A Boyhood in Africa

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

Archive for April 2015

Ginger Ale?

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schweppes

This story ought to be at the end of my Africa tales since we were residing in Egypt at the time but there’s no need to start at the beginning. It’s very short. It’s raining here which means that there’s precious little Internet connectivity so there may not be enough time in a session to upload anything longer.

We’d been living in Egypt for almost a year when father got word that he was supposed to meet with another US diplomat on a ship that was scheduled to traverse the Suez Canal. The afternoon prior to the meeting we drove from Cairo to Port Said to await the ship’s arrival.

The next day we could make out the ship from the balcony of the hotel where we spent the night. As the harbor master flagged them in, the awaiting ships moved up to form the next convoy. Once settled in, it was possible for those ashore and those aboard to transfer via a harbor lighter. We took the lighter to reach the ship.

It was an English vessel although I cannot remember its name. Given the large number of Union Castle vessels then serving the east coast of Africa, I’d venture to guess that it was of that line. Once aboard we were ushered to vast sitting room within which was a lavishly stocked bar. The individual that father was to meet with appeared soon thereafter.

While there we ordered drinks and possible a bite to eat. Something impressed father about the ginger ale they served and he asked if he might purchase a case. “Certainly sir!” came the response. As we left the vessel, under father’s arm was tucked a case containing 24 small cans of Schweppes ginger ale.

Upon return to Cairo some of the cans were placed in the refrigerator to cool. Then, after waiting an appropriate period, we had some. We have ginger ale in the US but not like this. In fact the US version of Schweppes isn’t the same as the English variety. It wasn’t uncommon for kids to drink ginger ale in the US, but I suspect that kids in the UK didn’t consume the version produced there.

First off, it really had a punch! There was no doubting that you were drinking something that had some serious ginger in it. And one other thing: there was far less sugar. In short the US version was and continues to be light on the ginger and heavy on the sugar.

Written by GW Abert

April 20, 2015 at 08:31

Posted in Uncategorized

I almost forgot! It rains in Africa.

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Rains

And then the rains came. There were two monsoons, a long one roughly lasting from April to early June and a shorter one in December. The longer monsoon could be epic.

We arrived in Kenya in late November and I recall that it rained nearly every day up until Christmas but I don’t remember it being much of a bother. Due to Nairobi’s altitude, the increased humidity didn’t make things unpleasantly hot and humid. The next April we got to experience our first long monsoon. A few times it did rain for a whole day and there were several nights during which there were torrential downpours accompanied by thunder and lightning. Towards the end of that first monsoon I witnessed a Siafu (red ants) migration (safari).

A year later though, the story took a slight twist. As was usually the case, in April the rains came. The daily patterns changed over the two month monsoon. Early on there would be a late afternoon torrential downpour for about half an hour. A fortnight after there would be a torrential downpour that would last for over an hour followed late in the evening by another downpour. Starting around May it would rain all afternoon and well into the night. That’s when things got interesting.

Father decided that we should have a dog. Dogs were kept outside to deter burglaries. As most yards were either fenced in or surrounded by high hedges, it took some doing for a burglar to gain access. If unwanted guests gained access, dogs could be counted on to either make a loud fuss or simply attack. There were stories about natives sneaking up and using a cane pole covered with razor blades to remove items from inside a home. Unlike the US it was not customary to screen windows. One of father’s coworkers, an English architect, reported that he awoke one night to see his shirt floating over his bed on its way towards an open window. He had the presence of mind to grab the shirt before it could be successfully removed, but managed to cut his hand rather badly on the razor blades attached to the cane pole. Dogs or at least a dog was a good idea.

As noted, windows were not screened. To keep mosquitos at bay, it was the custom to equip beds with mosquito netting. This was part of a three pronged strategy. The second involved enlisting the numerous geckos that roamed the walls near lit lamps to go after flying insects attracted to the light. The third was to light up pyrethrum coils just before retiring for the evening. Just before retiring, one had to unroll the mosquito netting from over the bed and drape it over all four corners of the bed. Invariably there would be at least one mosquito than managed to get in. For some reason they’d always buzz annoyingly around your ears, seemingly attracted to the slight heat generated by the ear’s ossicles in response to the sound of their beating wings. Perhaps they’re attracted to what they think is another mosquito? Fortunately whatever’s at work here allows those with fast enough reflexes to dispatch the little beasts.

