We entered Bangladesh airspace on New Year’s day of 1980 for a four-year World Bank posting assignment, with son David (4 1/2) and daughter Samantha ( 2 1/2). From the air, the territory looked like water all over. The Biman Airways pilot came from his cockpit in his white robe, kneeled down, and bowed toward Mecca for his morning prayer. We hoped the first officer would keep the shaking aircraft steady.
Flying over, we saw rice field after rice field and more water.
The outskirts of Dhaka looked like an extensive garden. But when we landed, all hell broke loose: hordes of Bangladeshi young men offering their services. Our first experience with an overpopulated country where everybody is fighting for a dime (or Taka, the Bangladeshi money). Fortunately, World Bank staff had come to receive us and guide us through diplomatic immigration while our suitcases were loaded on a huge heap outside on an uncovered platform (nowadays that has all been substantially modernized!).
We were put up in
At night, with the full moon, the backyard was a dream come true for a Dutchman grown up amidst oaks and beeches. For Joy, hailing from Caribbean Guyana, it just felt like home.
During weekends, especially in December when the weather was dry with warm subtropical temperatures during the day, cool at night, the yard was a wonderful place for our kids and their many friends to have party fun. Below, Joy cutting another birthday cake, with head servant Paul looking on.
The kids enjoyed themselves. Our children grew up in a ‘multicultural’ environment.
Dave and Sam on the left, with their Montessori teacher Mrs. De Souza in the background and top right, Dave’s math teacher.
Striking features of Bangladesh were its ships on the broad rivers!
My portfolio concerned industry, energy,
We traveled monthly with a group of local donor representatives to Ashuganj in a diesel-powered train through the flat land covered with rice fields and small rural villages to supervise construction progress and solve project issues. Below is a picture taken from the train window, representative of the Bangladeshi flat land scenery.
Next came a natural gas drilling project (needed to feed the fertilizer company), a very
Because of the distances and weak road connections, many of my energy trips needed to be carried out by helicopter, which also provided a thrilling opportunity to see the country from the air.
I also followed American entrepreneurs involved in oil production and visited their projects. See below one of the rigs I visited.
Below the proud Bangladeshi Energy officials, hoping for a break to help their poor and overpopulated country (100 million+ at the time I was there, now grown to 160 million!, the country with the highest population density of the world. The majority is Muslim.) The fellow in the orange shirt was an American oil man.
Other field trips were carried out by road (with local office drivers, who were very good). There we met workers hacking bricks from clay, dried in the sun, and then pulverizing the bricks again for gravel, depending on the construction needs.
Two solutions: go back home or cross in a little boat, and continue with another vehicle waiting across the ditch, which we did and which landed us in a welcoming village with doe-eyed beauties.
They smiled at us when we left, after having handed them a few hundred Takas for posing on the picture.
After four years and many adventures, our two kids had grown up nicely. Here they are, in our backyard, in front of the poinsettia, with bikes we got for them on our R&R trips to Bangkok.
And farewell it is, to two of our closest friends, the two of us (Joy extreme left, me extreme right) with Jim Curry, Deputy Chancellor of the Canadian Embassy and his wife, Cynthia, who also hailed from Guyana!
Next: our travels to India.
This is a picture of Katoucha Niane, a model from Senegal, showing the eccentric beauty of African women. After living in Mali and Senegal, she moved to France where she started modeling and became well-known. She lived in a houseboat on the Seine in Paris and accidentally drowned in 2008 at the age of 48. She led a movement against the cruel custom of female circumcision in Africa, which is still practiced in African countries, especially in rural areas.
On my many travels in Cameroon in the early nineteen-nineties to review and improve the status of the transport network on behalf of the World Bank, I admired the 80-meters (260 feet) waterfall at Ekom-Nkam. Due to its steep fall, it reminded me of the Kaieteur Waterfall in Guyana (which is 120 meters deep and somewhat wider). It is a beautiful sight in the middle of the jungle because, as the Kaieteur Waterfall, its environment has remained natural.
