Jon Thiele
International Development

Gender and economic development

Enterprise development and agribusiness

Small holder farmers

Islamic economics

Promoting cooperatives

Community-based development

Credit in economic development

Economic institutions






"Coming of Age"

is the mostly fictional story of an expatriate consultant in a developing country doing his best to enjoy life.
It is written, to the extent I'm able, in the style of PG Wodehouse in his series of short stories
as told by "the club's Oldest Member".

The Oldest Consultant had settled onto his customary stool near the waitress station at the end of the bar in the expats' favorite pub when the commotion started. Over the usual din of the usual conversations of the younger consultants, a voice of young woman had pierced the air as only the voice of young woman can when it carries the tone of a love gone horribly wrong. The Oldest Consultant's eyes raised slowly from his glass and drew level with the action just as the cocktail splashed across young Jack Holzenheim's face.

The others in the circle jerked backwards with varying degrees of success. The young woman spun nimbly and walked out with her chin high. The Oldest Consultant wondered once again at how girls learn to move so swiftly and smoothly on such heels but, shaking his head, left it to the ages and turned his thoughts to young Jack. While girls learn grace on dangerous shoes, boys don't seem to learn anything at all.


Jack had managed to reach the waitress station where Olya was ready with a towel. "Of all the rotten girls to wind up with," he was muttering, "you try to be good to them...."

"Not even a thank you, Jack?" the Oldest Consultant said with a slightly disapproving tone.

"No, after all those terrific restaurants," Jack spat. "Like she'll get into them without me to pay the bill."

"I meant for Olya," the Oldest Consultant said. "For the towel. Even in times of embarassment, one shouldn't forget one's manners."

"Yeah, of course. Spasiba," Jack said without enthusiasm.

"It is, I believe, pronounced spa-si-BO, Jack, with an 'o' sound," corrected the Oldest Consultant, "but that's not important to you now, I imagine."

"Thank you, no."

"You know, yours is not a unique problem," said the Oldest Consulant as he tilted his head back. "No, I recall many similar cases."

Jack eyes widened. A story was about to begin and he was the only one near enough to listen to it. "Should I run?", he wondered, "He already thinks I'm rude, maybe he'll think it's the stress."

But Olya showed him a smile as she stood at Jack's side and blocked his path to the freedom of the crowded room. The story was underway, and the younger man saw no way out. The Oldest Consultant had begun to talk.

It was in Gabon, French west Africa (the Sage resumed), and she caused the scene at the airport, which is very hard to do in such a naturally chaotic place, but of course the ground work had been done long before.

"The trouble with girls back home, " Gilbert Worsted was telling them, "is that they're not girls. Here, well, you see it, it's OK to be feminine."

"Here, here!", "Cheers!", and "Right you are, Gilbert!" was the chorus response. No non-girl females to beg difference in that crowd. Gilbert went on in his plaintive tone.

"And what's the point anyway? Equal doesn't mean the same. Oh, women back home talk about equality but what they want is bigger muscles than me! To go with a bigger paycheck as well! Rubbish, I say!" He raised his glass. "What's wrong with better legs!?"

Hoots and howls all around and, from T. Kenneth Walls, a policy wonk's wonk, "Say what you will about the French, but vive la difference!"

The merry making went on into the night, but all was not well, for these were men in the company of men. In other words, men who would have preferred to be with women. Or better still, girls.

Young Gilbert, for his part, was on his first foreign posting and as such had a mix of feelings, problems, and opportunities whirling about his heart, head, and other parts. It was all very exciting to a young professional to be in such an interesting and responsible position. The move from a first rate graduate school had been smooth enough, and here he was, armed with cutting edge knowledge of all the buzz words. He was advising the older guys, dinosaurs, he called them, about what's right and what's not. His professional future looked bright, and his present even better. Disposable income, drivers at his call, a fawning staff... Gilbert the demi-god was on his Olympus.

At the same time, there was doubt and some ill-ease in Gilbert's mind. Sure, he thought, I sound good when I talk, but do I really know anything more than my local counterpart? He's been doing the job for years! And the staff, they just love their salaries; behind my back, are they laughing? Probably so, I mean, look at this suit, and these shoes! Last year at this time, I was lazing about the pub back home....

