Peace Corps Writers
Falling in Love with Africa (page 2)
Falling in Love with Africa
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Unexpected adversity
We landed, and ten or fifteen armed soldiers boarded the plane and briskly examined our passports. They questioned us exhaustively about their newness. The soldiers claimed we were “Israeli agitators, mercenaries, or C.I.A. agents.” Amin was relishing his role as protector of the continent — or bully.
     I still see before me the circle of soldiers pointing machine guns at us as we descended from the plane. Finally, we realized that this was serious business. The armed guards herded us into the terminal, then rummaged through everyone’s suitcase: two years’ supply of toothpaste, clothing, books, hairbrushes, sanitary napkins, aralen, blue jeans. The soldiers gasped at the quantity of blue jeans, a luxury in Africa. “You must be very rich,” they said, and we laughed a little. The soldiers questioned a few people closely, especially one man who had maps of the area and books in Swahili — an African Studies major whom they presumed to be a spy. They dragged him off somewhere. We were exhausted and a bit fearful, especially since no American Embassy official had so far appeared.

Back on the plane
The soldiers decided we weren’t dangerous and allowed us to return to the plane. What a relief, we thought, as we prepared for take-off, our earlier euphoria broken. “What an experience,” we said to each other, thinking our first political incident finished. After a long, hot wait, the flight attendant announced that we would not be allowed to take off. We deplaned and hovered under the airplane’s wings for shade. A few Volunteers tried to chat with the guards, “Beautiful airport . . . how many planes come into Entebbe a day?” The only friendly guard was removed from duty.
     Having learned that we must await presidential clearance, we returned to the airport. For the first time we understood that Amin himself had ordered us detained. As we learned later, he couldn’t resist the opportunity for a small victory — exerting his power over a whole planeload of Americans was too tempting, especially in the presence of a visiting head of state.
     By this time, an official from the U.S. embassy appeared. He looked small, pale, and worried at having to handle such a situation. We had no ambassador in Uganda. Rumor had it that Nixon and Amin were on the outs, Amin having sent Nixon a telegram blasting the U.S. role in Vietnam. “He should talk,” we thought to ourselves. The embassy official was not encouraging. “We don’t know how long it will take.” Helplessness set in for the first time. How could we Americans be in a position where our government could do nothing for us?

Dinner, rumors and song
That evening was a strange one. We trooped to the dining room for a meal of pork chops and peas, provided by East African Airlines and drank our first African beer. Waiting wore on our nerves, as tension compounded with fear that someone would break down — but we stayed outwardly composed. We were strangers to one another after all. Wild rumors circulated: “We’ll be out of here in an hour”; “We’ll be leaving at midnight”; “ No one can negotiate with Amin.” Rumored deadlines passed uneventfully, but we lived on such speculation. “The U.S. will get us out of here, “ “Mobutu wants us in the Congo.” Some Volunteers sang in an attempt to boost the group’s spirits, humorous songs, folk songs, patriotic songs. George began, “Amen, Amen, Amen,” but quickly stopped when he realized the guards thought we were singing, “Amin, Amin, Amin.” Watching the faces of those watching us made the songs dry up in our throats — the mixture of bravado and naiveté that inspired them had worn off. Our actions carried more weight than ever before. Our lone embassy official warned us not to say or do anything that could be construed as criticism of the government. Such criticism could land us in a Ugandan jail.

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