Friday, April 20, 2007

Golf in Africa

Following is a piece that I wrote about my golfing experiences in Africa that was published in the April 2007 edition of the Foreign Service Journal.

Best and Worst Golf Courses

One valid subjective measure for rating an overseas post is the quality of the golf experience. In that spirit, I offer the following observations.

On becoming the consul in Mombasa, Kenya, I rented a house that backed up to the Nyali Club golf course. It was finally time for me to learn the game and become inculcated into the arcana of golf rules and, especially the formality of a British-origin club. I joined and, depending upon the season, played upon lush green fairways or hard-packed clay over fossilized coral rock. I regularly jumped my back fence for a few practice holes in the early evening. Baby monkeys carted off balls, doum palms ate them and the rough hid puff adders. Most refreshing during competitions was a cold fresh lime drink under the palm trees between nines.

The course in the middle of Kampala was full of ardent players. Thought modest, the prizes - a bicycle, a set of kitchen utensils or a bottle of scotch – were items beyond the reach of many players. Despite the fact that few players were British, an English sense of decorum prevailed. One did not fail to doff his hat upon entering the bar. Most entertaining were rule-committee arguments and rulings conducted in an open fashion over beers on the terrace. Real tension rose once a year in the regional competition organized on tribal lines; we foreigners were allocated any region where more players were needed. In keeping with Uganda’s strife plagued politics, the contest was war by other means. However, it all ended amicably in a huge drunk.

The course in Bangui became one of my favorites. It was not much of a course, with poorly mown fairways and oiled-sand greens, but it had very cold beer. As it happened either Political officer Stacy Kazacos, the only Central African Republic member Martin Yando, or I won every competition for about a year. This infuriated the largely French membership. My triumph was to capture the CAR national championship in 1995. Unfortunately, that was the last year it was played: the golf course succumbed to the ravages of civil strife, and has not reopened.

Kigali has a winding nine-hole course that crosses and recrosses an infernal stream. A challenging course, its fairways are narrow and grass greens unpredictable. The club had a mixed membership of Rwandans (mostly army officers who learned the game in Uganda) and international personnel. I tried to interest now-President Kagame in golf, but he preferred tennis (he rarely lost). Once a year we decorated the club house with left over July 4 bunting and played for the “American Cup.” We cooked hotdogs. I gave away putters, bags, balls to the winners.

Other memorable African courses that I know include Firestone East, located on a vast rubber plantation in Liberia. The main challenge was getting to and from the course, 40 miles from the capital. Players had to run a gauntlet of roadblocks manned by former dictator Charles Taylor’s goons and child soldiers.

The midtown course in Kinshasa is low lying with lots of water hazards. One rarely lost a ball, however, on account of the ever-present “crocodiles” – men who waited patiently by each pond, waded in and retrieved your ball for a small sum. In contrast the course in N’Djamena, Chad, had little vegetation but lots of sand. We carried around a swath of outdoor carpet to hit from into inconsistent oiled browns. Heat was the issue in Chad. It was already 95 degrees when we started at 9 a.m. and often 120 by the finish.

Djibouti’s course resembles Chad’s: sand and rock decorated by remnants of plastic trash bags. Heat and humidity, each about a 100, necessitated a dawn start. I would roust a caddy off his sleeping mat – they slept on the club veranda – and head out. One morning with a tail wind and good bounces, I had a legitimate sub-par round. The golf gods were telling me that even in Djibouti, they smile down on lunatics. A year later, my crowning achievement came on the course in Bujumbura. I aced hole number 12, a 180-yard, uphill par 3…bounce, bounce, in!

So which is the best or the worst? I can’t say. I liked them all. I needed them all! For without a golf course, any post is the pits.

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