British Caledonian Flight
No. 267 flew overnight from Gatwick to Gbedeh International Airport,
Ngombia, landing once en-route at Freetown, Sierra Leone. It did
so in the dead of an African night, an hour before daybreak.
James watched sleepily
as the seemingly endless stream of bleary-eyed passengers shuffled
down the aisle towards the exit: through the open door, all he could
see was impenetrable blackness. Warm moist air wafted in from outside,
curling damply around the interior, condensing instantly in little
droplets on the armrest beside him. "Will
you and your family be travelling with us on to Gbedeh?" James
looked up; the hundred watt professional smile was tinged with uncertainty. He
nodded, waiting patiently whilst the stewardess rummaged for a set
of Ngombian entry cards. Whilst she did so, an African in green overalls
climbed aboard and walked up the aisle spraying an aerosol-can of
insect repellant with determined zeal. The acrid, pungent fumes clawed
at the back of James' throat. From her carrycot slung from the overhead
luggage bins, Annie sneezed dramatically in her sleep. "Mummy," Lucy
lay across Julie's lap, white with tiredness, "My nose hurts." Overalls
waved his now empty can cheerfully. "Mosquito's
He grinned, and stomped out through the door of the plane into the
night, his job done. James
listened to the sound of Overalls' footsteps descending the steps from
the plane, and craned round to see who else was travelling with them. The
entire plane was empty.
From Freetown to Gbedeh
the flight was short and the altitude low. As dawn broke, James could
see beneath him fingers of pink reaching out across an endless sea
of pale grey mist. Here and there the top of a tree poked through,
tiny and isolated.
From the rear of the plane
came the sounds of distant chatter and laughter as the crew divided the
remains of the in-flight drinks stock amongst themselves. James looked
back out of the window: Ngombian visas for himself and his family
had taken four months to process; it was now half a year since their
interviews in London. 'We
appreciate your expertise, Mr. Davidson,’ George Sanders of McTavish
and Michaelides Trading Company (‘we call ourselves M& M')
had said at their last meeting, 'But please understand that we are taking
as much of a risk with you as you are with us.' The
attrition rate for first-tourers, he told James, was something like fifty
percent. The culture shock was total; many people couldn't even begin
to adjust, they simply froze. It was particularly difficult for wives.
A husband would come home from his new office to find his wife in tears;
isolated, terrified, wanting only to get on the first plane home. Many
couples quit within a week, leaving their employer with airfares, return
shipment of belongings, and empty accommodation leased for their occupation.
Not to mention the original costs of recruitment. "That
is why," George had paused to light a comfortably battered pipe, "I wanted
very much to meet you and your wife together." James
gazed again at the limitless mist below; it was beginning to thin in
the early morning sun, dissolving slowly into tenuous grey-white tendrils
that drifted over an infinity of jungle. There were no fields, no houses,
no roads; just endless, endless jungle. It was all so utterly different
from anything he'd imagined.
In a row of four, James
and his family stood at the top of the steps from the plane. The
hot, clammy air was alive with the incessant high-pitched chirping
of countless unknown insects. Next to James, staunchly upright,
Lucy stood clutching a copy of the in-flight magazine: there was
a picture still to be coloured. Next to Julie, Annie was poking
curiously at a bright orange flying something that had settled on
one of her shoes.
James and Julie gazed
around them; to their left, the single runway stretched straight
and black, through chest-high yellow-green grass. In the distance,
two small mud huts, their roofs thatched with desiccated pale brown
palm fronds, clung to the base of the airport control tower that
reared up, stark and alien against the sky. To the right, about two
hundred yards away, the sun-blistered walls of the terminal building
stared silently back at them. Across the top of the building, peeling
faded letters announced
TO GBEDEH INTERNATIONAL AIRPORT"
Underneath, in smaller
letters, signs above adjacent doors announced
"T ANS T" and "ARR V LS".
There were no staff, and no buses.
Hesitantly, they descended
the steps and began to walk across the tarmac, heat pulsing up at
them off the baking black surface. They passed through the ARR V
LS door and into a bare concrete hall. A solitary fan hung from the
flaking grey-white ceiling, its blades stationary. Three wooden folding
seats stood against one of the chipped green walls. An empty desk
and chair stood in the middle of the floor. A sign on the desk read
'Ministry of Health, Gbedeh International Airport'. There
was nobody in sight.
