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Leaving Africa part II

Posted by on September 18, 2014

When our time in Bunia came to an end in the summer of 1985 we were quite ready to go back to Cambridge.  It had been the most difficult of our postings, primarily because communications were so limited and the sense we had of being in the middle of nowhere was never harder to live with than when bad news came from home. It did come, (in the shape of my mother having cancer), not so bad but bad enough to worry about, and we wanted to be back with our families and for Amelia to start nursery school – Cambridge was calling and we were impatient to get there.  Getting there was never going to be easy – we had ourselves, two children, a small mountain of luggage as well as effects that were consigned to boxes, sent to Kinshasa by one of the dodgy planes that flew between Bunia and Kin and left to BAT to organise shipment home.  By some miracle it all arrived some months later.  By some miracle we did too but the journey looked like being one of the most challenging we had undertaken during our time in Zaire.  We were to drive in our LandRover to Goma which was a two-day journey and then catch a plane to Kin (it was always called Kin) and thence to Nairobi and a week of visiting and a last safari before we left Africa.  Leaving – a word freighted with emotion and that sense of finality which we had become used to having left Izmir, England, Migori – is tough: there are always people to whom having to say goodbye to hurts, the more so when they have made your life so comfortable and easy in the circumstances, have become so much a part of the family and our boys in Bunia wee no exception, in fact the opposite.  I have written before about them all and even now, nearly thirty years later, I find myself wondering what became of them in the terrible years that followed.  I saw a tv programme in which Bunia featured the other day and my eyes hurt from trying (hopelessly, I know) to spot any of them in the crowds that milled around on the screen. It was all so familiar and ingrained, it was me walking down that street, unchanged despite all the upheavals of the intervening years, it felt like it was our home just as much as anywhere else we have lived.  But that last  journey from Bunia – at the time we thought we would never get out. Not long out of Bunia, the LandRover broke down and it took Ben and the driver a long time to sort out the problem, but eventually we arrived at Goma.  The night  in our hotel was broken by an intruder attempting to get into our room by the window, glass shattering everywhere and a lot of noise.  Ben spent the rest of the night sitting in a chair by the broken window, empty Coke bottle to hand to ward off the intruder if they came back. At that moment Cambridge seemed to call even louder. The next day the flight to Kin was most welcome,  even the rather unusual plane that we boarded, which was a transport aircraft with several cow carcasses and umpteen sacks of leeks and onions as our companions on the journey.  The children paid scant attention to our fellow passengers from their bucket seats and we were glad to be airborne and on our way.  We were even more glad to be on our way when we left Kinshasa en route to Nairobi a few days later.  No-one ever enjoyed passing through the airport at Kinshasa: it was a chaotic, dark, rough place and we had to have a ‘chef du protocol’ from the company to intercede for us and get us through to the departure lounge (anywhere less lounge-like would be hard to imagine).  For us it was a nerve-wracking experience as we had to somehow get through customs and all the controls with several thousand US dollars concealed in our luggage,  for, unwillingly, we had become smugglers.  For several months we had been doing deals with the American missionaries in Bunia – our local Zaire currency for their dollars, gold dust to us.  We were paid in the local currency and had so little to spend it on that it accumulated at a healthy rate, briquettes of Zaires piling up.  Nowhere in the world would exchange any of this for pounds or dollars, so we had to devise ways of getting it changed. Not for the first time the missionaries came to our aid, by swapping their US dollars for our Zaires.  It was up to us how we managed to get it all out (completely prohibited) and nappies came to our aid as a place to hide a few dollars, as did the writing of  a lot of ‘pretend’ letters, concealing currency and cheques.  Being searched minutely in a small, shabby, put-up cubicle was uncomfortable – even Amelia was searched, three years-old and untroubled by it all, but Sam escaped the indignity.  No-one found our life-savings and at last we were on our way to Nairobi and the so, so different place that was Kenya.It felt like an old friend and our week there passed in a dream of animal-watching, shopping in normal shops, driving along tarmac roads, using the telephone, until it was time to leave Africa for good.  Karen Blixen, after her return to Denmark when her African farm failed, wrote that she would always wonder whether it was raining in Africa. She never went back and we have yet to, as well. It gets under your skin, Africa, and I too will always wonder how life is going in Bunia and Migori, Zaire and Kenya, our African homes.

Saying goodbye to our Bunia family.

Saying goodbye to our Bunia family.


On the road to Goma

On the road to Goma

2 Responses to Leaving Africa part II

  1. Jack

    As ever, an excellent read. I am so glad I spent time out in Africa and also often wonder what happened to Mary, Joseph, James and all our other Kenyan friends. Very enjoyable.

  2. Susie Gutch

    Fascinating to read about your vivid memories of your experiences when leaving Africa , nearly 30 years ago. I expect some things haven’t changed much in that time, but others have enormously and sadly Kenya is now a far more dangerous country than it was when I went there with a friend[whose home was in Karen] just after leaving school in 1966.
    Rick is off to Malawi in a week, for 10 days [doing some pro bono work for a charity based there]. I’m looking forward to hearing his impressions when he returns.
    Meanwhile, I’ll show him your piece to give him an idea of what may be in store!

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