A Bump on the Road

Golden sunset on the plains of Kenya
Long-term Discomfort

By Fr. Bobby Gilmore

In 1969 I was due for my first vacation in Ireland after spending five years in the Philippines. As the time drew near I was excited. We got an allowance for holidays that included a return fare and some spending money for the six-month vacation in Ireland. After doing the rounds of travel agencies in Manila I discovered that a round-the-world fare wasn’t that much extra than a return fare.

I had an aunt, Verona, who was a missionary Sister in Ghana. During her visits to Ireland she told us all kinds of stories about Africa and Ghana’s first steps towards independence from British rule led by Khawme Nkrumah. It was one of the first African countries to gain independence from British colonialism and having lived there for many years she held great hope for the country. Also, she had met the new President many times. Of course, Jomo Kenyatta’s struggle for independence in Kenya also got a lot of attention in Ireland. The older generation in Ireland had vivid memories of Ireland’s struggle for independence and could easily relate to the Kenya’s aspirations as they did previously with Ghandi in India.

As the travel agent mapped out my itinerary through Hong Kong, Bombay, Karachi, Addis Ababa, Nairobi, Entebbe, Lagos and Accra I began to recall stories shared by our neighbors about these places. None of them were ever in these places, but they talked about them as if they were there. Some of their deceased relatives probably served in British regiments. However, they described Haille Selassie, Ghandi, Nkrumah, and Kenyatta as if they knew them personally and compared them with those who fought for Irish independence. As I was about to set out from Manila I wondered would these places match up to the stories I had heard about them.

I had written to my aunt about my plan to visit giving approximate dates of my arrival. She wrote welcoming me. When I finalized the ticket I sent her the dates.

The first stop was Hong Kong where I would catch a British Airways intercontinental flight. In those days it was called British Overseas Airways. As I had been to Hong Kong on my way to the Philippines I decided that I would not stop over this time. Flying into Kai Tak airport, particularly at night, was always an exciting event. As the plane flew in over the buildings and descended there was a feeling of flying into people’s living rooms. Hong Kong was quiet as it was the Chinese New Year. So, I just waited at the airport for my international connection. I didn’t mind waiting as I get great entertainment watching different people making their way around airports. In those days Japanese tourists were spreading their wings. They always followed a tour guide holding up a flag.

American soldiers were another group that seemed always present at airports in those days on their way to or from war in Vietnnam. You could tell by the spring in their heels or the absence of it which way they were going. They were always young, healthy and handsome in their uniforms. But having visited the American War Memorial in Manila where there were 36,000 American soldiers buried I knew that a lot of them would not return home to their families. The devastation of war is a failure of human imagination.

Eventually our flight was announced and boarding took place. There were few passengers on the Bombay leg of the journey. The excitement and anticipation of the journey prevented me from sleeping, making the journey long and tedious. We arrived in Bombay in the middle of the night. The airport seemed deserted. While I waited for the on-going flight I walked up to the exit to take a look out into the Bombay night. I was surprised to see that the streets around the airport were crowded with people. Some slept on the side of the street while others hurried by. The airport and its fittings were sparse. It seemed just a facility to channel people through. There was nothing comforting about it for the traveler.

The excitement and anticipation of the journey prevented me from sleeping, making the journey long and tedious.

I wondered if the next leg of the flight to Karachi would be as sparse for passengers as was the journey from Hong Kong. As I approached the departure gate my wondering ceased. A large vocal mass of humanity crowded around the gate. They were noisy in a genteel sort of way as they sorted out children and packages. Going through the departure gate they longingly waived goodbye to relatives and friends who were seeing them off. Gradually, we made our way to our seats and the settling in began. Eventually seat numbers were designated, children put in their places and luggage stored. It was obvious that many of the new passengers were experiencing the anxiety and excitement of being on an airplane for the first time. It’s the kind of awkwardness one notices in annual golfers and irregular churchgoers. After take-off I asked the man in the adjoining seat what his destination was. Seeming surprised to be addressed by a stranger he replied, London. Delighted to be able to converse in English he informed me that most of these passengers were emigrants setting out for new lives in Britain. With pride he informed me that he had been recruited to work in London Transport. He was proud of his achievement as he idealized London as the center of the world. Actually, in conversation he was ambivalent whether India should ever have sought independence from Britain. For him, the ideals of the founders of the new nation had become frayed at the edges. The promises of health, wealth and happiness for all had according to him not materialized. His would be an analysis that I would hear many times over the years from people of the newly independent nations including my own.

