My bureaucratic career peaked more than 40 years ago. I had joined the U.S. civil service in 1961 just after getting my master’s degree in political science from Claremont Graduate University. I went to work in Washington for the U.S. Agency for International Development. In 1965 just after my wife Doris graduated from Howard University I switched to the U.S. foreign service and accepting a posting to Nairobi, Kenya.
Three years later the honchos in Washington decided that for the good of the service I would be the next AID Affairs Officer in Malawi, a land-locked country in Southern Africa that had formerly been known as Nyassaland. I didn’t want to go because I loved working and living in Nairobi so much, although I realized that a posting to Malawi was a lot better than luck than most of us were getting. Most of us had to go to South Vietnam.
The AID Affairs Officer was the head of a small American aid mission. My boss when I was in Malawi was back in Washington. He was R. Peter Straus, AID’s Assistant Administrator for Africa, who gained fame a few years later as Monica Lewinsky’s stepfather. I met with him only once, when he carefully told be to ignore what the American Ambassador, Marshall P. Jones, told me to do.
While cables were flying back and forth between Nairobi and Washington, my wife and I made urgent preparations to leave immediately as instructed. My boss in Nairobi was the best I had in my entire career and he fought has hard as he could, but to no avail.
My wife and left for the mandatory home leave 11 days after my initial orders arrived. After a couple of months stateside, we flew back to Nairobi, got into the Ford Cortina that we had left there, and drove 1,000 miles to our new home in Zomba, Malawi. We got there just in time for my predecessor to introduce me to Hastings Kamuzu Banda, the dictator of Malawi until 1994. My predecessor was posted back to Washington, and he needed to get there in time for his children to start school at the beginning of the school year.
After my initial audience with the dictator, I made sure to stay as far away from him as possible. While I loved Malawi and its people, I never had any respect for Banda. He had everything, the people nothing. Malawi is one of the poorest countries in the world and remains by some measures the poorest in Africa.
However, I couldn’t avoid Ambassador Jones. Especially after I was ordered to move my office and home from Zomba, which was then the capital of the country, to Blantyre, the only city worth the name and where the American Embassy was located.
I was a part of the so-called “Country Team,” which included the heads of all the U.S. government agencies operating in the country. One day I set my camera on self-timer and took this shot of us:
Members of the country team included representatives of all the U.S. government agencies operating there, including the U.S. Army, the U.S. Information Agency, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and others. I am the only one with a beard.
The Ambassador also asked the American members of his small staff to sit in. Sitting on the couch closest to the window is the man who many years later became the most famous.
This was the first assignment for L. Paul Bremmer III. His last, devastating assignment came in 2003 when he became simultaneously an ambassador and essentially the dictator of Iraq. One of his first acts there was to dissolve the entire former Iraqi army, putting 400,000 former Iraqi soldiers out of work. Their unemployment sparked the continuing terrorism.
The one man missing from the Country Team photo was my best friend in Malawi, Pierre Shostal. He later became the U.S. consul general in Hamburg and Frankfurt and director of the State Department’s Office of Central European Affairs. Pierre and his wife Chantal often spent weekends together with me and my wife Doris at the embassy’s beach cottage right on the shore of Lake Malawi. Pierre and Chantal adopted a cute little Malawian girl named Pascale:
Lake Malawi is the world’s eighth largest lake. When I lived in Malawi, no roads reached many villages. They were accessible only from the lake.
So I chartered a ship to visit those villages. Doris, a Peace Corps volunteer, who served as our interpreter, and I visited every village up and down the 350-mile-long lake. I wanted to meet the people and make the American aid presence felt throughout the country.
Under my direction, the American foreign aid program worked largely with the Peace Corps to build farm-to-market roads, schools, and health clinics. My agency provided the supplies, the Peace Corps provided the guidance, and the villagers provided the labor.
During the 13 months that I directed the American aid program in Malawi I was on the road most of the time. With one exception I managed to get to every village in the country that had more than 250 people.
Every place we went the villagers held welcoming ceremonies for us, like this one:
This village welcomed us with a sign that I will never forget: “God Bless USAID.” I still do like to believe that our aid was a blessing for the people of Malawi.
They treated me with more respect than I ever received before or later. It wasn’t anything personal, of course, but rather because I was mister moneybags. I remember once when we came to a stream and four men — all much smaller than me — carried me across.
One of the most memorable meals of my long life was at a village on the shores of the lake. Those poor people had little protein in their diet, but they knew how important it was. They did have lake flies that they called nkungu flies. Born deep in the lake, the flies swarm up in immense clouds to mate. The villagers then grabbed them with nets and served them fried, baked, and boiled for variety. While they didn’t taste bad at all, the more sophisticated Malawians who accompanied me on that trip disdained them.
Finally, it came time for me to leave. Again, I was lucky that the powers-that-be didn’t send me to Vietnam. But instead they sent me to the next worst posting, Washington. It was quite a come down to be one of millions of bureaucrats, and soon I had enough and started a new life out West.