West Africa Sperm whale at deepwater SPM

It’s probably best not to try to examine two closely, Central  and West African politics through the prism of European understanding. What passes as acceptable political behaviour in the sense of what that phrase means in Europe, cannot be applied in Africa.

Colonial powers left the African continent in such a mess, that it may well take hundreds of years to clear up.

Power in Angola, DRC or any West or Central   African country is not decided upon by election, because the losers simply reject the result of any quasi democratic selection process and call upon their supporters, often numbering in the millions, to take up weapons and go to war.

Few commentators consider the history of Africa when the contemporary situation is under discussion.

Before the British, the French, the Belgians, the Germans, the Portuguese, and even the Italians arrived to rape every resource that Africa had to offer including its people, there was already a system in place. Tribal politics had been the norm for thousands of years, it was a system that the people understood. It could be harsh, there were wars, there was slavery and there was cruelty, but it was understood and it worked after a fashion.

The lines delineating national borders on today’s maps of Africa, were put there by the colonial powers to carve things up like a pie between them, they mean absolutely nothing to the African people.

The massacre in Rwanda and the tribal violence happening today in both Congo’s has its Genesis in the determination of one tribe or group to dominate another.

Just as in Rwanda the violence originated because of the mutual suspicion and hatred between the Hutu elite and their Tutsi neighbours.

Imagine if both the Tories and labour in Britain had huge well armed armies at their disposal, and after each election a bloodbath ensued, carried out by the loser’s followers.

These bitter civil wars are a seemingly integral part of life in Africa. No matter what brokering is offered by Russia, the united states, Europe or China, there will always be a proliferation of weapons from gun dealers with the ethics of slime mould, plying their trade on both sides of the line, and opposing vested interests, to keep the melting pot properly stirred up.

Africa is rich in natural resources, oil, precious metals and gem stones, and everybody wants a piece of the action.

The colonial powers, despite their vociferous protestations to the contrary, were not there to bring civilisation to the heathen; they were there because of these resources.

And the oil, telecommunications, fish, precious metals and gem traders are out there now for the same reason.

Corruption is the only political ideology in Africa, and whosoever controls those resources on the ground, gets to enrich themselves and their followers beyond their wildest dreams.

When i worked in Angola it was well known that Mabuto’s regime in neighbouring Zaire was nothing more than a kleptocracy. Colonial infrastructure in his country collapsed while he chartered concord for shopping trips to Paris and his many wives travelled the world in chartered 747’s, buying things and bringing them back to his palaces, while his people starved.

He kept himself in power by paying and equipping his presidential guard, and allowing his tribal relatives who occupied all the key posts in his administration to enrich themselves in turn.

Under Jonas Savimbi in Angola, the annual rate of inflation was in the multiple thousands of percent.

I have in my collection, of foreign paper money, a million Kwanza note. These were printed in a desperate attempt at quantitative easing without knowing what it was. I offered my friend Pedro five dollars for a million Kwanzaa note and he told me that it wasn’t even worth ten cents. I bought the note for five dollars anyway, the equivalent of fifty million Kwanzaa’s, at that moment’s exchange rate.

Money was printed by the planeload in Belgium and sent to Angola for distribution, every week a higher denomination note until the World Bank stepped in and stopped the insanity.

Ex-patriot workers for chevron and contractors were paid in dollars and a fixed rate, however Angolan workers, by law, had to be paid in Kwanzaa’s.

On Friday afternoons they left the pay office with boxes of notes and went straight to chevron commissary to buy, cooking pots, plastic water containers, cups and maybe some electrical goods, anything that could be resold quickly in the market in Cabinda.

The price in the commissary was fixed and exchange rate between Kwanzaa and dollar set each day.

By the time they came to sell their fridge or whatever the following day it had doubled in price, so in effect they had doubled their wages in one day.

The commissary must have been losing money hand over fist, but i suppose chevron felt that it was a way of keeping their Angolan workers relatively happy with their pay.

Foreign currency and consumer goods was king.

Pedro was my guy for African art and carvings. I was happy to pay twenty-five or thirty dollars for a nice hand carved mask, a painting or a statue, they made exotic gifts for Elaine and our wider family’s.