The meal was served. There was a choice of Indian and European cuisine. Being in Asia and in deference to my newfound friend I choose the Indian dish. It was peppered hot, and halfway through, I felt that steam was rising from my head. However, from a spicy content it was closer to East Asian food that the European food on offer.

After the meal we settled back in our seats. The waft of curry powder created a new ambiance. It seemed to exude from our pores. As we flew over large spans of Asia I drifted off to sleep. About two hours out of Karachi we were called to attention about immigration and other bits and pieces of travel information for those deplaning and for those in transit as I was. I would be saying goodbye to BOAC at Karachi as it was going on to London, and I was taking the path going left and south to the African continent in Ethiopian Airways. Leaving the plane and going through the various checkpoints was as usual, tedious, making you feel somehow suspect. I shook hands with my Indian friend and wished him long happy days in London Transport.

Again, I had a few hours wait for the Ethiopian Airways flight to Addis Ababa and Nairobi to be called. While I waited I decided to take a walk around the arrivals and departures section of the building. Both were busy as Karachi was the center of a network. There were large numbers of male Muslims waiting at gates that indicated ongoing flights to Saudi Arabia. Obviously, these were affluent Muslims who could afford to fly rather than take the slow route by boat as many Filipino Muslims did to take part in Hajj. It was interesting to observe the preparations being made by passengers as they waited with high expectations as all pilgrims do. One could feel the excitement and kinship between believers seeing the arrival of different nationalities all setting out in the same journey. For a few weeks, religion would take precedence over nationalism and tribalism. Reflecting on the whole scene I felt that I was on some kind of pilgrimage too.

As my flight was being called I made my way back to the departure gate for Africa. None of the passengers on the previous flight boarded this flight to Africa. But many new passengers joined. Travel makes me curious, and I wonder on seeing people getting a flight such as this to Africa as to what is bringing them there. But, I suppose, like myself, they have a good reason.

The flight was at night time and uneventful. The airline attendants were immaculate in dress, manner and service. It was obvious that Ethiopian Airways took great care of detail. We were awakened as the plane flew in over East Africa. As the Ethiopian highlands emerged from the early morning mist it was an exciting first view of the many facets that I was to experience of Africa. Arriving for a short stopover in Addis Ababa we were informed of the usual formalities. In those days air travel seemed to be more leisure than task. Now flying is a task, and our identity becomes porous from the leisure if any that it gives. We were allowed to wander around the duty-free store, reputedly the largest in the world at the time. I bought a walking stick that I left on the Dublin-Wesport train at the end of my journey.

One could feel the excitement and kinship between believers seeing the arrival of different nationalities all setting out in the same journey.

Our flight to Nairobi was called, and as we made our way to the gate I got talking to a man who turned out to be English and who worked in the copper mines in Zambia. He was my companion on the flight to Nairobi. He was versed on African history, politics and culture. He shared information with me about what to experience during my three-day stopover in Kenya. At this time Kenya, like many emerging nations, was concentrating on the development of its tourism. New hotels were being built on the outskirts of Nairobi. I stayed in one of them called the Pan Africa. My room contained the usual tourist literature about Nairobi, Kenya and East Africa.

There were so many things to see in the immediate vicinity of Nairobi that I decided to select from them. But my main interest was to casually look around the city that is situated about six thousand feet above sea level. So, after a rest I began my search. As I wandered around I came upon the Catholic Cathedral where I planned to celebrate the liturgy the following morning. As the climate was much more temperate than that of Mindinao walking was pleasant. The city did not seem as busy or as populated as the Asian cities I had become used to. But its people went about their business with the same intensity as one finds in the Orient. The high street store owners seemed to represent all the trading cultures of the Orient, Africa, the Middle East and Europe. However, as in the Orient, they were as assertive about their wares as they were negotiable about their prices. They knew how much pressure to apply in order to procure a sale without making the customer feel harassed.

