Ben Oostdam story # 268


Early in the afternoon of Tuesday, October 12, 1965, my wife Mercia (21), our son Ben Jr (5 months old) and I (33) departed South Africa on our way to a new life. I had worked there for two years evaluating marine diamond potential, and had met and married Mercia in August, 1964. She had been living near Capetown all her life, with her parents and three younger brothers. The "Louw" family had emigrated from Holland in the 1630's, and now Mercia was to spend several months in Holland with my parents near Amsterdam, while I was to look for my next job.
I had left Capetown on October 1, already, and drove our Opel station waggon to Johannesburg, visiting the Aughrabies Falls on the Orange River, Mafeking, Pretoria and the Transvaal, the Kruger Park and Mocambique as well as Swaziland. On October 8, just a week later, I reached Joburg Airport early in the evening to pick up Mercia and Bennie (and Frits, a Dutch friend who had bought our car and would drive it back to Capetown) while we spent a couple of days with Aunt "Dimples", Uncle Hendrik and their daughters Annette and Hermien in a suburb of Johannesburg.

To set the stage correctly, this was in the early 1960's, and Mercia had spent all her life as a privileged white ("Boer","Afrikaander", or "European" )- while the majority of Blacks and Coloreds[mixed white and black, as well as Indians and Chinese (since Japanese were termed "honorary whites")] had been subject to the rigid "Apartheid" Laws.

These discriminatory laws had been instituted in the late 1940's and were made well-known throughout the World by Hendrik Verwoerd, who immigrated from Amsterdam in 1904 at the age of two and who had become the President of South Africa in 1958 a few years before the white majority (mainly Boers) declared their independence of the Commonwealth, in 1961. Originally, the British had beaten the Boers in the infamous Second Boer War, 189-1902. It were these very "Boer Wars" which had antagonized the Dutch and I vividly recall how my grandfather, teacher of the English language in Amsterdam, still hated the English in the early 1940's because of that conflict.

So Mercia's mindset was that of a young "European" girl, even though she had never seen Europe, and black and colored people were living in an entirely different world. If they were servants who were not living in attached servant's quarters, the white husbands picked them up in the morning and dropped them off at night - at which time they had to take their wives along as chaperones to prevent the dangerous temptation of miscegenation. Of course, most European mistresses were friendly to their servants but if they did not behave as expected, they could easily be fired and replaced. The situation was probably much like that in the American South a hundred or more years ago, except it was not called slavery or indenture, just "apartheid" = separateness.
Having spent the year before I came to South Africa in the Hawaiian Islands, I was keenly aware of racial differences variations and their consequences - and how these were "solved" differently by various contemporaries. Now and here, on our exploration vessel, "Rockeater", which had been converted in California in 1963, we had had to install (in Capetown, "post facto") a separate "hotel" space on the stern to accommodate the American engineers and geologists, while the Black and Colored ship's crew and drillers each had to be put in their own separate quarters in the forecastle . Of course, we worked together "normally".
Also, on the desert coast beaches of South West Africa, I had been embarrassed at first when the Consolidated Diamond Mines manager had given us a dozen or so Ovambo workers every day to do the heavy work, but invariably they were friendly, slow, helpful and happy with their separate accommodations because at the end of their 18 months contract to would return to Ovamboland wealthy enough to buy at least one wife and live as long at their own pace till they "needed" to go for another term - if ever. In the meantime, they delighted in calling me "basie", Bossman. Sometimes I vainly searched my conscience for complicity or guilt of association, so maybe that was the reason why I intended to show my new wife a new and different life. For a start, I had carefully picked a schedule of several stops on the way to Holland, landing on a dozen of airports but staying overnight in five locations: Angola, Leopoldville, Ibadan, Casa Blanca and Sevilla. To explain: I had been told in confidence by my KLM friend that one could arrange one's bookings and reservations in such a way that, if you arrived too late for an ongoing connection of the same day, the Airline was to put you in a hotel and pay for your meals till the first available connection ...he also advised not to carry any excess luggage, so between the three of us we had exactly 40 kgs or 88 pounds.)
Unfortunately, the man in front of me in line for the Joburg Exchange (haha) had bought all available escudoes, so I had to change some of my S.A. Rands for Pounds Sterling - a pity, since escudos in S.A. go for 55 per Rand, while the rate in Luanda was 40 per Rand. (one Rand was about US $ 1.40 at that time, in contrast to the present (2007) rate of 1 Rand = US$ 0.14)

So we were on a large (space for more than 100 passengers) Boeing on the way to Luanda, Angola with just a dozen passengers,thus getting excellent service for our little Bennie. He reciprocated by grabbing the beautiful long hair of a smiling air hostess and refusing to let go for the longest time - crying out loud for joy all the time. She ("Joy?") then "banned him" to a small hammock hanging in front of us.
After a three hour flight, we saw the flat Angolan coast and the harbor of Luanda. We could not escape to have to buy a visa (3.12.6 Pounds Sterling) and then were bussed to a posh hotel where we were given an airconditioned suit which would have cost 450 escudos if ...
Anyhow, this was the first time Mercia saw traffic on the right side of the road and a brotherly mix of Portuguese and natives and probably also AC.