James and Julie stood
uneasily in the centre of the hall, not knowing what to do next.
"You guard the seats,"
Said James eventually, "I'll go and see if I can find someone."
Julie sank wearily onto
the middle chair, Lucy and Annie either side of her. James walked
over to a nearby doorway and peered round it: two officials were
deep in conversation beside a booth marked 'IMMIGRATION'. He coughed
"Excuse me," He began,
"I wonder if you could help? My family and I....".
"Eh?" Queried the nearest
official. James repeated
his message, to be met by the same wall of incomprehension. He decided
on a simpler, more direct approach: "In
arrivals," He gestured behind him to where Julie and Lucy sat, "Over
there." "O.K.," The
official grunted, "Coming."
The official sauntered
to his desk and slumped into the chair behind it. He opened the top
drawer and withdrew a peaked cap which he placed on his head. Without
looking up, he held out his hand.
James handed over the
four new-looking yellow International Certificates of Vaccination.
The official scrutinised them one by one, passing them slowly from
hand to hand. He shuffled them back into a pack of four.
The official spread the
cards out across the desk.
"Inspection fee," He
explained, "Six Nomba, six Nomba, six Nomba, six Nomba."
He gathered the cards up again.
"But," Objected James,
"It doesn't say anything about inspection fees in the travel guide." He
lifted Lucy's in-flight magazine from her hands, opening it at the page
headed 'Useful information about Ngombia'. The official sucked through
his teeth contemptuously. "That
book-thing," He said, "That is not Ngombian. It don't know nothing." James
gave the book-thing back to Lucy and pulled out his wallet. He withdrew
three ten-Nomba notes and handed them over. The official handed back
the cards. James waited. "My
He asked eventually. The
official stared at James. "No
change," He declared flatly. James
stared at him incredulously. The official shrugged; business concluded
he began to remove his cap. James sensed a door closing, he looked inside
his wallet and found a five Nomba note.
"O.K.," He said, handing
over the well-worn bill, "Here's five; give me back one of my tens."
The official's eyebrows
gathered like thunderclouds.
He challenged, "You joke me?"
"No," Said James,
"I'm not joking anyone. You want twenty-four Nomba, I'm giving you
twenty-five; you can keep the change."
The official glared;
he briefly considered raising the inspection fee to eight Nomba,
but the mathematics of such a move eluded him. Besides, having returned
the health cards, his bargaining power was limited. With enormous
bad grace, he handed over the ten-Nomba note then sat and brooded,
staring silently into space.
"Thanks," Said James,
The official stared the
other way and sucked dismissively through his teeth.
It came as something
of less than a total surprise to find the same routine repeated at
the next barrier.
"Thirty Nomba," The immigration
officer settled into a leisurely perusal of their passports,
"Certification fee." "No
money," Said James blandly. "Eh?" Passport
Control was flabbergasted. "No
money," James repeated,
"My company is sending someone to meet us; they will be able to pay you."
Passport Control's eyes
narrowed: he stared carefully at James.
"I can wait," James smiled
Abandoning the charade,
Passport Control sucked contemptuously through his teeth and slung
the passports under the glass window to them.
"O.K.," He said, "Go."
