These stories are snapshots from a fascinating time and place which I was fortunate enough to experience.
In late March, 1984, Ahmed Sekou Toure, Le Grand Syli (elephant), long time President of Guinea, died While undergoing cardiac surgery at the Cleveland Clinic. He was one of the bloodier of the first generation of African leaders following the breakup of colonialism, being directly responsible for thousands of deaths and driving anywhere from several hundred thousand to as many as two million people into exile. At the time I was working on contract for USAID inside the U.S. Embassy in the capital city of Conakry, as a sort of a rent a bureaucrat with bush and language skills. I got the job initially because the AID Affairs Officer at the time of my hiring, Ed Costello, had been my boss and friend when I worked for USAID in Chad after finishing the Peace Corps. I had volunteered to stay on and help loose pack homes and do whatever was needed when civil war broke out and most USAID and U.S Embassy personnel had been evacuated with minimal baggage. Hearing bullets whiz by is a bonding experience.
In Guinea I lived in the same compound as Ed, his wife Carol, and their three little girls who liked to jump on me whenever I came over, and had no apparent respect for a man’s anatomy. As a PCV back in Chad I would go over to his house and watch videos of big football games while the twins giggled and Kim, his youngest, toddled around the living room. In Conakry they lived in the big house, the girls four or five years older now, and I lived in the apartment over the carport. Later Mark Wentling the new AID Affairs Officer moved in with his family. They were great too, no problems. Just down the street was a bridge overpass where on occasion Sekou Toure had hung people, leaving them dangling over the roadway for days. Just a little farther down that same road Stokely Carmichael lived. By that time he had changed his name to Kwame Ture. His former wife Miriam Makeba, the famous singer, had divorced him in 1973. He was officially an aide to President Toure, and never seemed the least bit bothered by the brutality of his namesake and patron. Briefly arrested two years after Toure’s death for his supposed involvement in a coup attempt, he died of prostate cancer in Guinea in 1998, claiming that he had been assassinated by the U.S. Government.
In his later years Sekou Toure adopted a gentler public persona and renewed his friendship with the U.S., and what with the Cold War and every vote in the U.N. counting, that was enough for a small USAID mission. I’ve lived and worked in many strange places, Conakry, Guinea being one of the strangest. The rainy season there was soul-numbing. Everyone got cabin fever. Leather shoes turned into Chia pets. That said, Guineans were a likeable optimistic people. Ed used to say that if he hung a sign out of his office window saying Wanted 747 Pilots, the next day there would be a five mile line of people saying show me what it looks like and I’ll fly it.
Under the leadership of a young dynamic Sekou Toure with Marxist leanings, in 1958 Guinea voted for independence and, unlike what most of France’s former colonies would do later, no to retaining some links to France. That meant the currency wasn’t tied to the French franc and had become nearly worthless. You didn’t use individual bills to make even the smallest purchases, you used string tied bundles of bills. The black market was the only real market. The French, Brits, etc. winked at this. Of course the U.S. Embassy had to operate according to the rules, so they required their people to exchange a minimum amount of dollars every month at the embassy at the official rate. You wrote a check every month at the embassy for let’s say $200, and in real buying power you received maybe $10 worth of local currency back. In return upon leaving the country you were allowed to sell property in the local currency and reconvert it at the official rate up to ten thousand dollars. You could sell one used stereo for enough currency to get a ten thousand dollar check from the U.S. Government. A strange dance.
It also meant that the Foreign Service Officers lived in a closed off little world where they purchased most things at a nicely stocked embassy commissary and didn’t get out much. People like me, the contractual swine, were on the fringe of things, our status less clear. The Consular Officer informed me that since I physically worked in the embassy, I would be expected to convert the requisite minimum every month. I said fine, then give me a letter saying that if I do so, I will be allowed to reconvert on the way out. I got the letter, and a good thing too, because when I left the personnel had changed. It was clear that they wouldn’t have honored the agreement otherwise. So I did my fiscal duty, but I changed money on the black market too, so I could live as normal a life as possible, going to restaurants and bars on occasion, although really there wasn’t much to do in Conakry.
