The attempted military coup in Turkey this past week reminded me of the terror we experienced during an attempted coup while we served in Gambia with the Peace Corps. Following is an excerpt from my memoir TUBOB: Two Years in West Africa with the Peace Corps:
Mortars thundered close to the house where 118 of us sought refuge. A particularly loud and close-sounding explosion made us jump and the house shudder. Not for the first time, I thought, Is this the end?
My Peace Corps supervisor Meri Aimes and I crouched under a small table with space only for the two of us. Others scrunched in where they could find room. My husband, Bruce, safely tucked under the desk he’d converted to a radio station, clutched the radio mic.
True, it was the American Ambassador’s house, but, though nice, it wasn’t the grand residence usually associated with a high-ranking officer’s home. At four thousand square feet, the concrete house wasn’t particularly large, not for this many people at any rate.
Our group of leaders had taken over the ambassador’s bedroom as a sort of headquarters, since the ambassador himself was “detained” at the US Embassy in Gambia’s capital city, Banjul. Families occupied the other two bedrooms; otherwise, people squeezed in where they could.
Meri’s eyes were huge. Her African American face was always expressive, but never more so than just then.
“This isn’t looking good, is it?” I said, trying to sound calmer than I felt.
Meri looked at me like I’d just made the understatement of the year. “Not really, no.”
“I’m wondering if Bruce and I will ever be able to get back to our village.”
“Right now I’d say it was doubtful.”
We both instinctively covered our heads at the sound of a close-by explosion. I broke out in sweat.
“I need to tell you something.”
Meri’s raised her eyebrows in question.
I waited until another flurry of rifle shots subsided. “We have about twenty-five hundred dollars buried in our chicken coop.”
“Well, what else can you do with American dollars? You can’t put it in a Gambian bank, we couldn’t keep it inside–we’ve already had our place broken into. We were converting our Gambian money into American cash so we’d have it when we left.”
Meri nodded. “You guys will probably be evacuated, but George and I likely will stay to get things wrapped up.” George Scharffenberger, Peace Corps Director, and Meri Aimes, Assistant Director, were the two highest ranking Peace Corps staff in the West African country of Gambia. We were lucky they were both with us, safe. For the moment, at least.
Meri touched my arm. “I promise I’ll do everything I can to recover your money. Draw me a map showing me just where it is.” She shook her head. “Only you and Bruce would think to hide money in a chicken coop.”
A runner, gasping for breath, banged on the bedroom door. “Someone is coming!” Bruce sprang out of his shelter and, quick and smooth with practice, dismantled the radios, forbidden to us by both the rebels and nationalists. He stuffed them into boxes kept under the desk. Within seconds he crawled back under the desk, cramming himself in front of the boxes. He was good. I was so proud of him.
Bruce’s and my eyes locked. As we had joked many times in the past two years, we silently asked, “Whose idea was this anyway?”
Tom Mosier, head of United States Agency for International Development (USAID) in Gambia, and George Scharffenberger came out from their safety places to greet our visitor. “Stay right where you are, folks,” Tom said, his voice tight.
The door opened and a tall African man strode in. He was probably an officer in charge; he reeked of authority. We couldn’t tell if he was a nationalist or a rebel from the local security force, Field Force they called it, which, together with disgruntled leftists, had started the coup several days earlier. He was a big man and to me he looked sinister. My stomach clenched. His black face glistened with sweat. He carried a rifle and wore a hand gun at his side. His eyes darted around the room. “This is good. Stay under cover. I have ordered that this house is not to be hit, but you never know…”
He nodded to Tom and George, and left. No one spoke until we heard a soft knock on the door. He was gone. Bruce sprang up and reassembled the radios just as a signal was coming through. He brought the mic with him back under the desk.
“Candyland, Lollypop. Candyland, come in. You guys okay?”
Bruce responded, his rich voice calm. “Lollypop, Candyland. Yes, we’re okay. One of the local officers just paid us a visit and…”
An explosion, even closer this time, drowned out his voice.