Pedro probably paid five dollars or even less from the market in Cabinda, but that’s what trade is.

Each Angolan worker was a point of contact for any number of expatriates and the trade was in practically everything.

There were riskier commodities to be traded.

African grey parrots were available for fifty dollars in Angola and could be sold in the UK for five times that amount.

Baby monkeys were bought on the camp and sold to pet stores in Europe or sold on exotic pet websites for large amounts of money.

Uncut gemstones were also available from the locals for a pittance compared to their worth in Europe.

Some ex-patriot workers made a lot of money from their trades, but there was a huge risk involved.

If caught with live animals in a European or American airport, of course the animal was confiscated but the fines for smuggling were huge, and there was a risk of arrest and incarceration.

The same went for uncut gemstones, but the danger with them was being caught in angola or any of the African countries, if they had you for that, and it didn’t matter where the stones came from, you were going to pay a lot, and you were going to a hellhole prison, possibly for months, or until your embassy managed to secure your freedom.

Parrots and monkeys were smuggled in the hard cardboard tubes that maps or posters were stored in. The poor creatures were dosed with Valium to keep them quiet for the flights home.

I knew people who engaged in this cruel trade for profit, and I would have reported them to customs if the penalties had not been so severe.

Even if customs police found African goods like masks in your bag upon which there was no export duty, they tried to extort something from you.

A trick for travelling in west Africa was to keep single dollar bills in every pocket for ‘bribes’, because whatever you took out of your pocket to ‘dropsy’ ‘to ‘’ grease the rails’, whether it was fifty, twenty, ten, five dollars or one dollar, that was the amount, there was no change given.

Another trick was to leave something new, but cheap on top of your clothes in your bag.

When the ‘customs guy’ opened your bag the first thing he saw was the item, which was invariably admired, and which you then offered as a ‘cadeau pour vous’ or ‘presente para voce’ or ‘a gift for you’ depending on where you wear, and which ensured the contents of your bag would not be scrutinised further.                                                                                                

Those at the top in many of the West African countries gorged themselves on the riches given them by those who wanted the natural resources of their country. Whilst building palaces and buying the latest high-performance cars and weapons for the armies that kept them in power, pretty much ignored the plight of their own people and much of the country.

The result being, that whatever infrastructure was put in place by the colonial powers was falling apart and the vast majority of their people were living in abject poverty.

The city of Cabinda was a typical African shit hole where 99% of the people lived in hovels of breezeblock and rusting corrugated iron, cooking on open fires, without electricity, water or sewage.

The only buildings with services were those built and maintained by chevron or the governor’s palace, the administrative buildings and the mayor’s official residence. The big flashy 4×4 cars in the city were invariably associated with those who occupied or ‘worked’ in those buildings.

These functionaries swanned around in their big cars wearing flashy suits, ray ban sunglasses, gold Rolex watches and sharp shoes, doing absolutely nothing.

If they were doing something, the place would not be a shit hole.

One time, when our Fokker fifty was delayed in Luanda, we spent several hours waiting in Cabinda.

A shipment of food aid arrived on a huge Russian cargo plane; there were pallets of what seemed to be cabbage, unloaded nearest the terminal building.

Outside behind wrought iron gates there was a large crowd of women, most with babies wrapped in shawls clinging close to their mothers.

Soldiers with lengths of hose, beat these women and babies mercilessly if they tried to get in through the narrow gap in the side of the main gate.

It was insane for foreign nationals to stand by while such barbarity took place, but we had no choice, there was many soldiers and they were all armed with ak-47s.

I often suffer bouts of PTSD concerning that scene, starving women and children desperate to get access to the food on the runway, being beaten by their own armed forces.

Some bureaucrat’s party arrived in several shiny black SUVs and were ushered into the airport by these heavily armed soldiers.

A gold bejewelled guy in a sharp snow-white short sleeved shirt, Gucci belt, Armani suit trousers and at least Gucci, sharp toed and gleaming black shoes, alighted from one of the vehicles, smiled at us expats as if we were in some way supporting what was happening there, cast a cursory glance over the pallets of aid, remounted his car and disappeared.

Our Fokker fifty arrived shortly thereafter, so we never got to see what happened to the food.

