Peace Corps Writers
A Writer Writes
Falling in Love with Africa
by Margaret Szumowski (Zaire 1973–74; Ethiopia 1974–75)
 
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WE WERE KEEN TO GO TO AFRICA, and we fell in love with the continent. We had everything toPrinter friendly version learn. In 1973 we were assigned to Zaire, previously the Belgian Congo. We did not know the Congo had changed its name. We had no idea how to pronounce the name of the country where my husband, Andrew, a physician, and I, a teacher, were assigned to work. We did not know the history of the Congo, didn’t know that King Leopold had taken the Congo as his own hunting grounds. We didn’t know that he forced Africans into hard labor and severed their hands if they didn’t work hard. Who did we think we were, going to this ancient culture knowing so little? We quickly learned that we knew nothing, but that we could learn something.
     Along with one hundred other Peace Corps Volunteers, we boarded a plane bound first for London, then for Zaire. We flew all night, practicing our French, which sounded great after a little wine. In London we spent the day sight-seeing, impressed by the big, black taxis and double-decker buses. Many of us had never been to Europe before, let alone Africa. And nothing prepared us for Idi Amin.
     That very evening we boarded East African Airlines bound for Zaire. Andrew and I were tired and excited and nervous about our new lives. Would we make a success of it? The flight was delayed many hours and some of our names were omitted from the passenger list. We had no Peace Corps staff member to handle any kind of crisis. We were a bunch of raw Volunteers, most of us barely out of college.
     We had seen pictures of Tanzania where our friends had spent four years teaching at rural mission schools. In the photos, they looked at ease with their students, the students eager and smiling. My only worry was that I had read in the Atlantic just before we left the U.S. that Idi Amin was forcing Indian and Pakistani families out of Uganda in an abrupt and brutal way. Of course, we were heading for the Congo, where Volunteers were welcome, even if the president was a dictator.

A refueling stop
Although we wanted to collapse after a long night of flying, we were astonished at our first aerial glimpses of Africa. Vast expanses of brown, then deep green floated up like a vision of Eden. In mid-day, July 7th, we made an unscheduled stop in Entebbe, Uganda for refueling. Tall grasses lined the run-way and green peninsulas reached into huge Lake Victoria. When we arrived, a lively ceremony was taking place, Africans rolling out red carpets, loud rhythmic dancing and drumming — immediately someone said the welcome must be for us; Americans surely would get the red carpet! In fact, the ceremony was in honor of the President of Gabon. Someone leapt to a window to take pictures, forgetting that picture-taking at airports is forbidden in much of Africa. We were disappointed not to get out and see the dancing men and women celebrating. Old and young seemed to be having a grand time welcoming the president, and we wished we could join the festivities. It was the kind of performance we’d expected in Africa.
     Our plane refueled promptly, and we were in the air again, feeling a bit left out of the fun. We were almost to Bujumbura, Burundi when the pilot’s voice came on the speaker. “We’ll be returning to Entebbe,” was all he said. Later we learned that Amin had threatened to send his new fighter planes after us if we did not return. We were surprised, but not worried about this turn of events. Nothing in our experience made us expect adversity.

  
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