Luanda Airphoto of 2003

After bathing and cleaning up the baby, we were too late for shopping (Shops closed in those days) but enjoyed the Esplanade. We had dinner in a nightclub with fine fish and two bottles of wine. Again, a new experience, one hour difference in time, so we got up too early the next morning. While Benny and Mercia still slept, I took a nice walk along the Bay, saw all kinds of colorful scenes, fish and birds and then we had a fine breakfast including papayas. I went to a car rental place where we could speak French and hired a Setta(?), then picked up M and B and took them to the center of town where we bought her a swimming suit. We drove along the coast, visited the end of a spit and had an excellent and cheap outdoor lunch of fried shrimps, mussels, steak and beer. Someone told me that Angola had been Dutch for seven years (1641-8) so probably that is why I was so attracted to the place. After changing in the car and swimming in the ocean, I dropped by the University while M and B wanted to stay at the beach. I visited the geology department, which offered Petrology and Photogeology and was eager to add marine geology. They boasted an excellent Ward's mineral collection and I was shown around and introduced by a charming young dark eyed female professor, so I only got back to the beach by 4 pm, when I saw a very white Mercia in splendid swimming suit sitting next to a white baby and a nearby (unseen? in S.A. beaches were racially separated) giant pitch black negro. (I think I took a photograph but probably on my 3 D camera, so it is kind of lost) By now we could not find any dress for Mercia to buy and to add insult to injury, a mixed race shopping assistant referred to M as " a giant". So we took the car back and were dropped off at the hotel just in time for the bus back to the airport and our next destination, the (Democratie) Republic of the Congo or was it Zaire?

At the airport, we bought sandwiches for my remaining change, after which we embarked for a very short flight to Leopoldsville (now Kinshasa) during which we were served . . . sandwiches. We had to wait in a hot bus for a long time, after which the long ride in the dark was nice and cool but dangerous. We were taken to the prestigious Memling Palace Hotel. Following a brief beer and chat with a Dutch tobacco planter I joined M and B in their ablutions, then we slept like logs!
The Memling Hotel, 1960,
first of the SABENA hotels

The next morning, I woke up very early, washed Bennie's diapers and played with him. Like last night, we had to borrow a pan and search for sterilized milk, and secure an iron for M's dress. We enjoyed a good breakfast and M commented on the fact that the waiter was white (a Belgian) and the customers black - and in perfect coasts and ties. We tourists walked to the Bank, where after a long wait we were offered the official rate of 150francs=US$1; when I asked indignantly for the European manager, he quietly referred me to nearby chique "African Curios", a shop giving 350 frs per dollar. We bought some souvenirs and changed some TC's. We bought some more souvs at a market opposite PANAM, where one could bargain (and still get ivory) Back at the Hotel, we received a coupon for 3,000 francs for lunch and I started ordering a dozen delicious snails, which I washed down with two bottles of Primus Beer. M had steak in wine and coupe Hawaiien, but then I had to go around again trying to find safe milk for little Ben - at which time I recalled the (lost?) practice of breastfeeding - how convenient!
While M and Benny rested, I walked a long way to the brown and wide Congo river and even sat down and pondered of its raw history. It ran fast, carried lots of vegetation and I saw the unique situation of another capital city situated right across the river: Brazzaville!
By 4 pm, I was back in the hotel, gave Bennie his first swimming lesson in a large bathtub and helped M packing. On the PANAM bus back to the airport I met again an Israeli guy I had seen on the market: Achassi, who knew my SIO class mates and friends Golik and Almagor. It was hot, we had to wait for an hour, and Benny was crying even larger volumes of tears than I produced sweat. M kept her cool and eventually we flew off to Nigeria, our third stop!
On the plane to Lagos, I was sitting next to a Belgian jeweler, Maurice Lasoon from Blankenberge. who had started business with a capital of Nf 700 in 1951 and now owned 7 shops in Leopoldville and several elsewhere, as well as 2 factories. He travels back and forth and is only home some three days a month. He told me that the official Congo diamond output was around 10 million francs per month and illegal diamonds at least 20% of that amount. On this plane, there were several diamond smugglers. Tips on diamond smugglers to the police are awarded 25,000 francs. Lots of illegal trade goes through Brazaville, where the Chinese communists have a 250 staff Embassy. Nowhere else in the World can one make as much money as in the Congo towns.

