African affairs

I realised quite early on that I was never ever going to be a great engineer, so I had to find something which would set me apart. As it happened my return to England coincided with the United Kingdom entering the EEC and as I spoke fluent French, I was always on the lookout for an opportunity to use the language.

One sunny Saturday at my parents I picked up the Telegraph and rather to my surprise spotted a very, very small ad looking to recruit French-speaking civil or structural engineers. I wasn’t able to call them until Wednesday so I presumed the job would be taken but the guy who answered the phone said “No, no, please come and see us.”

The company had been tasked by the European Commission tofind British engineers who were fluent in French. I went to Brussels twice, was interviewed in English and French and sat an exam. I passed the tests and was taken on. That particular stroke of luck changed my life.

The post that they proposed me was to join the EEC delegation in the West African Republic of Mali, formerly part of French Sudan.

As far back as 1958 the Treaty of Rome had foreseen that many countries would need assistance to become fully independent. A clause had been added to allow for the EEC to give development aid to help them both politically and economically. Mali had gained independence from France in 1960 but the support had been very poor.

I flew to Mali in 1978 with very little idea of what the job entailed. I didn’t even know that I was joining a diplomatic mission.

By now I had a son, Mark, who was a year old. Afew days after he was born in 1977 it was found that he had a heart defect. The problem resolved itself naturally and we would never have gone to Africa had it not been for the fact that the doctors gave us the green light to go. Of course I also made sure we had very good medical cover as taking two infants to West Africa was a huge leap into the unknown.

We had no idea what we would find when we arrived, what would be expected of us and what sort of lifestyle and education there would be. We thought we’d make it for two to three years, have a little bit more financial security, improve my CV and return home. In the end we stayed in Africa for 15 years.

I had followed the political developments in Africa in the 1960s and the wave of independence movements and had seen pictures on TV of places like Nairobi and Abidjan which had all the appearance of modern cities with tall new buildings and wide roads. Everything I saw and read suggested Africa was very modern and ready to embrace new political and economic systems. I did not realise that in fact I had a very limited picture of the continent and that Mali was not at all the same as places like the Ivory Coast and Kenya.

My bosses at the EEC presumed that I knew a lot because I was genned up on Africa at the interview, but the truth was nearer the reverse.

Orly airport was really my first encounter with the ‘other’ Africa. There was a great mixture of people queueing to get on the plane, both Europeans going out with children like me and Africans, some in traditional dress. It all looked a lot different to what I’d ever seen but it also was somehow reassuring. On the flight, the African sitting next to me asked me to fill in his landing form when we arrived. I thought he did not have a pen but the reality I later realised was because he could not write.

When I got off the plane in Bamako I was hit, literally hit, by the heat. In fact, it was so hot that I was confused for a moment and thought I had got off at the back of the plane and was in the jetstream of the hot engines. It was however just the normal ambient heat – and it was still early morning.

Two people from the delegation met me at the arrivals hall – one was the senior engineer and the other the French engineer I was replacing. There was no carousel for the luggage, all the suitcases were just stacked up in the hall but the men told me the driver would pick them up later and so we left.

They drove me into Bamako as daylight was breaking and I was curious to see what this capital city looked like but I could not make out any tall buildings at all, only very low houses with corrugated iron roofs. Mali is very, very flat, there are hardly any mountains or hills and these squat mud and brick buildings emphasised this fact. As we got closer to town, I began to see a smattering of taller buildings but nothing above two storeys high.

There was only one bridge to cross the Niger and it was absolutely choc a bloc full of people, most of them cycling. On one side was my future office with all the EEC member states flags flying and on the other my hotel, which was indeed the only hotel in Bamako. It was all of seven storeys and I used to call it ‘the only mountain in Mali’.

It was very modern but with typically African decor of masks and it had lush gardens, a pool and tennis courts. My room looked over the gardens on one side and on the other I had a view of Bamako and its low houses and dusty looking trees. I was struck by the colour of the soil that first day and leaning over the balcony I saw what I thought was the real Africa for the first time.

The room was very comfortable and the food was excellent – perhaps this was the French influence. There were not many guests. A man was walking around thetables in the long dining room playing an African harp or kora. The next day the office driver picked me up and took me to my new HQ – a pleasant low square building set around a garden full of vivid and exotic flowers.

Almost immediately after that I was struck down by that violent stomach complaint which people call the ‘revenge of Montezuma’. I had to stay in my room and don’t need to tell you more about how it took its toll!