One of the few fun things to do involved the embassy boat. A modest but nice motorboat was allocated to the embassy for emergency evacuation purposes. Most weekends in the dryer months we’d go fishing. Once in a while we would bottom fish for red snapper, not my favorite experience since I am prone to seasickness, but most of the time we would troll for tuna and barracuda. Speeding along with the clean blue water clashing on rocky outcrops was exhilarating. We’d use big silver spoons with the “patented wounded minnow action.” There are no coral reefs off the coast of West Africa, and therefore no poisonous fish for the barracuda to eat. Barracuda is delicious, much praised by gourmets, but dangerous to eat in many places. Until I left, a polaroid of me holding one of the biggest barracuda caught to date hung on the embassy bulletin board. One day a novice lady was trying to bring one in. She was in danger of losing her rod. I reached across to steady it just as the barracuda leapt out of the sea and shook its hook. The treble hook flew back with force spearing my arm. That ended the day’s fishing. It took the embassy nurse and two guys an hour to extract it. I remember one guy holding my arm down while the other braced himself and pulled as hard as he could with pliers. The nurse watched carefully to see that I didn’t go into shock. Who knew extracting hooks was that tough? I’ll pass on repeating the experience.
So one day I heard Sekou Toure had died. The next day the embassy was informed that the Vice President (the elder George Bush) was going to attend the funeral, funeral attending being one of the things Vice Presidents do a great deal of. That set off a mad search for his official picture. The official picture of the President hung prominently in the embassy, but nobody remembered what had become of Bush’s picture. The embassy had a small lunch room, a couple of card tables, a few chairs, a frig, a microwave (or was it a toaster oven in those days). It turned out that Bush’s picture flipped over face down had served as a tray. So they cleaned it up and hung it on the wall. That same day a plane load of Secret Service personnel landed. These were the prep guys. That afternoon I was called into the US Ambassador’s office, introduced to two Secret Service guys, and informed that I was the embassy’s liaison for Bush’s motorcade, which involved meticulously mapping out the routes along the planned itinerary and personally driving the lead car in the motorcade, one of our USAID jeep Cherokees.
So the next morning I picked up my new buddies. The Government of Guinea also provided us with a liaison/expediter who seemed bewildered by the whole thing. We started at the airport, drove to the OAU (Organization of African Unity) village, then to the Grand Mosque, then the stadium, and back out to the airport. We measured the distance and time for every leg. At one point one of Secret Service guys asked our Guinean friend how many minutes he thought it would take to get from one place to another. He replied, “We don’t think like that.” At the mosque we were kept in the foyer, but a subordinate and our liaison both assured us that the Vice President and other non-Muslim dignitaries would be allowed in the main mosque the following day for the services. The OAU village consisted of a number of villas, one for every member country, that had been used for heads of state when the annual OAU meeting had been held in Conakry several years back. One of those had been designated for the Vice President. It swarmed with Secret Service personnel. I tried my best to explain to my guys that the next day would be chaotic, and all this measuring of exact distances and times wouldn’t be of much use. Basically they said, yeah well, it’s what we do. Late that afternoon a cargo plane landed and disgorged several vehicles, including two armor plated limos and a hearse type vehicle called the control car that was chock full of communications equipment, as well as another gaggle of Secret Service guys. I was informed that the V.P. would ride in one limo, the other being a “blank” to use as a spare and to confuse would be attackers. Then we drove back to the embassy and lined up the vehicles for the next day.
The fun begins. The next morning we headed to the airport to meet the V.P.’s plane, in perfect formation, me driving the lead vehicle with my two buddies as passengers, one riding shotgun, the other in the back seat. Upon arrival, the nice horseshoe drive to the main entrance was blocked on the right side by two important looking Mercedes. The head of the Secret Service operation was at a loss and wanted me to instruct some Guinean worker to find the owners and tell them to move their cars. I laughed. I had this image of a low level worker ordering a couple of ministers or whatever to move their cars. Then I told him to forget it, we had time, just back the cars in along the other side so that they faced forward in the proper order. That’s what we did. Then the V.P. and entourage popped through the entrance and filed into their proper vehicles. I got the OK sign, and just as I was pulling out the back door opened and two Guineans in formal robes (what we called “grand boubous” in Chad) jumped in. For a second I thought the Secret Service guys were going to pull their guns. I recognized the two men, one was the former Guinean Ambassador to the U.S. and the other was the present Guinean Ambassador. I quickly conveyed that and somewhat calmed the situation. The ambassadors both spoke fluent English, but they started rattling away in French which didn’t help the tension. I translated. They wanted the V.P. To pay his respects to the widow. The Secret Service guys replying, no way, no changes, we are heading to the OAU village. I played along and in French I told the ambassadors that they were welcome to bring the subject up there. The funny thing was the former ambassador was my landlord and had even spent a few nights on my couch when his wife threw him out for something, but we were all formal now.
