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I first came into contact with John Lundgren when I was a PCV well driller. Our project was funded by and required a good bit of contact with USAID. In addition living in N’Djamena there was a great deal of interaction in general between PCVs and embassy/USAID personnel, far more than most places I’ve lived and worked. It was the mid-seventies and things were decidedly less uptight than now. Characters abounded, people were allowed to be a touch eccentric. And John, the USAID Director, was a five star character. Everybody knew he was a nudist. Usually he drove to work without a shirt on and put it on in his parking space. Once in later years when I knew him better, I asked him what he thought about going to his new post as AID Affairs Officer in Djibouti. He replied, “Maybe I can find a beach where I can walk around naked.” Also in later years a female consultant friend told me she had stayed at John’s house once for a few days. She’d known about his nudist proclivities, but it hadn’t bothered her. He wasn’t going to walk around naked in front of her. John had class. But one night she went down for some water and surprised John as he was getting something out of the frig. The refrigerator door was between them. They chatted a few minutes until she realized he was getting cold.

imageJohn had a pronounced theatrical streak. He never seemed to be off stage, but he was a likable guy. He didn’t have a mean bone in his body and he was loyal to his people. Somehow he was contacted by a guy named Pruitt from the University of Tennessee (I think). I don’t remember if he was a professor, PhD student or what. Anyway, from his ivory tower in Knoxville this guy had developed an elaborate and unbelievable project proposal to stop the spread of the Sahara. He wanted to build dykes along three to four hundred kilometers of the Logone river to keep it from its annual flooding, thus greatly increasing the water flow into Lake Chad and doubling its size. He postulated that that would greatly increase humidity and rainfall in a large area of the Sahel — a dubious assumption, there are desert islands. Also that annual flooding that he wanted to stop allowed for extensive rice cultivation. The funniest part was that he estimated the labor costs using the labor production and cost stats of the Chinese coolies who had worked on the transcontinental railroads in the nineteenth century. Everybody laughed at the project except John. Of course he knew it was total pie in the sky, but the grand scale of it appealed to him. Twice this poor fellow flew out to Chad convinced that John was pushing to get his project approved. If anybody mentioned the project in the USAID Office when John wasn’t around, a chorus of “Pruitt…Screw it!” was sure to follow.

John was the AID Affairs Officer for Togo and Benin, two small narrow adjacent countries, when I worked in Cotonou, Benin with a colleague, Sarah, on a potable water project. I worked on the technical side and she handled the health side. John’s office was in Lome, Togo which was a only a few hours drive from Cotonou. About a year into the project relations between the US and Benin deteriorated and the project was suspended. Benin’s UN Ambassador shouting “Vive Peurto Rico Libre!” in front of the General Assembly didn’t help matters. When a drunk American diplomat drove into and became “lost” inside a large military camp (at least that was the embassy line), things went south fast. Sceptics at heart, the Benin Government was in no hurry to release him. The resulting standoff threatened to become a major diplomatic incident, so the embassy ordered Sarah and me, the only non Peace Corps Americans without diplomatic passports, to leave for Lome immediately to avoid potential complications like house arrest. Since officially the project was suspended and not canceled, John kept us on the payroll for months until we could land other jobs. He caught considerable grief from USAID Washington, but refused to budge. I was and am grateful to him for that. However it made for a very crowded little USAID Office in Lome. John had a spacious office, but everybody else was crowded into small spaces. When John went on vacation, and without his approval, his deputy immediately called in a crew and created another office. Upon his return John wasn’t happy. They’d sawn his stage in half.

In order to relieve some of the crowding, I proposed to John that I take my project’s little 404 Peugeot pickup and make technical visits (cough cough) to some other wells projects in West Africa. John approved it with no qualms. I don’t believe any other professional bureaucrat in the world would have, but John danced to a different tune. Given the turmoil in Africa today, the idea of  an American driving by himself across three countries more or less on a lark seems incredible, but in 1982 I never gave a thought to my safety. I mean the road was paved the whole way, albeit a bit rough in spots. To someone used  to driving on sand tracks up and over dunes, that seemed like a piece of cake. I drove north all the way through Togo to Ougadougou, Upper Volta (now Burkina Faso) where I thought I could get a visa for neighboring Mali. I couldn’t. Relations between the two countries weren’t good. I did purchase a couple of nice Ougadougou bronzes.


I planned to meet my buddy Mark in Bamako where he was coming through on business. The USAID Director there, David Wilson and his wonderful wife Tatsie, old friends, had invited us anytime. Tatsie was a serious vegetarian. I once asked her if she ate fish. She replied, “I don’t eat any of my friends.” Dave had replaced John in Chad and had been the USAID Director during the civil disturbances when I was working on a USAID contract. He personally asked me to come back to Chad during an interim of nearly a year when things had calmed down some, before renewed fighting closed everything down for years. It’s an odd thing, but even intelligent people can become accustomed to abnormal conditions and totally lose perspective. During that false hope interim period in Chad we desperately tried to get the foreign assistance train back on track, convincing ourselves, all evidence to the contrary, that conditions had improved sufficiently.

At one point we went so far as to invite a UN and World Bank delegation to Chad to see about starting back up a multi-donor road building project. There were only a few of us at USAID Chad at that time, a skeleton crew, so I was unofficially handling the project management side of that and several other dormant projects, unheard of for a contract employee and against USAID regs — hence unofficial. They  arrived and we went to the USAID conference room and sat around the big table. As we were making our presentation, a few distance shots could be heard, a common occurrence. Then the shots got louder and nearer. I noticed some flinching. Finally an AK47 went into rapid fire just outside the building. I looked down the long empty table to Dave and shrugged. Our distinguished visitors were all under it.

FAN - Force Armee Populare FAN - Force Armee du Nord

FAP – Force Armee Populare FAN – Force Armee du Nord

It so happened that a couple, old Chad PCV friends, were living close to the Mali border, working on a water/health project. So I continued west across Upper Volta until I reached Scotty and Charlotte’s place. I asked around about the border and was told that there was only a little offset border station a few kilometers inside Mali where you were supposed to present credentials, but it was all pretty sleepy. The USAID logo on the side of a vehicle had proven useful to me in the past, so I decided to chance it. I blew right past the border station, no problem. I had some time to kill so I stayed in Mopti a few days and visited the Dogon country. The cliff houses were fascinating. On the way down to Bamako I took the ferry over the great Niger and visited the ancient city of Djenne with its truely stunning architecture.

I had a fun time in Bamako. One of the highlights of the trip was a party at the Ambassador’s Residence to which Dave and Tatsie insisted we accompany them. The US Ambassador was new, unusually young (maybe early forties), single, liked to dance, and not bad looking either. Unsurprisingly there were quite a few attractive women there. On more than one occasion Mark had stated that his greatest fantasy was to be in bed with a French woman and have her say “Ooh la la!” That night he spent some time chatting with an attractive French lady. He had a big smile on his face the next day. That round trip was some 1,600 miles across the heart of North Africa.

Recently I learned that John is an actor now, usually playing odd old men in music videos and strange cult movies, but lately branching out to more mainstream parts. He looks great for his age.