Monday, April 25, 2011
The Royal Wedding
When I hear reference to the “royal wedding,” it evokes memories of Africa. These memories, however, aren’t of round huts, friendly people and the sounds of exotic drumming. These memories are of being crammed into a house with 116 other people for eight days, of artillery too close for comfort, of wondering if we would see our families again.
In 1981, when my husband Bruce and I were in The Gambia with the Peace Corps, we happened to be in the capital city, Banjul, 250 miles downriver from Mansajang, the village where we lived. On the day we were scheduled to return home, a coup d’etat instigated by The Gambia Field Force (similar to our National Guard) broke out. All roads leading out of town were closed. Radio Gambia and the airport were taken over by the rebels.
Tanks and armored personnel carriers appeared in the streets. Obviously, we had to find safe shelter. Not knowing just what was policy–we’d never been instructed about what to do in the event of a coup–we ended up at the residence of Tom Mosier, local head of U.S. AID to ask for his guidance.
As we approached Mosier’s home, Tom came out, his normally cheerful face in a worried frown. I’d never seen anyone actually wring his hands before, but that’s exactly what Tom was doing. Now we were worried.
“Tom, what is it?” Bruce asked.
“We’re in a lot of trouble here. The Ambassador is ‘detailed’ at the Embassy. The Embassy radio is out for repair so we don’t have contact with Washington. We don’t even have contact with the Ambassador.”
Bruce looked surprised. “I can’t imagine the Ambassador doesn’t have a radio at his house.”
“Oh, he does. But it’s not assembled and no one knows how to put it together.”
“Tom, I can put a radio together. I’m a licensed radio operator.”
Tom’s eyes lit up. “Come with me, both of you.”
At the Ambassador’s house, not far from Tom Mosier’s, Bruce set up two radios, a short-distance radio with which he could talk to Ambassador Piper at the US Embassy in the capital city of Banjul, and the British Commissioner, just down the street. The other, a medium-range radio could reach Dakar, Senegal. Since the Ambassador currently had no medium-range radio at the Embassy, he sent messages through Bruce who then relayed messages via the medium range radio to the US Embassy in Dakar, who in turn relayed them on to Washington.
Bruce manned the radio about eighteen hours a day, playing a vital role in establishing and maintaining communication. For several hours during the night, atmospheric conditions prevented radio transmission, allowing Bruce time to rest.
We remained at the Ambassador’s for the next eight days. Within two days we had 118 people crammed into the house, Americans, Germans, Swedish, Indians, people from many different agencies and businesses, including about 20 of the 52 in-country Peace Corps volunteers and staff. Although it was the Ambassador’s residence, it wasn’t a particularly large or grand house and only had 3 bedrooms.
From the start, food and water was an issue. At our twice daily meetings, we decided the adults would eat two small meals a day, but the 17 children among us would have three meals a day. No one wanted to listen to hungry, whiny kids!
Much of the fighting took place a short distance from where we were. One of the President’s wives and seven of their children were being held hostage by rebels only a mile from us.
During daylight hours, we frequently heard artillery, rifle and machine gun fire. We dismantled the beds and placed mattresses over the windows for protection from flying glass. At times the fighting was so close we hunkered down under tables for safety.
Peace Corps takes a neutral position on politics. We were told that if we stayed inside we’d be safe. We had no choice but to trust that this would be true. We flew the American flag above the house day and night. Both rebels and loyalists entered the house to check on us and to assure us of our safety.
So what does the royal wedding have to do with all this? The President of The Gambia, Sir Dawda Jawara, was out of the country, attending Prince Charles and Diane’s wedding in England. The Field Force took advantage of his absence to stage the coup.
After eight days, with the military aid of neighboring Senegal, the coup was put down. It’s difficult to get a definitive count in The Gambia, but it is estimated about 1,000 people were killed in the skirmishes. Everyone at the Ambassador’s residence remained safe, though a little thinner because of the slim food rations. We Peace Corps volunteers were evacuated to Senegal until things calmed down enough for us to return upriver to our villages.
I am currently writing my memoirs about our two years in Africa. The working title of the book is “Tubob.”