Once I had recovered I began to meet the staff at the delegation. The head was an interesting Italian who never shirked from reminding us that he came from a very noble family. He was very much into African culture and more often than not wore African pantaloons. The senior engineer, a German, was also very informal, and there were two agriculturalists, one German and the other an Italian whom I’m still in contact with to this day. Then there was a Frenchman, an economist, who looked like a tall version of Clark Gable and thought himself the cat’s whiskers. Another staff member, also French, was a typical old colonialist and was always shouting and screaming at the drivers.

They were all of them old Africa hands with the habits that go with colonialism. To my surprise they all called each other by their surnames. Everyone was Monsieur or Madame this or that. I soon discovered that the French are far more formal than the English.

The guy I was replacing had been in Mali for 10 years and he was very reluctant to let go of his job. So at first I was put in the archives room, which was full of reports, to “acquaint myself with the job”. It was a complete waste of time. I think I would be there to this day if I had not finally made a break for it.

It was no use going to the head of the delegation. In fact was several days before the blue blooded Italian found time to see me and when he did he told me was neither an agriculturalist nor an engineer and so anything I said would be lost on him. What he really meant was: “look, I am a high flying diplomat , don’t come here to bother me about your little technical problems.”

There were no meetings or discussions and I was not introduced to any of the local administration. I was in the archives room for a month. I repeatedly asked to be taken on site meetings but NAME HERE always found a reason not to. So one morning I walked into his office and said: “I am taking over now… are not legally meant to be here anymore,” and plonked myself behind the desk.

He was a very, very soft spoken man and so he just said: “Yes, okay,” and that was that.

After that I went to the others and asked: “So what are the projects I’m taking over? What am I doing? Where am I going?” and so on. I talked to the agriculturalists and said we needed to cooperate as they were doing irrigation schemes which all involved engineering so I wanted to participate. They were quite stumped because nobody had ever suggested cooperating in that fashion.

A lot of the work revolved around water quality and maintenance. There were two main types of projects. One was agriculture – especially rice production – and the other one was animal husbandry and breeding. Mali has a huge animal husbandry industry and herding is also part of the nomad life.

Before independence, Mali was also the major rice producing country in West Africa. The French had established a huge system of water transport and canals from the Niger to drain large areas to produce rice, mainly for the European market. After independence, all that was abandoned. From a humanitarian point of view, it was a very bad thing. It reflected poorly on the colonial country. It was almost a way of saying: “If you want your independence take it.”

So the EEC took over some of the projects but they had to adapt them to the needs of the ordinary Malian people who were subsistence farmers. They had small fields and small irrigation systems and they couldn’t cope with the industrial type of canal and sluice gates which were needed in order to drain the rice fields.

My first site visit was to one of these rice projects. I travelled with the Italian agriculturalist in a non-air conditioned car and the heat was quite amazing, especially once you got off the main road and hit the dust tracks. The choice was open the window and have a mouthful of dust and sand or shut the window and boil. And that was pretty much always the case.

We eventually arrived in a place called Segou which is Mali’s second largest town and I felt as if I had walked straight into the pages of a 1950s geography book, the sort that had a mixture of pictures of African villagers and drawings. It was unreal. I saw the women dressed in their bright clothes milling the mealie by hand, girls walking about with great loads on their heads and cattle walking across the road willy nilly. It was really an out of body experience for me and I again felt that I was finally beginning to see the heart of Africa.

We talked about the project, where the water was coming from and what assistance they might need. Their implements were very rudimentary and there was nothing mechanical, all the equipment was drawn by animals.

The industrial scale rice project had been abandoned for the best part of 12 years, so we were not just looking at refurbishing the canals and sluice gates but building a whole new structure more suited to farmers that practise subsistence farming.

Six weeks after I arrived in Bamako my wife and the two children joined me.

The question of accommodation was now urgent but it was all about office politics. At first we were allocated a very rudimentary villa with barely any furniture. Fortunately we had cots for the children but the French engineer NAME HERE had stripped the place, he had taken the fridge, the oven, the childrens’ beds – everything. There was just one six foot by six foot bed – I was told that my predecessor had enjoyed sleeping parties as it were – and we had new normal mattresses which did not fit. We also had a very small fridge and one of those camping gas things with two gas heads. And that’s what we had with two children, one aged two years and the other six months.

I thought, in my innocence, look, we’re in Africa – that’s how everybody is but when I realised we could not even boil eggs for the kids I invited the Italian head for coffee. Unusually for him he accepted and when he saw our situation he was horrified and ordered us to be given everything we needed.

We didn’t stay long however because the Clark Gable lookalike also left and we moved into his house which was considered the height of luxury. It had a beautiful garden, a swimming pool and nine mango trees, so we had mango all year around. The furniture was comfortable but more Montmartre than Mali – with huge red velvet chairs and curtains that gave it the air of a French brothel.