Not far from there, we discovered a viaduct being built in the middle of the jungle for a road financed by the World Bank (!), where works had been abandoned because of faulty pillars and errors in the investigation of the thermal resistivity of the soil. A huge and shameful “white elephant” wasting millions. That was the point where I got very upset and recommended a totally new approach for a much more efficient transport sector management in Cameroon instead of the piecemeal, uncoordinated development projects. After much ado, it was accepted, though not without difficulty, by both the Government and the World Bank, and became the “Transport Sector Project,” (TSP), including the management of road, railway, shipping, and airline transport. Despite many setbacks due to bureaucratic resistance, it succeeded.
The pictures below were collected by Mr. Jean-Bernard Sindeu, then Chief of the Transport Sector Project Unit in the Ministry of Transport, who directed the critical local steps to move the TSP ahead.
On the road with the Minister of Transport, H.E. Issa Tchiroma Bakari (fourth from left, in yellow robe), a remarkably good man and supporter of the “TSP”. He is now Minister of Communications. The gentleman with the beard, Frenchman Jacques Bret (third from right), was the lead engineer-consultant on my team and a great friend.
Traveling…the many thousands of kilometers, spotting the bad sections and status of often absent road maintenance.
Conferencing stop with the Minister
What happens when roads are not maintained regularly, and trucks are overloaded. This truck driver did not survive.
Road maintenance/rehabilitation underway.
Rural women using the roads on foot to market their goods: we developed built-in separate project components to facilitate marketing and road safety for women.
A stop at a local market where you find amazing things for sale and lots of fresh fruits.
At the side of the road, you see a small class of children being taught or perhaps it was a ‘daycare center.’ Up front a curious young boy.
Our caravan stops at a road crossing with another market. A child wanders on the roadway. Children often roam the streets in villages but more so in cities. The poor fate of lost children in African cities is very problematic. Les enfants perdus or the street children (orphaned due to religious wars, sheer poverty, and carelessness of parents) deserves a separate blog. See https://johnschwartzauthor.com/blog.
A sector-wide project with five main components (roads, railway, Douala port, shipping and Cameroun air) takes many studies and negotiations to prepare. We often had more than 100 Cameroonian staff attending in the room and endured long days of arduous talks and tiring field trips. But in the end, it paid off.
All beginning is difficult.
Trying to make the point…
Interim talks with Mr. Jean-Bernard Sindeu, the Chief of the Transport Sector Unit, to bridge disagreements. Jean-Bernard became later Minister of Energy and Water Resources and signed some important agreements for Cameroon. Having identified Jean-Bernard in the early stages of the TSP as a capable Cameroonian coworker to become the Unit’s chief, and seeing him rise to the rank of minister was a nice example of “capacity building.”
Dr. Amadou Boubacar Cissé, who in his younger years was already a Director General of Public Works in Niger before joining the World Bank, ably advocated the importance of a coherent development approach of Cameroon’s road network. Amadou became later Vice President in charge of Operations of the Islamic Development Bank in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, where I worked with him as well before he returned to Niger to assume the function of Prime Minister.
Another view of beautiful Cameroon and the topographical challenges of its road network. Most of Cameroon speaks French (official language of ‘ Cameroun’) but in the eastern part (along the border with Nigeria) English is spoken, all the ‘fault’ of colonial times when France and Brittain dominated Africa.
There are many more stories regarding the railway rehabilitation, the rationalization of port management and shipping, and fights (with Air France, a minority shareholder) over money-losing Camair, but the above seems enough to give an idea of how we fared in Cameroon. The project came to fruition in 1996, the year I retired from the World Bank.
Woman in Kenya
Sorry that ENHANTÉ had to be away for a while due to a surgery in the house, but we are back alive and kicking with more of Africa. Why? Because it’s so big and so intensely fascinating.
Let’s start with that EQUATOR! Learning geography in secondary school, I never dreamt of experiencing being at the Equator. A picture of my dad drew my curiosity even more.
This picture was taken near Pekanbaru on Sumatra. Dad was selling his world’s best Van Vollenhoven’s Beer in what then was the Dutch Indies, now Indonesia.
