Prime Minister Joe Clark lost his luggage on an official visit to the Middle East, and it may have cost him his job. The incident seemed to paint the Prime Minister as hapless, and Clark was turfed out of office by a hapless-intolerant electorate after only 10 months at the helm.
The next time Joe Clark lost his luggage neither he nor the media noticed. It was 1987 and Joe Clark had been downgraded to Foreign Minister in the Brian Mulroney government.
The other protagonist in this story is me, in Arusha town, the administrative guy for a great big Canadian government-funded effort to help Tanzania grow wheat.
Arusha in those days was a sleepy town on the shoulder of Mount Meru, not far from Mount Kilimanjaro, eking by on the remnants of its glory days of safari fame, coffee plantations, and as the capital of the East African Community. Arusha had even starred in a movie called Hatari, improbably featuring John Wayne lassoing a rhinoceros. But by 1987 the East African Community (Uganda, Kenya, and Tanzania) had self-destructed after Idi Amin seized the Ugandan state in a violent coup d’état. Relations between Tanzania and Kenya got so bad over the disposition of EAC’s assets that they closed their mutual border for years. The socialist policies of the Tanzanian government had severe negative impacts on the agricultural and tourism sectors and neither tourists nor coffee beans were easy to find any more. Alongside the few remaining safari operators and coffee growers you would also have found an unlikely community of Canadian scientists, farmers, and mechanics.
By the end of the 1960s Tanzania had come around to the idea that its best path out of poverty was self-sufficiency. One means to achieve this, believed President Julius Nyerere, was “import substitution”. Seems to make sense at first glance – don’t spend scarce foreign currency on buying stuff from abroad when you can grow or make it at home, employing your own citizens who would thereby learn all kinds of new skills and before you know it, a virtuous cycle. The idea was particularly attractive for agricultural products as farming is what most Tanzanians did, and the country appeared to have plenty of unused land. In fact, 230 kilometres southwest of Arusha there is a high plateau with fertile soil and a climate suitable for dryland wheat production – the kind you might find in southern Saskatchewan. President Nyerere told his friend Prime Minister Trudeau (the Elder) about the land around Mount Hanang and his wheat dream; maybe Canada could provide some advice. The eagle-eyed reader perched in 2022 will have spotted a couple of flaws in this import substitution idea. Things grown or made locally by inexperienced and under-capitalized companies and farmers tend to be of poor quality while also being more expensive. In Tanzania, these problems were compounded by the government’s policy of nationalizing a significant percentage of the means of production. Nevertheless, the wheat dream launched itself on the path to government-owned and operated farms.
By 1970 there were scientists from Agriculture Canada looking at the wheat question from every angle, bouncing about the bush with shovels, soil sample bags, and rain gauges. They confirmed that the soil on the plateau was exceptionally rich and could certainly grow wheat. The climate is dry, but rainfall averages and its annual distribution were not dissimilar to the dryland farming regions of Saskatchewan. Not that the place looked like Saskatchewan what with an extinct volcano looming above thorny acacia trees shading impala and ostrich. The high plateau looked unused to the untrained eye as it was not farmed in the way we might have understood agriculture at that time. In fact, the land was home to the Barabaig people who migrated from the Nile Valley 1,000 years ago. They certainly had not been pining for wheat fields in their yard; but nobody asked them.
Fast-forward to 1987 and a visit to the Hanang Plateau is a mind-blowing experience. Seven farms each cultivating 10,000 acres are producing tens of thousands of metric tonnes of wheat a year. Every farm was like a village run by a Tanzanian manager supported by two Canadian farmer-advisors (not scientists but farmers contracted off their farms in Manitoba, Saskatchewan, and Alberta). The seven farms in turn were supported by a larger village with a huge service centre and agriculture experts. In total something like 5,000 people lived and worked at the Hanang Wheat complex. Huge tractors and combines roamed the enormous fields scaring up ostrich and the occasional leopard on their circuits.
Back in Arusha, a large research station developed wheat varieties adapted to the local conditions, studied wheat pests, and logged climatic data. The research station and the farms were in turn supported by an administrative office in the centre of Arusha. In all, between the farm advisors, mechanic advisors, road builders, scientists and their families, there were well over 100 Canadians living at Hanang and in Arusha. From my office in what used to be the East African Community Headquarters I ran the administrative office for the Canadian side of this massive program and that is the fate which put me on a collision course with Joe Clark’s luggage.
