Ex Africa semper aliquid novi.
(Always something new out of Africa. Roman proverb)
After graduating from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, I had the distinct pleasure of serving as an intern for the Association of International Schools in Africa based in Nairobi, Kenya. From 1994 to 1995, I knew a song of Africa, including the Ngong Hills. Just like Karen.
I loved my time in Kenya.
Almost a full year.
I learned a little Swahili.
I could write a book about that wonderful adventure of working for the Association of International Schools in Africa, traveling to Tanzania, Botswana, Ethiopia, Ghana. I could write a book about the crazy White Kenyans I came to know. I could write a book about the Americans in Africa. I could write a book about the family that allowed me to rent a room and share their cook and yardman, both of whom were named Joseph. I could write a book about my boss at the Association of International Schools in Africa and her family.
The Association of International Schools in Africa is located on the campus of the International School of Kenya, which was created by the US and Canadian embassies back in the day to provide an American and Canadian style day school education for US and Canadian diplomats’ children. Located on the site of an old coffee plantation, it’s a beautiful campus. I could write a book about my days on campus. Peponi Road, I miss your coffee plants in full red.
There were safaris. There were drinks at Muthaiga. There were dhows. There were trips to Mombasa and the coastal resorts. There were nights in Lamu. There were children huffing glue at the petrol station in Gigiri There were the Sheths next door who dried their turban freed hair in the sun on Saturday mornings. There was hiking to the lower summit of Mount Kenya: Asante sana Kenya.
In Tanzania, there were nights in Zanzibar. The hottest, most sleepless nights of my life. I stayed restlessly at an inn smack dab in the middle of the Stone Town in an old Swahili mansion called The Spice Inn. Little did I know it had no air conditioning, was next door to a mosque, had a strict no alcohol policy, and crept with bugs all day and night. The recorded call to prayer seemed to be every five minutes. “Allah akbar” through sweated sheets and mosquito netting haunts my dreams.
Part of my job involved helping host conferences for teachers with speakers, consultants, continuing education classes, and all manner of educational training. I manned all AV needs for speakers and served as the de facto host. I was my boss’s walker.
We hosted conferences in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, Gabarone, Botswana, Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, and Accra, Ghana. I traveled all over Africa working. Like a dog.
In Ethiopia, I had the best Italian meal of my life. And, yes, there is food in Ethiopia.
In Tanzania, I ate crabs the size of my face and saw the Aga Khan’s house on the ocean. I bought a Tinga Tinga painting for a few hundred shillings. It hangs in my office.
In Gabarone, I drove a rented car on the wrong side of the road while the British head of the International School of Gabarone shouted directions at me from the back seat, her head out the window blowing cigarette smoke cursing me for driving too bloody slow. Her husband suffered long.
I had been in Africa since July, and, by October, I was feeling kind of homesick. It was when I deplaned in Accra, Ghana, that my homesickness abated. The heat felt familiar. So did the lady at customs.
In a naively semi-racist way, or may be fully racist way, I looked at my boss and said, “My Lord, Connie, she looks just like Maybelle Pringle who worked for the Aimars for years.”
Connie replied, “Well, Hambone, this is West Africa.”
I went back to all I learned in my studies in the Transatlantic Slave Trade class at Chapel Hill.
“Duh,” I said as we cleared customs.
I felt immediate kinship with the people of Ghana.
We spent two weeks in Accra, Ghana. We took day trips up and down the coast.
We toured Elmina Castle, the oldest slave castle in Africa.
Our tour guide told us the history of the Portuguese and their fortress originally called Sao Jorge da Mina. He told us of the Dutch seizing the fort and how the slave trade continued until the British took over the colony. He told us about the brutality of the place up until 1814 when the slave trade ended.
I looked through the Door of No Return knowing that no one who walked through that door did so voluntarily, knowing that many would die on the Middle Passage.
The castle is beautiful in spite of her brutality and murderous history.
I really loved Ghana and her people.
Were there open sewers and children playing in them?
Was there a power outage every day due to rolling blackouts?
Was there heat like you’ve never experienced?
Was there a large fight that broke out on the soccer pitch in front of the Accra Novotel where we were staying?
Was there a dinner at the head of school’s house where his Eritrean wife served a full Eritrean meal to us?
