Out over the Atlantic Ocean the plane moved through the night sky in the light of a brilliant moon, approaching the coast of Africa. Four years earlier Derek had flown out of Nairobi after two years in the Congo, unsure if he would ever return to the continent. In the interim he had gotten a master’s degree in African Studies from UCLA and married Dee, the daughter of a Foreign Service officer. Now, surprisingly, he was a tyro foreign correspondent, emphasis on the tyro.
The pilot announced their descent into Dakar. He added: “We have great news! Americans have just landed on the moon!” Derek and Dee joined the spontaneous applause. Americans, they could not help feeling proud.
As they crossed the tarmac, the moon shone above them, glowing white in the shape of a melon slice. What were the men up there doing? How did they feel?
As the driver taxied them to the airport hotel, Derek told him that there were men on the moon. “Ce soir,” he said, “il y a des hommes sur la lune.” Derek pointed to the moon. “You heard about that?” he asked. “Vous en avez entendu?”
“Oui, m’sieur,” the driver answered, humoring him. The driver did not look at the moon. “You want to hire my taxi tomorrow?” he asked. “Vous voulez engager mon taxi pour demain? Je suis à votre disposition.” Derek declined the man’s offer.
Derek had chosen the luxury hotel at the airport to start Dee’s impressions of Africa on a positive note. But he had expected on his first night back on the continent that he and his wife would sleep in the same bed. However, the room had only two single beds. Only one of them had mosquito netting. What kind of luxury accommodation was this? But it was too late to complain and, well, it was Africa.
Dee insisted that he take the bed with the net. After all, he had a story to write the next day: African reactions to men on the moon. She declined to engage in the balancing act that would involve sharing the net. So they slept apart.
From the balcony of the hotel room the next morning they watched sun-sparkled Atlantic rollers lapping at the shore of Senegal. Even as the breakers sent balmy air and salty pungency toward them, Derek was feeling frantic pangs of inadequacy. It was his first day as an Africa Correspondent in Africa and he did not have the slightest idea of how to go about scratching up some copy.
Why had they stayed at a luxury hotel, especially one with single beds? It seemed impossible to chase down any news there. The hotel news kiosk was inexplicably closed. Calling the American Embassy, Derek learned that it had declared a holiday. The room clerk had not listened to his radio that morning; he could tell Derek nothing. Derek craned his body far out over the balcony of the room, trying to catch breeze-blown bits of news in French from a radio playing somewhere below.
He asked himself: What am I doing in this job?
In Africa nothing seemed to work. That, of course, was its charm! Dee loved that aspect of it. But it was hardly something an Africa Correspondent could report in his first dispatch.
He and Dee took an ancient bus into Dakar. It stopped often. When their journey started at the airport, there were plenty of seats. But soon it grew crowded. The passengers laughed and yakked; babies cried. Passengers pressed against one another. No one seemed to respect that which Americans hold so dear: personal space. Packing the aisle, passengers began to block the flow of air from the windows. The temperature rose in the bus. The heat released the odors of humanity.
The bus meandered through Ouakam, a shantytown of wood and metal scrap, a home to peasants seeking urban survival and a better life, people who had fled servitude to a drought-plagued land. It was a place of the odors of decaying garbage, of cook fires and sweating bodies. Derek felt overwhelmed by Ouakam’s laughter, its color, by its communality, its vitality, its open-air sociability – and by its crowding, poverty and dirtiness. The smells, the heat, the closeness in the bus: all these afflicted him. Overload shut down his senses. His head swam. What, he wondered, was wrong with him? He knew Africa and had come to report on it. And here he was woozy with culture shock. Meanwhile, Dee was grinning, drinking in the sensations, loving them.
Leaving the bus at last, they walked around the center of Dakar, a city of tall buildings and noisy hubbub. Despite the veneer of French culture from its colonial past, it pulsated with Africanness. Derek was glad to witness that again. His head stopped swirling. He interviewed people, got their reactions to a man being on the moon. He made arrangements to move the next day to a hotel in the center of town.
Later, standing again on the balcony of their room, he felt better about Africa, better about himself. Below him he watched a woman walking in the hotel garden. She moved in clouds of cloth, within a yellow-patterned fabric wrapped about her waist. Above that a pink bodice floated. And above that a blue bandanna of satiny sheen, elaborately tied, ensconced her head. Slowly, sinuously, the woman drifted along, moving with that matter-of-fact African grace.
Observing her, Derek realized that she was walking into the copy of the first Africa-datelined story he would write. She would lead his American readers across the long bridge they would have to cross to understand who she was, that long span from America’s ready acceptance of modern technology and astronauts on the moon into traditional Africa where news of the moon landing was being met with skepticism.
“Allah will not allow men to walk on the moon,” people had told him in Dakar. “The moon is sacred. Allah will place in the sky a facsimile of the moon. It will deceive the Americans.”
They were saying: “The moon is hot. It will burn up any men who try to land on it.”
They were saying, “These American astronauts are demons! They deny the existence of God!”
They were saying, “Men on the moon? It is a white man’s lie. Haven’t they always lied to us?”
Derek wrote the piece, filed it, and became a working correspondent. To announce that it once again had a man on the ground, covering Africa, his editors splashed his first dispatch smack across the front page!
Welcome back to Africa!