I traveled for my first job to Ivory Coast, Mali, Upper Volta (at the time), Algeria, a bit in Senegal, then later, for a different job in South Africa and Egypt.
The terrors of Amin were underway at the time. Chad was racing toward civil war. Discontent was evident in Niger and Upper Volta. Anger was smoldering on the streets of Algiers. Corruption in the Ivory Coast had rewarded the President’s inner circle and left the vast majority struggling to make a living on the streets and in the countryside.
It was a different time than now, 1970′s and 80′s. And despite the seeds of post-colonial discontent beginning to take root, my travels were never disturbed or interrupted. Though I traveled alone much of that time, saw few Americans outside the embassies, I never experienced a single incident of trouble. Just my luck, I suppose. I was unprotected, in cities and out in the bush, on local airlines as well as European ones, in taxis, on foot, with drivers and without, in five-star hotels and in falling down shanties without toilets except for the pits at the edge of town. And not once, other than the frequent stomach bugs which saw me coming from a mile away, was I accosted for my race or nationality.
Interestingly, I was somewhere, I can’t remember where, carrying a copy of the Koran which I was reading as I traveled. The sight of a Yank in a business suit, with a copy of the Book, (the cover title in Arabic, though I read in English), got the most respectful and nearly astonished reactions from Muslims along my route. I entered into unexpected and positive discussions and exchanges springing from a mutual respect for our differences.
The world has lost something in the meantime. State Department advisories recommend that Americans avoid many of these places, especially outside the major cities, and strongly advise not to travel alone.
Why do I set Facing the Son in West Africa? Because as part of my private experience, this area welcomed me kindly and without prejudice. Though I was clearly not from there, no one on any of my trips made me suffer for that simple fact.
West Africa’s economic ”miracle” was already ending at the time of my story. And the situation has become steadily worse for many of the inhabitants of those countries. Corruption was and is endemic. Religious and tribal conflict have increased in savageness and in intensity. But the people prevail as they have over the millennia. The indigent people will always find a way to survive despite the influence of Big Men and the politics of the outside world.
Life in these, some of the world’s poorest, countries is going to remain difficult for a long time to come. But there are always signs of progress among the families who fight on. And where certain NGO’s invest in making life a little easier for one village at a time. These collective efforts by dedicated men and women will make a huge impact on the individual scale. Among and despite the direst endemic problems, small steps toward a better future will continue to be traced in the sand.
I was able to meet with some of those people responsible for this progress. And when I thought about a subject for a book, I thought I’d like to go back to West Africa, to how I experienced it. And place the story there.