During my strolling around I walked up to the gates of the presidential palace where Jomo Kenyata lived. At least I could tell his admirers when I arrived home that I saw his palace. While my visit to the national park to observe wild animals was interesting, I was getting itchy to move on. But before I did I made a pilgrimage to the Norfolk Hotel. All cities of the Empire had a hangout, usually a hotel, a kind of a social shrine, that the colonials used as a hinge with each other and with home. It probably emerged as that because it was one of the few places that had a telegraph service that reached the outside world. Or maybe it was adjacent to the colonial offices. Like all such places even though it had an old world aura about it, all ages and races moved about there as if they were the owners. Taking afternoon tea on the veranda I watched Africa hurry by.

giraffe on the plains

Rested, I set out the next day for the airport. I had got to that stage of the journey when urgency emerges to get to where you are going. There were a few stops in between at Entebbe in Uganda and Lagos in Nigeria. The airport at Entebbe was more of a temporary air station that processed tourists into Uganda and the area of Lake Victoria. From the air the surrounding countryside appeared to hem in a huge expanse of water. Within a few years the people of this beautiful country would groan in pain under the brutal rule of Idi Amin.

The trip to Lagos took all day. Approaching Lagos, the steward with the spray can purified us of all bugs. After deplaning we were ushered across the tarmac into a humid, unkept, sparse room by a person in military uniform. In the room were a few others similarly clad who began to lecture us on the war that was going on in Biafra. As we were being brainwashed I could see bombers taking off from the runway that our plane had just landed on. Essentially, the content of the message justified the war. After listening for about twenty minutes the speaker and his cohorts just walked away. Before I entered the room, I was neutral about the conflict. After this harangue my feelings were with Biafra. This was my first experience of one’s privacy being invaded by the military that was to become all too common in later years in the Philippines.

After a short delay we were ushered onto the flight to Accra. I looked forward to Accra. It was a short flight arriving after dark. Again, the tedious task of crossing a border had to be faced. That space between arrival and exit always causes anxiety. Border officials seem to represent sovereignty with severity. Accra was no exception. The official zeroed in on my health certificate indicating that something was amiss. I assured him that I had received all the required medical jabs. After thumbing through the medical card he made a thoughtful decision like a cricket umpire on an appeal. Frequently, after dealing with some officials I ask myself, who are the real subversives.

Eventually, I made my way through to the exit where in the midst of a myriad of African faces I spotted my aunt and her companion. We were delighted to see each other. Telling me to follow she led me through the crush speaking in whatever tongue required that a taxi was not needed. In the dark we set out from Accra to Elmina. It was a humid, tropical evening eased by the breeze coming in the car window. Throughout the journey my aunt and her companion quizzed me about the Philippines, Ireland and family goings on. They didn’t talk much about Ghana, Africa or Elmina giving the impression that they felt at home there.

After a few hours we arrived at their convent on top of a hill overlooking what seemed like a small town on the seashore. They had arranged that I would be staying in the parish house nearby. We sat around talking after a light meal. Seeing that I was nodding off they took me over to the parish house. Rapping on the door of what seemed like a fortress a voice approached with noisy keys.

After dismantling the bars on the inside eventually a person appeared with a Dutch name and accent. The two Sisters introduced me and left me with him. Knowing that people retired early in the tropics I apologized for the lateness of my arrival. We sat down, and he produced a few beers. Like the Sisters he was curious as to what was happening in the outside world. This is typical of what usually happens to visitors in immigrant homes or communities, particularly if isolated. They treat the new arrival as their connection with the beyond. In conversation they validate what they have been hearing through the various grapevines that they have access to. He was anguished about Ghana’s underdevelopment since independence.

Having exhausted both the beer and the exchange of information he showed me to my room. The rectory was of another era with thick walls, shuttered and screened windows, and of course the mosquito net hanging over the bed. The familiar odor of mosquito repellant hung around the room. I have often felt that if it exterminates mosquitoes what does it do to humans?

He warned me about the need to be economical with the water. Before using the shower, I arranged the mosquito net. Wondering how the light was extinguished I found a piece of cord that stretched from the switch to the back of the bed. Having got the general outlay of my new confines I pulled the cord and hoped for sleep. After a few minutes I heard a familiar drone. A mosquito had invaded the inner sanctum to which there is only one solution, search and expulsion. This is a deliberate task of examining the net for possible modes of entry and then doing the necessary repairs. It appeared that this one was a lone invader and once repelled did not further offend. I had a good night’s sleep.