We had a woman to care to take care of the kids and another to clean and we were very innocent at the start and treated everyone who worked for us as part of the family until we realized that things were missing from the kitchen and the wine was disappearing even faster than we drank it.

In the whole of my time in Africa I never had any problems whatsoever regarding religion despite the fact that the Arab countries had begun to make a big play into the Muslim countries of Africa after the 1973 war. The were pouring money into the continent and the Saudis lavished money on mosques and Sharia law and all of that sort of thing. Some Muslim African countries had broken off relationships with Israel but before I went to Mali I was told that my being Jewish was “absolutely not” a problem. In all time there this proved to be true.

When it came to religious observation, for instance, at Passover on my first year, the head of the United States delegation, who was Jewish, invited me over and said: “Just tell me what you need and I’ll get it from the United States. There’s only one condition – that you are my guests on the first night.” So of course we accepted. By my fourth year, we had seventeen people from 14 different countries around that table.

There were no attacks at that time on synagogues or on Jewish and Christian people and anyway in Mali there was only one main cathedral – I never saw a single church. Anything to do with religion was absolutely no problem whatsoever. The tide turned after the 1973 war, but it was a political tide, not a social one. Mali remained, despite everything the Arab countries were doing to bring Africa into the fray, a very tolerant society.

My first four years taught me a lot about how to handle diplomatic life. I hadn’t had any training, and I really was learning on the hoof. So the whole business of how to behave, the formalities, what you do and don’t say and how you say it – all that was new to me. How do you relate to the different levels of hierarchy? How do you deal with ministers, government officials, presidents, prime ministers, ministers of health, and so on?

Three trips stand out in my memory of this time. The first was in the summer of 1981 when I had to deputise as head of mission and this coincided with the assassination of President Sadat of Egypt. I went to the Egyptian embassy to sign the Book of Condolences on behalf of the European community, and from my personal point of view, it illustrates the irony of life. Here was a kid who was born in Cairo ending up in the most full, formal way – official Mercedes car with flag flying – signing the book of condolences for an assassinated Egyptian President.

Another significant event followed President Nixon’s second official visit to China in 1976 which saw the first opening of relationships between the European community and China. In the way of these things, they start in far flung places before they eventually culminate in a big meeting. So the delegation in Mali, and our wives, were invited to the Chinese Embassy for dinner. And that was the first contact at an official level between the EC and China and the first baby steps in recognizing each other.

It was a very elaborate buffet dinner with a vast range of Chinese food with highly coloured rice of every sort. We all sat at tables of eight with equal numbers from the delegation and from the Chinese Embassy and it was all very smiley and polite with a Chinese musician in the background. Of course the Italian head of delegation made a very flowery speech which was returned in full by the Chinese ambassador.

Now that was a great diplomatic success but we were not so fortunate when Roy Jenkins – who was president of the EC at the time – made an official visit to Mali. I was given the job of escorting him and his team to meet the Prime Minister and we met with the cabinet on one side of the room with Jenkins and all the high level EC officials on the other in a very formal setting. The Malians only wanted to talk about this project and that school and Jenkins – who I must say I admired enormously – was not all that interested. Later we had a formal dinner and he began to talk. We were all stood on the verandah of the hotel and Jenkins began his speech and almost as soon as he started talking, a donkey began to bray very very loudly so you had this high level diplomat and politician in competition with a donkey!

Despite this he later told me that I was a “rare bird” and had made a very good job of the visit. Later in Namibia there were a few other diplomatic disasters which I will come to.

As every civil servant knows, one’s legacy sometimes seems a little trivial for all the expenditure of effort. In my case, there was a project to build seven maternity hospital in Bamako on seven sites. We signed up a French company to build them and had regular meetings on and off site and then it came time for the handover.

So I went to inspect the new hospitals and I noticed that all the door handles and all the bull’s-eye windows in the doors had been placed very, very low down – and I’m not a very tall person. So I told the French project manager: “this is very odd. They’re all very low” and he agreed and called the site manager, who was a Malian. He arrived and couldn’t see the problem – because he was 4ft 2inches tall.

At another project in the far north of Mali on the border with Mauritania we were funding clinics and schools in the area. A French specialist had been commissioned by Brussels and he came over and in his suitcase, he already had all the plans drawn up. So I asked: “Have you been to the area? ” And he said: “No.” So I asked: “Well how come you’ve got plans? “

“They are all same,” he replied.

“Well they are not all in the same place,” I told him. “Where did you place them?”

“In the main towns.”