James was beginning to
border of Ngombia is its coastline with the Atlantic Ocean; its eastern
border is the river Kwahn. At the mouth of the Kwahn lies Gbedeh International
Airport and, thirty-six miles to the west sprawls Ngombia's capital
city, Tuehville. Between the two lies featureless coastal swamp and
low lying scrubland, uninhabited save for an occasional hamlet of palm-roofed
mud huts. George
Sanders wove his mud-encrusted Peugeot 404 with confident, unrushed
speed along the pitted highway that ran across the swampland from Gbedeh
to Tuehville. Years of monsoon rains had eaten away at its laterite
base until the edges had crumbled, and the surface had collapsed into
countless enormous potholes. "The
U.S. military built this during the Second World War," He told James
who sat beside him,
"They used Tuehville as a major supply base for the allied campaign in
the northern Sahara." George
took a hand from the steering wheel and pulled a thick wad of extraordinarily
crumpled bank notes from his shirt pocket. They smelt strongly, and unmistakably,
of garlic. "Listen," He
"The fee palaver was my fault; I should have warned you beforehand." Resting
both wrists on top of the wheel, George peeled off two limp notes and
handed them to James. "Take
them," He said,
"That'll go down as a lunch in my expense account." He
stuffed the wad of notes back into his shirt pocket. "Officially," He
"Dash doesn't exist. In reality, it's a way of life out here. You'll
be harassed by every petty official you come across - police over your
car, Labour Department over your houseboy, Communications Department
over your telephone." George
swung the car across the road and, without reducing speed, drove along
the opposite side for a few hundred yards, bypassing a series of particularly
huge craters. "And
P.U.A.," He went on, "Over your electricity." "P.U.A.?" Queried
James, "What's that?" "Public
Utilities Authority," George explained, "Their favourite trick is to
cut the power to your house on a Friday afternoon." "What
on earth for?" "Because
they know you'll pay for reconnection to avoid a weekend without air-conditioning." George
pulled out to pass a bus of staggering decrepitude; its battered body
leant steeply to one side as if in a state of terminal exhaustion, its
windows were entirely glassless, and its chassis and rear axle were quite
plainly in fundamental dispute as to the intended direction of travel. "Pulley-pulley
Said George, "There are no formal bus-stops here; if you're a passenger
and you want to get off you just yell 'Pull-in! Pull-in!'. Ngombians
find it difficult to pronounce the ends of our syllables, so it comes
out as 'Pulley! Pulley!'". Half
an hour later, the outskirts of Tuehville began to appear: on either
side of the road, narrow red-brown dirt tracks snaked off toward isolated
tin-roofed dwellings set deep amongst dark green trees. After the close-packed
orderly rows of English suburbia, James found the random aloneness of
these buildings faintly unsettling. He turned to George. "How
do you find your way around?" He asked. "Memory," Said
George. In the centre
of town, he explained, some of the main streets had names, but there
were no signs. Outside the centre, there was a whole warren of dirt roads,
but nobody knew what they were called, or even if they had ever had names.
There were no maps. "You
have to rely on local landmarks," George continued, "Sort of 'left at
the large green house with the blue wall, right after half a mile at
the derelict truck, our place is next to the small group of coconut palms'." James
gazed out of the window, and said nothing. Travel weariness and a growing
sense of loneliness were depressing him; he wondered if this was what
was meant by 'culture shock'.
The journey continued
An age later, the car drew
to a halt. "This
is it," Announced George, "The M&M compound." In
front of them, a ten-foot high steel mesh gate swung open, a blue-uniformed
Ngombian clinging like a cheerful tree-frog to its frame. George waved
in acknowledgment and drove through, piloting the car along a winding,
gravelled driveway between clumps of mango, palm, and bougainvillea.
After several hundred yards they drew up in front of a large, brick-built
house. Standing on pillars, it seemed to hover amongst the surrounding
up in the air helps catch the breeze," Explained George, "And keep snakes
out." Stone stairways
led up to the front and rear doors of the house. The eaves of the roof
were enormously wide. "The
overhang keeps out the sun," George lead them up the front stairs, "Useful
during power cuts in the dry season." The
accommodation was laid along the length of the house. At one end, down
a long corridor, was the kitchen. At the other lay the sleeping quarters.
In the centre, a massive living room filled with comfortably worn, chintz
upholstered, colonial wood furniture looked out over a panorama of bamboo
clumps, palm trees and hibiscus bushes stretching down to a broad dark
stretch of water. "The
St. Luke River,"
George explained. Outside
the house, at the bottom of the front stairway, grew a large Avocado
tree: at the bottom of the rear grew a coconut palm. On every window
was fitted a white-painted, diamond-patterned, steel grille. From a distance,
they gave the impression of leaded windows. ('Rogue bars,’ George
explained, 'They help discourage petty theft.'). "We're
lucky," Said George, "M & M is one of the oldest trading companies
in Ngombia, and we got the pick of the sites in the days before property
became big business." He waved a massive brown forearm at the surrounding
scene; "There are a dozen houses on this compound, squeezed into
forty acres or so." It
was all so different from Sevenoaks. "Your
house is next to the tennis court," George continued, "It's a bit dilapidated,
but the bumps and cracks give the home team an advantage when we have
guests to play." Very
helped them unload their luggage and carry it inside. Until their shipment
of personal effects arrived, he explained, M & M would provide them
with an ‘emergency kit’ of basic household items - kitchen
utensils, crockery, glasses, bed linen, towels, and so on. "It
is basic, I'm afraid,"
He apologised, "Just three or four of most things, and I don't think
much of it matches, but at least you won't have to eat off bare boards." He
turned to go, and handed a large collection of keys to James. "I'll
send the car and driver to fetch you in a couple of hours and take you
shopping. In the meantime, you can unpack and sort yourselves out a bit." He
turned to Julie. "My
wife said that, if you felt up to it, she'd pick you up at ten o'clock
tomorrow morning and introduce you to her bridge group. Her name's Mary.
