Travel books: Africa (1958/9)

[…….] It was New Year's Eve, 1958. It was winter and it was cold. With all my winter clothes on me, including the heavy coat which I had put on just to make my suitcase lighter and avoid paying excess baggage charges, and with the guitar, I climbed onto a plane at Lisbon Airport and flew to Accra, the Capital of Ghana. When I disembarked in this hot, tropical country with all my heavy gear, including the coat and the guitar, I became the laughing stock of the airport. Every one who noticed me laughed, including the man from the Israeli embassy, who came to meet me. The first thing I did when I reached the place I was staying was to shed my winter garb, pack them in a suitcase and send them to London to await my return. I kept, however, the guitar with me because my Spanish friend had tuned it and I wanted to learn to play it. [……].

I toured Ghana from the capital Accra on the south coast, to the farthest northern corner, up to the border of Upper Volta, which is now called Burkina Fasso. At that time Ghana was the first African country to gain independence. It was the first year of its new status with Kwame Nkruma as its first elected Prime Minister. There was another supposedly independent country in Africa called Liberia, created over a century ago as a free independent state by the US and given to former black American slaves to rule. I said 'supposedly independent', because nobody in Africa regarded Liberia as a truly independent country. At the time of my Ghana visit, I met an Israeli businessman who had just come back from Liberia. He told me that he went there as a representative of a big international conglomerate, to see if there was any prospect of establishing a huge rubber plantation. The President of Liberia, William S. Tabman himself took him out with his limousine and bodyguards to show him the country. At some point, in the middle of the jungle the President stopped the car, got out, waved his arms about and said to the businessman, "all that is yours." "Thank you very much" said the businessman to the President," but it is all one big jungle. It will cost a lot of money to clear those trees." "Oh, no." said the president. "You just drop petrol over them and light it, it will all burn and you will have a nice flat plantation." "But how can you burn a jungle? There are people in there!" "Don't worry about the people, they are all Negroes." "The funny thing about it," said the businessman "was that the president himself was a black man." With that story I lost my appetite to visit Liberia.

It was my first visit to the black African continent. I walked about with great interest watching everything like a hawk – impressions, events, conversations. All turned out to be good stories for my column. [……….]

From Ghana I travelled east along the South West Atlantic coast through Togo and Dahome, now known as the republic of Benin. The black asphalt coast road ran parallel to the ocean shore, lying on thin white sand adorned with palm trees heavy with coconuts. Long native fishing boats and canoes were moored, half resting on the sand, half immersed in the blue waters of the ocean, tiny waves caressing the dark wood. Huts like wigwams made of palm leaves were dotted around. It all looked as peaceful and as romantic as an exotic holiday resort poster.

We travelled by a taxi which collected and dropped off passengers like a bus. The comfortable paved road lasted only until we reached the river Volta. We had to wait for a raft to take us to the other side where we took another taxi. Now there was no longer an asphalt paved road. The taxi bumped among clouds of sandy dust. We passed the capital Lome in Togo, to reach the French colony of Dahome where the taxi service ended. The road to Lagos was cut by streams, brooks and rivulets, of the Niger's delta. I flew to Lagos in Nigeria and after spending a few days there I took a plane to Duala in the Cameroons, then a part of French Equatorial Africa. From there I went to Gabon, aiming to reach Dr. Albert Schweitzer's hospital in Lambaréné. I got to Lambaréné on a small plane which delivered provisions to the local hotel. I sat among bottles of champagne, cases of Pernot, tins of fois grais and caviar. Once settled in the hotel I made inquiries about how to get to Doctor Schweitzer's hospital, which I knew was in the neighbourhood, somewhere on the shores of the Ogowe River. "You cannot reach it by yourself", the hotel manager told me. "If Le Grand Docteur invites you, he will send you a boat. You can't go there without his invitation. Why don't you write him a letter?"
So I sent a letter to the Grand Docteur, telling him I was an Israeli journalist and would like to visit his hospital. What I did not know at that time but which was revealed to me later, was that a famous American journalist, John Gunter, had visited the hospital some time ago and had written uncomplimentary comments about Dr. Schweitzer in articles and then in a book called Inside Africa Today. Since then the hotel had been given strict instructions not to let anybody visit the hospital without Le Grand Docteur sending a boat to collect the visitor himself.

I wrote a letter. Next morning the hotel got an answer that “Le Grand Docteur, who usually does not allow journalists to visit, was making an exception in my case. Next morning, a boat will be sent out to take me to the hospital".