published CADILLAC CICATRIX, issue three, summer 2008
THE FAMILIAR NIGHT AIR OF COASTAL WEST AFRICA CAN BE OVERPOWERING,
smacking one hard like a warm, damp sauna towel, as it did me when I arrived in Abidjan on the evening flight from Paris. Even through the chaos in customs-the baggage hustlers more insistent than I remember-and through the phalanxes of urchin boys in the car park shouting as always "donnez-mois dix francs," the heavy humidity of the semi-tropical night with its steaming vegetation, tang of salt-tinged ocean breezes and perfumed traces of jasmine brought me quickly back to my time here 14 years ago.
The once-futuristic airport building with its soaring glass walls, air conditioned lounges, and chic boutiques had grown shabby. Bidonvilles, or shack towns had mushroomed up everywhere on the route into the city, even in the airport compound itself. Nearer to the city, the rich, distinctive odors of West Africa becamed overwhelmed first with the inviting emanations from the chocolate processing plants, and then by the less pleasant smells of human sweat and waste in the densely packed popular quarter of Triechville. Everywhere too, the fumes from motor bikes, lumbering trucks and vans were infused with the smoke from the lingering cook fires.
In the busniess district, the Plateau, the four lane beltway along the cornice and the lagoon, streaked as always with the red and white lights of vehicular traffic, but it wasn't this unchanging scene that struck me. From my tenth floor balcony in the fairly new hotel built when the country still boomed, before everything began to fall apart, I suddenly realized that this imposing building stood on the very ground of my former office. Adjacent in the one hectare lot where we parked our Land Rovers, Jeeps and Peugeots, and where the gray ape, our would-be office mascot, nested high up in the last vestiges of mahogany trees in the city, a luxury apartment building had sprouted. I lingered on the balacony, filled with the memories of my four years here. The faces of several hundred young men and women who passed through our program and those of my African colleagues floated up from the now hyancinth-choked lagoon. Vividly remebered too were the crises, the medical evacuations, the several deaths, and the more joyful times of preparing for the arrival of a new group from the States.
It was on one of these latter occasions, that we first encountered our gray ape, in reality a large monkey of unknown species. Most mornings I arrived at the office at 7:30 a.m. to begin my long and always interesting day managing the Peace Corps program, but on one particular occasion I mustered the staff at 6 a.m. to prepare for a large incoming group who had to be met at the airport, processed and billeted in the nearby Grand Hotel to recuperate from the long, circuitous flight from training.
Our office which had once been the U.S. Consulate before the country's independence from France in 1962, was stepped up on the side of a hill with the lower floor on the level of the beltway. The main offices were on the equivalent of the second floor and were accessed by an outside stairway which led to a small, tiled terrace and the front doors. The doctor's offices were on the third floor also accessed by the outside stairway, and above that the lounge and library. Across the large terrace by the upper floor stood what had once been the U.S. Marine Guard barracks which we had remodeled into guest quarters for our frequent offcial visitors and for those among our Peace Corps workers who needed extended medical care, the so-called walking wounded. Almost all of our secondary school teachers, health aids, housing cnstruction advisers and agriculturalists were assigned up-country, far removed from big-city temptations, but some ventured downto Abidjan periodically for shopping in the big African market where everything from Skippy peanut butter to Betty Crocker cake mixes could be found. Others came down to our offices for medical treatment, Peace Corps having the only full time doctor in the U.S.Embassy community.
From my corner office on the second floor, I could see the staff scurrying up the outside steps to to the upper wing of the building. One of these was our American secretary, Marion, who in the fashion of the times wore a thigh-revealing mini-skirt, hand sewn by her from African tie-dyed cloth. On one of her several ascents, she let out a piercing scream and ran back down the stairs into the main office. Trembling, she related that someone had reached through the hibiscus foilage bordering the incline and grabbed at her legs. Someone playing a practical joke I immediately thought, but who? Certainly not our African staff, our two male accountants being preoccupied at their desks with preparing packets of forms for each of our new cadre. We had no visiting Peace Corps workers at this early hour, nor any walking wounded up in the barracks. I called the night guard, still on duty, into my office and asked him if he had seen anyone suspicious lurking about. I believe in all his six years working at the Peace Corps office, he had never been called to account by Le Patron, lui meme, let alone been in the Director's office for any reason at all. Accordingly, he remained nervous and unable to speak. Finally, he signaled that we should go back outside, and there he pointed to the several hundred foot tall mahogany trees at the back of the two-acre lot next to our office. These were among the remaining majestic hardwood trees in the city itself, the rest having been cut down and carted off to make room for the concrete, steel and glass structures of the new Abidjan.