I followed suit at an “Equator” boot set up in Burundi, reportedly to commemorate the meeting of Stanley and Livingstone in 1871 about ten miles south of Bujumbura.
Côte d’Ivoire (Ivory Coast)
I worked on Côte d’Ivoire from 1985 to 1987, definitely one of the most intriguing periods in my World Bank life. The country was led by Président Houphouët-Boigny (nicknamed “Le Vieux”), a remarkable personality. In the early nineteen-eighties, he designated Yamoussoukro as the capital of Côte d’Ivoire, instead of Abidjan. Yamoussoukro was his birthplace. The village was previously called N’Gokro and renamed after Queen Yamousssou who was in charge of N’Gokro at the time of the French colonization. ‘Kro’ means ‘village’ in the local language.
Houphouët was assisted by a French “Technical Assistant” not less illustrious than him: Antoine Cesareo, a gifted and powerful civil engineer, born in Tunisia, who became the Director of the General Directorate of Large Works, and with whom we dealt in all our transport and urban works projects financed by the World Bank. He was, among others, the supervisor for the construction of the Basilica of The Notre Dame in Yamoussoukro, a prime project undertaken by Houphouët. It is reportedly larger than the St. Peter in Rome (which caused friction with the Pope) and cost a fortune that superseded by far the Ivoirian budget. The cost became a bone of contention with the donor community, in particular the IMF and the World Bank, but if it had not been for Cesareo, it might have cost even more. I only saw the leveled construction site (looked like two football fields). It was completed in 1995. It has a capacity for 18,000 followers, but as a rule, less than 1,000 attend the mass on Sundays.
photo credit: Felix Krohn
Another interesting feature of Yamoussoukro was Houphouët’s palace. The whole family lived there. Reportedly he himself lived modestly only in a small part of the building.
More interesting were the crocodiles that populated the groove along the palace. They were a gift from the President of Mali (Côte d’Ivoire has no crocodiles) and were fed fresh meat every day. Once a gardener got too close, got caught and was devoured.
I took this picture in 1985 when Antoine Cesareo accompanied us to Yamoussoukro.
Yamoussoukro housed a huge hotel – also handled by Cesareo – and several other buildings, among others an engineering institute, all generated with the overview of Cesareo’s “Grands Travaux.”
Below a picture of the formidable Cesareo, signing off on an urban project we had negotiated with him and his staff (all French) in 1986. The great Cesareo oversaw personally most of the civil works, roads and other infrastructures in Côte d’Ivoire and became the major cost cutter and anti-corruption activist.
The amusing aspect – for me as a Dutchman – was that Houphouët insisted on French technical assistance helping him govern Côte d’Ivoire as he had no confidence in his African civil servants. French being the French – including the World Bank staff on my teams – frequently had loud arguments among each other, defending the service they were assigned to, the African staff just looking on, stone-faced. Even while negotiating in Washington – and Cesareo was a shrewd and tough negotiator – I had to calm down the French ‘shouting matches.’
I am signing off on our negotiating results on an urban development project with my good friend François Amiot looking on.
These particular negotiations lasted a whole week till late in the evenings. The last evening, while we were battling the final conditions of the agreement at 10 PM, it had kept snowing heavily over the Washington D.C. area. We didn’t know, but many commuters traveling home got stuck on the highways and had to abandon their vehicles. It was complete chaos. When we finished, our Ivorian guests could not find a taxi. Cesareo and his staff had to walk to their hotel in the deep snow. Cesareo on his black pumps! He was not amused, as we heard. I remember driving home that night to Alexandria on a deserted 395, lined with hundreds of abandoned cars.
Left, a glimpse of Hotel Ivoire (Intercontinental) in Abidjan Cocody where I often stayed. The next three pictures show the Golf Hotel located at the Abidjan Lagune. From its beach, I could watch the contours of Abidjan where I had worked during the day (shown below). When I stayed there in 2001 on a consulting assignment with the African Development Bank, Gbagbo overthrew President Konan Bedié who, in the early nineties, had been selected by Houphouët to succeed him (over Wattahara, who had been running the Government during Houphouët’s last days). I had to ‘evacuate’ hotel Golf in haste – with dead bodies in the streets – and could just catch the last Air France before the airport was closed. Gbagbo threw the Ivory Coast into utmost disarray for ten years until Wattahara (a former IMF Director) was finally elected to put Ivory Coast back on its feet.