Don't worry about the children, just bring them with you."
"What was that
Helen? Two Spades? What did you say your husband's name was my dear?
Oh, James, of course, you told me before, silly me. Did you say something,
Andrea? Three Hearts? Oh, no bid, I'm afraid, Helen. Moses, bring some
more coffee, please: yes, please; on the tray with the milk and sugar.
What was that? Four Hearts? Whose are they? Yours, my dear? What was
it your husband was doing before you came here? Market Analyst? My
Goodness! How on earth could anyone analyse this place? No wonder George
wanted your husband to work with him; he’s still baffled after
twenty five years, poor lamb." Mary
Sanders, twenty-five year resident of Ngombia, chairwoman of the British
Women's Association and doyenne of the bridge and bazaar circuit, was
holding comfortable court. Fifty-something and plumply placid, it would
never have occurred to her that it had been her unpretentious and loyal
support of the ambassador's wife's endless social obligations that
lay behind George Sanders' recent MBE for 'Services to the British
whose trick was that?" Mary reached out and poked at the upturned cards
lying on the table, a bracelet of squashed milk-bottle tops, present
from her eldest grandchild, clattering around her wrist, "Oh, dummy's
queen held, did it? Silly me; I suppose your bid must have meant length
not strength, Helen? Thank you, Moses, just put it there, please. The
Q.B.P., Andrea? Funny you should mention that: I was talking to Nina
up at the Golf Club about the Queen's Birthday Party, and she said
that she was trying to persuade Robert to make it shirtsleeve order
this time; it does get so wretchedly hot and humid at the end of the
dry season. You'll be coming to the Q.B.P. won't you, Julie my dear?
What do you mean, you're only small fry? My dear, nobody's big fry
in Ngombia; you just jolly well make sure you nip down to the embassy
and get yourself registered first thing tomorrow. In fact, I've a better
idea; why don't I pop round and pick you up and take you down myself?
We'll enrol you in the BWA whilst we're there; the British Women's
Association could do with some younger people on the committee. What
was that Andrea? Oh, my turn is it? Oh, you had the last Spade, Andrea;
that was brave of you to bid a three-card suit with no honours, Helen.
Well, that's the end of that hand; how many tricks did we take, Doris?
Three? Oh, well played, Julie, my dear! Four hearts bid and made."
Back to previous page
"Got all your family's
passports, James? We'll need to register them with Immigration. You
and your wife both got U.K. driving licences? Fine; we should be
able to arrange a direct swap for Ngombian licences without a test,
once we've got your residence permits stamped in your passports.
We'll bung them over to Charles Nyamplu, our Mr. Fixit; with luck,
he'll have it all sorted out in a couple of weeks or so. I thought
we might spend this morning paying a few social calls to show your
face around. If you're going to survive in this part of the world,
one thing you'll have to have is friends - and the best are those
you'll hopefully need the least. Amos, drive to police headquarters,
"This is Unification
Street: it continues on into Emancipation Boulevard, the main route
out of town if you're going to Gbedeh airport. Just over the brow
of this hill there's a junction with Julius Nyrere Avenue. There;
see the traffic lights in the tree? You can't spot them until it's
too late to stop; makes this a popular place for the boys in blue."
"This is Horatio Kingsley
Street; there are no signs, but it's one-way. There are hardly any
traffic signs anywhere; that’s something you'll have to get
used to in Ngombia. Those green lights we just passed mark the intersection
with Sekou Toure Avenue. They've been stuck like that for the past
two years. Bit of a nuisance if you're using Sekou Toure; that way
they're always at red."
The car turned off the road
along a boulder-strewn and mountainously uneven track. It nosed carefully
between dilapidated corrugated steel shanties, its nose rising and falling
like a ship in heavy seas. All around, clusters of market women with
great basins of fruit and vegetables sought the custom of the milling
crowds of pedestrians. Ragged urchins, balancing on their heads crude
wooden trays of cigarettes, matches, chewing gum and cola nuts, darted,
minnow-like, amongst the endless shoals of humanity. They
passed under a large tree, its branches laden with what looked like enormous,
and very gnarled, grapefruit. "Breadfruit," Said
"I've never tried eating it myself, but I'm told it tastes like a heavy
dough." The track
bent to the left, then widened into a large and dusty clearing, within
which stood half a dozen single-storey tin-roofed breezeblock buildings.
