There wasn’t much to do in Brazzaville in 1980. The little People’s Republic of the Congo faces the immense Zaire (the other, capitalist “Congo”), its capital Kinshasa visible in the distance
across the mighty Congo River.
I was supposed to be teaching English at the Université Marien Ngouabi, which disdainful expats called “Le Lycée.” The Soviets had just invaded Afghanistan, and my classrooms were taken over about half the time for political rallies in favor of the Soviets. The students didn’t seem to care much one way or the other. They were affable young people looking for a meal, a job, and a night’s sleep. There wasn’t much electricity in Brazzaville. They studied like monks,
pacing silently with their books at night, reading under the only street lights in the city, the ones on the highway to the airport.
The Pushkin Institute offered free Russian lessons those days, paid by the Soviet embassy. I didn’t like what the Soviets were doing outside their borders or inside, for that matter. But that wasn’t the fault of their beautiful language.
The U.S. embassy had directives not to associate with any of the several thousand Soviets in the city. I wasn’t part of the embassy, but stopped in anyway to get guidance. The American public affairs officer said, “Well you’re a private citizen, so I see no issue with this. If you want to do it, just go ahead.”
I showed up at the Pushkin Institute, where the lingua franca was French. I asked if I might take one of their introductory courses. They responded with simple generosity and openness. “Here are your books. The course starts Tuesday.”
I said, “I’m a U.S. citizen, if that matters.”
“Why would it matter to us?” the kindly registrar said. She handed me a stack of books almost too heavy to carry away on my moped.
The weeks went on and I learned a few words and phrases in my class of six or seven. If any of the students had ulterior motives, they weren’t visible. I didn’t like the slow pace of my learning, but knew it was only from my own lack of discipline. I was beginning to get the hang of it, and could follow even a few stories. The teachers were astute, and the Institute was a tightly run shop.
The more of the language I learned, the more I saw it as a tall mountain, my own learning curve a small bump on a steep incline. I was keen to learn, but didn’t advance as rapidly as I wanted. Plus, the ambient French was an easy fallback when words failed me.
Those were the days when BBC, VOA, Deutsche Welle, Radio Moscow, Radio Netherlands and others competed head-to-head for attention on short wave channels. Each had an “Africa Service” in English or French, and came on with comforting regularity at news time. VOA was a stitch with its “Special English” (like the joke that ends, “Well in that case, let me tell you….verrryy….sloooowly…”)
BBC had the strongest short wave presence locally, and its news programs were dry, professional, reliable, and always on time. Anyone who listened back then will remember with nostalgia the fading and strengthening short wave signal, the artful tuning it took to pick it up solidly, and the lovely English country tune it played to announce news time. And the beep-beep-beep to mark Greenwich Mean Time, now sadly renamed “Universal Time.”
Radio Moscow had its biases, but I thought it might help my language learning if I spotted it on the short wave channels. As the story goes, “If you want to learn a language, just go anywhere in the world and find a proselyte. Probably you already know the spiel by heart, so you’ll catch on quickly as it comes to you with foreign words.” Likewise, Cold War propaganda.
I would listen to BBC at home, sometimes VOA, to get a pretty accurate version of the world’s tumults. Then I would try to tune in to Radio Moscow to hear their version of it. I could pick it up pretty easily in its English version, but never quite got the frequency for the original Russian. Curiosity set in, and I wanted to speed up my language learning.
We gathered in the courtyard of the Pushkin Institute after class one afternoon, with students, teachers, and even the director, chatting in French. Russians, Congolese, French, the rare Italian and myself, we were all there to tackle the language from one angle or another.
The Institute director gave me a friendly glance so I said, “I’ve been trying to find Radio Moscow on the short wave. Would you know the frequency by any chance?” Mind you, this was during a tense period of the Cold War, as the blundering USSR stepped in way over its head in Afghanistan and was later stung badly doing so.
Without hesitation the Institute director said to the fifteen of us gathered in his courtyard, “How would I know? I listen only to the Voice of America.”
All laughed and mounted their mopeds to get home before dark.
I think back to the reckless friendliness of the moment, taking a breather from global conflict and differences. Just people in a courtyard. This, I am sure, is how to win hearts and minds, whether you deserve it or not. Way better than repeating a message until it flattens from overuse.
Dan Whitman teaches Foreign Policy at the Washington Semester Program, American University. As Public Diplomacy officer in USIA and the Department of State for more than 25 years, he drafted and edited speeches for U.S. ambassadors in Denmark, Spain, South Africa, Cameroon, Haiti, and Guinea-Conakry. A senior Foreign Service Officer, he retired in 2009 from the Bureau of African Affairs, U.S. Department of State.
A Princeton PhD, was a US diplomat for over 20 years, mostly in Eastern Europe, and was promoted to the Senior Foreign Service in 1997. For the Open World Leadership Center, he speaks with
its delegates from Europe/Eurasia on the topic, "E Pluribus Unum? What Keeps the United States United." Affiliated with Georgetown University for over ten years, he shares ideas with students about public diplomacy.
The papers of his deceased father -- poet and diplomat John L. Brown -- are stored at Georgetown University Special Collections at the Lauinger Library. They are manuscript materials valuable to scholars interested in post-WWII U.S.-European cultural relations.
This blog is dedicated to him, Dr. John L. Brown, a remarkable linguist/humanist who wrote in the Foreign Service Journal (1964) -- years before "soft power" was ever coined -- that "The CAO [Cultural Affairs Officer] soon comes to realize that his job is really a form of love-making and that making love is never really successful unless both partners are participating."