Much of what you see above are state-of-the-art works overseen by Cesareo.
Above a few pictures of Côte d’Ivoire’s lovely beaches where one could spend the weekends, eat the best lobsters freshly picked from the sea, and watch Ivoirian parties with fanciful ladies dancing the booty.
Next time Cameroon
“Out of Africa” 2. Burundi.
Like Rwanda, Burundi is a small but heavy populated country inhabited by two tribes, the Hutu and the Tutsi. In Rwanda, the Hutu majority killed off the ruling Tutsi minority in 1962 and governed the country until 1994. In 1972, the minority Tutsi regime in Burundi was challenged by a Hutu rebellion, which also had genocidal proportions, but the regime held power, although it was disrupted by several coups afterward. When I joined the World Bank in 1972, I was tasked to develop the Bank’s non-existing lending program in both countries and we had succeeded relatively well when I changed jobs in 1979. In 1994, the tribal conflicts resumed in Rwanda when Tutsi refugees from Uganda took power again after a horrific genocide in which up to a million people lost their lives. It started when the Rwandese president’s plane in which also traveled the Burundi President was shot down while landing at Kigali airport. Everything we had achieved was destroyed in Rwanda’s civil war. In Burundi, it was not much better. Rwanda stabilized in 2003, but Burundi remained plagued by repeated rebellions. Most horrific was the rebel’s and the Burundi army’s use of children between the ages of 10-16 in direct combat. The UN and the African Union had to intervene. Working on most of Africa was tough.
This picture shows me with the driver of the Peugeot 404 at the border post between Rwanda and Burundi in 1975. My Director, whom I accompanied on this trip took the picture.
The old colonial Paguidas Hotel where I stayed. Greek-owned. A Greek restaurant next to the hotel served fatty Greek dishes and meager chicken without meat. At night, ‘single male guests’ were surprised by knocking on their door, hearing a soft female voice saying, “c’est moi.” I suspected they were led to our rooms by the receptionist, who probably got a cut if the ladies found a willing customer. Complaining did not help: hungry families needed to eat and jobs were scarce. Later, they built a modern Meridien Hotel across. But the ‘nightly custom’ of whispers and knocks remained.
First visit of a World Bank Vice President (leaning over on the picture) to Burundi, which I had arranged to ‘put Burundi on the map.’ It succeeded: he approved proceeding with the proposed strategy and project operations. I am the one with the camera hanging from my arm. We were wearing sweaters as the temperature in Burundi (800 meters above sea-level) can be pretty cool. The picture was taken by someone who did not have color film in his camera. We were watching a spectacular drum and dance group performance Burundi was famous for.
I caught one of these fabulous dancers up in the air. Despite all fighting, tribal hatred and misery, the Burundi people showed a remarkable resilience.
Lake Tanganyika near Bujumbura town. Fishermen, mostly Hutus or Twa, a pygmy minority tribe, gathering on shore near their boats to fish sardines, which they dry onshore and sell at the market. A protein-rich fish Barundi people enjoy. At night they use torches to attract the fish which offers a fascinating view of dancing lights seen from the top of the hills on the outskirts of Bujumbura town. Read about it in ‘The Tutsi Queen’ https://amzn.to/2Ny1Ll6. On Kindle, only 99cts.
Lake Tanganyika by day. Across is the Democratic Republic of Congo, the Kivu area, from which Hutu rebels invaded Burundi to unseat the Tutsi regime. The lake is inhabited by hippos and crocodiles. Expats used it for sailing. An expat club was located at the lake, not far from Bujumbura airport. Once, a lady swimmer was attacked by a hippo in the water near the club, where people often took a swim. She lost half her bottom but survived. Coming back at night in my (borrowed!) car from the airport, where I had said farewell to a friend, I almost ran into a hippo crossing the small road. A weird sight seeing such a huge animal emerging from the grass on the right and slouching to the other side. Remarkably, it did not seem bothered by my headlights and just strolled on and disappeared. Had I run into the huge colossus, it would have been certain death.