On the right of the clearing a huddle of accident-damaged vehicles baked
rustily in the sunshine. At the far end, a bare flagpole stood outside
a building slightly larger than its neighbours. At the base of the pole
were parked two large blue and white American Ford police cars and three
Harley-Davidson police motorcycles. Apart from an occasional blue uniform
lounging against verandah railings, the location appeared deserted. "This," Announced
"Is police headquarters. We'll say hallo to Superintendent Grigsby first.
No point in trying to go higher at this stage - if you need help at that
level when you're new you'll be on the next plane home anyway." Amos
parked, and they climbed out of the car. After the air-conditioned interior,
the steamy heat hit James like a wall. "When
we've finished here," George strode briskly up onto the verandah of the
largest building, seemingly unaffected by the sweltering warmth, "We'll
pop back to the office and meet Charles Nyamplu; he’s the Mr. Fixit
I mentioned before. Charles is an old schoolfriend of half the cabinet,
and his brother's an attorney with the Ministry of Justice. Useful to
have on your side."
Mary reached out and
gathered the random heap of cards towards her, fashioning them into
an approximate deck. "Right," She pushed the litter of empty coffee
cups aside, lifting the edges of their saucers one by one to peer
underneath, "Where's the scorepad? Afraid I wasn't much use to you
there, Helen; only had six points. That must be your rubber, Julie.
This is your lucky morning, Andrea. Delhi, was it, where your mother
taught you bridge, my dear? I wonder if your parents knew the Murchisons
- they used to play quite a lot out there in those days: still do,
occasionally. Nina's quite good, but Robert's a bit vague when it
comes to things like remembering who's got what cards. Does your
husband play? He does? Oh, good. You really must come and have dinner
with us one evening when you've had a chance to catch your breath.
Now, what's the other table up to? Time for a quickie, everyone,
while they catch up? Whose deal is it?"
"Charles, this is James
Davidson. James, this is Charles Nyamplu, our Government Relations
Officer: if you run into an impossible problem that's anything to
do with a government department, Charles can probably help. If he
can't find a way out, the chances are nobody can."
"Welcome to Ngombia,"
Charles Nyamplu's unusually deep and resonant voice seemed to fill the
room, "Pull up a chair." James
stared, fascinated. Attired in emerald green shoes, green socks, green
trousers, green jacket, green shirt, and blindingly flamboyant paisley-pattern
green tie, Charles Nyamplu surveyed the world from behind tortoise-shell
dark glasses of a size and hue perhaps better suited to an A-bomb test
site. James wondered if he wore them as a precaution against unexpectedly
coming across a mirror. Charles
swivelled gently in an outsize executive chair, his hands behind his
head. What might have been a section of anchor chain from King Midas's
personal yacht hung loosely from one wrist. "So," He
"Tell me, Mr. Davidson; what can I do for you?"
"How was the office,
Julie pottered around
the kitchen, looking vaguely for food to cook. James relaxed against
the fridge door and told her: it took quite a while.
"Want to hear about my day?" Julie
asked when he'd finished. "Tell
me while I peel the spuds," He said, easing himself over to the sink.
And so she did, chattering
happily into the cupboards and drawers as she searched for the few
bits of kitchenware that she'd hidden away earlier on.
"They're so hopeless,"
Julie giggled at the end, "They remind me of my mother. All they've
ever done in their lives is play bridge, drink coffee, gossip, and
plan fetes and bazaars and dinner parties."
Julie hauled two battered pots out of a cupboard and clattered them
down on the counter top. "Mary Sanders is quite sweet though; she’s
found us a houseboy."
"Mmm; his name's Nathaniel.
Mary's bringing him over tomorrow."
Julie opened the fridge,
pulling out two massive, deeply seamed tomatoes. "She
also said that we should register Lucy with the British School for next
September. It's got a four-month waiting list, so we're just in time." She
joined him at the sink.
"And," She began washing
the tomatoes busily under the tap, "We have an invitation: dinner
and bridge at the Sanders's. Mary thought we might be interested
to meet some of their friends."