Oh yes, the rains!

One day shortly after arriving at school, it started to rain. There were torrential downpours all day. It was raining when mother picked me up after school. It rained all evening and continued to rain all through the night. When we awoke it was still raining. It rained all the next day as well. Continuous torrential downpours to whole time. There was a second full night of torrential rain followed by another full day of rain. And then a third day. And then a fourth day. Starting on the evening of the fourth day, the torrential rain was accompanied by continuous thunder and lightning. This went on for three more days and nights!

There was standing water everywhere! Fast currents of water flowed down the streets, road and gutters. The humidity, normally not an issue, was overwhelming. Mold began to grow on things. Although we had a wringer washing machine, we had no way to dry clothing. Everything was wet. As evening fell on day six, it finally got to the dog. Remember the dog? He had a dog house out next to the servants’ kier. Normally when it rained he’d simply stay inside. It must have been wet in there as well. We awoke to see the dog standing on the roof of his house howling like he’d gone mad. This went on all night.

The next morning there was a reprieve of sorts. Although it continued to rain, it wasn’t torrential and no longer accompanied by thunder and lightning. On this, day seven, it rained all day and well into the night. We awoke to following morning to an unusual sight, the sun. Imagine that, seven full days and nights of continuous rain! And for much of that time the rains were torrential in nature.

Written by GW Abert

April 13, 2015 at 08:46

I remember where I was…

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Jack

Some events are shocking enough for us to later remember where we were when we first learned of them. You know, like the 9/11 attacks and, if you’re old enough, Jack Kennedy’s assassination.

In November of 1963 my family was living in Salisbury, Southern Rhodesia. Nowadays it’s called Harare, Zimbabwe. For much of the time we were residing there Rhodesia was a British colony but just two months prior to our departure, a group of the white landowners led by Ian Smith formed a government and declared their independence from England. Apparently, after seeing what happened with the transition in East Africa, they were concerned enough about the future of their investments to derail any attempts by the British government to do the same thing there.

In 1963 I was a student at Mount Pleasant Boys’ High School. I was in the 2nd Form, roughly equivalent to the 7th Grade in the US school system. I had a lot of schoolmates there were close friends, close enough that it was quite common for us to stay over at one another’s homes for a night or two during the holiday breaks between terms or over the occasional weekend. There was this one friend whose father was a detective in the municipal police forces. He had an older sister and brother. I was a guest of his family when I learned of the historic event. My friend’s name was Peter Ward.

The day before we’d mucked around for much of the afternoon after school but I don’t remember what we did. I do remember having dinner. Peter’s mother and sister attended to all the kitchen work while we boys and their father talked story. I don’t remember what we talked about but suspect we were making plans for an epic Saturday. I remember that we were all telling jokes and laughing up a storm. At one point just after having a good laugh, we all took a sip of our milk and then, suddenly all remembering the joke again, started laughing with the milk still on its way down. Milk gushed out of all our nostrils simultaneously. What a mess!

As there was no room for us all to fit in Peter’s bedroom, we decided to spend the night on small beds in an enclosed porch. When I awoke the brothers were already up and readying themselves for breakfast. As there was an unusual chill I asked for a sweater. I remember that they didn’t have any that fit quite properly, but after several attempts, settled on one. Peter took the rejects back to his room.

He wasn’t gone long.

An announcement blared out of the radio just as Peter was making his way back. Jack Kennedy had been assassinated. Peter ran to the enclosed porch to deliver the news.

Post Script

Peter remained in Rhodesia after independence and raised a family. I think he had five children. He’s retired these days and spends a great deal of his time in Namibia. He may be a widower. As the economy in Zimbabwe is in tatters, many of those of European descent have been obliged to leave, some to Namibia where they scrape together a living as tour guides. I think that all of Peter’s children reside in the UK as does his older sister and perhaps his brother. I’ve reached out to Peter but he hasn’t responded. I suspect he’d rather just spend his retirement fishing.

Written by GW Abert

April 6, 2015 at 09:28