CENTRAL AFRICAN REPUBLIC
I don’t know if some still remember Emperor Bokassa. He possessed three Boeings 707 while the country was dead poor. McNamara, then President of the World Bank, reportedly told him he was mismanaging his country but only achieved that Bokassa got rid of one Boeing. I set foot in this place in 1987, under a new regime but still ruled like a dictatorship. I managed to put a transport sector reform project together of $140 million in which many donors participated. The World Bank agreed to do so despite a major disagreement with the French Government that had committed to financing an earth road right through the Central African rainforest, the so-called ‘4th parallel road’. Construction eventually failed because unrest broke out and the Government toppled, once more. Our ‘TSP’ took off but implementation also suffered from government failure. Some pictures follow below.
The path of the 4th parallel road straight into the jungle. Pygmees and wildlife galore, including bush elephants. I found it an environmental disaster but the French Government – the former colonial power – won.
Supervising the 4th parallel road construction. The French engineer behind me found this job the dream of his life: constructing a road through a completely fresh terrain and on top of that a jungle. In the background a bulldozer hard at work, destroying beautiful tropical trees. But the precious wood got sold pretty good.
Trying to swing with the lianas of a tropical tree like Tarzan.
A waterfall near the forest.
Crossing the Oubangi River separating the Central African Republic from the Democratic Republic of the Congo. A favored escape route for bandits and overthrown rulers.
Next time: Côte d’Ivoire and Cameroon.
It did not dawn on me until I was at a Jesuit boarding school in Nijmegen, a city close to Germany and one of the centers of World War II fighting in The Netherlands. During the 1950s, a (strictly forbidden) girlfriend Marijke van Steen (probably happily married now with grandkids like me) took me on a bike ride to the Canadian War Cemetery at a small town called Groesbeek not far from where she lived. Having survived World War II as a child (from about 4 to 9 years old), I had intense and often graphic memories of those awful years of being occupied by Nazi Germany. I had seen aviators fighting in the sky, bombers dropping bombs, and German soldiers rounding up compatriots, including Jewish friends, and beating them up or shooting them in the street.
A downed British pilot once sought refuge in our house and disappeared again with the help of underground resistance fighters. I was 9 when we were finally liberated thanks to all those allied forces who fought their way through German armies, deadly fortresses of machine guns, powerful tanks, Junker fighter planes, Heinkel bombers and later the fierce Messerschmitts jetfighters.
While World War II memories remained lucent growing up, there is nothing more poignant to resuscitate those memories when you visit the warriors’ graves. Marijke showed me around.
Though she was a few years younger than I, she also remembered liberation in 1945. Yes, we were the lucky ones and could smile, like the people in the picture below.
Hand in hand we stood in front of all these white crosses while complete silence reigned around us in the Cemetery. Each white cross represented a scream in pain, a futile effort to fight death, a vain struggle to scramble to safety, grasping a twig before hurtling down a cliff or parachuting into a burning sea. Each white cross had comrades in battle, mortally wounded, or severely injured, alive perhaps but impaired for life.
Sitting together on a bench overlooking the extensive field of bright white crosses, we knew it was thanks to those brave youthful warriors we were still alive and could fall in love. When I was drafted into the army and crept through sand or waded through ponds with a rifle above my head, I remembered those who did this for real and made the ultimate sacrifice.
I am the guy with the broad smile in the middle, cleaning my rifle, all of us having great fun.
I was lucky as it did not happen to me, but for many American soldiers, it did, in Korea, Vietnam, Kuwait, Iraq, Afghanistan, the wider world. Arlington Cemetery, and the World War II memorial with its European and Asian theaters, are thoughtful places to realize how thankful we must be to those who shield us from harm and keep us safe. It is nice to say ‘peace through strength’, but we must not forget that that ‘strength’ means a lot of brave people, fellow humans, who are willing to pay the ultimate price when they have to, for us to keep enjoying our comfortable lives.