Arusha is nearly 700 kilometres from Dar es Salaam where, unbeknownst to us, the Canadian High Commission was busy organizing Joe Clark’s participation in a conference of the coalition of African countries surrounding South Africa (the Southern African Development Community – SADC). These countries, opponents of the racist apartheid regime of South Africa, collaborated on a wide range of issues trying to promote their own economic growth and integration while attempting to exert pressure on South Africa to reform. Canada and many other wealthy countries supported SACD’s objectives in principle and with financing which bought them an invitation to these meetings. Joe Clark was to represent Canada and deliver some platitudes.
The problem, which quickly became evident, was that there would be many platitude-deliverers at the conference, all of them supported by an army of minions. Arusha was barely a city back then with limited capacity to host even a modest conference, and this was a big one with presidential delegations from many African countries and big shots from donor countries and the United Nations. The Tanzanian government would provide a hotel room for Joe Clark and one advisor, but the other 30 Canadian delegation members were on their own. Suddenly us wheat project folks were in the Government of Canada spotlight for our office space, housing, and vehicles right in Arusha town. Before we knew what hit us, Joe Clark’s visit became a sort of high school field trip with his entourage billeted in Canadian houses all around town.
Joe Clark wanted to have lunch with the Canadian Community to press flesh and say thank you. Being an Alberta boy, he was intrigued by the farms and was a bit taken aback by how many Canucks were in the woodwork. All our plans for a big Prairie-style barbeque lunch were squelched however when minion Vaughan Johnson told us in no uncertain terms that Clark wanted soup. Just soup, maybe a slice of bread. So soup it was, made by farmers’ wives and even one by me.
Vaughan Johnson was a legendary Department of Foreign Affairs protocol officer assigned to make sure the Foreign Minister’s world tour went smoothly and that he got soup for lunch. He arrived in Arusha a few days before Clark landed at the Kilimanjaro International Airport in a Government of Canada Challenger jet and from that time on, he and I were tied at the hip. He was kind of like Mr. Wolf in the film Pulp Fiction; able to handle any situation without breaking a sweat and priding himself at never getting alarmed. The kind of guy who would not lose his boss’ luggage. I was about to put his sang-froid to the test.
Joe Clark was visiting quite a few countries on this trip and meeting a lot of presidents and prime ministers. So, when he landed the first things out of the hold of the Challenger jet were two big aluminum cases stuffed with gifts symbolic of Canada such as Inuit art, maple syrup, high tech communications devices, and maybe some extra suits, who knows. Mr. Johnson agreed to my proposal that the most appropriate place to keep these items was my house.
A 70,000 acre farming operation needs a lot of machinery and Tanzania did not manufacture any of it. In those days development assistance (or foreign aid as it was also called) tended to be tied to the donor. While this seemed to make sense to politicians and to taxpayers, it led to huge inefficiencies and bizarre situations. Most of the machinery on the farms was paid for by Canada and that meant it had to be purchased in Canada and shipped half-way around the world to a country which did not have dealers who could service this machinery. We had Massey Ferguson combine harvesters, Versatile swathers and tractors, Champion graders, grain wagons from Regina, International trucks, and just about anything else you could think of. We also had to supply all the spare parts, filters, tires, special lubricants, and a thousand other things needed to keep these machines going. In hindsight it seems insane.
Months or even years later ships full of stuff would arrive in Dar es Salaam and be sent to Arusha by train and then transferred to trucks for delivery to the farms a couple of hundred kilometres west of Arusha. The most urgent stuff would sometimes get left at my place and then anyone driving out to the farms could take it so it wouldn’t have to wait for the next big convoy.
My assistant Ali took over the handling of the shipping and forwarding while I was distracted by the Clark visit. Ali dropped by my place to see if there was anything for the farms. “Well,” said my cook Rafael, “maybe those big aluminum cases sitting in the corner of the living room?”
A couple of hours later Vaughan and I arrived at the house on our way to the airport to prepare for Clark’s departure. With a sense of foreboding, I asked Rafael in Kiswahili where he had moved the aluminum cases. He told me Ali had picked them up a while ago and was on his way to the farms 12 hours drive away. Vaughan did not speak Kiswahili but he may have picked up a jump in my stress level. True to his reputation, he did not have a meltdown when I told him what had happened. There was not really a telephone system in Arusha, but we did have two-way radios. By some miracle I was able to locate the truck still at the research station taking on additional cargo. We recovered the cases and off we went on the 55 kilometres to the airport with just enough time in hand to get everything ready for take-off – if nothing else went wrong.