Paul Wilson

(Senegal 1962)

It was a hopeful time to be in Africa. A lot of countries had just won their independence and the general feeling was the future belonged to this vast continent of untapped resources.

During our Crossroads orientation in Washington in 1962, Crossroads founder James Robinson had arranged for the entire contingent to meet President Kennedy. The day before the scheduled meeting, White House staff called to cancel our meeting, saying unfortunately the President had other commitments. James Robinson blew up and phoned back with an earful for some White House staffer. It was along the lines of, “Tell the President we are expecting him to be in the Rose Garden. These young people are going to Africa to represent their country, so he had better keep his word.” And he did. I ended up shaking JFK’s hand along with 200 other Crossroaders. I remember thinking: this is a black American man who can make the American president dance. It was pretty impressive.

People didn’t travel as much in those days, and this was the first time I had been out of the country. When I found out I was assigned to go to Senegal I started reading as much as I could about the place. The country’s president at the time, Léopold Senghor, was a celebrated poet and thinker, so I immersed myself in his writing and tried to absorb it, and then off I went. I thought I had prepared myself but the reality on the ground and the reality I’d gleaned from my reading were totally different. When I got there I realized I hadn’t even scratched the surface. It was a lesson that I would return to throughout my life as a journalist. You can prepare and read and research all you want but there’s no substitute for being on the ground and experiencing something first hand.

It was a hopeful time to be in Africa. A lot of countries, including Senegal, had just won their independence and the general feeling was that the future belonged to this vast continent of untapped resources. Dakar was a huge, vibrant city with a centre that was very French, with lively African quarters. The big hit that summer, which you could hear everywhere in the streets, was Ray Charles’s “What’d I say.” The atmosphere was charged with an exciting sense of anticipation.

It was in Dakar I had my first exposure to radical student politics. The idea that university students could have political influence was something I had never experienced before. There sure as hell wasn’t anything going on like that at the University of Toronto in 1962.

We built a school from scratch in a town on the Atlantic coast, just south of the old capital, St. Louis, on the Niger River. We stayed in in spacious dormitories with the African students and spent a lot of time socializing with them, sharing our very different cultural experiences. I was surprised to find that many of them believed in magic. We would have these long conversations in French about into the night about the power of witch doctors.

I was also at the receiving end of some of the good things about American foreign policy. The American embassy in Dakar was constantly bringing in artists, writers, and musicians and we were invited to meet James Baldwin. I had already read Notes of a Native Son, which blew my socks off, and here he was, hanging out in Dakar with us!

Until then, I had never met or spent any time with Africans, nor African Americans for that matter, or so this was quite an eye-opening experience for me. Our group leader was a young black man from New York, Len Jeffries, a really bright fellow who ended up becoming a professor at New York University. He seemed laid back and easy going, but was surprisingly tough and radical about some things. I had never met anyone like that before.

After we returned to Canada, he invited a group of us to Harlem. He took us to Small’s Paradise, a huge music venue on 125th Street, where all the jazz greats have played. We saw The Blacks, by Jean Genet, an incredibly harsh and uncompromising look at race relations. Jeffries probably thought we’d be shocked, and we were.

Going to Africa changed my way of thinking about a lot of things. It also seems to have given me a taste for countries in the midst of political change who elect poets and playwrights to high office. It certainly gave me a deep sense of how complex the world is. I’m incredibly grateful for that.

Paul Wilson is a freelance writer, editor, radio producer and translator from Czech, in particular the works of Vaclav Havel. He has contributed essays, articles and reviews to many North American and European publications, including The New Yorker, The New York Review of Books, the Globe and Mail, The Toronto Star and the National Post and Toronto Life

 

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