First 24 hours in African Country A (and adventures re-learning French)

On occasion, I write about my experience traveling in Africa – to add an entertaining counterweight to my more analytical rants and musings on the events unfolding on the continent. The following is about my current travel covering parts of Africa and Europe. Just to be safe, I won’t mention where I am until head to the next country on my itinerary, but hopefully that doesn’t dissuade you from reading on:

I’ve started my one month long, six country tour that will have me in African Country A, France, African Country B, Germany, African Country C, and African Country D before I head back to the States in mid-May. Since this is my first time in Country A, I’ve naturally been inclined to seek out some sort of familiarity to the city I’m in based on where I’ve traveled before. The city is dusty, hot, conservative, pleasant, refined. It makes me think that this city would be the outcome if Yaoundé, Cameroon and Tamale, Ghana had a lovechild.

Upon arrival, I could tell that the immigration officer who stamped my passport  suspected that I was an International Woman of Mystery based on the assortment of seemingly random visas and passport stamps. He looks up and asks “Qu’est-ce que votre profession – exactement?” I fumble for the words for ‘one who researches national security’ since my default foreign language is, and will always be, Portuguese. That’s what comes from studying abroad in a Lusophone country rather than a Francophone one.

I muscle my way out of baggage claim and customs only to find no placard with my name on it held by any of my in-country points of contact. After about 10 minutes, the same immigration officer walks by and asks why I haven’t been picked up. I respond that I’m “hoping for” (vs “waiting for”) a driver from my hotel. Damn you French verbs. He disappears and a woman comes over asking me if I’m Anna. (I go by Anne or Anna when I travel, since most people simply ignore or can’t be bothered with pronouncing Lesley). She apologizes for not finding me earlier, saying “Anna! Nous cherchions une blanche!” (We were looking for a white woman.) We share a laugh as she escorts me to the hotel shuttle.

After checking in, the bellhop helps me up to my room with the luggage, but first we have a showdown with the elevator. As it turns out, the door militantly closes on occupants if they do not enter or leave the elevator in a timely fashion. I watch in terror as the door assaults an unsuspecting European guest. An African guest asks me “Avez-vous peur de notre pays?” (Are you afraid of our country?) I respond “Non, mais j’ai peur de l’ascenseur!” (No, but I’m afraid of the elevator!) Once we’re all safely packed in the elevator, the man asks where I’m from and what I’m doing there. I quickly realize that my usual cover story when I’m abroad – that I’m Trinidadian and I’m traveling as a tourist – doesn’t hold up at all in this place. I dislike having to explain what I do since I always get that ‘are you sure you’re not a spy’ side-glance. I manage to deflect his questions, which is easy enough b/c this dude loves talking about himself and the fact that he’s here to visit his former classmate who’s now the president.

The following day, I started my meetings and peeked in on a conference on regional security where I learned about interoperability between the local military and law enforcement in French. I don’t speak military French, so I was pretty thrilled to be able to understand what was going on. Later on, I asked to visit the museum, where I got a preview of an exhibit on the traditional dress of Country A’s various ethnic groups. By night I enjoyed brochettes de viande that were quite good, mostly because meat actually has flavor outside the U.S. And now it’s time for bed, since I have a long day of tagging along on meetings with civil society ahead of me. Also, the power keeps going out.

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