"Ah, there you are Gilbert!" She pronounced it with a "zh" in front and no "t" at the end. "I've been looking for you." She was called Gwenna, and she's the one who set it all to blazes for Gilbert Worsted.

Eighteen years old then, she had the qualities an expatriate looks for in an interpreter-- an easy conversational command of the language, composure when discussions became tense, and legs that went all the way to floor. Gilbert had found her sympathetic eyes of ocassional comfort as well.

"Ah, good morning, Gwenna," Gilbert said hoarsely. It was the next morning, and Gilbert was not yet ready for the world. He had managed to get his shirt pressed, which he thought a good accomplishment considering. And he made a note to have his assistant have a word with the laundry lady again. "So, how are you today?" he asked.

"Fine, of course, and ready for the meeting."

"How cheerful," Gilbert replied with a bit more sarcasm than he'd intended so he quickly added "And you look very nice, by the way." Immediately after adding that, though, he told himself that he couldn't get away with talking to a secretary like that back home.

"Thank you, Gilbert," Gwenna smiled back at him, "you're sweet." That little word caused Gilbert to look at her differently than he had before, and that's how it started.

"Yes, the supervisor/staff relationship is always tricky", the Oldest Consultant said to Jack, who was beginning to slump at the bar, "but add in all that comes with an expatriate lifestyle, and you've added to your assistant's job description a set of tasks ranging from confidant to errand boy. At one moment you are explaining a medical need you normally wouldn't even mention in mixed company and in the next you send her off to buy a packet of razors." He sipped his ale. "It's dependence, that's what it is. There you are, my young friend, one day Gilbert the Demi-god and the next day you shop alone and pay ten times too much for shaving cream. By the way, Mr. Holzenheim, I have mentioned shaving twice because Olya told me she thinks that moustache doesn't suit you." Jack started. "Ha, there, you see? At the merest hint that a local lovely has noticed you, your head spins like the twisted reasoning of a deputy minister. So it was with Gilbert...."

"Ah, Gwenna," he found himself saying after the meeting, "you're good to work with. Always a pleasure."

"Merci, Gilbert." He loved it when she talked that French way. "I like working with you."

"What do you say we stop off for lunch instead of going back to the office?"

Gwenna was enthusiastic. Restaurants are quite a special thing, she thought, a once a year treat to her parents. It had always struck her how readily the foreigners ate in restaurants. And now lunch with Gilbert, the nicest of the foreigners. "I'd love it." she said.

Gilbert was relaxed. He felt much better than he had when he woke up. Soon he would have some "proper food" in front of him and perhaps a bloody mary.

And Gwenna to look at, of course, which turned out to be the defining element of that lunch. Things progressed as one might expect. At first, Gwenna moved up from Gilbert's preferred interpreter to his insisted upon interpreter. Soon she accompanied him everywhere, even when an interpreter wasn't needed. At the end of a series of late afternoon meetings there was a series of early evening cocktail hours and enjoyable dinners. If we may exclude some details from the narrative, let us say that in due course breakfasts follow dinners and that Gilbert's life was by every measure rather exciting.

"Now, don't get me wrong," the Oldest Consultant said. "Gilbert was a good man, sincere and faithful. Oh, I could tell you the story of restructuring expert I met in Lithuania. You know the young women there? And that honey liquer? Well, with his carrying on it is a wonder to me that he left that country without becoming a drunken pedophile. Anyway, back to Gabon...."

It is a fact of life in this business that contracts come and contracts go, and Gilbert's was about to go. The staff all knew the project was ending and were in the process of mentally preparing for the expected closing of the office, though only Gwenna knows exactly what she was expecting, and the evidence indicates that it was not so much an end as a transition. Gilbert, meanwhile, was sending out resumes and looking at maps to guess where he might land next.

Gwenna noticed the changes in Gilbert's attitude toward her even before Gilbert noticed that his attitude had changed. Consequently, he didn't grasp the subtle meaning of her questions about the change of seasons, the school year, and other temporal issues. She grew frustrated and worried. He was unresponsive.