We arrived at the OAU village where we stayed for the next three hours or so as heads of state and dignitaries arrived and gathered. The V.P. seemed to be in his element, wandering around a bit, hobnobbing with other VIPs. I recognized a few of the eminences grises of Africa, Senghor of Senegal, Nyerere of Tanzania, Kaunda of Zambia. Not in Bush’s circle, nevertheless I caught a glimpse of Arafat, sporting full Poncho Villa regalia, complete with crisscrossed bullet-filled bandoliers across his chest. It was clear that all this milling about made the Secret Service guys nervous. There was a lot of chatter on the radios in the control car. However the V.P. seemed to be enjoying himself. Several times I found myself in reasonable proximity to him, enough to get a good look anyway. It was a hot humid day. I was sweating and the Secret Service guys in layered suits were sweating profusely. I never saw a drop of sweat on Bush. I wondered if they had an android model they trotted out for ceremonial duties like funerals.
We had an escort, one old policeman on a motorcycle, for our ride to the Mosque. Good thing too, the traffic was horrendous. We were directed to a parking spot. The V. P. and entourage headed to the Mosque. The cars kept coming in, packing us in with no apparent organization to it. I informed the Secret Service guys that we weren’t going anywhere in the near future. Then I decided to stretch my legs. I wandered up to the Mosque. The double doors to the foyer/vestibule/whatever were wide open. People were packed like sardines inside. The non-believers had not been allowed into the main Mosque after all. But even in that packed little room they had been requested to take off their shoes. Out of curiosity I searched for Bush. He had to be sweating in there. I spotted him in socks, still no sweat that I could see. I did a double take. Mathieu Kerekou, the President of Benin, was standing next to my USAID boss Mark, although they were talking to other people. Mark was carrying a pair of shoes. I would later learn that they were the V.P.’s shoes. I guess somebody had to do it. Then as fate would have it the two of them bent down at the same time and bumped heads.
Cue the flashback music. A few years earlier I had been the project manager for a nascent USAID/UN potable water project in Benin. It was the only USAID project in Benin, and at that early stage there were only two full time contractors, me and a lady, Sarah, who handled the health side of the project. I liked Benin. I was still a relatively young man, early thirties, and Cotonou had beaches, seafood, and more attractive female Peace Corps Volunteers than I had ever seen. However I never went swimming in the ocean there. The standing joke was that there were two qualifications for that. First you needed to be a very good swimmer. Second you needed a visa for Nigeria. But after almost five years in Chad, looking at the ocean and smelling sea salt was good enough for this sea island boy. In addition I found Benin a culturally interesting country. They practiced a friendly festive version of Voodoo there, and the fairy like Tata Somba houses in the northwest fascinated me.
Unfortunately Benin and the U.S. hadn’t been getting along of late, especially since the Benin Ambassador to the U.N. had shouted to the general assembly “Vive le Puerto Rico libre!” Hence there were rumblings that the project might be canceled. Those rumblings became very loud when a drunk American diplomat drove into a military base, became lost, and was arrested. Hard to imagine why, but the Government of Benin was skeptical of that innocent explanation and in no hurry to release him. So one morning I was called into the embassy by the Charge d’Affaires. I was taken to an interior room and seated at a conference table with a few key embassy personnel. Somebody pushed a button. A giant plexiglass box (or what looked like plexiglass) slowly descended from the ceiling until we were completely enclosed. I dubbed it The Cone of Silence. Then I was informed that Sarah and I, as the most visible Americans without diplomatic immunity and associated with the only USAID project, were in imminent risk of being put under house arrest by the Government of Benin. I was instructed to go home, quickly pack a couple of suitcases, and drive to Lome. There the Togo AID Affairs Office would sort things out. Since the metaphorical bumping of heads between the two governments had cost me a nice job, I found the actual physical head bumping of an American official and Kerekou symbolic and amusing.
After the service and burial we were slated to go to the stadium for the eulogies. However we couldn’t get out and neither could the cars of the other dignitaries. The Government of Guinea solved this problem by sending a beat up old bus down just outside the packed cars. Trouble was it could only hold the VIP’s – no body guards allowed. Parked next to the radio car I could hear the Secret Service guys going nuts. I think an unprotected bus packed with thirty five or so heads of state and other dignitaries including the V. P. was their ultimate security nightmare. I had an amusing image of Arafat, with his crisscrossed bandoliers, sitting on the bus with Bush with no Secret Service personnel between them. Later I learned that Arafat hadn’t been on the bus. Pity that. It was very hot and humid, and all of two miles to the stadium. In their suits some Secret Service guys were running along beside the bus. “Huh huh huh, this huh is John. We lost huh huh huh Fred a huh huh while back.” The bus did make it to stadium, and eventually enough vehicles departed so that we could too. This time we avoided entrapment. After Bush had listened to enough speeches in French, we loaded up the gang and headed to the airport. My buddies seemed relaxed for the first time all day. When I asked they explained that they finally realized that no one could possibly organize a terrorist attack in all this chaos.