to roast on a charcoal fire, complete with Cook turning the cow over the fire. Unfortunately the cow was too big and never really cooked well. The stuffed chickens had to be taken out and roasted directly on the fire. Every production can have its setbacks.

Right to left above: my father, Cyril, my mother as Salammbô, Serge Elluecque, first counsellor at the French Embassy, Françoise, a friend of my mother’s as Cleopatra, Jocelyne d’Orso, standing in front of my sister, Anne Elluecque, Serge’s daughter, whom I finished High school with in Ethiopia later, and little me.

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“Can we go home now?” Little Sis and myself at the Boat Club, Conakry, West Africa, c. 1963. After a full day at the island, and returning safely to the club, the grown-ups would linger and have a drink or too before sunset. We kids kept diving and swimming until the bats flew out from the coast on their nightly hunt and it was time to go home. 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.

Thank you for flying Equinoxio’s Time-Space shuttle. It’s always a pleasure and an honour to have you on board. This is the last post of the year. Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to all.

79 thoughts on “An African* childhood, part 3

  1. You mention people with pools who live on the beach. Well, that was our happy situation five years ago when our property ran down the ‘cliff’ to the high water mark. We used our large pool every bit as much as the sea, particularly when time was short for getting down through our forest and back.
    That costume party sounds wonderful.

    • Yes! I “remember” your wonderful house. And so sorry you had to let it go. 🙂
      The costume party was great fun. For kids and grown-ups. An entire day on an (almost) desert island…
      My best wishes to you Les, for the holiday season and next year… (Hold on to your moustache)

  2. Wow, your childhood memories and adventures are certainly one of a kind. Thanks for letting me take a peek at all the photographs and thanks so much for sharing. The palm tree covered house looks incredible, haven’t seen anything quite like it. Aiva 😊

    • Thank you Paul. A book? Who knows? I’ve never really felt like writing my “memoirs”. Churchill could. He had stuff to say. But me? Just bits and pieces of the life of an expat brat turned permanent “émigré”?
      At any rate, what I will possibly do is put all posts together in one single file. For family and friends maybe? All the more so that I don’t have a draft copy. I write the story direct around the pix as I upload them to the post.
      So if WP blows up, I would have to start form scratch.
      Merry Christmas my friend.

    • Exactly. What you have is what you have… Believe it or not, I thought about you when I was writing about… the food… I know you’re a vegetarian… My apologies, we’re not. I hope you won’t hold it against me. 🙂
      Happy Holidays Gigi.

  3. You have a gift. You should be an historian if you aren’t already one. Not just the pictures but your descriptions and stories make the time travel just so fantastic

    • Exotic is the word. 😉
      A long time ago, my mother took us a place in Brittany she’d loved as a child. Woods and fields. When we got there it was all built up. And I saw how much it affected her, though she tried to hide it… Better not to “go back” sometimes. Keep the memories.

  4. I would love to have been a spectator at those productions. What imagination. Your father is so tan in that photo with you! You truly had the childhood of dreams, even with the challenges of living in oppressive places. Thank you, once again, for sharing this part of your life. Wishing you and your beautiful family a glorious holiday, cher Mzungu! 🙂

    • The grown-ups then were very creative. When you think they were administrators, engineers, managers. Add to that the sheer luck of a childhood without TV. So one had to invent one’s own fiction. 🙂 You would have liked it for sure.
      Glad to share those stories of a world long gone.
      Tous mes voeux aussi à toi, ma très chère Julie. Wishing you a white Christmas and a fantastic 2020. I’m sure the fact your family is close by will make it even more special. (You must have nephews and nieces, right?)
      Je t’embrasse.
      B.

    • PS. Yes, my father was very tan. In those days no-one worried about skin-cancer.
      Now living in oppressive places is a learning experience. Of course, as children we were mostly shielded. But everything is a learning. I’ve lived in several African countries… You learn stuff… 😉 (Like I’m sure you did when you went to North Korea or other places).
      Biz

  5. Fantastic journey back down Memory Lane, Brian. Your photos make Guinea look very appealing, although as your Google Maps experience shows, things have definitely changed. Sadly, in most aspects of life, #going back’ is never possible. Hope all’s well?

