The tour of Africa was perhaps the most absurd venture that I ever undertook on behalf of Oscar Wilde Enterprises. It stemmed, like many an idea, from a conversation over a bottle of wine.
Sitting in a garden on a sunny afternoon, a friend called Martin suggested that, as he had a house in Zimbabwe, he might be able to arrange for a performance in the capital, Harare. At first it seemed an extravagant excursion, leaving north London to perform for an hour in the middle of a continent about which I knew nothing and which did not have the healthiest of reputations. As we finished the second bottle, it seemed to make perfect sense. All we needed to do was to drum up some other shows to make the trip worthwhile.
Martin gave me a few African telephone contacts that might be of use, plus a suggestion that, as Ethiopian Airlines had a reputation for being cheap, why not stop off in Addis Ababa on the way. Everything having been sorted by the time the third bottle was finished, Martin left for his London hotel. All that remained to work out were the details.
The next three weeks were spent phoning strangers to find and fix venues through Africa. It was a frustrating experience: after a week of debate, Cape Town dropped out; then the renowned Civic Theatre in Johannesburg declared that its programme was too busy; then the Victoria Falls Hotel wasn’t interested; and so on. One lady in Durban declared that she did organise English cultural events but only if I was a Morris Dancing troupe.
Eventually, apart from the promised Harare venue, I managed to get an offer of a week at the ‘Theatre on the Square’ in Johannesburg, and three nights somewhere in Bulawayo.
Picking up on Martin’s suggestion, I contacted the address of a man called Hailu whom Martin had met in a bar in Ethiopia. I received a return letter welcoming the idea, declaring that Hailu could indeed arrange the venue and the show, but that I would have to send him £100 by Western Union to cover publicity, etc. Swallowing hard and trusting to blind faith, I sent him the money.
This was even more of a wrench than usual as my finances at the time were dire: after paying the airfare, I had £500 to my name and no chance of further income. I would have to wing it across Africa and hope.
I incurred another expense with the medical preparations – inoculations for cholera, hepatitis A, typhoid, tetanus and, according to the clinic the most important of all, yellow fever. I was told that I would have to carry proof of the yellow fever jab at all times as the authorities were insistent about it. Added to this was the cost of the new anti-malarial Larium pills – an outrageous £29 for ten tablets. I left the surgery with an armful of exotic diseases.
One week before departure I received an enigmatic ansa-phone message from Addis Ababa. “Your £100 has been stolen but do not worry. The postman is in prison.”
[Written from the original notes taken in Africa]
ETHIOPIA – August 1995
1995 August: Sunday
6 15pm: Heathrow Airport, Terminal Three. As I waited at the check-in I looked at my luggage. The entire equipment for travelling and performing a show through three countries consisted of one suitcase, one blue zip-up bag, and one shoulder bag. No credit cards, or indeed credit, (just the £500 inserted into my shirt collar lapels – the safest hiding place I know).
I began to feel a twinge of apprehension. I was touring a show across a totally strange continent, knowing only one person there, and with no idea what conditions were like even as a visitor, let alone a theatre performer. Also, there was no official backing, or sanction, or even knowledge of the venture. No support whatsoever. If anything went wrong at any point, I was dead meat.
Then I began to get a grip again. In the end, all I had to worry about were robbery, disease, and theatre critics.
1995 August: Monday
6am: Hovering above Bole Airport, Addis Ababa, I looked out of the window down to a sea of clouds. The plane descended through them – a flash of green landscape, distant mountains, and anonymous buildings – and it was raining! After two months of unrelenting heat-wave in London, I had arrived in Africa to a cloudy drizzle. The plane shuddered to a halt.
Descended the steps and followed the crowd across the runway tarmac to what looked like a Nissen hut. Walked inside and joined the ‘Aliens’ queue. This place was genuinely ramshackle. Bare wires splayed out of the ceiling, while the immigration booth was a square glass box with an enormous crack running down the front. Inside it a large uniformed soldier wearing mirrored sun glasses flicked through the passports. For one mad moment I contemplated delivering Wilde’s line about ‘declaring his genius’, but one look at the blank, grim face and I thought better of it. He waved me through wordlessly, ignoring my proffered yellow fever injection certificate.
Continued through to the baggage collection hall – a winding snake of a carousel emerging from the back of the tin shed. The problem was that the machine was moving far too fast. Spotted my blue bag but before I could seize the thing, it hurtled back through the wall like a demented Scalextric car. I dived in and manage to grab both bags on the fourth and sixth circuits respectively. Loaded them on to a trolley and walked through to the main hall.
Amidst the crowd there was a short, squat man dressed in a tight-fitting lime-green suit, looking more African than the tall gangly Ethiopians. He was holding a piece of cardboard inscribed with the words:
‘OSCAR WILDE – THE COMEDIAN’.
He saw me almost at the same moment and guessed correctly – there were only five other whites among the arrivals. It was Hailu – previously just a signature on a letter and a harassed voice at the end of a dreadful telephone line. He hurried across with a wide grin, grabbed me, and delivered three big hugs.