The people were so familiar. So lovely.
They always offered water.
Traveling with us for almost a month during October 1994, was a lovely lady whom I was tasked to fetch in the lobby of the Hilton in Addis Ababa. I marched across that cavernous space and extended my hand to her. She shook back firmly. She wore sensible clothes. She kept her hair tied in a simple pony tail. She wore little jewelry and no make up. She had a soft upper class British accent. She had a glint in her eyes.
She was Jane Goodall.
Dr. Jane herself.
I still have her home addresses in Tanzania and in Bournemouth, England. For sale to the highest bidder.
Connie Buford, my boss, had met Dr. Jane at a conference the year before in Hamburg, Germany. Connie is from Beaufort, SC, which is how I got the job with the Association of International Schools in Africa.
Meyer Woflsheim has nothing on me. I got connections.
At the conference in Hamburg, Connie Buford had approached Dr. Jane and asked her if she would be willing to speak at the four Association of International Schools in Africa conferences the following year.
“Why not?” replied Dr. Jane. “You know I have a home in Tanzania,” intoned the lady who travels over three hundred days a year. “Would love to be back in Africa.” She could advertise her nascent Roots & Shoots program.
Dr. Jane told us wonderful stories of drinking whisky neat and dancing in fountains in London. Of Dr. Leaky advising her to go study the chimps. Of how she saw the chimps of Gombe using tools.
All that wonderful PBS documentary come to life.
She was a lot of fun.
Dr. Jane was known to let go with a screaming Alpha male chimpanzee pant-hoot at the end of a good meal. She hooted it up more than one of our nights together in Ethiopia, in Botswana, and in Ghana. One night she called pant-hoots while another man in our group, from West Virginia, called wild turkeys. He was a champion turkey hunter. You can’t make this up.
The staff of the restaurant came running and stared in amazement at the two callers. They competed with each other. The hoots of the chimps. The warbles of the turkeys. All in the backroom of the white table clothed restaurant on the beach in Accra. The proprietors, a displaced Italian couple and the chef, a Frenchman, also came to watch. There was applause after the fifth round of hoots and calls. The Italian proprietor fetched his own private grappa for the group. So unnecessary. Dr. Jane knocked back her glass first.
Anyway, it was in Ghana that we had the most fun with Dr. Jane. We went to the zoo with her where we watched her soothe a chimpanzee and groom it with her fingers. We watched the chimp stroke Dr. Jane’s face and look through her hair.
“You lean up next to the bars and let him do that to you, Hamlin,” she said to me. “It won’t hurt.”
So, I leaned my head toward the bar, and, sure enough, the caged chimp stroked through my hair.
I stood up and he turned around and put his back to the bar.
“Now, your turn,” said Dr. Jane “Just push his hairs aside as though you were looking for lice or fleas as I just did.”
“Yes, ma’am,” I said. I got to work.
“He’s lonely,” asserted Dr. Jane. He held out a digit and Dr. Jane wrapped her fingers around it. They locked eyes. I gawked as she said “hoo hoo hoo hoo hoo hoo hoo” like a Lamaze instructor. The chimp begged. Dr. Jane threw him alms of attention.
We stood with the chimp for a good thirty minutes in broiling West African sun.
“Makes me cry for him,” said Dr. Jane.
“Oh, but this was Nkrumah’s zoo,” replied our guide.
“Still makes me weep,” said Dr. Jane. “I hate to see them in captivity.”
We had another week to go in Ghana.
We had our conference at the Accra International Conference Center.
Our conference ran until about 3 p.m. every day. Teacher hours.
In the afternoons, I would wander with other attendees. It’s all so surreal now.
We discovered the wonders of the Makola Market there in Accra. Kente cloth. All manner of dashikis. Bronze gold dust boxes/kudo/forawa containers (I brought home three of those), African trade beads from the 19th and early 20th century, African amber necklaces, hammered silver jewelry.
I bought jewelry which I would eventually give to my bride. She has it still.
As I was purchasing millefiori trade beads one day, the vendor asked me about my accent. Accent? What accent?
“You’re not British, but you don’t sound quite American, either, Brother. Are you from Canada?”
“No, I’m from the States, but from the South. We sound different from the rest of the country.”
“Oh, I understand, Brother. A Southerner in the diaspora.”