On 28 January 1986, just off the east coast of Florida, the space shuttle, Challenger, disintegrated seventy three seconds after take-off, resulting in the deaths of the seven crew-members. At that moment, we were on an Egypt Air Boeing 737 somewhere over the Mediterranean Sea on our way, for the first time, to Ivory Coast, West Africa.
During 1985 there had been a string of airplane hijackings, and about eight weeks before our flight was due to leave for Ivory Coast, an Egypt Air jet was hijacked, and most of the passengers had been killed in a botched rescue attempt in Malta. Although a little anxious, we, nevertheless, decided to go ahead with our flight through Egypt. Despite the fact that it had doubled our journey time, we had chosen to fly with Egypt Air because it had recommended to us as the cheapest way to get to Ivory Coast.
We were travelling with three small children, including Kyle who was only six months old. The all-male crews were very helpful and after a long trip from London, we landed in Cairo just after dark. We carefully descended the airplane steps with the children and in the dim light of the airport apron the first person that we saw on the ground was an Egyptian soldier wearing what appeared to be a Second World War steel helmet. He was holding a Lee-Enfield rifle close to his chest and he looked like he had not shaved for a week.
We followed the other passengers into a large, noisy reception hall and we immediately began to experience some of the things that make travelling in Africa so interesting, or frustrating, depending on your attitude. After spending a long time retrieving our suitcases, we discovered that the hotel room and meals that we been promised were non-existent. The airline had no helpdesk in the Arrivals lounge, so we asked around to see if there was a place we could spend the night. We were eventually shown into a tiny room at the far end of the terminal that had two small, bumpy single beds, one of them just a thin mattress on a wooden box. There was a single light bulb hanging on a twisted wire from the ceiling. Having slept for only a couple of hours the previous night, we were all exhausted, but we made the best of our situation, and in spite of our spartan accommodation, we had a surprisingly good night’s sleep.
The following morning we went to the airport restaurant for breakfast. The prices were displayed in Egyptian Pounds, so we had no idea what the prices were in Sterling. We asked if they took British pounds, and the person behind the counter nodded, and with a big smile, said, “Oh, yes”. At least, I think that is what he said, because he spoke in Arabic, and at that time, I did not know a word of it! We selected a few basic items of food, just to keep the hunger away. When we got our bill, it was obvious we had been well and truly ripped off.
We had to sit in the departure terminal for a couple of hours until we could check in our baggage. Dozens of cats roamed freely around the terminal, licking crumbs from beneath the tables in the restaurant and searching for food in overflowing rubbish bins. It appeared, as in ancient Egypt, that cats were still sacred. Around noon we finally boarded our next plane and took off from Cairo on the final leg of our journey to Ivory Coast.
Our flight was scheduled to make two short stops in Nigeria before going on to Ivory Coast, so we settled ourselves for the long trip ahead. We flew low over the pyramids, and then in order to avoid Libyan airspace, we followed the River Nile for a couple of hundred miles south before heading west. It was fascinating to see the irrigated fields along both sides of the Nile, but just a mile or so from the water’s edge it quickly became barren and soon there was nothing but sand and desert as far as the eye could see.
We had a very comfortable trip to our first stop in Nigeria; the northern city of Kano. After disembarking a few passengers and gaining a few more for the next leg to Lagos, an announcement came over the loudspeaker system. We were informed, in Arabic and broken English, that there was a problem with the hydraulic system on the wings of the aircraft, and they were not quite sure if it could be fixed. After sitting for over three hours in the hot African sun, the inside of the airplane became extremely uncomfortable, but eventually the fault was repaired, and we were able to continue our journey towards Lagos and, we hoped, to Abidjan in Ivory Coast.
However, another problem arose. Someone informed the airport authorities in Ivory Coast that our flight had been cancelled, and the missionaries who had gone to meet us at the airport were left in a quandary about what to do.
After a brief stop in Lagos in southern Nigeria, and a change of crew, we took off again and finally arrived at Abidjan airport in Ivory Coast just around midnight, several hours late. After gathering together our suitcases, we made our way through customs and immigration areas and came out into the main Arrivals hall. As soon as we passed through the exit doors, we came upon a crowd of passengers who were shouting and pushing and shoving, all trying to grab one of the few taxis left at the airport. We stood off to one side and waited until things quietened down a little, hoping to catch a glimpse of the missionaries who had come to meet us. The terminal soon emptied, but there was no one there to pick us up. The folks who had come for us had gone home because they had been told that our flight would probably arrive the next day.
Having delivered their passengers to the city, some taxis started arriving back at the airport. With our limited French we managed to find a taxi driver who spoke a little English and who said he knew the location of the Mission Evangelique in the city. So we hired two rickety taxis, and with windows wide open, we set off into the balmy African night. As we crossed the bridge from the airport over the lagoon to the centre of Abidjan, we marvelled at the skyline, replete with fifteen and twenty-story buildings bedecked on top with huge Nissan and Coca Cola neon signs. Abidjan looked a very modern city, boasting the only ice rink in West Africa!
When we arrived at our destination, we discovered that the taxis had, in fact, brought us to the Mission Catholique. The taxi drivers had made a guess, but got it wrong. By this time, it was 1:30am. We returned to the airport, where we spent the remainder of the night in the main entrance hall. We tried to make a bed with the suitcases for the children to sleep on. One of the workers at the airport who noticed our predicament took pity on us. He brought over some cardboard boxes with Johnnie Walker Whiskey blazoned on the side and laid them out flat so that the children could sleep more comfortably. Marina and I did not sleep very well that night!
The next morning, with the help of some WEC missionaries, we were able to make contact with our mission guest home. Raymond and Marie Parker, NTM missionaries working in Abidjan, immediately came to rescue us. They were horrified that we had spent the night at the airport, and they were very apologetic, but it was not their fault in the least. We spent a couple of very relaxing days with them at the mission guest house, and they showed us some of the interesting sights in Abidjan, including our first African market. It has to be seen to be believed.
We registered at the British Embassy, and then travelled 150 miles north by bus to Yamoussoukro, the capital of Ivory Coast, where the New Tribes Mission centre was located, to begin our French study and orientation to West African culture.
(Extract from Under the Mango Tree)