“Welcome to Africa, Mr Wilde!”
Although almost shaking with tiredness (the result of twelve hours flight, no sleep, and the effects of a Larium tablet taken yesterday) I responded with deep relief. Contact made.
We talked excitedly for a couple of minutes, then moved towards the customs desk. A long queue awaited the attentions of a very butch-looking policewoman at a desk. She was already opening up suitcases and scattering clothing in all directions. Hailu said:
“No problem. Follow me.”
He led the way to the head of the queue and showed a card to the woman. She abandoned the open case in front of her, gave me a conspiratorial smile, and chalked my luggage. It seemed that I could have been importing landmines for all she cared.
We wheeled the trolley out through the arrivals hall. Armed soldiers were standing in groups, while near them some sinister looking men in raincoats and sunglasses eyed the crowd. I began to feel like I was in one of Graham Greene’s sweatier novels. We walked past them and out into the open air. And then it hit me.
Thirty yards in front of the air terminal, we were faced by a sheer wall of humanity – at least a couple of hundred people watching us and shouting. As we approached, several men darted forward trying to grab the trolley, insisting that they porter the luggage. Hailu barked an order at them. My arm was repeatedly jerked, hands out begging, humid air – a legless cripple spun on the ground in front of me, balancing on one hand while shaking a tin cup with the other. The crowd egged him on. Hailu grunted, then aimed the trolley directly at the cripple. The man dodged adroitly out of the way of the wheels. I lumbered after Hailu, ignoring all pleas. This was chaotic and slightly scary. Thank the heavens for my companion – not sure how I would have coped on my own. We pushed on through the main press and found a taxi rank.
Even to describe them as vehicles is overstating it – these cars were ancient. The main bodywork was still there – mostly – but inside the seats were missing. Hailu negotiated with the driver and some deal was struck. He gestured me inside and the luggage was piled on top of us.
As the driver climbed into the only surviving seat in front of the steering wheel, the side door also opened and a thickset man seated himself on the floor. He was carrying an old Second World War rifle. By now, I’d got robbery on the brain, but Hailu looked unperturbed. I presumed that the second man was riding shotgun. And I was meant to be performing Oscar Wilde in the middle of all this! Pass the cucumber sandwiches, Algernon.
Squatting on the floor of the ‘taxi’, we bounced off down the airport driveway.’
‘7 15am: Driving on through the drizzle and damp greenery we reached the main road towards Addis. The surface was mined with potholes, and tarmac peeped out from where truck wheels had slashed through the mud. The road itself was mostly bordered by one storey tin shacks and occasional houses. Groups of men lounged around the corners of the side alleyways. Even on this short acquaintance, there seemed to be an air of purposelessness about them.
As we neared the city, the road became a dual carriageway – thin concrete arches spanned it at hundred yard intervals, sodden Ethiopian flags dangling down from them. After about fifteen minutes, we took a left hand turn onto a side road and drove another quarter of a mile.
We stopped in front of a pleasant looking three-storey building. Although modern, it had incongruous castellated battlements along the roof. Hailu nodded: the Ibex Hotel. We crawled out of the cab and Hailu paid off the driver. I realised that I’d got no Ethiopian money. I’d banked on there being a bureau de change at the airport. Missed it somehow.
Walked into the clean, rather pleasant foyer dominated by the head of a stuffed ibex on the wall. Hailu checked me in with the receptionist, then a porter led us along a corridor to a ground floor room. A double bed with a wafer thin duvet, plus a shower room. The window looked out on to a brick wall topped by barbed wire – looked like good security. There was a TV with a notice announcing that there were broadcasts for three hours every evening. Now, this place looked quite good, but outside it was a sea of muddy shanty. The Third World washed right up to the front steps.
10am: Hailu took me through to the hotel restaurant, which was going to double up as the theatre space – a large room, slightly raised stage at one end, and about thirty tables. We sat down and I gave him a brief run-through of the show. Hailu’s English was fairly good but I had difficulty understanding him at times. He said that he was getting married in a few months’ time, that he now worked with the police force (presumably the reason for our deluxe treatment at the airport and the speedy incarceration of the postman), but that he used to be the Director of the National Theatre. Eh? It was a bit like Sir Trevor Nunn announcing that he was now the Chief Constable of Leicestershire.
A sullen girl appeared and banged down two cups of coffee on the table. I mentioned that she seemed to be a bit offhand. Hailu replied that this was a residue of the former leader Mengistu’s communism. It was frowned on to be friendly to customers because it implied that you were subservient to them.
“It is only three years since the war. We are still babies.”
I handed over £100 for Hailu to exchange for Ethiopian money – the birr. He said he could get a good black market rate for it. Well, as a cop, I suppose he would know. He rose, shook my hand with a smile, and said: “I hope we can be brothers.” So do I, Hailu, so do I.
He left about 11 30am.
Back in the bedroom, I unpacked, put the money belt under the pillow, and fell asleep at noon.