      • We had seven members of the family over Xmas, so mainly it was exhausting! How was Xmas on the Caribbean? Loved Tulum when we were there around 15 years ago. I imagine things have changed a bit.

      • Seven? Must be exhausting but pleasant… 🙂
        Yes, Tulum has changed quite a bit. We were here 25 years ago. Went to Tulum Beach and the site yesterday, overcrowded. Hordes of tourists, bycicles etc. Fortunately we’re not staying in Tulum proper, but in Akumal, midway between Playa del Carmen and Tulum. Very quiet. Very few people, small secluded beaches. Perfect.

  6. The “why having a pool when you have the sea” is a question I’m asking too. A friend of mine went to Barbados for her honeymoon recently. I opened up Instagram and just found photos of her and husband sitting by the damn pool. ALL DAY. Not a dip in the ocean as far as I could see.

    Could as well stay in Croydon!

    • LOL. To each is/her own. Maybe there was jellyfish in the sea? Or they didn’t bring their phone while dipping in the sea? Or the water was too hot? (I remember Brits swimming in Brighton in full July… Ice cold). Hope you had a geat Xmas. Ciao ciao

  7. What an interesting childhood you had Brian! Its amazing that you still have so many photographs to refresh your memories. Love those costumes, was wishing you had videos 🙂

    Merry Christmas dear friend!

    • Hello! How nice to hear from you dear Maddhu. I hipe all is well witj you. I fo have a lot of photo evidence going back all the way to my great-grandmother in 1860, age 10 in Calcutta. 😊 and i have film. 8 and super 8 by my mother, completr with sound. Starting in Karachi 1947. 2020 i need to find a way yo digitalize all. Wishing you a wonderful 2020.

      • That’s what I’m looking for. I have already made a few trials, but not satisfactory, quality-wise. I have a friend who’s a movie producer, she’s looking for the right professional to do it.
        Wish you a prompt full recovery, Madhu. Delighted to be back in touch…

  8. flying Equinoxio’s Time-Space shuttle…no words I just thoroughly enjoy your post Brian…your narratives of experience and photographs make a movie in my minds eye 🤓☺️ sending you and your loved ones all the best for 2020 ❣️🤗💫

  9. Hi – that tuna looks like it would be a great dinner – and have heard of pig roasts but not a cow roast – even tho it did not work out very well. I am blood type O and so red meat is ideal fuel for me – chicken too – but the red meats more so.
    Enjoyed your latest installment of Mzungu chronicles – you truly have an interesting upbringing with stories that are interesting and need to be told!
    Seems like it would make a good movie screenplay too –
    Oh and maybe the jfk admin was a bit classier but to me they were not much better in other areas

    • LOL. The cow roast was a half disaster, but we all had great fun. Thanks for “following” the Mzungu chronicles. They’re a pleasure to compose, it’s a pleasure to be read. Now screenplay? 🙂 Not sure the stories are worth it beyond the tales of a world long gone.
      And JFK? I agree with you. Bill Attwood was a dear friend and a gentleman, as were many others, the Civil Rights were started by them and finalized by Johnson, but that administration failed on many things. Kennedy started the VietNam war, a major disaster. I will always remember the book “The best and the brightest”. They were. And led the US in a major disaster…
      Happy 2020

      • I’ve never felt my life was anything out of the ordinary. I’m not a hero. I haven’t saved lives (well, maybe one one or two). As an old friend of my parents once said: “I just tried to live”. 🙂 Having said that, I might put the stories together, starting with a dedicated page on the blog. Just need to learn how to move posts from one page to the other… (Time! Time!)
        Thanks for your comment and visit. Always appreciated.

      • You have such appreciated humility – and it sure is better than someone thinking there life was “more exciting” than it was – ha
        And best wishes with the pages and getting it all sorted –

      • Thank you for your best wishes. It’s really a matter of “cleaning my desk” and opening WP to see how it works.
        Now “humble”? I’m not sure i am that humble. 🙂 But I like to tell things as they are. Yes, I’ve seen (and done a few) extraordinary things. For which I’m grateful. But there are many I haven’t done. Flying a plane for instance I haven’t. (I did skydive a few times though. Fun. There will be a post)
        Cheers.

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