A Writer Writes

Falling in Love with Africa
by Margaret Szumowski (Zaire 1973–74; Ethiopia 1974–75)

WE WERE KEEN TO GO TO AFRICA, and we fell in love with the continent. We had everything to 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.
Unexpected adversity
We landed, and ten or fifteen armed soldiers boarded the plane and briskly examined our passports. They questioned us exhaustively about their newness. The soldiers claimed we were “Israeli agitators, mercenaries, or C.I.A. agents.” Amin was relishing his role as protector of the continent — or bully.
     I still see before me the circle of soldiers pointing machine guns at us as we descended from the plane. Finally, we realized that this was serious business. The armed guards herded us into the terminal, then rummaged through everyone’s suitcase: two years’ supply of toothpaste, clothing, books, hairbrushes, sanitary napkins, aralen, blue jeans. The soldiers gasped at the quantity of blue jeans, a luxury in Africa. “You must be very rich,” they said, and we laughed a little. The soldiers questioned a few people closely, especially one man who had maps of the area and books in Swahili — an African Studies major whom they presumed to be a spy. They dragged him off somewhere. We were exhausted and a bit fearful, especially since no American Embassy official had so far appeared.

Back on the plane
The soldiers decided we weren’t dangerous and allowed us to return to the plane. What a relief, we thought, as we prepared for take-off, our earlier euphoria broken. “What an experience,” we said to each other, thinking our first political incident finished. After a long, hot wait, the flight attendant announced that we would not be allowed to take off. We deplaned and hovered under the airplane’s wings for shade. A few Volunteers tried to chat with the guards, “Beautiful airport . . . how many planes come into Entebbe a day?” The only friendly guard was removed from duty.
     Having learned that we must await presidential clearance, we returned to the airport. For the first time we understood that Amin himself had ordered us detained. As we learned later, he couldn’t resist the opportunity for a small victory — exerting his power over a whole planeload of Americans was too tempting, especially in the presence of a visiting head of state.
     By this time, an official from the U.S. embassy appeared. He looked small, pale, and worried at having to handle such a situation. We had no ambassador in Uganda. Rumor had it that Nixon and Amin were on the outs, Amin having sent Nixon a telegram blasting the U.S. role in Vietnam. “He should talk,” we thought to ourselves. The embassy official was not encouraging. “We don’t know how long it will take.” Helplessness set in for the first time. How could we Americans be in a position where our government could do nothing for us?

Dinner, rumors and song
That evening was a strange one. We trooped to the dining room for a meal of pork chops and peas, provided by East African Airlines and drank our first African beer. Waiting wore on our nerves, as tension compounded with fear that someone would break down — but we stayed outwardly composed. We were strangers to one another after all. Wild rumors circulated: “We’ll be out of here in an hour”; “We’ll be leaving at midnight”; “ No one can negotiate with Amin.” Rumored deadlines passed uneventfully, but we lived on such speculation. “The U.S. will get us out of here, “ “Mobutu wants us in the Congo.” Some Volunteers sang in an attempt to boost the group’s spirits, humorous songs, folk songs, patriotic songs. George began, “Amen, Amen, Amen,” but quickly stopped when he realized the guards thought we were singing, “Amin, Amin, Amin.” Watching the faces of those watching us made the songs dry up in our throats — the mixture of bravado and naiveté that inspired them had worn off. Our actions carried more weight than ever before. Our lone embassy official warned us not to say or do anything that could be construed as criticism of the government. Such criticism could land us in a Ugandan jail.

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.

