A Boyhood in Africa

Africa in the early 1960s as experienced by a young ex-patriot

Brief encounters with Spain and Morocco

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I don’t remember much about the trip from Paris to Rabat except that we spent a total of three nights in hotels along the way. The last stop in Europe was in Madrid followed by a short flight to Rabat, Morocco.

The first night was at a small inn south of Paris. We ate a breakfast that included some of that unfamiliar tasting sour orange juice early and hit the road. The second night was spent in a somewhat palatial hotel situated on a large plot of luxuriously landscaped grounds someplace along what I believe to have been the French Riviera. It was perhaps late September or early October, well past the tourist season and, like Paris, it was cold, wet and grey. The hotel was situated several hundred meters from the Mediterranean to which it was connected by a long walkway interspersed with occasional flights of stairs. The beach and the hotel were largely deserted. I don’t remember getting on an aircraft for the trip to Madrid, but upon arrival recall the taxi ride from the airport to the hotel.

Spain in those days was a fascist realm ruled by the head of the Guardia Civil, the dictator Francisco Franco. Spain was a police state in every sense of the word. Not only was it a dictatorship, it was ruled by a cop. Police are generally not given to assign much value to civilization and it showed, even to a seven year old Midwesterner. Franco and several decades of depression and a civil war had cowed Spanish civilization into submission. Civilized Spaniards were difficult to identify probably because it was in their best interest to maintain a low profile. I don’t know much about Spain but from what I’m told contemporary Spaniards much prefer life in what could arguably be called a liberal European democracy, albeit with an ailing economy.

Unlike Paris, Madrid enjoyed sunshine. We stayed at a posh hotel, probably the Hilton, in what I suspect was downtown. The highlight of the visit was a side trip to see a bull fight, perhaps a shade more civilized than a gladiator fight. The taxi ride to the arena took us down some of Madrid’s splendid avenues along which were roundabouts containing over-scaled equestrian statues. I remember some guy driving a bull dozer slowly around one of those roundabouts and noticed that the tracks were ripping up the pavement. I wouldn’t be surprised if the Guardia Civil didn’t arrest the driver, an encounter that would have most certainly killed or maimed him. The Guardia Civil always bloodied and broke the bones of those they arrested, even for minor violations. Clearly, to a man, they had given themselves over that side of them that relished the sound cracking bones when they were hit just right.

Arriving at the arena was like traveling to a different time. My recollection was that it was not unlike visiting some impoverished pueblo in Old Mexico hundreds of kilometers from the D.F. We found our seats and watched as the spectacle unfolded. At the beginning of the festivities, there was a parade or sorts. At the head of the parade were several crews of toreros, some on horseback and each headed by the lead torero, or matador, distinguished from the others by his gold appointed attire and cape. They were followed by a band. Finally three pairs of bulls were led in. They seemed docile enough though some were given to rear up.

One by one the bulls were released into the arena. The first step involved stabbing the bull to enrage him. Then the matador and his assistants would surround the creature to assess its nature and administer additional injuries. Picadors would periodically take turns confronting the creature to insert pairs of flagged swords into the back of its neck. Eventually the creature would succumb to his wounds to be done in by the matador. One by one, each of the carcasses were pulled out of the arena by a small tractor. Assistants would then rake up the more obvious signs of struggle and soon thereafter another bull would be released.

The next day we flew to Rabat in an Iberian Airlines DC-4. The DC-4 was similar to a DC-6 but smaller and unpressurized. As weather was encountered, the pilot was obliged to fly at altitude, an action which later proved quite uncomfortable to me for hours after arrival as I hadn’t yet learned how to perform the Valsalva maneuver, a simple way to open Eustachian tubes closed by descent from altitude.

Morocco in those days was then heavily influenced by the French and most business was conducted in French. We arrived at what would be our home for the next two months, the New Bell Hotel, a serviced apartment across from and overlooking what was then the central souk. As I recall, the souk was triangular, perhaps three or four acres in area and filled with single-story shops and tents. One could buy all manner of things there. Our suite had a living area, a small kitchen, a palatial bathroom and two bedrooms. All the rooms including the bathroom had small balconies made accessible by pairs of narrow French doors. The streets were lined with outdoor cafes reminiscent of those one encounters in Paris. There were a lot of guys darting around on ten-speed racing bikes, the likes of which I’d never seen back home where we were content to use single-speed bikes fitted with balloon tires and coaster brakes. I wondered, upon seeing a derailleur for the first time, why they didn’t just trim the chain to the correct size so they could dispense with those unrecognizable hanging mechanisms.