This was not the point. Unlike my predecessors, who were engineers and just wanted to see a building and were only interested in the technicalities I always viewed the infrastructure as a tool for development.

You don’t put up a building just because it’s been designed in Paris.

So I would look at a map and ask where are the roads and routes that the different nomadic tribes take? Where do they intersect? Where are these places where pregnant women would come?

In order to do that of course I traveled to this place called Nioro du Sahel to see the typography and how people lived. As the accent was on midwives, I wanted to meet midwives and see what instruments they had.

Another thing that the French consultant said when I asked about training was: “Oh, we’ll take half a dozen women and send them to France where they’ll spend three months training, then they’ll come back.”

Well that was absurd because they might not even have water and electricity. So what was needed was to train the midwives using their own instruments to become more efficient and effective and less likely to transmit diseases.

What do they do if there is no alcohol to clean the instruments – and so on?

So that project changed the face of health projects in other such areas not only in Mali and this new attitude was adopted, generally speaking, by the commission.


I stayed a week travelling a lot in that area and that again was a lesson in geography and an eye opener.

In this area you had the Mauritanians – or Moors – as well as the Malis. And in those days you also saw slaves. This was the first time I had even seen actual slaves – we’re talking about the 1980s. You would see the Mauritanian woman, who were rather plumpish and very well dressed in very highly colored clothes with their hands painted with henna, sitting in front of their houses. They lived a very languorous life and would bein front of their homes and you had these very black African women who were completely naked, fetching water from the wells and so on. ENDNOTE HERE

Another trip left a deep impression on me was to a town called Mopti. I don’t know what’s it like now but it was an incredible town because it was on the banks of the river Niger and had a port and I know it sounds ridiculous but you saw the whole of life on that port. You had sailing ships and fishing boats and motorboats coming and going all day long. Salt was a big commodity and fish as well. People were milling around everywhere and anything that could be sold and bought came and went through that port. You could sit on the harbour wall and never stop looking – it was all so active and colourful.

Another project I visited was on Lake Faguibine which is an amazing seasonal lake. I went during the rainy season and again it was like being in a geography book because you had boats going all directions up and down and stopping in various places and some of them had three storeys and you could see women cooking on open fires on deck.

We were caught, believe it or not, in a storm and forced to moor up on an island where we stayed with some local people for a few hours. It was the first time that I had stepped into a real African hut where the walls were made from carpets and there were women wearing the most amazing clothes and jewelry.

Six months later, in November, I did the exact same trip in a car. The lake completely disappeared once the rains had stopped and instead there was a six foot high crop of something.

One other overnight trip I remember well was to look at how the roads were built and we went to the border with what was then Upper Volta, now ???.

We stayed with a relative of the contractor’s driver, who was going to do the cooking. His relative was village head and had a large house with a yard where we sat and then out of the corner of my eye I saw the driver running after a chicken. “What the driver doing running after that chicken? ” I asked naively. “That’s our dinner,” he told me.

That put me off meat for a very, very long time.

I also visited the Dogon country which is very special. People there live on the rock face in houses carved from the stone.

Again we had to stay overnight again and there the headman and his wife prepared the food. Now it was night, and we couldn’t see what she was doing but she said there was no meat. It turned out she made a meal of rice cooked in a gourd which was actually elastic – you picked it up and it just streamed out to the plate.

You had to honor the chief’s hospitality of course but ingurgitating this stuff wasn’t very pleasant at all.

Mostly however food was okay and to this day we make peanut butter chicken in the African style. We also became hooked on mangoes because of the nine mango trees.

With regards to life in Bamako then, electricity was very iffy you never knew when there was going to be electricity and sometimes you could go without electricity for two or three days on end. Now you can imagine what happens to a fridge and the air conditioning when the temperature is 35 degrees. At first the Commission would not supply a generator so we used to put the beds on the on the roof which was a little bit more bearable but I never slept because I was afraid one of the kids would get up and fall off.

Eventually we got a five kilowatt generator which ran the fridge and two rooms with one light bulb but we had to ration which light bulb to turn on.

And of course the generators in those days would break down and the oil supply would breakdown but it made , interesting evenings.

In Mali, Islam was a mixture of Koran and local beliefs and it did not stop people from having amulets and statues in the house, and putting gifts by the statues and pouring oil on them so the statue lost its shape eventually and then it was replaced.

When I spoke about that to the Saudi ambassador with whom I became very, very friendly he said: “We know but if that’s how they want to express their beliefs, let them do it.”

Our children went to the primary school which was run by a French lady and totally organized along French lines. My daughter even went to ballet classes though she was wasn’t particularly cut out for it.move all