"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Saturday, March 28, 2020

Love In An African Coup–Surviving Quarantine In Ouagadougou

Quarantined is not exactly the right word for what happened in Ouagadougou. Interned is better, but the term has too much of an institutional feel - Japanese American civilians were interned in camps in California during World War II.  No one caught in the coup in Burkina was locked in a concentration camp surrounded by barbed wire and machine-gunned soldiers nor incarcerated in a government prison.   Sequestered is not quite right either, suggesting a benign separation, like a murder jury from friends, family and reporters.

However described, Americans, British, French, and South Africans were trapped in the Hotel Independance, safe at least temporarily from the civil war being fought outside on the streets of the Burkina capital.  The rebel faction was led by a former dissident officer in the Army who had first been decommissioned, then stationed in a remote military encampment in the desert, then removed from service and exiled to Libya. From there, thanks to loyalists both in Burkina and nearby Mali, he was able to mount an armed rebellion against the military government whose commanding general was in power thanks to a coup five years earlier.   The rebels had amassed a significant armory thanks to Qaddafi – arms which were ironically bought from Western mercenary gun runners with American dollars invested during the dictator’s brief act of contrition to the West – and he turned out to be as savvy a military strategist as Sergeant Doe, the Ghanaian leader who took over power from a corrupt civilian government restored a modicum of honesty, transparency, and law.

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In any case, Lucas Bolling and Esther Thomas were members of a United Nations team to assist the government’s public health program, which because of official indifference and consequent lack of funds, was in disrepair and disarray.  Lucas was a medical facilities specialist and Esther an epidemiologist, two members of large team which also included logisticians, management experts, and public finance specialists, all of whom made it through rebel lines and back to the hotel from the various ministries where they were working.  The rebels were intent only on the overthrow of The General and his henchmen and were enough aware of international public opinion to treat foreigners well or at least with impunity.

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The Independance was the only international-class hotel in the country, but its stars and nomenclature had nothing to do with the place itself – a shabby, rundown,mosquito-ridden cavernous, 15-story depressing place – which however was the watering hole of the Burkinabe elite and the place to be seen in the capital.  The tables around the pool were filled with high-level government bureaucrats, army officers, the few private sector industrialists who managed the grain mills on the outskirts of town., and film directors from Africa’s Hollywood.  Ouagadougou had become the center for African filmmaking, drawing producers, directors, and actors from all over the continent. A Burkinabe film about rural African life had won the prestigious European Lion d’Or for ‘Best Independent Film’.

The Hotel was a lively, social place from sundown till midnight, and a buggy, hot, stifling place for the rest of night.

Once the gunfire had died down and the foreigners felt safe enough to at least come out of their rooms, they realized that the staff had fled with the first rumbling rebel tanks coming from the East.  The larder had been raided, but most of the heavier provisions – canned fish, meat, sauces, oils, and condiments from France – had been left untouched; but these were hardly enough to make a meal.

Electricity had been cut completely by the rebels who had quickly taken over the power plant, and without anyone to run and fuel the generators providing emergency power, the hotel was dark.  Worse, there was no longer any air conditioning.  Sleeping with the windows open invited swarms of malarial mosquitoes, so the hotel 'guests' tossed and turned on sweat-soaked sheets.

Lucas and Esther had never met before this UN mission, but during the weeks before the coup had become friends and then lovers.  No love affair is incidental, and one in a foreign place with someone who is just as foreign to it as the traveler, is unique. Both lovers are freer from inhibition and guilt than they would be at home. They will only be seen by passers-by.  They are in no hurry.  Nothing reminds them of home or service. The strangeness of the room, the hotel, and the city is protective, insulating and exciting.  Travel holds the magical possibility of reinvention”, Paul Theroux writes, “that you might find a place you love, to begin a new life and never go home.”

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Brown and Martha Pineda are Graham Greene’s lovers in his book The Comedians.  Brown is the manager of an old, Victorian, grande dame of hotel in Port-au-Prince, and Martha is the wife of a South American ambassador.  Greene knew that their love affair could never happen beyond Haiti, nor could that of any two lovers outside its voodoo, charmed, romantic world. There would have been no lovemaking in the balcony room at the Toulon; no dark night with only the Chinese coil burning to keep away the mosquitoes; no breeze from Kenscoff blowing the wide open windows if it hadn’t been for Haiti itself.