A crew of loud men came through our suite every morning to attend to the housekeeping. They chattered away to one another in Arabic but spoke with us in French. They quickly learned my name and made sure to greet me if I was home. One time when I was sick they took pity on me and made quite a fuss over me. The laundry would be done on the roof by women who may have been their wives. Over the course of the few weeks we lived there I took to going up onto the roof where I befriended these ladies and their children. They spoke to me in French but the way I recall learning the language seemed to me like they were teaching me to learn a secret code or something. Only later did my mother tell me that she and my father were perplexed as to how I’d learned to speak French.

In those days the US operated an Air Force Base out in the desert east of town. I attended the second grade at the base school. There was a school bus that picked me up and dropped me off at the hotel. As I was there for just a few weeks I don’t recall making any friends.

I do remember meeting some of the other State Department staff including a couple my father had served with in the US Army Air Corps in World War II and my uncle Charley who lived down on the coast in Casablanca. Both my father and the husband of the couple were named Ken. Because of that, during the war the couple took to naming my father “KG” (for Kenneth George). They lived in a posh apartment on the opposite side of the souk. If we’d all stood on our balconies, we could have seen each other without the aid of binoculars. When we’d visit them, usually at night, there would come a time when it was my bedtime. That was then I would be led to a second bedroom where I was introduced to their collection of Pogo comic books. When we left Morocco a few weeks later, they gave me several of those comic books, still cherished by me to this day.

The trips to Casablanca to see uncle Charley were memorable. The roads were not well designed or maintained and the drivers were terrible. It was not unusual to encounter several wrecks on either leg of the journey. Uncle Charley lived in a small apartment on the side of a hill overlooking the Atlantic. The building featured a basement parking deck but the ramp was so tight the deck could only be accessed by especially small vehicles like Fiat Tupelos or BMW Isettas. The Renault 8 was perhaps the largest car that fit. Uncle Charley always drove a black (presumably to identify him as a diplomat) Chrysler that had to be parked in the street. It was “guarded” by some character who washed it off every morning for tips. Once when uncle Charley was in a hurry, he forgot to tip the guy and noticed a huge scratch down the full length of one side of the car the next morning. The lesson: Don’t forget to tip.

While in Casablanca my parents visited one of my father’s coworkers at Foreign Buildings who lived in what seemed for me at the time a very unusual home. It was built on a narrow plot that slopped down at least 60% from the street. To accommodate this peculiarity the house was built with at least five floors and a rooftop deck. Because the footprint was small, there was typically but one room per floor. The entry floor had the kitchen and a small dining area that overlooked a two-story living room. As I recall, the master suite was situated over the living areas and the guest bedrooms below. I got a thrill out of running up and down the stairs that connected all those floors. As an architect, it’s a thrill to get the rare chance to design such a home.

I don’t remember the trip from Rabat to Nairobi.


Written by GW Abert

March 2, 2015 at 09:50

Posted in Africa

One Response

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  1. Al C. Said:
    Hi George,
    Rupert was a great story! Passed it onto my daughter for my grand sons age 9 and 6. One wonders where did the shin bashing tag come from in the evolution of the rhinos? Possibly usefull in modern times for over turning and tossing aside rhino sized Land Rovers full of obnoxious safari participants. Ruppert the rhino could have been a great children’s book.

    The sour orange juice. Up until about the end of the 50 s my mother served our family a sour tasting tin canned orange juice that came in a 48 once container. Some time in that period the frozen OJ that when reconstituted with water 3:1 was as Good as fresh squeezed saved us from the horrible tasting canned stuff.

    Some where along the line in my education we were shown a pretty good color movie of a complete Spanish bullfight , uncut including the kill. Never seemed to make much difference in our development.

    Your immersion French lessons on the roof tops were thirty or more years ahead of the Rossetta stone language lesson franchise.

    Your depiction of the house built in a stepped fashion on a steep sloped hill is timely I my locale. Developers are working on really high end tracts on slopes of steep basalt anticlines some exceeding 45 degrees requiiring extensive geotechnical engineering and adaptations to the hill. A lot of the basalt is fractured from the uplifting formative process. It may or may not. Be well locked. Until an earth quake or 100 year rain down pour. Our < 6 inch average rain may be hiding a future desaster for some of these really expensive places.

    Gorge keep those stories coming.. Al

    Al coffman

    March 4, 2015 at 23:48

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