It was called the Cold War. The powerful angled for more power. They eyed the resource-rich continent of Africa with its newly and soon-to-be independent countries. Russia and her allies, America and hers, China—they all purchased loyalty with aid. They fought proxy wars. The CIA, the KGB, Israel’s Mossad, and more maneuvered to outwit each other in now widely documented espionage.
In this Cold War context, Carl and I, with our two young children and our ideals, moved to West Africa, assigned first to a country that was always in the news and then to one that should have been.
The first: Nigeria. Home to one in five sub-Saharan Africans. It was embroiled in a tribal/civil war known as the Nigeria-Biafra War. The powerful chose sides. The world watched and wept.
Our second assignment: Equatorial Guinea. A tiny dot on the map, smaller than the U.S. state of Maryland. A blanket of fear muffled its screams. The powerful chose silence. The world didn’t watch, didn’t weep, didn’t even know the place existed.
In this newly independent republic, nine embassies and diplomatic missions jostled for elbow room in the one-square-mile capital. It was a strategic spot for learning what “the other guy” was up to.
Foreign policy leader Raymond Garthoff had something to say about that tiny capital. From experience as an ambassador, and at RAND Corporation, the CIA, and the Department of State, he authored the book A Journey through the Cold War: A Memoir of Containment and Coexistence. Based on his inspections of U.S. embassies in Africa in the early 1970s, Garthoff says most foreign missions departed Equatorial Guinea because of the pressures of the “particularly arbitrary dictatorship.” But he says America “had decided to leave the two-man listening post.”
Amid Cold War machinations and power plays, there was a mutual enemy against which the world’s nations had common cause.
Smallpox was no respecter of political ideologies or social class. It was a disease with no cure and no treatment—one that would kill more than a half-billion people in the 20th century alone.
Smallpox was an enemy so horrible that every nation joined the battle to send it into history as the first disease ever eradicated by humankind.
Before the campaign for the rest of the globe would begin, it had to succeed in West and Central Africa. Leading that charge gave the United States a means to do good and pursue its geopolitical interests.
“[Smallpox eradication] required the right people: doctors, epidemiologists, administrators, and volunteers who risked their safety and sanity in pursuit of an elusive goal…These heroes as much as technical, scientific, and bureaucratic advances, gave the world its greatest victory in the war between human and microbe.” (Bob H. Reinhardt in The End of a Global Pox: America and the Eradication of Smallpox in the Cold War Era)
Set against a Cold War backdrop, here is my improbable African adventure with one of those heroes. My husband’s perspective was informed by public health and overseas military experience. I eagerly followed him into a world completely foreign to my small-town roots. Most Oklahoma girls wanted to go to Dallas. I wanted to go to Africa.
From selected chapters of Vaccines & Bayonets:
from Ranka Didi
Meninge urged the truck over bone-jarring washboard roads and cow tracks as we pressed north toward the border with Niger. I peered through fine dust at the surreal terrain where twenty-foot towers—termite cities of ochre clay—anchored a ghostly landscape, the horizon dissolving into white sky. An occasional camel grazed on thorn bush and stunted acacia.
In the front seat with his driver, Carl leaned forward, searching. He had to find the encampment of nomads before they moved on. For my husband, vigilance was not optional.
We knew exactly what was at stake. More than once today out here in the Sahel, this belt between Sahara and savanna, people had appeared out of nowhere, many with skin covered by the ugly, hard-earned badge of having survived smallpox. Running toward our truck, they raised their fists and shouted. “Ranka didi!” May you live long! Then the ululation – the long, emotional high-pitched trilling sound. It was a common response to our white Dodge Power Wagon and its large letters, “Smallpox Measles Program.”
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Driving On the Left
Letter to sister: November 20, 1969
This is one of those letters that is just between us. Here goes.
Market trips here are never dull. When I can use the truck, I even drive myself to Kingsway, the British grocery store. Driving on the left is challenge enough on the straight-away, but turning corners makes me a nervous wreck. The streets are jam-packed—thick with people and activity—and it would be so easy to hit a pedestrian or bicyclist. I’m sorry to tell you that this is not a hypothetical statement.
