I knew immediately that I was in for a rough ride when the lid from the overhead luggage storage compartment landed on the floor next to my seat.
Just so, without warning, provocation or encouragement. The flummoxed expression of the steward told me that he thought it might be my fault. But then another came off …. and another and then, yet another.
I was exonerated but deeply troubled and the fact that they simply carried the lids to the back of plane did nothing for my peace of mind. It sort of nullified the announcement asking us to be on the look out for luggage in the overhead compartments, which might have shifted during the flight.
We were stuck on the runway of what is now Oliver Tambo International Airport, and on our way to Dakar via Brazzaville, Accra and Abidjan. Given our three-hour delay it was also very likely that we would exceed our eight-hour flight time. I had won a three-month scholarship to attend a summer school in Dakar, so I used some of my excitement to off-set my anxiety.
After a few hours without any serious incident we arrived at Brazzaville, where we were promptly delayed for another three hours. This was the exact amount of time it took airport authorities to evict the Ghanaian football team from the airport bar.
They had just won their very important (or so I was made to believe) knock-out game against the local side, and were in no hurry to put distance between them and their celebratory drinks. We, off-course, were denied any fluids for the entire period in case we might drink too much and have to use the loo. Which was strictly off-limits whilst the plane was stuck on the runway.
I could feel the onset of a riot. All we needed was a spark. This promptly arrived. In the form of thirteen sweaty football players, boots in hand and not ready to end their celebrations. All, bar two, did their best to bump into fellow by now, desperate-for-a-pee, passengers enroute to their seats. Then another lid came off, this time courtesy of a drunk mid-fielder trying to shove his mud-covered boots into an already over-loaded compartment. And in the process he managed to transfer most of the mud on his boots to an elderly gentleman’s freshly pressed, neatly folded business suit.
The owner of the suit pushed the drunken mid-fielder back and onto the lap of a little boy seated across the isle. The little boy started crying, and his mother … well she reached over for her handbag, which was safely stowed away at the footrest in front of her. It was about to become a deadly weapon. “Urggh. Typical Air Afrique”.
This was the first time the lady in the seat to the left of me spoke. It was also the last, as she plugged her ears, covered her eyes and tried to go to sleep.
The guy to the right of me lit a cigarette, clearly thinking that the current situation brought an end to anti-smoking regulations.
It took both pilots, all the stewards and about six, possibly inebriated, policemen to bring quiet to the troubled plane and to disarm the lady with the deadly handbag.
Accra never looked so pretty as it did that night. Our next stop over at Abidjan was an important one. All flights from South Africa had to be given a new flight number. Possibly to hide the fact that some countries were still doing business with Africa’s problem child, even though Mandela had been released and the ANC unbanned already.
This meant that all passengers had to get off the plane and proceed through customs to get a new boarding pass with the new flight number. Luckily we got to keep our seat numbers. I felt prematurely blessed.
As it turned out, someone had double booked the flight and now two or more passengers were allocated to the same seat. This time the pushing and shoving started on the runway. No one could figure out why the mayhem. Our seats had been booked right?
Those who had been through the ordeal before knew better. Some twenty-three hours after leaving Johannesburg we arrived in Dakar. Only, the guy with my pick-up visa had long ago retreated to his home, leaving me high and dry. I had arrived with no legal means to enter the country.
With no proficiency in French (on my side) and English (the stern customs official’s side) there was no need to look each other in the eye as we exchanged profanities. In good spirits and with great proficiency, they locked me up in a small room with lots of cockroaches for company and plastic sheeting for comfort.
I had arrived.
My fate from hereon, is the subject of another column. But since I wrote this in the comfort of my home many years later, you know I made it. Only just, but I did, and I got to eat this classic Senegalese dish several times during my stay in that great country. Chicken with onion and lemon sauce. Or as its called in Senegal: Poulet Yassa. Oh, in case you are wondering, Air Afrique no longer exists. It was liquidated in 2002.