Another time Pedro told me that his wife had had a baby, of course i was delighted for him and when i came back to work I brought a suitcase full of baby clothes that our children had used, thinking that he would be pleased to have them.

When i gave him the suitcase, he did look delighted but when he opened it and saw that it was all baby clothes, his delight turned to obvious disappointment, and he asked in French. “ah jimmy, où est ma ceinture, mes lunettes de soleil”

I said “pour la bebe.”

He said “la bebe et mort”

I later heard that he sold the baby clothes at a market in Cabinda.

The corruption at the top and the subsequent collapse of normal governance encourages corruption at all levels. The ordinary people of Africa have to scrabble hard, just to stay alive and of course looking sharp is part of that.

This story is about diving, not about governance in West Africa.

I had my most amazing underwater experience whilst working for Oceaneering in Angola.

Part of our job as the Malongo diving team was maintenance of the deep water SPM’s and PLEM’s (pipe line end manifold) these dives were big payers for us because they were deeper than 120 feet, so we used mixed gas, replacing the nitrogen naturally occurring in air with helium and we got paid £ Stg 1.62 per foot from the surface, so one of the SPM’s at 305 feet was worth £ Stg 400.00 sterling and the other at 375 feet, just over £ Stg 600.00.

Under normal circumstances we checked them every two weeks, but if a tanker was coming in to load we would have to go and open the valve on the seabed.

Indeed that was the circumstances that found me at 375 feet breathing Heliox and talking like Donald duck opening the gate valve in preparation for loading.

As i recall it took one hundred turns on a large wheel to ensure that the gate was fully open.

To make sure, of the count, we had blue polypropylene rope tied at one point on the wheel so that we could count each turn as the rope passed the 12 o’clock position.

It was a big wheel, so it took quite an expending of energy to put it through one hundred turns, and by the time I had, I was breathing heavily, and so I took a few moments to catch my breath.

At that depth, the water is very clear, and because sun light has long since been filtered out, there is little or no marine growth or fish life.

As I sat there on the edge of the PLEM, blowing bubbles, i became aware of something other than me in the water.

My hat light penetrated about six or 8 feet so I looked towards where I felt the other something to be and thought that i could see something.

In hindsight all through the dive i could hear the clicks of what could be dolphins or whales as they communicated with each other.

Now i could hear very distinct and very close clicks.

I had to do something quickly because Sid would soon call upon me to get ready to leave bottom and on a mixed gas dive seconds counted.

I was afraid that I went too far from the plan that I would get lost and those the only safe way I had of ascending, so I looped my umbilical around the valve wheel and went towards the shape.

I had barely left the PLEM when i could see clearly that it was a sperm whale, a baby sperm whale, it was only about 10 feet long and it was lying on the bottom, not moving.

Its great saucer of an eye followed me as I moved towards it, and I could immediately see that it had a piece of old-fashioned hemp netting, around its left ventral fluke, with a buoy keeping the irritant tight under where it joined the whales skin.

It was a simple task for me to reach up, pull the scrap of net down and release it and as soon as I had done so the magnificent animal, without effort, left me.

As I lost sight of it, the call came from above “okay Jimbo, get ready to leave bottom” I just had time to scramble back to the PLEM when he said “leave bottom”

As I ascended and while I did my long water stops, I wondered about that strange encounter between whale and human.

Sperm whales have large brains even in comparison to their huge bodies, and we know virtually nothing about how sophisticated their thinking is.

Perhaps they know who we are and without getting very close they, could know about our humanity.

Maybe they observe, invisible to us in the darkness down there, and wonder about these yellow headed black bodied animals who occasionally visit their world , but who  never stay long.

Was I observed as I ascended?

Out in that great blue world that we barely comprehend, never mind, understand. Are there “Mind’s immeasurably superior to ours”

Did that young sperm whale take a gamble, that with my dexterity I could rid it of an irritating piece of flotsam, or did it know somehow that I would?

Its eye as it followed me had real intelligence behind it.

I know that that story is not readily believable, my own family have difficulty believing me, but it’s true.

Capt Ahab’s white whale had vengeful intelligence; my whale had compassion and gambled on mine.

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