Sunday, 5 June 2011

Dining Out on Business Travel – Part 6

Politics and dinner can be an indigestible combination, especially in some African countries. Even more so if there is a virtual state of emergency in place. It was like this during my last year in Zambia caused by poverty, disappointment and insurgency in that order. Rightly or wrongly many of the people felt let down by what they received after’ Independence’ and there were rumours of insurrection in some quarters.

Me and my colleagues, whilst cautious, were not overly concerned as if one kept ones head down and were careful we felt there was little to fear. A friend (an expat doctor) forgot this rule and parked directly outside a public building. He was seen as a possible terrorist and spent a month in jail trying to explain that he was only calling in to pick up a permit.

I would never make such a mistake I thought and went about my business without drawing unwanted attention to myself. Then the dinner invitation came. It was from the top man in a major global conglomerate and it was an unexpected honour. We had never been invited to his house before as this was reserved mainly for close friends and business leaders not a lowly airline sales manager like me.

The day before the meal he actually rang me personally to check we were still going and to tell me that there would be just us, him, his wife and another husband and wife guest. He then rather embarrassingly told me the other guest was black and a senior Zambian government minister and would I still come as others had declined. That is why you asked me I mused as I put the phone down, nobody else would go because his main guest was black! I was appalled and even more determined to go.

We arrived and were warmly greeted by our host. His other two guests had already arrived as I saw his government car with two giant bodyguards leaning on the bonnet parked at the end of the driveway in case of emergency. We started to get a little edgy but it turned out to be one of the best informal dinners I have ever enjoyed then or since. The government minister was amusingly clever, his wife was even smarter and our hostess spent the whole evening teasing her doting husband.

Afterwards we sat outside listening to the night sounds and watching the constellations. We relaxed drinking the best of his brandy while shooting stars darted across the heavens and the moon rose full. We talked about how the world in general and Zambia in particular could be made a better place and collectively agreed it had been an evening we would all remember. After what, on reflection, must have looked to an observer as a group hug we parted our own ways into the early dawn.

Nothing happened for a few weeks until I heard that my host had been taken to the police station for questioning. What about I thought? I found out when I had a visit later that evening. The secret police (SITET) had come to pay me a visit. They did not want to have dinner but they sure wanted to talk about one. Both officers were white and both had spent most of their careers in the British Special Branch. I was told later that nobody would trust a local to do such a ‘sensitive’ job so they brought in foreigners instead.

The conversation started by them telling me I was a ‘bloody idiot’. ‘Why’ I asked?
One looked at the other in a resigned way muttering ‘he still doesn’t get it’. They then explained I was a bloody idiot for sitting up half the night eating, drinking and cuddling senior politicians in a volatile country where the president is almost paranoid about the possibility of a coup. I was stunned as I realised why everybody else had declined the date. It was not skin colour, it was the risk of being seen in such potentially dangerous company.

‘I hardly knew the man’ I pleaded until they showed me a clear photograph of him and me embracing at the evening’s end. Where had the photographer hidden I thought as I realised we had been under surveillance all the time. ‘A lot of people wouldn’t believe that’, one replied in the full knowledge he was scaring me big time.

I told them everything, even some of the jokes which they seemed to like. It was clear that there had been no subversive discussion however they said that just by saying that Zambia could be a better place could be seen as such. After playing around with me a bit they finally relented. ‘Look’, they concluded ‘it is clear that the dinner was innocent but for heavens sake watch out who you eat with in future’. They left as quietly as they arrived and I never saw them again. ‘No harm done’ I thought.

Three weeks later I read in the Zambian Nation newspaper that my fellow dinner guest was under house arrest. I never heard about him again. It can sometimes be a terrible cruel world I thought. But who knows what the truth is and what is not? Rather like eating food slightly over its ‘sell by’ date. It tastes OK but will you have cause to regret it afterwards?

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