The roosters in Elmina could compete with their brothers in the Philippines at calling the sunrise. They started long before. Of course, life in the tropics begins to move early to get the heavy work done before the midday heat. However, the Spaniards developed a more civilized response to the midday heat by the invention of siesta. British zeal to keep the sun shining on the empire was definitely misguided.

Trying to imagine men and women captured, bought and sold, detained in intense heat in underground chambers, before being shipped to the Caribbean to work in sugar plantations appalled me.

After breakfast at the convent I sat outside taking in the vista of the Atlantic coastline reaching out from the town below. My attention was alerted by the noise of children making their way into the public elementary school at the bottom of the hill. Clad in well-ironed uniforms, at the sound of the school bell, they were all lined up to march into their classes. Many came late. To my horror the late arrivals were all lined up in the school-yard by the Ghanaian headmaster who in true British/Irish tradition administered punishment with an ample piece of bamboo. The reason why I hated school was being enacted before my eyes. This kind of beating was the initiation of an acceptable culture of violence that was and still is used as a means of social control. Former British colonies still find it difficult to abolish capital punishment.

Before the heat of the day took its toll, I decided to explore the town of Elmina. Walking around was an enjoyable exercise. Time and again I was approached and questioned, who I was, where I came from and what my business was. Having shared my identity and purpose of my visit I was welcomed by all. They knew my aunt, had a child in high school or went to church there. The town was divided evenly between Catholic, Methodist and Islam and they seemed to go about their business in harmony. Difference wasn’t equated with deficit as was generally the case in Ireland and Europe. I suppose it was the instrument that underpinned colonization.

Two castles in the distance daily caught my eye. The parish priest gave me a potted history of the area, the castles, their former purpose and present use. They were the places from which a large section of the slave trade emanated. Now they had other purposes. One was the training academy for new recruits to the national police force. As he was the chaplain to the training academy he was responsible for religious services there.

villagers walking down a road

Being busy, he requested that I conduct the liturgy for the recruits. He had arranged with the commander to pick me up. I was delighted to have the opportunity. On arrival at this big imposing castle on the Atlantic shore I was directed upstairs to a large room where the recruits had everything ready. They were all imposing, disciplined young men. They participated in the liturgy and sang hymns at the appropriate time during the Mass. After Mass, the commander invited me to their mess for refreshment. As I was about to depart he asked if I would like to see around the castle. I gladly accepted. Explaining the purpose of the castle its role in slavery shocked me out of my shoes. Trying to imagine men and women captured, bought and sold, detained in intense heat in underground chambers, before being shipped to the Caribbean to work in sugar plantations appalled me.

After the tour I requested time to walk around on my own so that I could deal with the horror of what I heard, saw and felt. I walked around and faced the ocean. Up until then the poverty and deprivation I saw in people’s lives seemed in some way the private misfortune of an individual rather than a symptom of structural economic policies devised by the powerful to benefit the powerful. Of course, personal morality justified suited the colonial enterprise.

The castle in Elmina blew that out of my mind. Here, staring me in the face was a monument to structural evil devised by a European elite solely for its benefit. In my education, slavery was presented as an item of European history, a somehow acceptable undertaking to supply Europe with necessary consumer goods. The human impact of its depravity and degeneracy was not highlighted in the history books. Essentially, it was a corporate enterprise sponsored by and in collusion with European states and institutions as part of the global domination by European empires. The European Christian church was a fellow traveler in this enterprise. I asked myself–is that what I am part of?

As I tried to personalize the horror that people in slavery experienced, I cried. The question that I kept asking myself was; HOW COME NOBODY SHOUTED STOP? Before returning to the commander’s office I made a resolution that in my own life wherever I was aware of exploitation, injustice, racism and deference I would shout stop. This experience initiated in me a different world-view. It introduced me to structural evil expressed in political policies and trade deals that favored the few and deprived the many. As I flew home to Ireland I wondered if slavery had been properly highlighted could the terrible horrors of twentieth century European wars be avoided? Had the structures of European society become immune to dehumanization?

Elmina was a real bump on the long road home. I am thankful that I felt the bump even if it is still causing me a lot of discomfort.

Columban Fr. Bobby Gilmore lives and works in Ireland.