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J A N U A R Y 2 0 1 2 / F O R E I G N S E R V I C E J O U R N A L
Lasting Impressions
When I first arrived in the Agu
District of Togo, I did not plan to
stay long. I had already spent two
years as a Peace Corps Volunteer in
Honduras and, while I was de-
lighted to have a second opportu-
nity to serve, I told myself that if I
did not enjoy the experience, I
would quit and return to graduate
studies in the States.
As it happened, I surprised myself by serving as a Vol-
unteer for three more years and then joining the local
Peace Corps staff. Every time I was ready to return to the
States, something would come up. Like the unforgettable
African sunsets, the sights, sounds and smells of the conti-
nent captivate you. And as the years wear on, you feel
something deeply that makes it harder and harder to leave.
I completed my Peace Corps service in 1976 in Niger
and then embarked on a Foreign Service career with
USAID that took me to every subregion of Africa. Though
I was involved in a wide variety of complex projects over
the next two decades, I think I did not learnmuch new after
leaving my first Peace Corps village in 1973. In all of my
subsequent work, I regularly asked myself how this or that
project would work in my Togo village. That remained my
indispensable compass throughout my long development
I spent time with several African presidents (Eyadema,
Bongo, Kountché, Sékou Touré, Kérékou, Nyerere, Buy-
oya and Chissano), as well as top Somali warlords Mo-
hamed Farrah Aideed and Ali Mahdi Muhammad. I also
met a number of other heads of state at Sékou Touré’s fu-
neral in Conakry inMarch 1984 (see “The Grand Syli’s Fu-
neral” in the February 2011
). But my most in-
teresting meetings have been with local authorities, tradi-
tional chiefs, sorcerers, witch doctors and religious leaders.
Of course, hundreds of other people have played parts
in my long African saga, as well: journalists, authors,
tourists, donor representatives and missionaries who lived
all their lives in Africa. They, along with the 17 U.S. am-
bassadors I served and dozens of Foreign Service col-
leagues, helped shape my views about Africa.
In my mind’s eye, I can still see the faces that made the
most lasting impression. Most of them are ordinary
Africans going about their daily business of surviving. I see
clearly the faces of shop owners, women preparing food at
the roadside, people struggling
with heavy loads on their heads,
beggars, street children, the hordes
of people riding bicycles and mo-
torbikes. The list is as endless as
the impressions are indelible. Of
course, my firsthand exposure to
Africans each day added to my
huge reservoir of experience.
Sadly, many of my African
friends have now passed away — a fact that brings home
harshly the realization that life expectancy in Africa is low.
As I often point out, I have been in Africa longer than most
Africans: today a majority of the population is less than 16
years old. One result is that the knowledge of many tradi-
tional customs has been lost. The passing of respected eld-
ers has also left youth adrift. Far too often, today’s role
models are wealthy but corrupt officials and leaders of
criminal gangs.
Post-Independence Euphoria
During my first decade in Africa, a post-independence
euphoria prevailed. The atmosphere was happy, colorful
and full of hope. We all thought our mission would unfold
like theMarshall Plan and, within a few years, Africa would
be able to move ahead on its own. The idea was to work
ourselves out of a job by building local capacity, enabling
countries to become economically, as well as politically, in-
dependent. Forty years later I am very far from being out
of work, and most African countries are more dependent
on external aid than ever before.
In the earlier years we had much more fun than today,
especially as you could go anywhere — day or night —
without any security concerns. We went to remote places
to hear the drums play all night under a full moon and drink
our fill of fresh palm wine. The language of talking drums
was interpreted for us by the few old men who understood
it. People sang and danced and laughed until the sun came
up. Ceremonies of all sorts took place, and we were all
careful to pour a drink on the ground for the ancestors be-
fore we drank anything ourselves.
At that time, there were popular local songs, and “high
life” and rumba music were in vogue. Some of those old
tunes and the sliding sound made by the dance steps are
still in my head. (Now when I am down, I listen to rumba
music from the Congo to pick up my spirits; a Congolese
once told me that rumba music was invented to fight mis-
We all thought our mission
would unfold like the Marshall
Plan and, within a few years,
Africa would be able to move
ahead on its own.