Far up in the trees and barely visible through the branches and leaves sat a large gray haired monkey or ape. It appeared the night guard knew the creature well and had been feeding him in the early morning hours when he descended from his lofty aerie. Those who lived in the apartment house on the other side of the lot also were prone to throw down fruit from their windows when the ape whooped and grunted at five or six in the morning. So this was the culprit. A chill ran through the female staff, who feared they were all in danger of being assaulted more viciously than the unfortunate Marion. The ape nesting in the last stand of mahogany trees in a city that would grow to more than a million by the mid 1970s, was trapped by the ring of buildings and the busy auto beltway below. He had no ready exit from this strange urban jungle.
While some thought it interesting and a bit of a cachet to have a gray ape as a neighbor, pet or even mascot, my no-nonsense office manager, Leontyne, an African with a white, French grandfather, thought not. Effcient and well-connected to the country's political establishment, she did much to pave our way in negotiations with the host government as well as to keep us out of trouble. Therefore, I could only agree that the city's wild animal trappers from the national zoo be called at once. Given Leontyne's insistence, the trappers arrived at the appointed time the very next morning to much eager anticipation from the staff. The two men gathered their tools of the trade:a coil of rope, a net on a long pole, an a ladder which when extended reached only 12 feet or so. They stood in the lot regarding the tall mahogany trees, the barely visible ape up in his nest, and their inadequate ladder. "C'est impossible, quoi, M'sieu Le Directeur," they repeated several times before they turned about, walked quickly to their small panel truck and fled.
The threatening incident faded, and in time those who came early to the office helped the night guard in putting out fruit for our companion who lived far up in the trees. As a consequence, he, and we assumed it was a he due to his interest in leggy Marion, became while not acctually tame, less skittish and no more the sexual predator.Few ever actually saw him face-to-face or handed him his tithe of food directly.He stayed among the foliage and the shadows, at best a blur of gray retreating for cover.
Nearer to his perch in the trees, the upper red clay time terrace by the former Marine Corps barracks was also used for cocktail receptions which we held periodically to fete departing groups or visiting VIPs. From this vantage point we had a marvelous view of the city, its lagoon and the upscale district, or Cote d'Or across the water. Being Peace Corps, we had limited budgets for these affairs, but our very resourceful Leontyne would organize the cooks from the several staff households into the production of fabulous and inexpensive hors d'oeurves anad canapes. "Don't send me your potato salad Mrs. Robinson, just your cook."
Our receptions became popular and could go on well past their scheduled time. At one such party for several Washington officials, a waiter was still passing trays of canapes and fruit to the stalwart American, African and diplomatic remnants of a long and crowded afair, when a hairy arm reached from the hibiscus bushes at one end of the terrace to grab in the blinking of an eye a handful of goodies. "What was that?" one of our startled and slightly tipsy guests asked.
"Just an uninvited Pece Corps worker," I lied. "You know how unkempt and hairy looking some of them can get.
A firework display over the lagoon startled me from these reminiscences. Even with the current troubles, the civil war raging mostly up country, some marketer called attention to his bargain rate cell phones by sending bursts of color and arching rockets over this once bright jewel of West Africa, this once Pearl of the Lagoons. I stood on my small balcony looking down at this incongruous display, this feu d'artifice, and down at the terrace and swimming pool where our pocket forest of mahogany trees once stood. What had happened to our hairy friend who briefly terrorized our office workers and who crashed our evening cocktails boldly taking his share of canapes and fruit?
Had more daring, better equipped trappers from the zoo finally captured him? Had he been returned as humanely as possible to some wild life sanctuary up-country? Or had the creature on seeing his comfortable environment being bull dozed, managed to escape one night and wend his way unseen through the back streets and byways until he reached a welcoming forest? In a city that had grown more crowded at turbulent since my Peace Corps days, I could only hope that he had found his safe exit.