The Foreign Service Journal, October 2019

The author and his motorbike in Brazzaville, the capital of the Republic of the Congo, 1980. The Congo River is visible in the far background. COURTESYOFDANWHITMAN 72 OCTOBER 2019 | THE FOREIGN SERVICE JOURNAL Dan Whitman was a Foreign Service officer with the U.S. Information Agency and Department of State from 1985 through 2009, and now teaches at American University in Washington, D.C. His postings included Denmark, Spain, South Africa, Haiti and Cameroon. He has published books on Africa and Europe, and has written for The Foreign Service Journal . He is the author of Back to Brazzaville (New Academia Publishers, forthcoming). J uly 19, 2018. It’s been 38 years since I’ve been to Brazzaville. Still three degrees south of the equa- tor, but now unrecognizable. This time there was air conditioning, isolation from the outside, but also the loss of the smells and rhythms from before. Gone, the sweetish smell of burning garbage and the mangy thoroughbred dogs left behind by French aid workers and professors as they departed for their summer vacations in France. Gone also, the dirt thoroughfares and the banging of metal on metal: the developing world sounds of people fixing things. Now even poor people just replaced their old, bro- ken cooking pots with new, cheap ones, courtesy of the Chinese. Not exactly Schliemann’s Troy, Braz- zaville didn’t have much underneath; the old buildings were now dust from decades of civil war and urban renewal. Before the changes, it had seemed more a village than a city. s I was drafting schedules and funding requests in my embassy office. At first, I didn’t notice the stranger standing there, but I looked up when he said something. He didn’t seem like embassy staff, but security wouldn’t have let him in other- wise. He was about my age, maybe a little younger. Dressed in a simple, flowing local shirt and worn pants, frayed shoes, his African hair half-gray. “When I saw you in the hallway last week,” he said, “I had the impression I’d seen you before. Is it possible you lived here in about 1980?” Taken aback, I dropped my pen and offered him a seat. I got up from behind the desk and took the chair next to him. “Were you at Marien Ngouabi Uni- versity at that time?” he said. “You look familiar, though naturally a little changed.” “I was there, yes,” I said, a little suspi- cious. “Are you saying you were one of my students back then?” “No, but I think I remember you from the campus.” “I haven’t found anything here I recognize frombefore,” I said as I tried to read his expression. “Do you know the little neighborhood where the profs used to live?” “I do. Opposite the Marché Filbert Bourou, off the Avenue Simon Kimb- angou.” I processed the moment. “Can you take me there if I get a car? Maybe Saturday?” “ Avec plaisir ,” Michel said. He was a grounds manager at the embassy. s Back in 1980 I had lived in modest digs in an academic ghetto, with an Iranian, Brits, French, an Italian, Soviets and a Laotian as my neighbors. All taught at the university named after martyr Marien Ngouabi, the president killed in 1977; he had served as a national figure in a coun- try slighted by history in being given its independence, rather than “winning” it. Neighbors who’d been there longer than I had disdainfully called the univer- sity “ le lycée ,” since its standards were not, shall we say, up to the Grandes Écoles in France. A Fulbright grant had me teach- ing English there, and I did my best at it. After a year and a half, I took away lively memories. They come to me now as tableaux vivants: • Sunsets over the river, beer in hand, as the sky darkened at dusk. A hundred thousand vampire bats filled the sky, lifting off from their day jobs on the Île du Diable in the middle of the river, to the mainland where they would find cattle to feed on at night. • Flan and coffee under the arcades of REFLECTIONS Back to Brazzaville BY DAN WH I TMAN