Arounothay’s Tux

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Brazzaville, Congo

Arounothay was a survivor of the Laotian holocaust of the 1970s. An economist, he was my upstairs neighbor at the university apartments in Brazzaville, the capital of the Little Congo. It’s hard to imagine a more misplaced individual, but he was teaching economics in a Marxist country. Marxist in name only. Of the horrors of the twentieth century, the Pathet Lao in Vientiane were up at the top in cruelty and murderous social engineering.

There were three units in the little chalet those days in 1980. I lived on the ground floor, Arounothay on the floor above. Modest but tidy. Running water was mainly stuck in the city’s antiquated pipe system; if you left a bucket in the early morning under a neighborhood tap, the bucket would be about half-full by late afternoon. Expats respected one another’s buckets; in fact, I don’t remember one ever being removed while we were out at the university campus a few miles away. You learned to make do with a half bucket a day for washing dishes, showering, and boiling corn and rice. It wasn’t all that bad.

Once, everyone in the neighborhood went down to the water works on mopeds to try to intimidate the authorities into fixing the pipes. But we didn’t really look like a motorcycle gang, and the managers mainly ignored us. The next day, a leafy branch was planted in the roadway leading to the chalets – meaning, “Men at Work.” But they went no farther toward getting water flowing in the neighborhood. The little branch was kind of a thumbed nose.

Parking a moped inside the house was against the rules, but it would have been folly to have the ped and gas tank out on the entrance to the building. In fact, the one time I forgot to bring it in behind the double-locked gate; sure enough it was gone the next morning. I went to the police station just to report the theft. When I entered, a prisoner was walking behind the counter with one of the police; the commander said, “Put this man in jail for stealing a Mobylette.”

I said, “What did he have to do with it?”

“Maybe nothing,” said the police chief. “But either way, he’s guilty of something.”

And, oh yes, Arounothay. He was always cheerful, usually laughing about one thing or another. He walked around in a small bathing suit, which he called “my tux.”

He had been director of the electricity company in Laos before the Pathet Lao took over in 1975. He’d been sent to one of the internment camps that few survived. His wife was taken to another. After a year or so of enslavement and daily beatings, he withered to a skeletal frame. Even when I knew him five years later, he was so small he seemed like about half a person.

They had labored in the fields and then were taken to shout Marxist slogans in the late afternoon before getting their daily, tiny bowl of rice. Many starved, others were killed with garden instruments and firearms. No one expected to make it out alive.

One day they found Arounothay in the fields and managed to identify him. The Pathet Lao had realized they didn’t know how to run an electrical plant, and retrieved him from the camp to get him back to his former work.

They spent a few months taking him around in a limousine and feeding him to fatten him up. It was no honor to be picked out of a death camp, and was also ominous since the regime was capricious. They told him to just sleep and eat and mind his business.

Even during those confused days, he wore his bathing suit, which he called “my tux.” His minders in the regime drove him through the city but never told him if his wife was alive or dead. It would have been stupid to ask.

After a few months, they put him back to work at the electricity plant. No illusions here: perform or die. Arounothay used to laugh as he told me his story. It was partly the Third World laughter everywhere in the world, directed to irremediable hardship. It was also from his good nature.

One day his wife was delivered back to him without explanation. She’d been in a separate camp, and had also defied the odds and survived. They walked together one day near a bridge over the Mekong River.

A friendly Canadian diplomat came up to them and said in a very soft voice, “Go now, cross the bridge, and we will pick you up on the other side. Just go now.”

So it was that Arounothay and his wife made it out of their homeland hell to Vietnam and somehow from there on to France.

In the 1960s, Arounothay had done an advanced degree in economics, so the French government picked him to do a “coopération,” teaching in Africa so as to keep a hand in the former colonies.

He had learned conventional econ — macro, micro, market forces, things like that. This did not jive with the national university of a Marxist country. He taught what he knew. I thought for sure he would be expelled from the country. I kept a low profile myself, teaching English language.

“I’ll be fine,” he used to say, always laughing.

“But the bureaucrats here don’t like what you’re teaching,” I said.

“And what if they don’t.”

I knew that death camps were worse than expulsion, but still I thought he was being a little foolhardy, and told him so. “Ne t’en fais pas,” he would always answer. Don’t worry about it.

His stories evolved until he came back to the house saying that a few of the advanced students had told him they liked what he was teaching, and could he please tell them more.

Gradually his Western concepts took root until the junior Congolese faculty members showed an interest as well. Eventually, market economics came to prevail in the department. This was concerning to the political officers running the university. Oh shit, I thought.

He was convoked to a sort of inquisition, and ordered to explain himself.

“I know Marxist economy. If it’s the Marxist catechism you want, I know I can do it better than you, since I did it on my knees for hours every afternoon in the camp in Laos. But if you want real economics, keep me here and I will provide it. Your choice.”

Exasperated, the Authorities let him be, and he made it through a three-year stint as a French employee in the Université Marien Ngouabi. He built a following for himself.

Then he packed up and moved back to a suburb north of Paris. I visited him here a few years later. “You have done marvelously,” I said.

“I still have my tux,” he said. ”The one I wore in the camp, and around the house in Brazzaville.” It was cold in Paris that day, but Arounothay’s smile was the same as it had been, four degrees below the Equator.

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.

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