In Lagos we had few problems at customs and immigration; there was a telephone message for us from my KLM friend Rudy who had arranged accommodations for us and promised to pick us up the ext morning in Ibadan. Armed soldiers were stationed all around the airport, possibly to enforce a curfew in connection with a threatened coup d'etat. We walked through sportsfields to our hotelroom # 8 and to the 24 hour "Hungryman" Restaurant for milk and biscuits. By 11 p.m. we took a cold shower and went to bed.
At 05:15 on Friday, October 15, 1965 we woke up in a panic, thinking that "they" had forgotten to pick us up. We enjoyed an excellent breakfast, left some of our luggage at the KLM office and embarked at 07:40 for the half hour flight to Ibadan. All this time a beautiful woman, wife of an ambassador, kept admiring little Bennie. In Ibadan we were welcomed by Rudy, his wife Irene, and their baby son Ralph. In two cars we proceeded to their large bungalow full of ethnic treasures of Indonesia and Thailand. Rudy had been my roommate in Bangkok in 1956/7, so this was a very pleasant reunion. Their hospitality was proverbial, and Mercia got along fine with Irene, a 'full-blood' Dutch girl. Rudy was the KLM Station Manager and had an Indonesian mother - thus fitted in the S.A. category of "Coloured."
(NOTE : Allegedly, the Dutch were not discriminating; in fact, Rudy spent the succeeding decades abroad as KLM station manager throughout the World, Thailand, Philippines, Egypt, Bahrain, Nigeria and Taiwan but never got a top job in Holland. He died in Holland in 2006 and I appreciated that he had been awarded the Order of Oranje Nassau - he was on of my two best friends, both former roommates from Bangkok)
Rudy's attentiveness did put Mercia at ease, and when we left her sympathy for Rudy was as large as my own. Their son Ralph was about the same age as Benny but felt much more flexible and lighter. He had been born without an anus and KLM had arranged for him to be operated by a doctor in Morgantown, West Virginia.
(NOTE: Apparently everything was fixed properly and Ralph went on to school and life in ...West Virginia, where we attended his wedding about a dozen years ago!)

While M and little B slept, Rudy took me into town to visit the KLM Office and Ibadan University, an unbelievably large and modern structure funded o.a. by Ford, Unilever and Shell. We noticed the many small shops and eating places along the busy highway which served not only large trucks but also Hausas walking distances as large as 800 miles. The skyscrapers in the background almost looked unreal. We went home for a fine "rijsttafel" lunch followed by a siesta. Next, another shopping tour for souvenirs in town - doffed up in Rudy's suit and shoes - before we went for a swim in the country club and dinner with cognac and cigars. It was a splendid day and we talked miles.
The next morning, Rudy dropped me off at the University where I met an American Geologist, Kevin Burke and several other ex-patriate European lecturers. They were very interested in my experiences with raised and submerged terraces and coastal cliffs in S.W. Africa, and my research on coral growth in Hawaii - Kevin knew the famous Goreau in Jamaica.
(NOTE: Kevin is a giant of a man and geologist, too, and I met him repeatedly in the Caribbean in the 1980's and '90's)
It was a nice and relatively quiet morning, though outside dozens of students were rioting.
(NOTE: Googling for the University of Ibadan late night I came across this tongue in cheek official looking website . . .)
After another fine lunch and siesta, we packed away the souvenirs we had bought and the presents Irene gave us, dresses, cans of baby milk, biscuits. Then the sad goodbyes to lovely Irene and Ralph. Around 3 pm, Rudy came back from office and took us by car to Dakar, where he had called the Peace Corps Hostel to make reservations for us and himself and driver. It was a fine ride, trying to avoid the tens of goats scooting around the traffic jams, then through large jungle areas and crowded villages. We arrived at the lagoons of Lagos around 6 p.m, dropped by KLM to pick up my left luggage, and searched for the Peace Corps place. I was a bit worried about the anticipated hostile attitude of Peace Corps towards 'apartheid' and warned Mercia about it. After check-in, Rudy took us to a fine Lebanese restaurant in town, and later that evening we joined the Peace Corps people at their beer and burned meat party without getting into any political arguments. It was very noisy, however, on the porch in front of our room - as late as the early morning, when the Muslim call for prayer resounded nearby. So we did not get much sleep, had an early breakfast with our hero Rudy who then hurried off to celebrate Irene's birthday - this Saturday October 17!