Peace Corps Writers
Falling in Love with Africa (page 3)
Falling in Love with Africa
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A night at the airport
That night, desperate as we were for sleep, we collapsed on the airport’s red plastic couches. Our luggage was on the plane. We weren’t allowed soap or toothpaste. Planes came in all night, their passengers loudly conversing in English and Swahili. Once, during the night I got up in a daze because I heard someone speaking French. A Zairian, Mutamba, was telling our group how welcome we would be in Zaire. He was smiling, friendly, sympathetic — “Here,” he said, “les murs ont des oreilles”— the walls have ears. No one could deny we were being watched.
     The next morning the airport was hectic with preparations for the president of Gabon’s departure. We were told to stay in the terminal. Out came the red carpet again, the jubilant dance and music. Not only young people were dancing, but children and old people, too, their strong bodies absorbed in the music. The women in feathered skirts, the old men pounding out their complicated rhythms — all seemed to promise much more of Africa than we were experiencing in the Entebbe airport. We would have liked to be out there under the bright sun. Our first occasion to see African dance and hear the drums at close range! We surely would have enjoyed it if we hadn’t been so eager to leave Entebbe, Uganda and President Amin behind. Now came the oddest event of our forced stay — Amin, grinning, gleeful, came round and took snapshots of us, as though we were his trophies in some game we’d never played.

A night at the Hotel Victoria
Later, we were moved by bus to the Hotel Victoria, a huge empty hotel on the lake shore. It might have been some white-pillared plantation on a tropical island with its gardens of red and yellow canna-lilies, tortoises meandering the courtyards. We could have enjoyed the hotel except for the armed guards outside and the spies inside. No tourists could be found now, but the hotel with its large rooms and big bathtubs had obviously once been a luxury resort for Europeans. After being so crowded together in the small airport, the hotel seemed spacious beyond belief; even spiders in the bathtub couldn’t discourage me. After all this time, we’d get a bath!
     The staff was friendly, eager to talk, eager to tell us all Ugandans were not like Idi Amin. We got a different view of Uganda and some badly needed rest, but we were prisoners. An older Volunteer, well-traveled, a World War II veteran, someone who should have known better, set off for a walk by the lake, far beyond our bounds. “Where’s Jean?” everyone worried. The consul became alarmed, obviously afraid that the man would be shot. We weren’t tourists, but prisoners. Jean returned unharmed, but the rest of us were far more cautious after that episode.

Finally, because of the intercession of President Mobutu of Zaire, a dangerous dictator himself, who had more influence with Amin than Nixon did, we were released. Rumor had it that a huge bribe had been paid to free us. Who paid it? we wondered. Air Zaire picked us up in Entebbe. We were a different group of Volunteers than we had been only a few days before. We cheered — but only after we had left Uganda’s air space. In later months we heard reports from Ugandan refugees fleeing Amin’s reign of terror. Refugees arrived in Kinshasa, capital of Zaire, telling of massacres of whole families. We realized how precarious our situation had been. At Amin’s order, his cut-throats were now murdering and pillaging his own people.

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