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July 05, 1985 - Image 16

Resource type:
The Detroit Jewish News, 1985-07-05

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Friday, July 5, 1985


`The Israeli
delegation must leave
the plane'

...and other
adventures in West Africa.

The personal jet of
Liberia's Head of
State Samuel Doe
was our ticket out
of the country.

A Shot In The Arm (Ouch)
For Israeli Diplomacy

Editor's Note: On the one hand (and up-
per arm and backside) there were the
shots: for yellow fever, cholera, tetanus,
polio and gamma globulin. Plus pills to
prevent malaria.
On the other hand was an opportunity
for a unique experience: to travel to West
Africa as a participant in an Anti-Defama-
tion League of B'nai B'rith good will mis-
sion, sponsored in part by the JEWISH
I got the shots — and left in the spring
for Liberia, Ivory Coast and Cameroon.
My six fellow travelers carried impres-
sive credentials — along with Pepto Bis-
mol and Lomotil. They included an award-
winning journalist from the Southwest, a
former Ford Foundation vice president,
ADL's director of international projects,
and several Jewish business people inter-
ested in exploring investment opportuni-
Our delegation was charged with con-
veying to African government leaders the
appreciation of the American Jewish com-
munity for improved relations among their
nations, Israel and American Jews.
None of us knew what to expect, but by
the time we left New York's JFK Airport,
we had been thorougly innoculated and

The crowded Air Ghana plane was stif-
ling hot, no air, as we sat on the runway
that Tuesday afternoon waiting to take
off, but we were in good spirits. After five
days in Liberia, we were anxious to get
on to our next stop, Ivory Coast.
Liberia is a country of two million
people, 43,000 square miles and a capital,
Monrovia, with one paved road. We had
stayed in the city's finest hotel, where the
air-conditioning was either sporadic or
non-existent (and the outside tempera-
ture and humidity is in the 90's), the beds
were cots, and a towel in the bathroom
was a luxury item. Gasoline is $3.25 a
gallon (when available), power outtages
are frequent and lengthy, and downtown
Monrovia, a city of 300,000, looks like a
rural American slum, though the people,
who dress for the most part in Western
clothes, are friendly and passive. Along
Monrovia's main street one sees video
stores, posters for Michael Jackson's
"Thriller" and Uncle Ben's converted rice
amidst countless little stands where in-
dividual cigarettes and candies are sold
by women and children.
The literacy rate is low in Liberia, the
major industry is farming and life expec-
tancy is about 54 years.
We had enjoyed some fascinating ex-
periences during our stay in Monrovia,
• meeting with cabinet ministers, viewing
native dancers perform what must be the

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original break-dancing steps, and talking
with an Israeli opthalmologist "on loan"
to Liberia for two years who mused that
his patients come to him for a second
opinion — they've already gone to see the
Perhaps most charming is the national
handshake, an elaborate move where
hands are clasped Western-style, then
squeezed, followed by a finger-snapping
gesture. The overall effect is a cross be-
tween a pro sports salutation and a col-
lege fraternity greeting.
But after five days we were ready to
move on. We had hoped to meet the Head
of State, Samuel K. Doe — indeed, we
had stayed an extra day to keep an ap-
pointment with him — but his office had
advised us Tuesday morning that he was
unable to meet with us so we had headed
for the airport. We arrived more than an
hour early for our flight to the Ivory
Coast only to discover that it was about
to take off — not unusual in Africa; the
only explanation came from an airport at-
tendant who noted, with a shrug, that the
plane had arrived early so it was leaving
early — and we made a mad dash to get
on board. The next flight out of the coun-
try was not until Thursday night.
Suddenly, as we were taxiing down the
runway, no more than seconds from
takeoff, the pilot slowed the plane and an-
nounced: "Ladies and gentlemen, we are
returning to the gate. The Israeli delega-
tion must leave the plane to meet with
Liberian authorities."
We were not an Israeli delegation, but
rather seven American Jews traveling
under the auspices of the Anti-Defama-
tion League of B'nai B'rith. But we knew
the pilot meant us. As we looked at each
other, confused, two possible scenarios
flashed through my mind: either there
was a minor technical problem — perhaps
a missing passport or suitcase — or we
were about to be executed.
That's the way one begins to think in
Liberia, where the military government
rules with an iron hand and where we
learned an expression — "Wawa"— from
a U.S. Embassy official that we thought
of often during our trip, whenever our
plans went awry. Wawa, we were told,
stands for "West Africa wins again."
We disembarked from the plane to
learn that Head of State Doe wanted to
see us afterall. It seems' that when he
Beard that we had left for the airport, he
had his aides call the tower and have our
plane halted.
So the next morning we went to the
Presidential Mansion to meet with Dr.
Doe (he prefers that title, having been
awarded an honorary doctorate by the
University of Seoul in Korea, though he
admits to not completing high school).
The mansion was heavily guarded — •
there had been an attempted , coup the

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