How the News Arrived (1)

By Geoffrey Howard

Part 1: I was a 20-year old Peace Corps volunteer, newly arrived and just settling in to Kaolack, Senegal’s second-largest city and the generally acknowledged fly capital of the world. My job – I’m not making this up – was to be one of the national wrestling coaches of this 2-year old West African country.

We were four volunteers living together in one house, three English teachers and me. About 8 o’clock, just as we were finishing dinner, there was a timid knock at the door and this African kid, maybe 9 or 10, was standing there. We looked at him, he looked at us. No one spoke until he said in half French, half Wolof, “Le chef defa dey” The chief is dead.

None of us reacted because we had no idea what he was talking about. Then someone figured it out. Since the Senegalese thought all toubabs (whites) were French, the ex-colonial power that was still very present, there was an obvious explanation: “He must mean De Gaulle.”

The kid spoke no English, but he got the De Gaulle part and his response was emphatic: “Didit! [No!] Votre chef, Kennedy!”

Of course that made no sense – a kid we didn’t even know, how could he possibly be the bearer of such impossible news? Anyway, because none of us had a short wave radio, I was delegated to get on my motorbike and go to the nearby Senegalese army base to see if I could find out anything “official.” That turned out to be a very easy task. The sentry guards confirmed it: “Votre president, il est mort, assassine.” And that’s how I got the news. 

Part 2: I went back to the house and shared the sad news with Ralph, Pat, and Barbara. I don’t recall if we cried or continued with our that-just-can’t-be-true denial, but we all got on our motorbikes and went down to the single French-run hotel in town where we knew they had a big short wave set and that the patronne, a formidable colonial era hanger-on who had been there for decades, and who, the one time Ralph and I had stopped in for a biere, had made it clear that she had little use for Americans.

Well, the four of us walked into the standing-room-only bar – wall-to-wall French – and everyone was listening, transfixed to that radio. Heads swiveled as we entered and before we could even say a word or ask a single question, Madame shooed four regulars off their bar stools and made it clear that we were to sit at the bar near the radio. Then, again without our asking, four beers appeared and someone switched the radio to the Voice of America. We had many beers that night, all on the house. And that’s how the tragedy sank in.

Part 3: The next morning, a truck pulled up from the Lycee de Kaolack, where we all worked. The Directeur got out, accompanied by a work crew that began unloading and setting up chairs in our small courtyard, maybe 30 in all. While that was going on, the Directeur explained to us what would happen. He was dressed in a dark suit and told us to change into “appropriate” clothes. We did.

Very shortly thereafter, people began drifting in, mostly men, but some women as well. The men were dressed in their grand boubous – long, elegant robes – that signified an important occasion. (The Senegalese are famously tall and slender; their second president Abdou Diouf, at 6’10” was the only head of state in the world who could dunk.)

We knew none of these people and yet they came up to us, silently shook hands with each of us as we stood in a line, and then took seats. There was no talking. They would stay for maybe two or three minutes, then rise silently and leave. Not a word, just respect.

* * *

After his two years in the Peace Corps, Geoff Howard had a 35-year career as a management consultant and trainer. Now retired and living in Warwick, he is the chair of Sustainable Warwick and treasurer of Community 2000. 


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6 Responses to “How the News Arrived (1)”

  1. Michael Kaufman Says:

    Great story, Geoffrey.

  2. Jeanne Versweyveld Says:

    Thanks for sharing your story and for your service to the Peace Corps. After 50 years, the pain is still so intense.

  3. Jo Galante Cicale Says:

    Quite a story!

  4. Anne Macksoud Says:

    Geoffrey, I never heard this story? How did I miss it? And I agree with Jeanne Versweyveld, after 50 years the pain is still there.

    Last night I was at a gathering and everyone told about exactly where they were when they heard. None of us had quite this good a story.
    You told the story just right!

  5. Geoff Howard Says:

    Hi Michael, Jeanne, Jo and Anne, Thanks for your comments. Tomorrow I’m having dinner with Ralph – one of my Kaolack house mates – and several Poughkeepsie-area, JFK-era PC volunteers. If other interesting stories emerge, I’ll pass them along.

    PCVs are, I think, an especially rich source here. First, most of us were there, wherever “there” was, at least in part because of JFK. Then too, our isolation – no TV, phone, American newspapers, and of course, internet and email – intensified everything that did come through. And finally, because we were often in places that were deeply foreign and at the same time deeply affected, we saw things, experienced things, that our States-side friends didn’t.

  6. Mary Makofske Says:

    Thanks, Geoff. How very strange that must have been to be in a foreign land when Kennedy was killed. I remember having the same reaction when someone ran up to me saying “the President’s been shot!” I said, “Whose President?” It couldn’t happen here.

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