Monday, February 20, 2012

The Yaounde' Coup

I'm back in Yaounde', Cameroon for a few days which was our first foreign service posting from 1982-84.  It is the first time I've returned since we left so it has been a trip down memory lane.  During our two years here, family life was basic but pleasant. Although there weren't many places we could take a young family, we nevertheless had an active social life within the American and diplomatic communities, typically meeting in homes, at the Marine House, or at the American Club, which was co-located with the American School.  We also started playing a lot of tennis which we enjoyed for the rest of our foreign service career.

For old times sake, I went past our former house in Quartier Bastos which was large and reasonably comfortable, but which had clearly been built without an architect or an engineer and without reference to any building codes.  One morning during the rainy season, Gertrud went into the kitchen to discover a large termite mound in the middle of the kitchen floor.  Apparently the house had not been set on a concrete pad and instead the builder had simply laid the floor tiles directly on top of compressed dirt. The termite colony had pushed itself up through a crack in the grout during the night.  It was not uncommon to see large termite hills along the roads during the rainy season, but it was certainly a surprise to find one in our kitchen. Termites swarming out of mounds was also a delicacy for the natives. We frequently saw Cameroonians grab termites out of mid-air, and after pulling off the wings, popping the wiggly protein directly in to their mouths. I've read that if the world ever has a protein shortage, the insects of Africa could quite readily be exploited as a new source, with termites being among the tastier ones.

When we lived in Quartier Bastos, our veranda overlooked a traditional African neighborhood which we felt part of because we could hear and observe almost everything that went on. When they celebrated births or weddings we knew it and when someone died we knew that too.   Today the area consists of large houses, shops, restaurants and cafes filled with expats and successful Cameroonian businessmen which have supplanted the old African neighborhood.   In the 1980s there were few restaurants in all of Yaounde' and to my knowledge, no cafes.

And now about the Yaounde' coup:

Shortly after midnight on April 6, 1984, we were awakened by sirens and gunfire coming from the nearby presidential palace.  About an hour later a message came over the embassy radio confirming our suspicion that palace guards were attempting to overthrow the government.  The message directed all embassy staff and families, except essential security personnel, to remain home until further notice and to stay close to their radios. In the early 1980s, their were few working residential telephones in Yaounde and the embassy radio net was our sole source of reliable communication.  Sporadic shooting from guns, armored vehicles and aircraft continued for the next couple of days. We spent many hours at a neighbor's home listening to live accounts of the insurrection on Radio France International.  From the neighbor's patio, we also had an excellent view over the city and watched low flying planes and helicopters as well as jeeps and armored vehicles hurrying through the streets.  Occasionally helicopter gunships flew directly over our house. After a few days, government forces put down the insurrection and the shooting stopped.  When we returned to work and school, we continued to be uneasy because young soldiers manning checkpoints throughout the city, pointed their guns directly at us until we stopped. We held our breath hoping they didn't have a hair trigger. The following wikipedia link provides a good summary the coup attempt.

Our greatest foreign service travel adventure happened in Cameroon when I decided to take the family with me on State Department business by car to N'Djamena, Chad instead of flying  (Click here for a map and information on Cameroon:  I'll try not to bore you with detail here and will only say that it was a National Geographic-type experience in the real African bush. Northern Cameroon is incredibly picturesque and includes such market villages as Mora, a game park at Waza and lunar-type landscape around Rhumsiki.  And on our first day of driving while approached a small town, we were suddenly waved over by a policeman.  He had seen our diplomatic plates and wanted to invite us to a local political rally, which we accepted out of curiosity.  Like many political rallies in the American West, it included riders on magnificent horses. However the topless dancing girls shaking their bodies to pounding music while the politicians clapped their hands, was probably more of a local custom, but then what do I really know about what happens in politics?

Crossing the Chari River From  Kousseri, Cameroon to N'Djamana, Chad was its own adventure.  Due to almost continuous civil war in Chad over many years, the Cameroonian Government refused to allow a bridge to be built.  So we had to drive our car onto a small homemade ferry and to then get into a dugout boat which men pushed and steered with long oars. It was certainly an exotic crossing and we were relieved that our car didn't sink.

It was quite a shock to see N'Djamena due to all of the shelling it had suffered. We were there while a peace treaty was in effect, but it wasn't long until fighting broke out again. The roof of the cathedral was missing and most of the homes were reduced to piles of mud bricks.  But the people were still friendly and there was brisk commerce in the markets. Gertrud and the kids enjoyed visiting the local handicraft markets and perused what remained of N'Djamena.  An interesting side note here: the Ambassador in N'Djamena had a clay tennis court which he paid a man a dollar a day to maintain. The man simply  went into the street and picked up some of the clay bricks that were laying all around and then broke them onto the court with a hammer.  After he rolled the court, the Ambassador's court was fresh for tennis.

Indulge me in  one more story: Hissène Habré, the President of Chad wanted to give Ronald Reagan an Arabian stallion as a present but  apparently never saw President Reagan in person so presented the horse to the Ambassador on Reagan's behalf.  Word came back that Ronald Reagan had gratefully accepted it but the embassy was told that under no circumstances should the horse be shipped to the US and that the embassy should take care of it in Chad for President Reagan.  I saw it there on several trips eating grass from the embassy lawn.  A locally hired Canadian woman on the embassy staff who I knew, had been tasked with taking care of the horse and I believe she tried to ride it a few times even though it was very high spirited. I don't know what ultimately happened to it, perhaps it is still there.

Anyway, after a couple of nights in the very rustic Hotel Chadienne, we returned to Yaounde' the same way we had come. For anyone interested, here are links on some of the places we visited:

A final note:  In February 2011, I wrote a post on this blog on the subject of German colonies in Africa. I made a few comments regarding Cameroon (Kamerun) having been a German colony from the late 1800s until after World War I when the former colony was given over to the British and the French to be administered under a League of Nations mandate.  The following link provides a good summary on Kamerun

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