|Incident In Africa
Arthur L. Fern
2001 by Arthur L. Fern
“My father was a Francophile, but he died at the hands of the French,” said Monsieur Kabore, the project manager for Gourma Water sixty miles southeast of Ouagadougou, the capital of Burkina Faso (then Upper Volta). “He was proud of his service with the Free French during World War II and an admirer of French Culture, particularly Descartes and Voltaire. But if he were alive today, he would be most proud of our country, its future and its youth. Certainly, we have our problems—as any country does, but the future is bright, we have come and are going a long way. We may be poor, but we are a proud people.”
Slouched down in French wicker on the veranda of the former colonial estate, Gaetan Kabore and Klaas Huitgen were the late-night survivors of a dinner party, which had become traditional with visiting officials from the World Bank. From what was now the social and political elite of Burkina Faso, Kabore had studied at the École Polytechnique in Paris, immediately becoming a functionary in the National Water Department of the Upper Volta government when the West African states achieved their independence in the Sixties.
“Here, try this Betancourt rum. It’s from the Départment d’Outremer - Martinique. You see, we still like French culture, it was just its politics we couldn’t take.” The conversation turned nostalgic, having long left the oddities surrounding the project. “Grandfather was forced labor–courvé—under the French Governor-General before World War I, and my father became active in the independence movement following World War II. Active, but not militant. He was distributing literature— peacefully—near, too near, as it turned out, to a rowdy group of demonstrators. My mother said it was led by Thomas Sankara. Our George Washington. Sankara was executed by the French Police. My father received a blow to the head by a policeman’s club—he never recovered and died three weeks later. But now my family and I are benefitting from his actions. I owe it to our youth, particularly my daughter, Celine, to continue.”
Klaas, a Dutch national, had come to the World Bank eight years before from the Dutch consulting firm, Grontmei, which specialized in tropical agriculture and water. He quickly rose to become Deputy Chief of the West Africa Division, often heading up the Bank’s loan negotiating team. Superb French. Efficient. Straightforward. Tough, yet an accomplished diplomat. Technically knowledgeable. He was indeed a model international civil servant.
Klaas was also human—drank a little too much and, in the absence of his stern matronly Dutch wife, was known to chase a woman or two. Nancy L., an attractive young U.S. national from a wealthy Boston family and Director of Consultant Services at the Bank, caught his eye on more than one occasion. His hobby was magic. With her help she thought Klaas was starting up to the level of David Copperfield.
His reputation as a magician grew. He performed for school groups in his community of Fairfax, Virginia, gave performances for various charitable causes, and naturally was called upon at the Christmas parties.
The World Bank had identified a possible water project in Upper Volta (now Burkina Faso), based on a FAO expert’s report some eighteen months earlier, and started it in the Project Cycle. Although each project in unique, the Bank had long since developed a standard procedure to process loans. Known as Gourma Water, after Gourma Province southeast of the capital, Ouagadougou, the project had reached the Appraisal Report stage. Because of the scheduling of the other officers, Klaas decided he should go on this appraisal mission. The in-country phase of the work was coming to a close at the end of three weeks.
“Monsieur Klaas….” said Gaetan Kabore, Project Manager of the Gourma Water and Agriculture Project and nephew of the Prime Minister Raoul Kabore, “nous voudrions inviter… we would like to invite you to an office gathering before your departure. Your team has been wonderful in helping us prepare this project for financing…. We’d like to show our appreciation.” Not only having reached a powerful and achieving level of Upper Voltan society, the Kabores espoused the pride of a young country, not long out of French colonialism. They and their children, especially their children, were full of pride for the future.
“Oui, ah out, Monsieur Gaetan,…that would be most kind. It has been a grueling three weeks, but we think that, with a little luck, also this will be a very successful project…particularly for the families with the grazing livestock.”
“But, monsieur, I have a modest request. Your assistant, Robert, let it be known that you are an expert magician. Would you please perform a few skits? My daughter will attend—she’ll love it. Thank you, thank you so much.”
Klaas could hardly refuse—in fact, he didn’t have time to refuse. Of course, he would perform, of course, but still he felt a nervous twinge up his spine. The Kabores were the elite—economically and socially—of this poor West African country of 10 million blacks and few outsiders. Wasn’t magic universal? But how would he—in French—weave the stories to distract the audience from the tricks? He could talk the language of the economists, the agro-technicians, and the bureaucrats, but what of their families? And their children? He didn’t know their school tales or nursery rhymes. He would do his best. Klaas thought it was strange to see a few children at an office party, but it was their party. On the flight back to JFK in New York, Klaas relived the trip to Ouagadougou and Gourma, but especially the going- away party. The magic show. The face of the Kabore’s daughter, Celine. At eleven years old her eyes flashed, she followed everything and caught nuances of the tricks. One of the great joys of his hobby, Klaas thought, was the stimulation of a young person’s mind. She, certainly, undoubtedly, would be a capable leader of the next generation of West Africa. Or maybe in the General Assembly of the United Nations, who knows? She had everything to be optimistic of—she was the future. And magic—maybe just for a moment—was one of those threads between the past and the future.
Nearly two and a half months passed. The Appraisal Report was finalized. The time was approaching to schedule the loan negotiations in Washington. Still, conditions precedent needed to be tended to Klaas was off to Ouagadougou for four days on business. Monsieur Kabore met Klaas on his arrival at the airport (only one of two airports in the country). Following the quick, banal greetings, Kabore jumped to what was foremost on his mind. “Celine has spoken often of you and your magic. She said you can do anything, and she must see you perform again. You certainly have excited her imagination. I don’t know what she has in mind, but you must accept an invitation to weave your magic again. Accepted?”
Klaas nodded agreement. A few quick tricks—roll up the sleeves, turn over the hands to show nothing hidden, look straight into the eyes, and produce a fresh pear in the palm of the hand in a flash. The wonder of magic! The night before Klaas’s leaving, the Kabores invited a few ministry officials and their wives over for drinks and dinner. Elegant in its simple manner—but plush for a low-end developing country. In deference to the adults, Celine in a white lace dress didn’t appear until the magic show was about to begin. The adults—with Courvoisier in hand—re-seated themselves in a semi- circle facing Klaas.
“Does anyone have a special request?” asked Klaas, seeking to engage the group in a story around which to perform his tricks.
Celine jumped up, raising her arm. “Monsieur, Monsieur Magicien,” she started, “je voudrais…I would like to ask a favor, I know you can do anything, yes anything. I’ve seen you, you can do anything.” “Well, no, my dear, that’s not true. But I can try. What is your wish?
“Monsieur Magicien,” said Celine in hesitation. “I wish… I would like… I want you to make me white. Make me white, not black like the others… Please make me white.” The Kabores and Klaas stared at each other… inhaling and exhaling deeply.
As she had turned
her back on her situation… they couldn’t turn theirs on her.
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