Last week I turned into what I thought was a clear lane. Out of nowhere a bicycle and its rider flipped up in the air and onto the hood of the truck. I was petrified. Had I injured the man, or worse? A dozen scenarios blitzed through my brain, none pretty. But the rider bounced off the hood as though it were a trampoline, gave me a brief matter-of-fact look, reunited body with bicycle and barreled on down the road. Few among the sea of pedestrians even glanced at the cyclist or at me, and those who did registered no surprise.
Body trembling, I pulled off the road as soon as possible. It took a while to calm myself enough to drive again. It was such a close call.
I don’t think I’ll tell Carl.
Love and hugs,
from Green Morgue
I shivered. The five-acre-plus mass grave on the other side of the car window had me cold and speechless. I couldn’t grapple with what Tom was telling us. I had no framework in which to place it. That exotic National Geographic photo that my mind had created and gripped so tenaciously before our arrival in Africa was now nowhere in sight.
The Kano massacre, against the primarily Christian Igbo, was one in a series of inter-tribal attacks and counter-attacks, coups and counter-coups since independence from Britain in 1960.
This Green was commonplace on a continent where the countries were broken from birth. Africa’s states arose from people with nothing in common. At the table and in the back rooms of the Berlin Conference in the late 1800s, the colonial powers carved up the African continent to fit their own interests. The unique tribal territories meant nothing to the men at the table. Tribes and clans were ripped apart by lines on a map.
Nearly a century later as these colonies became independent, rival tribes were thrust under a common government of and by themselves. Each tribe tried to shore up its power in a “nation” to which it had no allegiance.
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The Smallpox Eradication Program transfers our family to a new country.
from Mr. Ambassador
As our luggage was taken from the small plane a crisis erupted with our very large cat. Soldiers in rumpled dark green fatigues, eyes wide and legs braced, surrounded his wire kennel. His Highness, Caesar, a cross between a short hair Siamese and a long hair Siamese, flaunted his regalness. Now guns and fixed bayonets were trained on him.
Oh great! This helps! And these guys look serious.
With arched back, tail fluffed and adrenaline surging, Caesar puffed himself up into his most fearsome size, eyes ablaze, and his “khhhhh” audible. I heard one of the soldiers say something about a leon. I wondered if these were the “calm largely restored” soldiers I’d been promised.
Carl had our young children by the hand and nudged my elbow with his. He signaled me to follow suit as he stepped back to let the professionals handle the situation.
The chargé d’affaires, obviously a skilled diplomat where cats were concerned, cheerily calmed the frightened soldiers. He convinced them that Caesar was not a lion and would not escape and attack. After more palaver and congenial laughs all around, the crisis was defused and we were free to proceed.
Carl said in my ear, “We’ll be okay,” as our family followed the soldiers toward the shed that served as a terminal. Even in the dim light of the musty interior I could tell that no one smiled. Neither soldiers nor passengers.
from Not a Game
The damp dress clung to my skin in the sticky equatorial heat. I plucked fabric away from my body, and hoped walking would create air flow. I was focused on that futile effort and on my grocery list, when a man coming around the next corner stopped dead in his tracks. A woman across the street from him froze mid-stride. Then the only other person on the street, a man a little closer to me, did the same. Had I stumbled into a childhood game of Statue? I knew better and I didn’t move a muscle.
The president had decided to raise or lower the flag over the Presidential Palace and we dare not defy his latest fiat. Someone near the palace had heard the anthem or some other signal, and the Statue effect had proceeded away from the palace like ripples from a pebble tossed into a pond. Not being within sight or sound of the palace did not relieve one of responsibility. You could always see a person at the next corner or down the street who suddenly froze mid-step. And you’d better do likewise.
The punishment for noncompliance and its level of brutality, would be determined at the time of infraction–depending on the enforcer’s mood of the moment. As Americans with the Smallpox Eradication Program and on Official Passports, we were supposed to be exempt. But you could never be sure.