The fondest of memories
Fortunately, another kind of initiation awaited us. What we came to love in Africa so much was: the beauty and generosity of the people; the mountains of the moon; the insect hum as we walked toward Bukavu; the boy rolling a hoop in front of a house that once belonged to a mercenary. What we remember most are the students I taught, and how they hated to let us go. “Do you leave us with joy, Madame?” asked Mutamba. Our time in Africa was the most vivid part of our lives, and we still go back to remember what it was like riding the fulla-fulla — passengers hanging on everywhere — or taking the 3rd class train from Harrar to Addis Ababa; Andrew caring for a man with cerebral malaria; I, teaching my quatrieme and troisieme students, convincing them that they wanted to hear a story of South Africa of how one man risked his life to sit on a bench. Andrew taking the College Boboto students to see the infirmary, hoping that some would become doctors. Or the two of us sitting around a mesob [a large basket with stand used to serve a meal] with Ethiopian friends in Addis Ababa and gulping the honey wine; or us on an expedition seeking out flamingoes in Lake Shala, or watching the black-robed Danaquil and their camels carry salt to the Harrar market. Most important were our friendships, the friendships with Africans. Mpoyi wrote to my sister, Georgeen, for a long time. Is he still alive? Did Mobutu kill some of those bright students? What happened to them? After the junta took over in Addis Ababa where did Astair live? Was Itifiwerk able to send Simon to school? So much we don’t know after all these years.
     Travel in Africa was not only being an interloper and witness to both horror and beauty, but also enjoying a feast for the senses, a world opening, a metamorphosis brought about by the taste of mangoes, working up a good sweat over a spicy chicken moambe, the pungence of markets everywhere, the warmth of greetings. Living in Africa was having a look at the heart of things.

One Final Word


As you will notice, this is not an unbiased report on Idi Amin Dada. I’ve seen the brutal dictator, and I’m glad he’s buried in Saudi Arabia. I promise never to visit his grave, never to say a good word about him, always to hope for the end of dictators, mountebanks, and brutal killers on the African continent. This man called himself, “Lord of All Beasts of the Earth and Fishes of the Sea and Conqueror of the British Empire in Africa in General and Uganda in Particular.” Ugandans suffered terribly during the “Lord of All Beasts” monstrous reign.
     In 1973, we escaped Amin in Entebbe, probably because we were Americans, or because someone paid a bribe. I hadn’t awakened to the terror he would thrust upon his own people. Some Ugandans survived to walk out of their country and tell their stories in Bukavu or Kinshasa or Kigali. According to most sources, during Amin’s nine-year rule, he and his thugs killed 300,000 people, wiping out entire ethnic groups. Bodies were dumped among the crocodiles in the Nile River because graves could not be dug fast enough according to the Biographical Research Center. Who knows how many were raped, mutilated, forced to kill others, tortured, or traumatized for life? Amin was a man who admired Hitler.
     Amin, who had a fourth grade education, ruled Uganda from 1971 to 1979 when he was forced from Uganda and fled with his wives and more than 30 children to Libya, then Iraq, and finally to Saudi Arabia. Ricardo Orizio interviewed “Big Daddy” in Saudi Arabia for The New York Times:

    Do you have any regrets, Mr. President? I asked. And the man who had killed at least 300,000 Ugandans, who had the Anglican bishop of Kampala assassinated and dumped on the side of the road, and who had several of his own ministers thrown to the crocodiles of Lake Victoria, placidly replied, with his trademark Big Smile: “No, only nostalgia.”
         I asked how he wanted to be remembered. Apparently, recalling his boxing days, he replied, “Just as a great athlete.”

A number of journalists who visited Amin in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia were frustrated by the opulent setting in which Amin spent his last days. Ethan Bronner of The New York Times wondered how a “man who, in the 1970’s had . . . robbed his nation into endless misery and admitted to having eaten human flesh was whiling away his time as the guest of the Saudi government” had received such a comfortable reception in Saudi Arabia. Saudi officials referred to their “desert habits of hospitality, Amin’s conversion to Islam, and his support for the Arab boycott of Israel in the 1970’s.” Why wasn’t Amin jailed for crimes against humanity?
     As one punishment for Amin, who must surely be in hell, Asians have returned to Uganda. They are thriving, and they have invested a billion dollars in the Ugandan economy, according to Mark Lacey of The New York Times. Amin had wanted “a black man’s country.”
     The Asians had the last word — a compliment to offer the dead Amin — who died this past August 16
th in Saudi Arabia. “He wanted the indigenous Ugandans to get involved in business, too, and that’s happened. There’s room enough for everyone here.”

Margaret Szumowski has been a teacher since 1970, and teaches English at Springfield Technical Community College. Her work has appeared in Calyx, Willow Springs, American Poetry Review, Poetry East, The Agni Review, River Styx, as well as in a chapbook, Ruby's Cafe. Her first book-length collection of poetry, I Want This World, was published by Jeffrey Levine of Tupelo Press. She is the winner of the 2002 Peace Corps Writers prize for poetry.