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How a diplomat's wife saved a chicken dinner

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My first memory of Africa
W Daniel Hillis Scientist
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I loved Africa from the very beginning of my arrival. I still remember getting off the plane. A DC3. And we flew in with people that had chickens and bananas and things like that that they were bringing as gifts into Kinshasa from Kenya. And landing in Kinshasa and the smell of the smoking fires when we stepped off the plane. And we were supposed to stay at a hotel, and when we arrived at the hotel which was the fanciest hotel in town, maybe the only hotel in town, they didn't have our booking which was not atypical for Africa. And there were no rooms. There was the African National Congress or some group of African diplomats were all staying there.

And so we didn't have any place to stay, so we laid out the suitcases for us to take a nap, we were very tired. So the kids were lying on the suitcases in the lobby of the hotel as, you know, this diplomatic party was going on. And the... It was a formal affair. All the diplomats were in tails. And at some point the Senegalese ambassador came down from the party and sees us there, lying on the floor, and asks what's happened. And we tell the story that, you know, there's no room at the hotel. And says, 'Oh well, you must come stay, we're constructing a new Senegalese embassy, you must come, be my guest at the embassy.'

And so we were very happy to take him up on this offer. But the party was still going on up on the roof. And so he shouts up to his wife to please throw down the car keys that he'll have the driver take us to the embassy. And so his wife leans over and throws the car keys down but they drop them in the grass. And so the car keys disappear. And so all the diplomats come down in their tails, all these black African diplomats in formal wear come down. And of course there's no flashlights, so they make torches out of grass and kerosene which is sort of the standard procedure. And start looking through the grass around the hotel. So my first night is this scene of, you know, all these distinguished African diplomats in formalwear carrying torches, looking through the grass for the keys. Which of course they eventually find and take us off to the Senegalese embassy. But that was my welcoming to Africa. Every place we went people treated us so well. And often the other African diplomats would treat us well.

W Daniel Hillis (b. 1956) is an American inventor, scientist, author and engineer. While doing his doctoral work at MIT under artificial intelligence pioneer, Marvin Minsky, he invented the concept of parallel computers, that is now the basis for most supercomputers. He also co-founded the famous parallel computing company, Thinking Machines, in 1983 which marked a new era in computing. In 1996, Hillis left MIT for California, where he spent time leading Disney’s Imagineers. He developed new technologies and business strategies for Disney's theme parks, television, motion pictures, Internet and consumer product businesses. More recently, Hillis co-founded an engineering and design company, Applied Minds, and several start-ups, among them Applied Proteomics in San Diego, MetaWeb Technologies (acquired by Google) in San Francisco, and his current passion, Applied Invention in Cambridge, MA, which 'partners with clients to create innovative products and services'. He holds over 100 US patents, covering parallel computers, disk arrays, forgery prevention methods, and various electronic and mechanical devices (including a 10,000-year mechanical clock), and has recently moved into working on problems in medicine. In recognition of his work Hillis has won many awards, including the Dan David Prize.

Listeners: George Dyson Christopher Sykes

Christopher Sykes is an independent documentary producer who has made a number of films about science and scientists for BBC TV, Channel Four, and PBS.

Tags: Africa

Duration: 3 minutes, 30 seconds

Date story recorded: October 2016

Date story went live: 08 August 2017