She had to raise the issue more directly. "Gilbert," Gwenna said after the salad plates had been taken away, "what is going to happen next month, you know, with the project, with everything?"

"Well, it's the nature of the business, I'm afraid," Gilbert began as he folded his napkin. "We've tried to make them see the need for continuing funding, continuing everyone's jobs, ...." He looked up, his eyes met hers, and he finally understood the question. He was panic struck. Good lord, he thought to himself, she's serious! She's stuck on me. She thinks I'm going to take her with me. What shall I say?

He lied. "Gwenna, don't worry. Things will be OK for you, for us. For us both. Each of us."

Gwenna was relieved and happy, and it showed on her face. Gilbert smiled in the tilted way he had learned she liked. Her smile widened. The waiter arrived with the main course, and Gilbert said "Ah, thank god!" He quickly shifted his look back to Gwenna and added "I'm so hungry."

The emptiness he felt, though, was not hunger, and as the next weeks passed he felt no better. Indeed, it seemed the more he saw Gwenna, the worse he felt. He tried to avoid her, but the office in Libreville was small. More than that, Gwenna expected to spend most of her evenings with him. He took on a drawn look, and the skin on his face began to hang loosely as the strain of keeping up a false-front took its toll.

Gwenna hardly noticed. For her it was a sunny period all round. Gilbert was under some stress as he closed things down, she knew, but the future looked bright. Their future. She tried to be supportive. It just pained him all the more.

Finally, toward the end of the month, Gilbert left the office a bit earlier than usual and a bit more quietly, and suddenly she had a doubt. Her chin sank, and she looked down at a dirty tea cup. A coarse voice roused her.

"So, that's 'ow it ends, eh?" It was Maurice, a driver. "So, he's goin', jus' like that. It happens, girl, all de time. You're not de first, prob'ly not even 'is first!"

This was certainly not what she wanted to hear. Her doubts multiplied instantly. That led to fear, and that led to fury. Poor Maurice, he was the target of a shocking string of curses. Fortunately he was a gentle, if foolishly blunt, sort of man, and he simply sat there, not so much listening to her as watching the words fly past him.

"Oh, now don't be takin' it on me, miss, I'm a just a mirror to ya'," he replied in a tone meant to be calming. "Don't be sad, you'll get over 'im." Ah, well intentioned Maurice.

She didn't want to get over Gilbert, she shouted, she wanted to be with him. Maurice shook his head slowly, and she rushed out, homeward, to spend a fitful, tear-filled night awake in the dark.

Gilbert, meanwhile, having told Gwenna he was going to spend one last night out with the boys, instead went home to finish his packing and, for the first time in his suddenly miserable life, was feeling true guilt. As the sun settled into the Atlantic, he sighed. Not even the view from the terrace cheered him, he noted. "I must really be bad off," he said out loud. "Oh, what is she doing to me? Can't she see!" He was getting angry. "Can't she just have a bit of fun," he wondered, "can't she see nothing could possibly come of it? The foolish girl, it's all her fault." It took more than a little gin to get him to sleep that night.

"The next morning, Jack," the Oldest Consultant interjected, "I felt a sense of deep foreboding as I rode with Gwenna to the airport."

"Oh, really?" Jack said warily. "Please don't tell me the poor bastard dies at the end of this story."

"Well, the African woman can have a firey temperament", the Oldest Consultant said, "but as we've just seen, so can the women of this country."

Gwenna almost ran me over (the Oldest Consultant had resumed the story) rushing out of the office the next morning, looking terribly frantic. "My dear!" I said, "What's the matter? You look like you've seen one of those witch doctors Maurice is always having me on about."

Her reply was almost unintelligible, but of course it was immediately clear what was happening. Gilbert was that sort, I knew. I had spoken with him about local distractions when he was first hired and I'd watched his carrying on with some dismay, I must tell you. I tried to calm her, but she was beyond it.