There would have been no sexual intimacy without the voodoo drums, without the scent of jasmine growing in the gardens of the estates above the hotel, or without the rancid smell of the port that drifted up from the city in the early morning when the air pressure and the direction of the breeze changed.  Lovers danced in Carrefour, spent weekends in cabanas on the beaches of Les Cayes and Macaya, and drove up north to Gonaives and Cape Haitian; but never would have had they met across the mountains in the Dominican Republic. Haiti was their go-between, their matrix, their enabler.

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The lovers would never talk about Haiti, Duvalier, the Tontons, or voodoo.  They would only share experiences from Cornwall, Vienna, or Johannesburg.  Haiti would give  their stories a common context.  Lovers’ homes would only be remembered as not Haiti. Not hot, tropical, gingerbread, threatening, ominous, passionate, and violent.

Men and women have always strayed and always will.  Foreign travel is a welcome release from family, mores, and responsibility.  For the traveler on the plane to Ouagadougou, wife, children, church, and community quickly fade and disappear.  It is not that Burkina Faso – or Chad, Mali, or Nigeria – have any real promise.  All are developing, poorly-governed, and inchoate; but to the foreign traveler they represent chance, opportunity, and romance.  Insecurity, disease, heat, dust, and bad food mean little in the context of romance – not necessarily a sexual romance, but a storybook one.

Temples, sacred rivers, holy shrines, seedy hotels, surprising friendships are all part of the particular exoticism of foreign places.  If actual romance and sexual intimacy are part of the algorithm, so much the better.  Not expected, always hoped for, and prized better than any if found.

And so it was for Lucas and Esther. The coup was threatening, life in the hotel strenuous and uncertain, but sitting by the rancid, scummy pool drinking warm beer, waiting for the vampire bats to leave their roost at sundown – great black, silent things leaving en masse and returning before sunup to the same baobab tree whose branches shaded the terrace where the beer drinkers sat – dining on peanuts, pate and sardines until it was cool enough to to the room, would never be traded or forgotten. 

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Many years late Lucas was caught in the COVID-19 Corona virus pandemic and was self-quarantined with his wife in a Washington suburb.  There was little to remind him of Ouagadougou.  They had plenty of food and provisions.  He could walk in the neighborhood and shop at local markets; and although he missed the company of friends and the life of bars and restaurants, he was free.  There was no romance, no special camaraderie, or feelings of solidarity.  One managed, waited, and assumed that the worst would pass.

Being trapped at the Independance, never knowing when the violence would end or the food would run out, and sheltering in place was a different story altogether, a promising one.  Perhaps, Lucas and Esther thought, the airport might be closed for weeks, and their affair would be extended in this suspended place.  Family had already become a second thought as the moral obligations for both, never severe, had disappeared.  They would be forced to be together and never return home.

However, isn't travel only a hallucinogen, filled with insights, new perceptions about self and environment with some spiritual dimension with a renewed sense of romance but leaving the traveler with only residual memories?  Isn't travel anything more than a pleasurable high, a vacation, a welcome respite from judgment, responsibility, and concern? While the philosophical insights of Theroux, Wolfe, Nabokov, and others may be valid, is anything so temporally confined and passing of any real value?

Lucas never doubted that without Burkina, the coup, and confinement at the Independence, his affair with Esther Thomas never would have happened; and there was nothing unreal about it.

An older friend of Lucas’ who had recently had an affair with a young woman thirty years his junior had often repeated the Coleman Silk line about love with a much younger woman (Phillip Roth’s The Human Stain). “Granted, she's not my first love. Granted, she's not my great love. But she is sure as hell my last love. Doesn't that count for something?”.  Lucas’ friend said that he would never forget that surprising gift under the Christmas tree.  The affair was indeed a hallucinogen, but no less real because of it.

There is something about finding things when confined by age, coup, or circumstance.  They are all the more surprising and delightful because of the confinement.  The COVID-19 confinement was not complete enough, threatening enough, or different enough for discovery of anything surprising.  All was all laid out simply and obviously. It was something to get through, to be recounted as an anecdote, then filed away; but the short, intense, hot, malarial affair in Ouagadougou was permanent.

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