Gilbert was booked on the Air France flight to Paris at 10:15, and I inferred that Gwenna had just found that out. Naturally, I was offended by Gilbert's callous behavior and felt a personal reponsibility, having a sort of paternal instinct toward several of my younger hires. I had the idea to give him a surprise send off at the airport. I guided her, still sobbing, into Maurice's dusty Citroen.

A nerve rattling experience on a good day, Libreville traffic that morning seemed a nightmare in motion complete with a horrifying soundtrack. And Gabon women, it seems, tend to be expressive in grief. While Maurice did an admirable job of keeping his eye on the road, at least when compared to other drivers on that continent, I stared wide-eyed at Gwenna's hysterics. Twenty minutes later, half way to the airport, I still hadn't regained enough composure to speak since instructing Maurice to make haste. Instead, I'd come silently to the conclusion that what I took for grief could very well be rage and murderous intent. I began to wonder if I had done the right thing in suggesting this farewell party.

Gwenna paused in her wailing. Only catching her breath, I feared, but no, she calmed herself as the next few miles passed. I composed myself as well. Studying her countenance I realized that rage was clearly replacing pain. How dangerous might young love turn out to be?

On arrival, Gwenna sat clamly as Maurice pulled to the side of the road. I hurried around the car intent on heading her off if she made a mad dash into the terminal, but she waited for me on the curb. "Where is the departure gate?" she asked calmly.

"Oh, this way, I think," I said taking her arm and leading her off. I resolved to keep a firm grip on that arm at all cost. That way, I reasoned, the worst scenario would be Gilbert defending himself against only five sharp nails.

"Do we need to hurry?" Gwenna asked as if we were on our way to any ordinary appointment.

"Perhaps," I replied.

Gwenna said something to Maurice and he moved ahead assertively making a path for us through the mobs that fill that sweaty old airport. Following his lead blocking, we arrived at the gate in short order and I spotted Gilbert fumbling for his boarding pass. Just as I decided to point Gwenna in the other direction, she saw him and said "this way" in a disturbingly calm voice and turned us toward him. I held firm to the arm.

"Gilbert!" she called out placidly, "Gilbert!"

His face was horrific, contorted in the manner of a stage actor playing the hunchback of Notre Dame without make-up.

"I wanted to say good-bye properly," she said as she kicked him powerfully in the groin. She had apparently scored a hit as his shriek silenced the entire airport. "Do you want to say good-bye to me?" she asked, still in that haunting tone. I pulled her back a bit, but she said to me "Oh, it's OK, I won't hit him or scratch him. You can let go."

I didn't, of course, for I felt for poor Gilbert as he struggled for breath. He was on his hands and knees. He was facing away from us, and as I confirmed my grip on Gwenna's arm, she let go with another boot, again hitting her target. The howl was chilling. I pulled her away and she did not resist.

"Good-bye," Gwenna said as she turned smoothly, pulling me along in her wake.

Maurice had no work to do as we made for the exit, the crowd parted before us. "You know, girl," he said, "I never knew you such a good footballer."

In the car I was sweating profusely. Maurice and Gwenna were chatting with each in the local dialect, so I had no idea what they were saying, but their tone was quite calm. There was even a bit of light laughter. Apparently, I thought, Gwenna has good powers of recovery.

"I should tell you Maurice's idea," Gwenna said to me.

"Or perhaps you shouldn't," I replied.

"He said," she went on as if not hearing me, "that he will make a doll of Gilbert and take it to the village."

"To the village?" I involuntarily replied.

"Yes," she said with a slight smile, "there, the priests will ask for punishment for Gilbert for his betrayal and cowardice."

"An' I will ask for a new love for you, girl!" Maurice added. "You much too pretty for more footballin'." And Gwenna laughed again.

"Jack," the Oldest Consultant said to his quiet friend at the bar, "I left Gabon shortly after that unfortunate incident. With far less spectacle than Gilbert did, I might add."

"I should hope so," Jack said with feeling.

"And young Gilbert left his next posting earlier than planned as well, though I won't say it had anything to do with that ugly doll Maurice showed me. Now about that fine young woman of yours, the one with the sharply pointed high heels and even higher spirit...?"


For similar stories better written, try The Golf Omnibus by PG Wodehouse.